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“Female Gothic” by Ellen Moers

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Literary women

Photo of the dust jacket of the 1976 edition of Literary Women by Ellen Moers, in which "Female Gothic" was printed. Photo found at

Ellen Moers’ “Female Gothic”, which is included in her text Literary Women, is from the 1970s era resurgence of scholarship, more specifically feminist scholarship, surrounding Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In it, Moers tracks the transformation of the gothic as developed by female writers from Ann Radcliffe in the 1790s, whose gothic revolved around a “young woman who is simultaneously persecuted victim and courageous heroine” to Mary Shelley, whose gothic did away with a heroine, but “brought a new sophistication to literary terror”. (91) For Moers, Shelley’s work is revolutionary because she brings specifically feminine anxieties about birth (and in particular afterbirth) to the gothic, in a fantastical way rather than in an attempt at realism.

Main Argument Edit

Moers’ main argument is that Mary Shelley transformed “the standard Romantic matter of incest, infanticide, and patricide into a phantasmagoria of the nursery” in Frankenstein. (99) Moers argues that Frankenstein is at its heart a birth myth. Instead of transgressing morality to gain immortality like his fellow literary overreachers, Victor Frankenstein does so in order to create human life. More importantly, and more interestingly Moers argues, that life is not cast in the stereotypical candy and roses most birth myths are during this time period. Rather, there is a “motif of revulsion” as well as “guilt, dread, and flight” surrounding this birth. (93) The story then revolves around the consequences of that flight and revulsion for both Victor and his creature, all of the horrifying parts of the novel can be seen as the results of what Moers refers to as “deficient infant care.” (93) The trauma of afterbirth being the location of the novel’s focus is what defines Frankenstein as a distinctly feminine piece of mythmaking. While postpartum depression and anxiety are common after the birth of a baby, discussions of it were not the norm in cultural mythology or literature at the time (and remain taboo for the most part). But for Mary Shelley, Moers argues, the newborn (or at least the fantasy of it that is the creature) is “at once monstrous agent of destruction and piteous victim of parental abandonment.” (97)

Victor Frankenstein and the Creature Edit

Moers is less concerned than many of her contemporaries with interpreting the characters of Victor Frankenstein and his creature specifically, but she alludes to her views on both characters indirectly through her defense of Shelley’s authorial prowess and originality. To Moers, Victor is an ill equipped father and overreaching creative who underestimates the gravity of his creation and runs when he faces it, but he is also (and more importantly) a counterpart to a scared, young Mary Shelley coping with the death of her first child and the magnitude of being a mother. Because of this, Moers also reads the creature in a more positive light than some of her counterparts. She refers to him as more of a pitiable, neglected child than as a monster. Moers focuses on the trials the creature faces as he grapples with his own psychological development without a parental figure (as scared and possibly unhelpful as Victor would have been in that role) to guide him through, rather than the violent acts that he commits after Victor rejects him. This is because Moers is particularly interested in Shelley’s ideas about child-parent relationships and the horrors inherent to those relationships.

Biographical Information Edit

Like many of her feminist scholar contemporaries who were writing in the 1970s, Moers relied pretty heavily on biographical information. Unfortunately, she also fell into the trap that is speculation and some of her comments are surprisingly sensationalist. For example, Moers writes that Claire Clairmont “managed to get herself pregnant by” Lord Byron “within a couple of weeks”, rather than saying that Clairmont had a short term relationship and child with Lord Byron. (96) Today we refer to this kind of coded criticism of women’s sexual lives as slut shaming and it is generally frowned upon. The most atrocious example of Moers’ sensationalism, though, is her description of the suicide of Mary Shelley’s half sister, Fanny Imlay, in which Moers comments “The suicide was not only a tragedy but an embarrassment to all. Godwin refused even to claim Fanny’s body, which was thrown nameless into a pauper’s grave.” (96) That’s simply unnecessary, particularly because these less than scholarly moments seem to have been for the purpose of making the argument that death and birth were as mixed in Shelley’s actual life as they were in her fiction. That point could have been made easily without going into the details of Shelley’s miscarriages or the specifics of the deaths of her loved ones. While reliance on biographical information was more acceptable in scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s, this seems out of the ordinary when compared to the work of Moers’ contemporaries.

Ancillary Argument Edit

Moers also fits the 1970s and 1980s era of feminist scholarship’s standard of defending Shelley’s originality and competence. She acknowledges the “generally held opinion” that Shelley “was not so much an author in her own right as a transparent medium through which passed the ideas of those around her”, but claims that not only is Shelley’s take on the birth myth revolutionary, her version of the overreacher is wholly original. (94) Shelley’s choice to delve into the fears associated with afterbirth was new because most eighteenth and nineteenth century women writers were “spinsters and virgins”. (92) The only writers addressing birth were men, and they were more or less aiming for realism, whereas Shelley aimed for terrifying fantasy. Also, as stated above, Victor overreaches in order to create life, rather than extending his own, which was unheard of before Shelley. In short, Shelley does not simply copy from the numerous books she reads, she creates and recreates.

Audience Edit

This essay seems to have been written with a larger audience than the feminist scholarly community in mind, though it hits a lot of the same points that the works of other feminist scholars do (such as defending Shelley as a writer and including biographical information garnered from her letters and journals). The essay overall takes on a readable, conversational tone which communicates its point clearly and effectively without overusing jargon or high academic language, indicating that the essay (and the larger work) was intended for a wider audience. Also, the unwarranted use of tabloid-like sensationalism can only be assumed to have been a misguided attempt at keeping the attention of that larger, non-scholarly audience. Without the sensationalism and overemphasis on finding the source of every idea Shelley had via journals, letters, and interpersonal relationships, “Female Gothic” is an easily digestible interpretation of Shelley’s work with an original and interesting take on the monster-Victor relationship.

Citation Edit

Moers, Ellen. "Female Gothic." Literary Women. Garden City, NY: Doubleday &, 1976. 90-99. Print.

Don't forget to check out the Annotated Bibliography on Race and Gender for more feminist scholars to add to your reading list. It also includes an entry on "Female Gothic".

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