In “'My Hideous Progeny': The Lady and the Monster”, Mary Poovey analyzes Mary Shelley’s career as a writer and personal life in order to make the argument that Shelley faced a constant battle between the urge to create (and definitionally to be self assertive) and the urge to conform to societal expectations of femininity and domesticity (and be definitionally passive). She pays particular focus to the changes made to the characterizations of Victor Frankenstein, his creature, and Robert Walton regarding their senses of ego between the 1818 and 1831 editions of Frankenstein.
Main Argument Edit
Poovey’s main argument is that Shelley spent the majority of her career (and life) walking the tightrope between an external urge to create which requires self-assertion and an equally external urge to assimilate to the societal expectations of feminine passivity. While patriarchal culture requires silence in women, Shelley’s parents required writing in everyone. Ultimately, as Shelley moved out of her teenage years and became a more established author, her endeavors became more influenced by that secondary urge. While she continued to write, her works were less subversive and her “thinly disguised autobiographical characterizations of herself” (previously a space occupied by both Victor Frankenstein and his creature) became more “docile”, “domestic”, and feminine. This allowed her to achieve both “the personal satisfaction of expressing a self that was “original”” and “the approval of a middle-class, largely female audience”, because her stringent adherence to the idea of the Proper Lady transformed her into an exemplary woman writer. (117) Poovey argues that this is only possible because Shelley spent much of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, and her introduction to it, explaining away the egotism she showed by simply writing and then publishing a work.
This is a dry, academic text with a clear audience of feminist scholars studying Mary Shelley in mind. As such, Poovey’s inclination is toward high academic language and difficult to follow syntax. Be prepared for words like “quiescence”, “paradigmatic”, and “mechanistic psychological theories” being used without qualification or explanation. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with a large vocabulary, but Poovey tends to sacrifice rhythm and readability for specificity of language, which can make reading this essay a genuine challenge. With that in mind, the reward for completing that challenge is an in depth, original comparison between the first (1818) edition of Frankenstein and the second (1831) edition which analyzes Shelley’s alterations of the text in order to not only bring clarity to some of the stranger, seemingly random changes that were made, but also to develop an idea of the transition Shelley’s career (and life) had undergone in the intervening years.
Biographical Evidence Edit
Poovey argues that it is impossible to understand Mary Shelley as a writer without considering her as a person. She pulls in a plethora of biographical information from Shelley’s letters and journals, as well as her non-Frankenstein professional works, and attempts to compare Shelley’s writing style to that of every other writer in her life. Shelley struggles more with confidence than her mother did and is less glory oriented than her husband, for example. Poovey claims that “only by viewing Shelley’s public persona in the context of her private comments and actions” will we as readers be able to “fully appreciate the paradigmatic place this very unusual woman occupied in the final triumph of Victorian propriety.” (118) Of course, this line of thinking can frustrate present day readers who have been beaten over the head the entire way through their academic careers with the idea that the author is dead and their intent or motivation is completely irrelevant. While Poovey’s use of biographical evidence is convincing and she does not appear to be conjecturing wildly about Shelley’s life, it may be prudent to for some to skip to “The 1818 Frankenstein” segment which can be found on page 122 of the 1984 edition.
Both the 1818 and the 1831 editions of Frankenstein include Victor Frankenstein as the egotistical creative protagonist who ruins his own life as well as those of everyone around him, but Poovey locates the difference between the two versions in the origin of Victor’s creative urges.
Poovey describes Shelley’s 1818 version of Victor Frankenstein as the embodiment of Shelley’s contemplation of the egotism inherent to innate desire and imaginative activity. Shelley draws upon what Poovey refers to as mechanistic and organic models of maturation (which seem to be a version of the nature vs. nurture debate), but Shelley’s conception of imagination as “an appetite that can and must be regulated” by “domestic relationships” or else “it will protect itself from the natural world, becoming voracious in its search for objects to conquer and consume” is her own. (123) While creativity is a natural and difficult to ignore urge, it can be shifted productively into domestic relationships. This is ultimately not the route either Victor takes, but in the 1818 edition it is presented as a true option.
This option is removed in the 1831 edition, which Poovey blames for transforming Victor fully into a “helpless pawn of a predetermined “destiny,” a fate that is given, not made” rather than a person who chose to transgress and can therefore be blamed for his actions. (133) If anything, Shelley seems to characterize Victor’s ego as a malevolent and invading spirit in the 1831 edition, rather than a part of Victor. In this version, Victor is incapable of altering his fate. He must abandon his family to create the creature. He has no control.
Robert Walton Edit
Robert Walton also underwent a motivational change between the two editions of Frankenstein.
According to Poovey, Walton’s 1818 self is identified by his relationships. While he is obsessively imaginative like Victor, and he self-isolates while attempting to achieve greatness, in the end he is saved by, or saves himself for, his domestic relationships. In short, he is redeemable, because he never fully rejected “the regulating influence of social relationships”, allowing him to realize that while “denying his ambition will be painful, even humiliating” it is not worse than committing “the antisocial crime of indulging his egotistic curiosity.”(133)
Contrastingly, in the 1831 edition Poovey reads Walton’s turn toward civilization as less of a “triumph over his own ambition” and more “the consequence of a mysterious internal revolution.” (136) Instead, Victor more or less makes up Walton’s mind for him by reminding him of the benefits of domestic friendship and sociality.
Poovey identifies the creature as the “projection of Frankenstein’s indulged nature”: the consequences of Victor’s selfish imagination given physical form. (128) This allows the destructiveness of Victor’s unrestricted ego (and the ego in general) to become obvious when the creature becomes the literal destroyer of Victor’s remaining domestic ties.
Poovey, like many of her feminist scholar contemporaries, also imagines Frankenstein’s creature as the personification of Shelley’s “conflicted energy” as a woman writer. (139) She claims that Shelley uses the creature to work out her own fear of rejection, which Poovey believes to be at the heart of Shelley’s meticulously pursued endeavor to normalize her own urge to write. It’s not so much that Shelley simply and naturally wanted to fit the standards patriarchal Victorian society set for her, as it is that she genuinely feared the repercussions that go along with being rejected from that society.
Poovey, Mary. "'My Hideous Progeny': The Lady and the Monster." The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984. 114-142. Print.
Don't forget to check out the Annotated Bibliography on Race and Gender for more feminist scholars to add to your reading list.