domesticity and motherhood


Frankenstein opens with a series of private letters that the adventurer Robert Walton sends to his sister Margaret at home in England (49 - 62, 91 - 100, etc). These letters are a window into the domestic relations that are so central to Shelley's novel, providing readers with the first hint that Shelley is interested in both public science and the affairs of the domestic sphere. Prior to the Enlightenment, both moral and cultural education occurred primarily in the home. Accordingly, the wives and mothers who provided such education for their children were characterized as guardians of culture and propriety. After the Enlightenment, most education moved outside the home but the domestic sphere remained central for moral instruction. This relationship between the public pursuit of knowledge and private, domestic moral instruction is particularly relevant to Shelley's work; letters becomes the physical link that allow readers to better understand this relationship.

Indeed, the danger of public education that is not balanced by private moral instruction is central to Frankenstein. Victor leaves the bosom of his family in Geneva to study at the University of Ingolstadt, pursuing an education in the natural philosophy of chemistry (Shelley 77). As Victor throws himself into his studies, he loses touch with his family and the daily workings of the home. Unbeknownst to his family, Victor has taken on an independent research endeavor after he learns to animate inert objects (Shelley 80). As Victor throws himself deeper into his quest to bring to life a new being, he begins to lose touch with reality and his health suffers:
My cheeks had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement. Sometimes on the very brink of certainty, I failed… my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn in loathing from my occupation…(Shelley 83)
Victor's mania is further illustrated through his dreams: he plagued by nightmares of his beloved Elizabeth's death and yet still resists returning to the familial womb (85). Consumed by his new projects, Victor spirals into a dark world wholly centered on his morally questionable work and goals, regardless of its possible effects on either himself or his loved ones.

The relations of science, domesticity, and morality emerge again with the murder of Victor's brother, William Frankenstein. The murder comes shortly after Victor's creature has escaped from the laboratory; here Shelley is commenting on the dangers of science run amok and its potential effects on the domestic sphere. Victor suspects that his creature is responsible for William's demise and is ultimately horrified:
I considered the being whom I had cast out on mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me. (Shelley 104)
Shelley indicates that Victor is conscious that his work in the public sphere-the creation of his monstrous child-may well cause problems in the domestic sphere that he has abandoned. He comes to the realization that the "being whom [he] had cast out" is affecting evil toward "all that was dear to [him]" while he is in the embrace of his family (Shelley 104). It can be no coincidence that this empathetic realization comes while Victor is at home for William's funeral; Shelley is illustrating how the domestic sphere balances science (and the rest of the public sphere) through its dedication to morality and compassion.

Shortly after William's death, Victor encounters his creation at large in Geneva and his suspicions that the creature is responsible for said death are confirmed. In this encounter, the issue of domesticity and morality arises once again. The importance of the domestic sphere is emphasized as the creature outlines his experiences and emotions after Victor casts him out - and also tells Victor how much love and education would have benefited him (Shelley 130, 137). The creature alludes that he has murdered William out of the internalized hatred he receives from his creator, because he is not made in the image of his creator:
Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of your's, more horrid from its very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested.
This comes amidst a soliloquy given by the creature, illustrating the creature's pursuit of the education that Victor denies him (Shelley 130 - 168). The creature is denied the social environment and moral training that the domestic sphere provides because he is abhorred by he who should love him most - Victor (Shelley 126).

Shelley's novel consistently emphasizes that the domestic sphere - and thus the role of women as moral educators - may be dangerously marginalized by new modes of public education and scientific practice. As she insists throughout her novel, the domestic sphere remains indispensable to all members of society, no matter how much scientists like Victor lose sight of it. Shelley juxtaposes family letters with accounts of Victor's fanatical pursuit of science in order to emphasize the necessity of the private sphere. Domesticity is an essential counterbalance to more public, masculine science. The insights Victor gains through his correspondence with his family and from his return to the familial estate illustrates how domestic morality and the women that who embody it balance the other aspects of a society on the brink of radical change through the incorporation of science into the world picture.


  domesticity and morality








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