The Victorian period is characterized by the paradox of a grand opening in society as well as a tremendous constraint. It is known as the time of change and social advances and the time of severe regard for the traditions. Under the reign of Queen Victoria, the Industrial Revolution came of age, blossomed, and brought sweeping change across the country and the world. Life switched from a base primarily dictated by the land one owned to a social structure based on commerce and manufacturing (Greenblatt, 2005).
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In this switch, people living in these changing times began to question the status quo creating a great deal of social upheaval. Social class structures started to break down, and women, too, began to question their allotted place in society.
However, at the same time, these breaks from the traditions incited a response reaction in favor of more traditional social roles in other areas, such as the refutation of male sexual relationships to the extent that one could be sentenced to death for participating in the act of homosexuality. “The Victorian novel, with all of its emphasis on the realistic portrayal of social life, represented lots of Victorian issues in the stories of its characters.” (Greenblatt, 2005).
Homosexuality as Frankenstein’s Theme
During the above-mentioned period, writers such as Mary Shelley expressed a great deal of concern with these issues. An examination of Shelley’s novel Frankenstein demonstrates both the fear of and impossibility of suppressing homosexuality during this era.
During this period in history, homosexuality advanced in awareness to a socially defined term as well as a practice punishable by law. Although laws against sodomy existed for centuries before the period in which Mary Shelley envisioned Frankenstein, none of these successfully attained perpetual statuses, and most were not developed with permanent status in mind (Harvey, 1978).
Records show that while there no functioning laws against sodomy per se existed during Shelley’s writing of the novel, other laws applied against expressions of homosexuality and there a strong adverse public reaction against homosexuality occurred in the early 1800s. “In 1810, when thirty homosexuals were arrested in a raid on the White Swan, Vere St., London, those discharged for want of evidence were so roughly handled by the crowd as to be in danger of their lives” (The Morning Chronicle, 1810).
The subject was delicately handled in the media as well. For example, one report of an execution reported the reason for the sentence as being the punishment for “a crime at which nature shudders, not a syllable of the evidence on which we can state” (Sibly, 1815). This sort of evidence illustrates the commonly held beliefs and attitudes among the general population regarding these issues.
However, Shelley did not live as part of the general population. The author of Frankenstein arrived as Mary Godwin in 1797, “just five months after her politically radical parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who did not believe in marriage, we’re married” (Wolf, 2004: 5). Her mother was one of the few feminists of her time, having published well-known commentaries regarding the rights of men and women and particularly for her stance that girls should be provided with an education sufficient to enable them to remain independent.
Her father was equally well-known for his libertarian viewpoints and published works. Although her mother died soon after giving birth to Mary, Shelley’s father exposed her to the world of the literati. He encouraged her to use her imagination. He also allowed her to read through his collection and sit in on his conversations with other prominent writers of his time. These included William Wordsworth, Charles, and Mary Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Hazlitt (Pabst-Kastner, 2003).
She led a rather tricky life with Percy Shelley, constantly vying for his attention with others, including male writers and his first wife, and remained unmarried through the birth of her three children, all fathered by Shelley, only the latter two of which survived. Shelley wrote Frankenstein just before her second daughter’s birth and married Shelley just before the novel’s publication after his first wife had committed suicide.
Throughout the novel, Shelley explores the social abhorrence toward homosexuality by couching it in the more socially acceptable terms of the growing machine age. “Mary Shelley used science as a metaphor for any irresponsible action, and what she was concerned with was the politics of the era.” (Pamintuan, 2002). She accomplishes this investigation into homosexuality not only in Frankenstein’s use of science as a means of producing his monster.
What is also important is how he reacts to the creature and through the consistent references to the ‘unnatural’ state of things in the absence of women. “More in keeping with eighteenth-century moralists than with either William Godwin or Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley describes innate desire not as neutral or benevolent, but as quintessentially egotistical” (Poovey, 1984: 253). Rather than being concerned with the ‘natural’ order of the world and the advancement of society, Frankenstein, like the homosexual element of Britain, concerned itself with ‘unnatural’ male love.
Unnatural as a Metaphor for Homosexuality
From the beginning of his education, Victor Frankenstein purposefully and intentionally turned his back on the natural world as a way of concentrating on discovering the secret of bringing life to inanimate material. “My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings.” (Shelley, 1993)
When “my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature” (Shelley, 1993). Despite the warnings received and the challenge to the natural order of things, Frankenstein went on with his search for in-depth knowledge, went on working on the creature he had started, went on envisioning it as a beautiful thing that would give all homage to him.
This fact demonstrates the unproductive passion of the homosexual lover, the desire to know something ‘unnatural’ and beyond God’s laws. Continuously giving in to his desires blinds him to the true nature of his actions until the living monster stands facing him in all its horrendous grotesqueness.
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Although he creates the monster, Frankenstein cannot bear to look upon him. The young doctor falls so ill following the creature’s animation that he requires long-term care by his friend Clerval before he can travel. Although female relatives are the more traditional characters called in to be nursemaid to an ailing young man, Clerval emerges as the only individual capable of adequately tending Frankenstein’s despair. Frankenstein, having created something so disgusting that he can’t look upon it, leaves his creation to enter the world unprotected and misunderstood at every turn, essentially dooming the creature to eternal loneliness in his monstrosity.
