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Mary Shelley and Her Monsters : Women and Science Fiction

“It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.” Mary Shelley, Frankenstein 

The inner-outer battle between the good and the evil, between man and monster is as old as the human race and for the fiction writers it goes beyond imagination. Interestingly, two hundred years back, on the wake of June 16, 1816; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley shared her monstrous dream with the world which turned out to be one of the most powerful horror stories of Western civilization, inspiring many in the years to come. This paper discusses the emergence and impact of the famous Science Fiction Frankenstein on the later Speculative Fiction (SF) as well as Science Fiction (Sci-Fi) authored by women writing in English.

During the age of anonymity for women novelists, it was obvious that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in 1818, until the second edition. Paradoxically, the tradition of writing science fiction marks its beginning with the name Mary Shelley. Though she explored the ancient themes in Frankenstein, she could successfully manage to create a creative space not only for the successors of her gender like Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ etc., but also for male writers like R.L. Stevenson, Roger Corman, Stephen King and many more.

The prime focus of the paper is an attempt to trace how Frankenstein’s progeny survives two centuries down the line. The paper also discusses how Mary Shelley inspires women to enter into the realm of male dominated world of science using female imagination; stimulating feminist science fiction later in the 21st century.

Daughter of the early proto-feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher William Godwin, and also the wife of well known Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; Mary Shelley had meagre chance to cherish fame and success of her publications during her lifetime. By remaining mainly on the periphery within the circle of stalwarts, as a creative writer, Mary could manage to publish a variety of books on various literary genres, not commonly expected from a woman writer during the early 19th Century. Posthumously respected for her novels, short-stories, essays, biography, travel narrative; Mary Shelley started her career as a young poet and went on creating Children’s Literature, writing reviews and fragments on varied issues and diverse subjects. One can easily guess that though not formally educated; Mary had access to her father’s library and her mother’s legacy of feminist literature that would have fostered creativity during the formative years.

At the age of eighteen, Mary had a dream that changed her life. With her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friends; Mary was on a holiday in Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where Lord Byron set a challenge of writing ghost stories and vote for the winner. Mary based her own story on a dream, writing through the perspective of her protagonist which Byron appreciated her story as “a wonderful work for a girl”. In the “Introduction” to 1831 edition of Frankenstein she writes : “My dreams were all my own; I accounted them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed-my dearest pleasure when free.” (Shelley vi)

Written by a teenager, the all-time popular gothic novel, Frankenstein pioneered an entirely new genre called Science Fiction. No need to mention that attempts in writing sci-fi were made by many of her predecessors, but those works have been categorized by critics as scientific fantasy. Mary defined the genre of Science Fiction with her two novels- Frankenstein and The Last Man (1826). It was Sci-Fi novelist and editor Brian Aldiss who strongly argued, in 1973, that Frankenstein was the first work of Sci-Fi. Published anonymously, many attributed the novel to husband Percy Shelley, but the blame was denied soon as Mary continued writing and publishing novels, essays, biographies, short stories and travel writings even after her husband’s death in 1822.

This trailblazing female writer offered a dream to many women writers who followed her footsteps in a genre still believed to be dominated by men. She not only sparked a new genre, but also floated fantastic themes apt for human race struggling with the advent of science and technology as well as the use of mythology in a unique way blending past, present and future in her fiction. Contemporary critics argue about how her works served Mary in camouflaging her personal and feminist ideologies. Mary’s myriad legacy has inspired and influenced many women writers-critics and her works have proved to be the catalyst, proving to be a point of departure for many science fiction writers- both male and female. Shelley cautions that scientific advancements should never proceed unchecked, should envisage potential harms and should always be constrained by moral principles. Since the publication of Shelley’s work, the monster casts a long shadow on our perception and thinking about the moral challenges of science and the future of human race.

