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Raymond Nighan, Ph.D.

Brendan O'Leary
Honors British Literature

Androgyny in Frankenstein

The Romantic Period is known for radical literature with even more radical characters. With the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Marry Wollstonecraft Shelley among the more famous authors of the era, why shouldn't it be known for being different? One rather curious work of fiction that was born in this time is Frankenstein. Modern renditions of the story by Hollywood and various abridgers exaggerate the absurdity but lack the psychological depth of the original. This depth can be best seen in the protagonist of the story, Victor Frankenstein, though it is also observable in his creature and family. Victor is the possessor of a decidedly romantic ego. He is idealistic, believes in the goodness of humanity, loves nature, is proud of his nationality, and is very conscious of the human’s capability to create.[1] His fascination with nature and "natural philosophy" (science) ultimately leads to gender role ambiguities that result in androgyny.

As a boy, Victor Frankenstein was happy and carefree. He enjoyed playing with his wife-to-be Elizabeth and reading. He was fascinated, but not preoccupied, with nature. He was bright, and seemed to have a happy and prosperous life ahead of him. Unfortunately for him, something happened that would change the course of his life forever.

The death of Victor's mother greatly affected how he would view the natural sciences. He feels profound agony:

I [Victor] need not describe the feelings of those whose dearest ties are rent by that most irreparable evil, the void that presents itself to the soul, and the despair that is exhibited on the countenance… but when the lapse of time proves the reality of the evil, then the actual bitterness of grief commences.(28) [2]

This leads to a very personal interest in the creation and sustainment of life. Before, when science was just a hobby, Victor was totally healthy. Now, after facing the death of his mother, Victor wants to conquer death. This prideful ambition, possibly also stemming from his desire to succeed in the natural sciences, leads to his downfall.

The transition between fascination with science and obsession with science has a few immediate consequences as well. Victor loses almost all contact with his family. In his battle against death, he must visit many sickening places: charnel houses and graveyards. Interestingly enough, his obsession parallels a sexual experience: "The astonishment… soon gave place to delight and rapture… the most gratifying consummation of my toils. But this discovery was so great and overwhelming, that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated…" (35) This is the point of no return. Victor's descriptions illustrate a fundamental change between his current self and the Victor who lived in Alphonse's home.

His descriptions of scientific discovery display a sexual tension that would have been inappropriate in Alphonse's home. Pursuing his studies, he is "exalted to a kind of transport"; he feels "delight and rapture" upon arriving at the "summit of my goals . . . [the] consummation of my toils" (p. 47). His rhetoric sounds like an address to a lover: he desires scientific discovery "with ardour," while his warmest feelings toward Elizabeth are decidedly less enthusiastic, no more than a platonic, "paradisiacal [dream] of love and joy" (p. 186). Shelley illustrates, then, that to maintain this code of masculinity, physical passion must be controlled to protect the interior domestic world of serenity from the outside world of turbulent feeling.[3]

It seems as though "mother nature" is replacing the female figures, Elizabeth and his own dead mother, in his life.

Soon, however, Victor is not just creating to replace his mother; he is creating to become a mother. Rather than create children with a woman, Frankenstein wants absolute power and credit. This he finds, moreover, not exactly in creating life but in making life from death. Power is understood as the negation of some other power, as getting rid of the competition. [4]

Victor's motives have been corrupted. He is looking for power. He is trying to become the ultimate mother: one who can reproduce without any help. He illustrates this with his words as well as with his actions.

A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. (37)

Victor isn't quite as sure of himself when he begins to create the creature. Though he clearly desires to take on the feminine role, he wavers:

The act of creation makes Victor physically feverish and ill; his hands, significantly, object to the task he sets before them. The timidity and tremors that Victor would attribute to nervousness are also signs of fear, but is he frightened by his grisly work or by his unconscious anxiety about his appropriation of the female role? [5]

Frankenstein is truly taking on the female role of creation. He labors, probably for hundreds of hours, on his "child." The experience even includes some distorted form of sex and pregnancy: "Frankenstein has taken the place of a woman, experiencing confinement and labor himself. He substitutes his filthy and revolting 'secret toil' for sexual intercourse, as 'with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness'…" [6] Victor describes the symptoms of his labor. "Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree…" (39) Shelly is paralleling Victor's labor on the creature and the resulting sickness to a woman's labor during pregnancy and the sickness that can result.

The nature of Frankenstein's creature is also reflective of his taking on the feminine role. The "monster" is extremely masculine and Victor spends a lot of time chasing the male he creates:

[Victor] projects his male element outward in the monster, allows the female to become dominant in himself, and spends the rest of the novel seeking to make love to his self. What Victor has done, in effect, is to create not an androgyne but a hermaphrodite… But Victor's hermaphrodite is not the monster: it is the monster and himself as unnatural male-female. [7]

To totally prove this, one must demonstrate that Victor truly is the ultimate female. He has corrupted the process of creation; and," the biblical tradition is corrupt, and the female as the epitome of sex is a corrupter...'"[8]. Thus, Victor is the ultimate corrupter of creation, making him the ultimate female. So the first view of androgyny in Frankenstein surfaces. When combined, Victor and his creation make an androgyne.

