Earlier this week, Ruth Franklin asked in The New Republic if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was “really” about childbirth: “Could the novel—commonly understood as a fable of masculine reproduction, in which a man creates life asexually—also be a story about pregnancy?”
According to Franklin, since Shelley was pregnant while writing the novel and had also suffered the loss of a child, she viewed the reanimation of the Monster as reviving her dead child. The evidence, Franklin says, is that Victor Frankenstein twice refers to the effort as his “labor,” a term associated with childbirth. Thus the novel is actually a dramatic portrayal of the horrors of parturition.
I think this is a rather reductive reading.
The use of the word “labor” for childbirth is a relatively late meaning (1590s and after); in nineteenth century literature, the word labor is much more closely associated with work, even with science (“laboratory”). In the 1810s, “labor” was a refined word for “work,” and between 1790 and 1820, the two words appear in print with roughly equal frequency. I’m not sure that one could reasonably conclude that Shelley’s birthing trauma is implied in the word labor as much as Shelley explicitly likens the creation of the Monster to an irregular birth in general.
I also disagree that Shelley’s work was “extraordinary” “for a young woman,” as Franklin quotes from a biographer. The subtitle of Frankenstein pretty much makes clear that Shelley had at least one example of a similar creation story in mind. In Book 1 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a book well-loved by the Romantics of Shelley’s circle, Prometheus, the (male) Titan, creates man from clay (women came later) in a myth derived from a much older Mesopotamian original:
Shelley’s husband, Percy, was working on a play about Prometheus, and their friend Lord Byron was enamored of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Suffice it to say, a precedent existed outside Shelley’s pregnancies.
I don’t doubt that Shelley’s personal experiences shaped the way she developed Frankenstein.(Shelley would, after all, use The Last Man to explore her sense of loss after the death of many of her friends.) Certainly the experience of birth and loss animates Victor’s relationship with the Monster. But to reduce the “real” meaning of the book to Shelley’s meditation on her own pregnancies seems to me far too reductive and far too dismissive of the author’s creativity and imagination. A text has a meaning independent of the author’s biography, and as I wrote in Knowing Fear, Frankenstein remains primarily a story about presumption and overreaching, not about fear of childbirth.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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