domesticity and motherhood


Shelley furthers her proto-feminist critique of science in Frankenstein through her treatment of reproduction. The issue of reproduction is one of personal importance to Shelley -her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died just 11 days after Shelley's own birth in 1797. Wollstonecraft's absence from Shelley's life served as a continual reminder of the dangers and fears surrounding reproduction in the 18th and 19th centuries; this absence is a major influence in Shelley's anxiety regarding reproduction. Shelley's main concern in her treatment of reproduction in Frankenstein is, accordingly, the act of motherless, nonsexual reproduction. Through Victor's misguided creation, Shelley illustrates how reproductive efforts that circumvent women become problematic.

Shelley is well versed in the reproductive science of her day. Indeed, her critique of nonsexual reproduction draws upon a theory advanced by eighteenth-century naturalist and philosopher Erasmus Darwin, who asserted that products of sexual reproduction are superior to entities produced through asexual reproduction because variety inherent in sexual reproduction is essential to creativity and diversity. Based on this theory, Victor Frankenstein's creature is an inferior human, one comprised of leftover parts whose unnatural body reflects Victor's own unnatural scientific acts. Victor himself realizes the monstrosity of his creative drive: "How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?" (Shelley 85) The answer to Victor's rhetorical question is simple -Victor horrors at his "baby" because no amount of care can mitigate the fact that the creature is the result of motherless, nonsexual reproduction.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Shelley's work is how she manipulates the sympathy of her readers to underscore her critique of this unnatural reproductive science. Although Shelley depicts the creature as physically monstrous - " His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuries only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes … (Shelley 85) - she ultimately insists that Victor is the true monster. After all, Victor repeatedly expresses revulsion for his creation while the creature simply requests and pursues the sorts of love and moral education that he deserves like any other human being. Thus it is Victor, the perpetrator of crimes against the order of nature, who is the villain in Shelley's portrayal, not the poor creature that results from his misguided efforts.

By engaging science of her contemporaries, Shelley also seems, however indirectly, to comment on the circumvention of women in the reproductive process. It is clear that Shelley finds the production of life in the lab reprehensible, but her final stance on science at large is less apparent. Based on her critique of science as potentially fostering a dangerous estrangement from domesticity, morality, and natural modes of reproduction, it is most likely that Shelley is arguing that feminine moral guidance is an essential balance to the masculine pursuit of science.


  domesticity and morality








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