However, there is another view. What if Victor is in and of himself an androgyne? He is a male physically, but what about psychologically? To understand one must look at his interactions with his creation and his inner thoughts and dreams.

After Victor has finished his creation, he has a vivid dream:

I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the graveworms crawling in the folds of the flannel. (41)

This is extremely significant. The dream represents Victor's knowledge that he has killed the need for females. By becoming the ultimate female, Victor has killed the role that the female plays in procreation. The dream is also foreshadowing the death of Elizabeth, indirectly caused by Victor, and his own descent into madness.

Victor has now been almost fully effeminated. He illustrates this by his reaction to his creature:

The monster's first conscious act is straight out of seduction stories. He enters the sleeper's chamber, draws aside the bed curtains, and, with a smile and murmured words, reaches out his hand. Horrified into the conventional flight, the sleeper reacts revealingly… By attributing to a male the "palpitation" and "languor" traditional with female passion and its aftermath, Mary Shelley is suggesting a complex reversal of roles. As the monster bodies forth Victor's male self, Frankenstein becomes the effeminate beloved who… awaits the ravishing bolt. [9]

The next and possibly best example of Victor's effemination is his hysteria. After he creates the monster, Clerval has to care for him for many months. This is especially interesting because hysteria was traditionally a feminine disease.

In depicting Victor's response to the complications raised by his monster, Shelley attributes a classically female malady to a male character; simultaneously, she produces a site where orthodox gender stereotypes are revealed as inadequate, dangerous constructions. Beret Strong has argued that eighteenth-century hysteria theory combined corporeal symptoms associated with femininity with the masculine associations of reason: as a result, hysteria, in this period, 'is located at the crossroads between masculine and feminine as they are culturally construed.'(4) Shelley's character maps this intersection and the difficulties raised when the boundaries of gender are transgressed. [10]

Saying that hysteria is located at the crossroads of masculine and feminine proposes that Victor is totally androgynous in himself, without his masculine monster. Victor's intense emotion further classifies him as female.

While the monster illustrates the expression of Victor's unspeakable masculine desires, Shelley uses Victor's body to show the dangers of unspeakable feminine ones. She observes that because a social and psychological system categorizes strong emotion as feminine and common, the men who experience such emotion risk chaos: a redefinition of gender and class status. [11]

Even when Victor pulls out of each of his hysterical states he is unable to return to his old masculine self. Alphonse believes that a man must be in control of his emotions. He demonstrates this through his own display, or non-display, of grief over the loss of his wife. Victor is not at all in control of his emotions. During his visit to the Alps, he cycles between happiness and sociability and deep depression:

…I sometimes joined Elizabeth, and exerted myself to point out to her the various beauties of the scene. I often suffered my mule to lag behind, and indulged in the misery of reflection. At other times I spurred on the animal before my companions, that I might forget them… and more than all, myself.(73)

These feelings have implications in regard to androgyny.

If Victor's understanding of himself as a gendered being is determined on the basis of emotional control, then overpowering, hysterical symptoms reveal the frailty of his gendered construction. A man without rational self-control is what? A lunatic? A woman? According to Alphonse's code, he certainly cannot be a man. [12]

The lack of manhood is further demonstrated in Victor's next encounter with his creation.

When Victor sees his creation, he is overcome by violent feelings. This temporary display of masculinity is soon terminated. By the end, his monster has pacified him and he submits to creating a bride. In Shelley's time, this would be considered very feminine. It seems that every time Victor is in the presence of his creation, he enters into the female role. The creature wins Victor over by arguing that he shouldn't have to be self-sufficient. During the discussion, the creature notices how inconsistent Victor's emotions are. "'How inconstant are your feelings! [B]ut a moment ago you were moved by my representations, and why do you again harden yourself to my complaints?" (118-119) This is an important trend in the novel; however, before one can move on to that, the destruction of the female creature must be examined.

There is a traceable pattern in Victor's destruction of the female creation. He destroys her as a part of his ongoing battle against all things feminine. In other words, it has to do with his previous efforts at "getting rid of the competition." [13]

When Frankenstein's creature sees Victor destroy what he had hoped would be his wife, he goes into a rage.

"Shall each man," cried he, "find a wife for his bosom and each beast have his mate, and I be alone? I had feelings of affection, and they were requited by detestation and scorn. Man, you may hate; but beware! Your hours will pass in dread and misery, and soon the bolt will fall which must ravish from you your happiness for ever…" (137)

The bolt is a very important theme in Frankenstein. The creature doesn't realize that what he is saying has already happened:

The gender-role reversal implicit in Victor's statement that "the bolt has entered my soul" (158) and in the monster's threat that "the bolt will… ravish from you your happiness" (165) has in fact occurred already. During his emaciating labors on the creature, Frankenstein "became as timid as a love-sick girl" (51). He is not just castrated, he is made feminine. [14]

And this femininity is publicly displayed on his wedding night.