Out of her varied interesting characters, Victor Frankenstein’s “Monster” has been the focal point; influencing later works. Apparently Mary’s Monster gives a message that science should not mess with the laws and creation of nature; but the novel is more subtler than this simple message. Her Monster accuses man for his thoughtless indifference towards humanity. Dr. Victor Frankenstein attempts to produce human life in laboratory. This theme has been used later by feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her novel Herland (1915), describing the society created through parthenogenesis, i.e. asexual reproduction, entirely composed of women. Another SF, on the relatively similar line of thought, is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928). For many, especially for foreign readers, Woolf’s SF remained in obscurity, because for decades her works have been analysed on the basis of stream of consciousness genre or on feminist ideology. Woolf’s relatively early example of a SF book, Orlando, published before A Room of One’s Own, more surprisingly deals with feminist themes. Her concept of androgyne comes alive with the story when one fine morning her protagonist turns into a woman, "He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright, and….we have no choice left but confess—he was a woman…..The change seemed to have been accomplished painlessly and completely and in such a way that Orlando herself showed no surprise at it."  (Woolf 47)

Set in the 16th century, a prosperous young man Orlando suddenly finds himself transformed biologically into a female, and stops aging as Orlando lives through the reign of Elizabeth I to the period of Elizabeth II : "All was phantom. All was still…the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight." (Woolf 118) Having a theme of gender as dynamic phenomenon rather than static, makes Woolf’s futuristic fiction quite interesting in the age of genetics. Like Mary Shelley’s Monster, Woolf’s Orlando lives without aging as an apparition.

Further, Mary Shelley’s influence can be traced in the works of Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1884-1948), better known as the pioneer of dark fantasy. In order to get accepted by the readers, on the recommendation of her publisher, like her predecessors, hiding her gender, Bennett wrote under the pseudonym Francis Stevens. Her 1920 novella Serapion, later published entitled Possessed: A Tale of the Demon Serapion, with three other stories by her, is about a man possessed by a creature. Currently available as The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (2004), Bennett’s is a horrifying tale of a young man who becomes an unwilling tool in the hands of an evil spirit committing crimes forcefully. Like Shelley’s Monster, Bennett’s demon Serapion drags his protagonist into psychological terror. Sam Moskowitz, the American Sci-Fi writer and historian, places Bennett as the next-in-line, “ Francis Stevens (Gertrude Barrow Bennett) was the greatest woman writer of horror between Mary Shelley and Anne Rice!” (Davin 409)

Critic Gary Hoppenstand, in his introduction to The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy, writes:
Serapion” is, to my mind, Stevens’ best story among her shorter fiction [and] is her most sophisticated tale…[Stevens] concocts a marvellously problematic ending for both the possessed [Barbour] and the possessor [Serapion]. Neither evil nor good wins in the end of morally ambivalent tale, nothing that simple here. ( xxiii)

Bennett’s tale is similar to Shelley’s in this sense In Frankenstein, Shelley creates the ending where both the protagonist and the antagonist are left with nothing. The question the author asks is who truly is the real monster- the creator or the creation? Serapion, who calls himself “the angel-drowned-in-mire”, like Frankenstein’s monster, possesses his master Clay Barbour almost entirely: “I have absorbed his being: yes!”[writes Serapion] “But in the very face of victory I, who never had a conscience, have paid a bitter price for the new lease of life in the flesh that I coveted…And my punishment is this: that you are not content, and I know now that you never will be.” (Hoppenstand 341)

Just like Mary Shelley’s works, Bennett’s stories are about continuing battles between man and monster, yet at the same time, charting her own way Bennett does not deal with apocalyptic vision.

Capturing the attention of common people, Frankenstein enjoys the place of one of the best works by Mary Shelley till date, but one of her less popular; yet significant works, is The Last Man. Pioneering the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction, Mary sets the novel at the end of 21st Century. Written before the discoveries about germs and vaccines, Mary describes the spread of a disease around the world and gradual extermination of population. Protagonist and the last man, Lionel Verney, following the myth of Sibyl, predicts the end of the world. "The last man!" Mary Shelley wrote in her journal in May 1824, "Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me". (Paley vii–viii) Hence, uplifting the work from a mere fiction to personal expression of isolation, Mary Shelley paves a new way for her successors.