This total disregard for the well-being of the monster wells up immediately upon his first breath. “The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room.” (Shelley, 2004: 42). Victor only agrees to discuss anything with the monster once the threat has been made to his family, thereby forcing the creature to violence as the only means to gain an ear and illustrating the imaginary creation of the unnatural relationship between two men.
The monster, on the other hand, gains his knowledge of natural life through his experiences outside of Frankenstein’s influence. He comes into life with a gentle spirit, ready to love the natural things of the world. While the spring warmed the earth during the monster’s stay outside the De Lacey home, the monster tells Victor: “My spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy” (Shelley, 2004: 119).
Here, he learns that a natural life consists of the loving relationship that develops between a man and a woman, and thus, he determines to force Frankenstein to provide him with a wife, something that terrifies Frankenstein beyond measure. The creature cannot exist within the world in which he finds himself because he is neither male nor female.
He is the only one of his kind and quickly comes to the realization that without a balancing influence, he will not find peace: “You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being” (Shelley, 2004: 195). With his final hope for happiness ruined with Frankenstein’s refusal to create a female companion for him, the monster dedicates himself entirely to the destruction of the man he wished to love.
At the end of the novel, the creature tells Walton, “I had cast off all feeling, subdued all anguish, to riot in excess of my despair. Evil thenceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen” (Shelley, 2004: 239). This quote refers to one of the most often cited excuses why a man might consider sodomy, which rested on the absence of the availability of women.
As previously mentioned, the monster itself emerges as a symbol of the sexual act consumed among men. His body comprises the collected parts from the bodies of other men and comes to life in an arousal spasm that Frankenstein fails to consummate or put to rest. This concept bases upon Peter Brook’s (1984) outline of the traditionally male-centered approach to literature and sex in which there are an arousal period, a climax, and an end in quiescence.
In his own words, the male act starts with an “awakening, arousal, the birth of an appetency, ambition, desire or intention” (Brook, 1984). From this point, the aroused male takes action through a “significant discharge” before shrinking back into satisfaction and sleep (Brook, 1984). “The Masterplot of the novel would, according to the pleasure principle, be the chain of events that restores the creature to death while accounting for all the significances of its having come to life” (Winnett, 1990, p. 506).
In other words, for the novel to follow the path of male consummation, the monster must find some meaningful expression for his life, such as having made a connection of some positive sort with another member of the human race and then returned to death where he belongs. Shelley’s novel thus introduces a failure of consummation among men because neither of these essential events occurs, suggesting impotence of some kind among the characters.
The creature thus emerges not only as a symbol in his actions but also as a symbol in his mere existence. As a technologically produced, free-thinking, and self-aware being, he represents the concept of man’s science taking over the reproductive powers of women, supplanting the natural role and removing the feminine from the equation altogether. This produces horrific results both physically and psychologically, that quickly escalate much further out of control than could have been originally imagined.
The monster’s role in the death of Justine, as well as the murder of Elizabeth, also emphasizes this concept of technology attempting to replace the functions of women, thus negating their importance to society. At the same time, Victor’s refusal to create a female for the monster reflects the general fear of men that women could not be adequately contained through any other means than destruction.
Victor Frankenstein emerges as a very narcissistic male, concerned with fulfilling his desires regardless of their effect upon the rest of society. This reflects the attitude held by many Victorians regarding the unnatural issue of homosexuality. “Narcissistic males, Victor and Robert (like Percy), displace their homosexual goals and, in so doing, suppress any purpose outside the self.
Victor begins with a willful act of creation and ends with a weak act of inaction at the site of Elizabeth’s death. Mr. Veeder… in his elaboration of an analogy with Percy Shelley, he makes some interesting observations about Percy’s own latent homosexuality. Shelley’s bifurcation, the doomed alternative to Mary’s androgynous model, is understood to result from an original desire for a male object: a ‘negative’ Oedipus complex.
This is reproduced in Victor’s character, who desires Elizabeth’s death but finds in the monster/’father’ not a beloved after all but a ravisher” (Janowitz, 1989). Parallels are thus drawn between the author’s personal life and the novel that further serve to illustrate its homosexual overtones.
While numerous readings are possible of Shelley’s novel, it is undeniable that one of the many issues she concerned herself with was the issue of homosexuality and its effects on society. In doing so, Shelley reflected much of the sentiment of the time. Investigations into her personal life suggest Shelley perhaps also found herself trying to cope with homosexual tendencies in her lover and future husband while contemplating the incredible dynamics of life and death having just lost one child and in the process of producing another.
It is thus not surprising that she should envision the product of a homosexual relationship, its nature, and its effect upon the world, particularly given world events occurring at that time. Through the character of Victor Frankenstein, Shelley investigates the destructive forces of homosexuality as the product of his passion wanders the earth in search of a ‘normal’ life it can never have.
Although hidden within a discussion of the technological advances of science, Shelley includes small details to help illustrate the homosexual bent of the novel, such as in the case of Clerval and Frankenstein’s deep attachment to this male character and in the killing of the female characters as a means of keeping the story couched within the male sphere.
The process of creation itself is even distanced from the natural collaboration of male and female. Through the progress of the novel, Shelley demonstrates the destructive and, at best, isolating effects of homosexuality.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1984.
Greenblatt, Stephen (Ed.). “Introduction: The Victorian Age.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 8. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.
Harvey, A.D. “Prosecutions for Sodomy in England at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century.” The Historical Journal. Vol. 21, N. 4, December 1978.
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The Morning Chronicle. July 10, 1815.
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