Victor is on edge from the very beginning of his wedding night. Elizabeth might as well have not been there at all. Victor is so preoccupied with the creature's threat that he almost totally ignores her. Rather than anticipating his first night with his wife, he anticipates his next night with his creature. The implications of this are incredible: "When the split between masculine and feminine halves of the psyche becomes dire enough to prevent a man from bonding with his complementary woman, he turns toward men and undergoes a role reversal which effeminates him." [15] Victor does turn away from his "complementary woman." Rather than spend the night with her, he waits for his creature.

More is revealed in Victor's initial reaction to his wife's death. He is slow to her aid. Afterwards, he totally violates Alphonse's definition of a man. "I did not accompany them; I was exhausted; a film covered my eyes, and my skin was parched with the heat of fever. In this state I lay on a bed, hardly conscious of what had happened; my eyes wandered around the room, as if to seek something that I had lost." (161) This inability to act continues:

I hired men to row, and took an oar myself, for I had always experienced relief from mental torment in bodily exercise. But the overflowing misery I now felt, and the excess of agitation that I endured, rendered me incapable of any exertion. I threw down the oar; and, leaning my head upon my hands, gave way to every gloomy idea that arose… Tears streamed from my eyes. (162)

The femininity in this example is pretty obvious. Victor had always felt better after bodily exertion; now he is incapable of it. He also becomes weak willed. It is thus important to note how much help Victor needed to get across the lake.

The Romantic view of a man is based in large part upon self-sufficiency. Victor displays incredible dependency throughout the novel. He needs constant nursing during his multiple instances of hysteria and is miserable whenever he is alone for any significant number of days:

Mary is thus striking back at a pretense to self-sufficiency which characterizes males throughout the Romantic period. Emerson contends that "a highly endowed man with good intellect and good conscience is a Man-woman and does not so much need the complement of a woman to his being as another." [16]

Victor is constantly attempting to become this ultimate man. Unfortunately for him, he fails repeatedly. He tried to be alone and self-sufficient when he was making his creature, but failed. He tried again when he was in Ireland creating the female; he failed again. These failures at self-sufficiency also represent a failure at mental manhood. Historically, men were supposed to be strong willed and consistent as well as self-sufficient: "Shelley repeatedly invokes: the male has absolute consistency and the female none." [17] Victor's final failure is in his attempt to catch his monster.
So, Victor has the mind of a female, creates like a female, but is trapped in a male's body. Thus, he has the characteristics of both a man and a woman, making him androgynous.

It is important not to forget the other way that Victor is androgynous: he is the feminine half of the androgyne that is made up of himself and his creature Throughout the novel, Victor assumes the feminine role. At the end, the monster, in a sense, wins. Victor has not caught him, and he gets to end it on his terms. "My work is nearly complete. Neither yours nor any man's death is needed to consummate the series of my being, and accomplish that which must be done; but it requires my own." (185) This is the final illustration of the creature's control over the situation and himself. When one combines this with his physical characteristics, it becomes obvious that the creature is very masculine. Thus, the monster takes on the masculine role throughout the novel. When put together, the creature and Victor make a perfect androgyne.

So, Victor is androgynous in two ways. He is psychologically a female in a man's body, and he is the female half of the androgyne that is the combination of himself and his creature. This androgyny profoundly affects the dynamics of his relationships and is central to the conflict of the story. It is a defining feature of Victor's Romantic ego.

Works Cited

[1]“Romanticism.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Internet WWW page at Last update: 2001.

[2] Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Frankenstein. Edited by Susan J. Wolfson. (New York: Longman, 2003). All future references will come from this text.

[3] Colleen Hobbs “Reading the symptoms: an exploration of repression and hysteria in Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein.'” Studies in the Novel. v25 n2 (Summer 1993), pp. 152-170.

[4] Patricia McKee. “Productions of Knowledge: Emma, and Frankenstein: Frankenstein.” in Public and Private: Gender, Class, and the British Novel. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 68.

[5] Hobbs.

[6] McKee, p. 69.

[7] WilliamVeeder. “Frankenstein: Self-Division and Projection.” in Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 98.

[8] Raymond Nighan. “Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Commentary, Background, and Allusions.” Internet WWW page at URL: Last Update: 8/15/03.

[9] Veeder, p. 91

[10] Hobbs.

[11] Hobbs.

[12] Hobbs.

[13] McKee, p. 68

[14] Veeder, p. 90.

[15] Veeder, p. 89.

[16] Veeder, p. 101.

[17] McKee, p. 75.