Finding parallels with the plot, Phyllis Dorothy James, in her dystopian Sci-Fi The Children of Men, imagines the slow decay of the human race due to inability to reproduce next generation and with the absolute drop in fertility rate imagines the world’s end as the horrific consequence.

Influenced by Mary Shelley’s work, well-known Canadian poet-author Margaret Atwood created Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein in 1966. Winner of Governor General’s Award in Canada and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, contextually placed two hundred years later, reads overwhelmingly as a personal tragic tale of Offred- the Handmaid. The story revolves around pollution and chemical spills lead to declining fertility rate and how a young woman is put in sexual slavery on account of her now rare fertility. The idea of controlling human reproduction runs from Frankenstein to Offred. The anxiety about infertility as well as the end of human race is the common theme.

On similar lines of Virginia Woolf’s concept of androgyne, Ursula Le Guin’s protagonist Genly Ai struggles to detect Estraven as man or a woman. For three months they spend traveling together across treacherous terrain, Ai finally begins to see Estraven : as neither a man nor a woman, but a complex person who is at once both and neither. Ursula creates a religion called Handdara which is a religion of dualism — the self and the other, the known and the unknown, the light and the dark. This explicitly reflects Gethenian sexuality — every person has a dual identity, and is both a man and a woman. One of the most cherished writers of Science Fiction in America, Ursula Le Guin, titles her 1969 book as a celebration of duality. The Left Hand of Darkness comes from a Handdarata proverb, Ursula’s creation based on Taoism, which goes like this: “Light is the left hand of darkness / and darkness the right hand of light. / Two are one, life and death, lying / together like lovers in kemmer, / like hands joined together, / like the end and the way.” (p.252)

Although the gender conversation moves beyond in many ways and as per the need of their respective times, all these women writers based their science or speculative fiction on the ambiguity of gendered identity, issues of sterility and fertility, imagining a human clone and predict the end of the world maintaining apocalyptic vision and contributing to the subgenre of dystopian sci-fi pioneered by Shelley.

Following the footsteps of her predecessors, but in her own unique way, Joanna Russ, like Atwood and Ursula, in her feminist sci-fi, The Female Man (1975), creates a world without man where four women, living in different time and place, cross each other, perplexed by their individual stories, decide to live with their new identity in their own respective worlds. As it happens in Shelley’s The Last Man, Joanna’s Janet lives in a world called Whileaway, a utopian society set in the future where all the men were killed due to gender-specific plague over 800 years ago. On one hand Janet's world is extremely technologically advanced, and on the other, maintaining balance the women choose to live in agrarian societies.

In 1973, American writer Alice Bradley Sheldon published a sci-fi novelette, The Women Men Don't See, under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. Sheldon, writing from a feminist perspective about the battle of sexes, argues that the women are practically invisible to men. In a similar fashion, one can easily find parallels between Shelley’s Frankenstein and Octavia E. Butler Parable of the Sower (1993) a sci-fi novel passing on warnings about a dangerous potential future.

Mary Shelley’s impact can be seen on the sci-fi auhtored by Indian women writers too. Vandana Singh's Of Love and Other Monsters, a novella is an example of how Arun struggles for identity in the midst of loneliness and longings. Arun has an unusual ability to see through the minds of people around which makes him more vulnerable. Singh describes the way Arun experiences minds:
I wave my baton like the conductor of an orchestra and sense a structure, a form, coalesce in the interactions of these knots of persons. The meta-mind I construct has a vague unity of purpose, a jumble of contradictory notions, and even a primitive self-awareness. ... I sensed the convoluted topography of each mind, its hills, valleys, areas of light and darkness, the whole animal mass trembling and shifting with emotional fluxes. (Singh 2)

