Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley

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Discuss how the portrayal of the body, gender, and/or sexuality in a novel of your choosing contradicts or reinforces norms.
In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley tells the sad story of a development that caused its maker anguish, terror, and anxiety. As Victor Frankenstein is about to die after a long and exhausting search of his undesired existence, he recounts his ordeal to his rescuer Robert Walton, who relays the story to his sister in England through a series of letters. Victor's story is ambitious, sad and full of despair as he lost many people that were close to him because of the monster that he created. Mary Shelley is deliberate in explaining the context of the narration and its relation to the society in which she lived in at the time. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley discusses the representation of the body, gender, and sexuality and explains how their use either confirm or contest to the norm.

Victor Frankenstein who is the protagonist of the story grows up in Switzerland and becomes fascinated and obsessed with the creation of life. When he pursues his dreams at the University of Ingolstadt, he is an exceptional student who grasps all that he is taught and impresses both his peers and his teachers at the institution (Shelley 2004, p.210). Victor Frankenstein's zeal and fascination with the “secrets of life” brings to light the power and relevance of the human body in relation to life and death. Through the intense study of chemistry, alchemy, and electricity, Victor manages to realize his dreams of creating life. In relation to the core components that facilitated Victor's creations were the process of galvanism, anatomy, and phrenology.

Galvanism is a mixture of belief and facts that Mary Shelley implies Victor used to reincarnate the body of Frankenstein. Galvanism in Mary Shelley's context refers to the act of bringing back to life through the use of electric currents. Through the anatomical perception of “the body”, Mary Shelley further explains that the body parts that Victor used were from the slaughterhouses. Mary relates the behavior of the monster to that of the criminals and animals that were killed. Hence, through the material used to make the body of Frankenstein, his character is shaped which is that of hostility and inhumanity as evidenced by the inhumane killings and pain that he inflicted on Victor who was his creator. Phrenology, on the other hand, was a study of people's behavior through the use of the shape of their heads and their facial expressions. Phrenology emphasized that the human body has a divine function and hence it is only through facial expression that people tend to express their inner desires and needs. Phrenology relates human physical characteristics to those of animals. In Frankenstein, for instance, Robert Walton describes Victor as "the lineaments of his face are irradiated by the soul within" (Shelley and Robinson, 2008 p.310), which clearly describes the condition of Victor at the time. Victor further emphasizes the rationality of the use of the body when he states that his dislike for M. Krempe "repulsive physiognomy" (Shelley and Robinson, 2008 p.310).

Mary Shelly held staunch feminist beliefs and ideologies and hence understood the essentiality and necessity to represent the plight of women. Although the novel is not feminist it tackles the problems and stereotypes that the female characters at the time faced. The author intentionally paints the female characters in the novel as loyal, selfless, tranquil and obedient so as to bring out the societal expectations and perception of the ladies at the time of the novel's conception. According to Shelley, Hindle, and Kostova (2007, p.24) affirm that there is a stereotype in the portrayal of ladies in Frankenstein in order to give the true experience and undervalued nature that the female characters faced. The author uses the concept of gender representation to bring to light certain societal elements and themes that affect the personality traits of the various characters in Frankenstein. The female characters are described and labeled as objects who have very little influence and effects in relation to the men. Two examples of women whose characters are serene are Caroline Beaufort and Elizabeth Lavenza. Beaufort thanks, Alphonse severally in the novel for the good life that he gave her in addition to rescuing her from the jaws of poverty and frustrations and hence she feels indebted to him.

The author presents a form of irony and satire when she narrates the case of Beaufort. It is ironical that Beaufort feels indebted to Alphonse yet initially she was taking care of herself on her own. Beaufort further stresses that perception that women could not be independent and support themselves without the aid of men. The character of Elizabeth makes her put the interests of others before hers and hence she is seen as strong and selfless. Despite the potential and abilities that Elizabeth has, the author decided to place her as a mere object of pleasure for Victor (Shelley 2004, p.189). Elizabeth's open-heartedness and decision to put the interests of the other people before her own could also be against her will and just a mere act of publicity to be in line with societal needs.

Robert Walton and Victor Stein are typical examples of the perceptions of men to the women in the society at the time of their existence. Robert Walton, for instance, is not sensitive to his sister's pleas and concerns and hence treats them as mere comments. In response to his sister's concerns and curiosity of Robert's quest, he states that "An enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings" an indication that her concern's held little weight to Victor. Walton does not show apprehension for his sister's life other than just mentioning that she lived in London and had kids. Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton are typical examples of the men in their society who gave little concerns about the whereabouts of the other people (Shelley, Macdonald, and Scherf 2012, p.248). Robert, for instance, is determined to pursue his quest to attain knowledge and reach heights that no man has ever done and hence is blind to the pleas and the concerns of his crew members.

In the novel, gender representations are illustrated and differentiated through the depiction of male and female standards and illustrations. Frankenstein explains the differences in gender representation through the incidence of Justin who was accused of the murder of William and later killed for the perceived crime. Victor, on the other hand, had a similar case against his friend Henry Clerval. However, unlike Justine, Victor was declared innocent and let free. Through the depictions of the two scenarios, the author gives a vivid portrayal of the female characters and their perceptions in the male-dominated world. The two scenarios reinforce the perception that the men are much more superior to the women. Victor is portrayed as self-centered and arrogant and an indication of the nature of men in comparison to the soft, tolerant nature of the women. The author, however, manages to elevate the nature of the women and balances it to that of the men in an attempt to create a form of reconciliation and equilibrium (Shelley and Robisnon 2008, p.266).

Victor Frankenstein is engaged to Elizabeth his childhood foster sister and hence it is apparent that they have never had sex. Shelley explains that the relationship between Victor and Elizabeth has a close bond and ties which makes them more of siblings as opposed to lovers. Shelley completely omits the aspect of sexual encounters between Victor and Elizabeth so as to elaborate Victor’s perception and lack of interest in matters pertaining to sex. Shelley uses a lot of secret and discretion in matters pertaining to sex in the novel which makes the issue even much more pronounced (Shelley 2004, p.272). Frankenstein on the other hand also evokes feelings of love, lust and sexuality when he desires a mate to idolize and share with his love and life. The author uses sexuality and sex as a strong force that unites an individual to the ideals of society like in the case of Frankenstein.

The author intentionally uses the body to give a deeper insight into the thematic progression of the story. It is through the body that life begins and ends and all emotions like grief, despair and happiness are projected. The creation of the body of the monster brought life, death, craving, sorrow, anguish, and grief among other emotions that drive the characters and shape their actions. Through Victor, the author further elaborates that the body is the root cause of all happiness and evils in the society. The author additionally uses the representations of the different gender groups to show their status and positions in the society. The women are held in a low regard and are painted with their traditional character traits like loyal, dutiful and generous. The men, on the other hand, are arrogant, adventurous and inconsiderate. Through the incorporation of the body and the use of gender, the author managed to explore the cultural, social and religious inclinations of the different genders in the society.

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Shelley, M. W., 2004. Frankenstein. London, Collector's Library

Shelley, M. W., Hindle, M., and Kostova, E., 2007. Frankenstein, or, the modern Prometheus. New York, Penguin Books.

Shelley, M. W., Macdonald, D. L., and Scherf, K. D., 2012. Frankenstein, or, the modern Prometheus. Peterborough, N, Broadview Editions.

Shelley, M. W., and Robinson, C. E., 2008. Frankenstein, or, the modern Prometheus. Oxford, Bodleian Library.

July 24, 2021

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