ary Shelley reverses the traditional position of female spectacle viewed by the male spectator in Frankenstein. In “Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Spectacle of Masculinity,” Bette London argues for a feminist reading of this reversal of the power structure of spectacle and spectator. By calling attention to the masculinity of Frankenstein and his monster’s body, she complicates readings of the text that either cling to strictly biographical elements of Percy and Mary’s relationship (such as Veeder’s Mary Shelley and “Frankenstein”: The Fate of Androgeny) or feminize the bodies of Frankenstein and his monster (such as Gilbert and Gubar’s “Horror’s Twin: Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve”). Shelley’s focus on the body of these two figures and their spectacles throughout the narrative illustrates the “emptying out of the masculine center” (London 264). Frankenstein’s body is constantly afflicted with illness and he often resorts to mad ravings. The monster’s body reveals an excess of physical power, but not that of an idealized superman.
Women play auxiliary roles outside of most of the movement of the text. Even the author seems conspicuously absent from the initial pages of her text — the Preface was written by Percy. Women occupy spaces outside of the action of the narrative, but they are present to piece the story together. Margaret Saville receives her brother’ letters that contain the entire narrative of Frankenstein just as Mary Shelley pieces together various strands of story in the construction of her novel. Although Elizabeth never becomes privy to her husband’s secret, Margaret can make sense of the narrative thanks to her position outside of these events.
In its fixation on masculine spectacle, then, Frankenstein unsettles the positions of the specular relationship, but the corollary to this gender transportation is the space opened up to the possibilities of female spectatorship. And this perspective invites a reconsideration of the way Mary Shelley represents herself in the scene of original creation . . . For in view of Frankenstein’s exposure of masculine discourses and bodies, one might question the conventionality of Mary Shelley’s position behind the scenes — a position from which the female spectator, unobserved, can illuminate and mobilize the skeletal structure of masculinity. In such a model, then, the representation of women is not without its interests, but that interest may lie less in the construction of woman as self-empowering agency than in the understanding of the woman’s position in the arrangement of male exhibitions, in the staging of male spectacle. For the woman silenced at the margins of the male imagination can do more than demonstrate masculine preeminence. Like the figure of Mary Shelley produced in the reconstruction of her story’s origins (the 1831 introduction) or the sacrificial figures cast up in her novel, the woman at the extremities can point to the fractures in the unified male image: the excesses and deficiencies that disturb the surface of masculinity. From such a position she can carve out a space for reading differently, opening to view the inevitable gap between image and ideal that structures male self-presentations, that renders male literature — and literary criticism — auto-biographical confession. (London 264)
London endows this external space occupied by women with a sense of empowerment. Here, she extends this reading to include “male literature” and “literary criticism” that she names “auto-biographical confession.” Apparently, the female outsider can more effectively take up a critical position and save it from “confession” in a way that the male insider cannot.
1. Though not exceedingly revelatory on a theoretical level, London’s reading of Frankenstein does seem worth pursuing in its opposition to other feminist readings. Might London’s shift from feminizing the monster’s body to re-masculinizing its body reflect a general trend in feminist scholarship?
2. How might London’s reading of the empowering role of women outside of the text actually lead to problematic conclusions from a social or political feminist perspective? In what ways might this reading be politically or socially useful?
3. London places a lot of emphasis on reading the male body and investigating the feminine positions of exteriority in the text. What (if anything) might reading the female body and investigating the exteriority of the male position in the text reveal or complicate in terms of London’s reading specifically and feminism more generally?
4. How does this text deal with feminist questions differently than the other Victorian texts by female authors (Charlotte Brontë or Elizabeth Barrett Browning) included in this course? We may want to consider narrative voices, the roles of women in the actions, or the independence (or dependence) of the women in the novels.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “Horror’s Twin: Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve.” The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979. 213-47.
London, Bette. “Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Spectacle of Maculinity.” PMLA 108.2 (March 1993).
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. D.L. Macdonald & Kathleen Scherf. Ontario: Broadview, 1999.
Veeder, William. Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgeny. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.
Last modified 25 April 2010