What Dr. Victor Frankenstein is battling with the physical human body, Singh’s protagonist is struggling with human psyche. The way Victor falls in love with his creation, Arun falls in love with a young mind of Sankaran, "I understood now that I was stuck with this body, this gender," he notes (p. 41). What confounds him is gender. In his physical body, Arun never feels completely at home, or in identity roles that he feels otherwise forced to perform:
Sometimes I was worried about how different I was from other young men. I looked and dressed like a man, but I did not understand social conventions about what it meant to be a man or a woman. ... My ability to sense minds enabled me to see human beings as entities beyond man-woman categories. (Singh 17)

What is apparent and straight in Shelley’s work, becomes more complex and intricate in Singh’s story. For Arun, the monster is multifaceted- friends especially Rahul, love-as the title suggests, language, time, alienation or his otherness.

Apart from leaving behind her impact on women writers, Mary Shelley can be undoubtedly described as the mother of the genre influencing male writers of sci-fi as well. Stephen King, one of the leading writers of contemporary sci-fi and horror fiction, humbly admits that he found motivation in Frankenstein while creating Pet Sematary. Admiring Mary Shelley, King writes:
How did it happen that this modest gothic tale…became caught in a kind of cultural echo chamber, amplifying through the years until, a hundred and sixty-four years later, we have a cereal called Frankenberry…an old TV series called The Munsters…Aurora Frankenstein model kits…and a saying such as ‘He looked like Frankenstein’ as a kind of apotheosis of ugly? (57)

Describing in Danse Macabre (1981), King talks about the power of television and popular culture and how Shelley’s Frankenstein remains relevant throughout different historical moments. Paying homage to Mary Shelley, King writes about how popular interpretations of Frankenstein create basic changes to the novel’s elements and discourses not only to meet the demands of contemporary readers, but also to generate new expectations and perceptions.

Frankenstein is an early depiction of the creation of artificial intelligence, an idea with great significance in the 21st century. While artificially intelligent beings exist in myth as the product of magic, scientific advancement has the true potential to make such beings. Hence, Frankenstein has become more relevant today, a modern myth, inspiring many.

Mary’s fiction not only helped to shape the genres of sci-fi and horror, but also helped to articulate new forms for women’s writing and compelled us to think about multiple meanings of the word “monster”. Mary’s Monster is a symbol of otherness that can tell stories of exclusion and oppression. Leaving behind his potential legacy, the Monster keeps on inspiring adaptations of the same in cinema, television, graphic novels, and other forms. Hence, Mary and her monsters are still alive.

Works Cited:

  1. Aldiss, Brian. “The Origins of the Species: Mary Shelley”. Billion Year Spree: The True
  2. History of Science Fiction. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973.
  3. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Random House, 2012.
  4. Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Hachette UK, 2014.
  5. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland., 2017.
  6. Hoppenstand, Gary C. "The Woman Who Invented Dark Fantasy" Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens, Uni. Of Nebraska Press, 2004.
  7. James, Phyllis Dorothy. The Children of Men. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010.
  8. King, Stephen. Stephen King’s Dance Macabre. Berkley Books, 1983.
  9. Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. The Berkley Publishing Group (Penguin), 2010.
  10. Moskowitz, Sam. Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926- 1965 by Eric Leif Davin, Lexington Books, 2005.
  11. Paley, Morton D, ed. “Introduction”. Mary Shelley :The Last Man. Oxford UP, 2008.
  12. Russ, Joanna. The Female Man. Hachette UK, 2010.
  13. Shelley, Mary. “Introduction”. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. 1831. Accessed 8 December 2019.
  14. --- The Last Man. Ed. By Morton D. Paley. Oxford UP, 2008.
  15. --- Frankenstein. Courier Corporation, 2013.
  16. Singh, Vandana. Of Love and Other Monsters. Aqueduct Press; 2007.
  17. Tiptree, James (Jr). The Women Men Don't See. ‎ Mercury Press, 1973.‎

Dr. Rucha A. Brahmbhatt, Associate Professor, Dept of English, Samarpan Arts & Commerce College, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India.