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“Frankenstein and the Feminine Subversion of the Novel” by Devon Hodges

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Film still from James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in which Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley as well as the titular character. Image source:

Devon Hodges’ “Frankenstein and the Feminine Subversion of the Novel” is a feminist scholarly article that discusses Mary Shelley’s use of discontinuity and lack of closure in Frankenstein as acts intended to subvert the conventional patriarchal novel writing form. Hodges argues against claims from within and without the feminist scholarship community that disruptions of plot and character in Frankenstein originate from the author’s inferior skill, claims which Hodges believes come from misogynistic preconceptions about all women writers.  It was originally published in 1983 by the University of Tulsa.

Main Argument Edit

Hodges sees Frankenstein as an attempt to dismantle the constructed masculinity of the novel as an artform from within, by adopting all of the traditional, harmful elements of novel writing (the male protagonist(s), silent stereotypically domesticated women, isolation in masculinized adventure, the undeniable urge to create and conquer, etc.) and allowing them to splinter in order to display their inherent flaws. The effectiveness of her argument is contingent upon the audience’s acceptance of the foundational idea that continuity and closure are parts of a “grammar” that is traditional to novels because it secures “masculine identity and speech” and makes “male dominance seem inevitable.” (156) Her interpretations of Victor Frankenstein, his creature, and the female characters of Frankenstein, as well as her understanding of Mary Shelley’s reasons for writing the novel are all coded in this language. Shelley wrote Frankenstein with multiple mirroring, fracturing male protagonists to decenter man by subverting “the unity of the subject”, not because she was incapable of creating a standard (i.e. patriarchy upholding) narrative, Hodges argues. While some scholars argue that it is a glaring example of internalized misogyny for Shelley to exclude revolutionary women characters from her novel, Hodges claims that Shelley included stereotypical women with stereotypical destinys in order to challenge “the place of women plotted by the traditional novel” and subvert “the form of female destiny”, which she accomplished by defamiliarizing “narrative sequence, making it seem unnatural, inadequate”, and therefore revealing that the conventional novel is unnatural and inadequate because it cannot accommodate a woman’s voice, either as a writer or a protagonist. (158)

For those who want the historical context of patriarchal novel writing standards, Hodges gestures toward Nancy Armstrong, Edward Said, and Mary Jacobus, but she mostly expects her audience to accept the premise (or reject it) and continue on the journey with her (or not).

Works Consulted Edit

Hodges points to Nancy Armstrong’s discussion of the novel as upholding patriarchal cultural norms in “The Rise of Feminine Authority in the Novel”, as well as Edward Said’s contemplation of the paternal premise of the novel in Beginnings: Intentions and Method, and Mary Jacobus’ explication of the difficulties faced by women writers who, by existing within a male dominated culture, are inherently silenced in “The Difference of View”, as key sources for the reader’s understanding of her premise. She relies heavily upon the assumption that her audience has already interacted with these works and gives little explanation of her premise as a result of that assumption. While Hodges acknowledges the foundational scholarship of Ellen Moers, Kate Ellis, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and Mary Poovey, she claims that their theories fall flat insofar as they fail to emphasize Shelley’s subversion of patriarchal narrative norms and the way that subversion grants the female themes of Frankenstein efficacy and does not mention these scholars outside of the opening paragraph in which she situates her own work.

Assumptions Regarding Audience Edit

Ultimately this is an article by a feminist scholar for feminist scholars, but while Hodges has a very clear audience in mind, she also obviously took some time to write an article that was widely readable. She avoids jargon or pontification and uses a conversational tone.  Hodges’ ultimate concern is not to convince outsiders of the validity of feminism, feminist scholarship, or critiques of patriarchal power structures. She presents a feminist premise and situates herself among feminist (and colonialism studies) scholars. Compared to some of her contemporaries her article casts a wide net by avoiding assumptions about her audience’s background. That is with one glaring exception: she bases her phrasing of her premise on the assumption that you have read Armstrong, Said, and Jacobus. Across the board, the article would have benefitted from a more indepth discussion of her premise, which is very sparse. She displays a conclusion as a premise, without establishing how she arrived at that conclusion, and while it is possible that the sources she points to explain her premise fabulously making any follow up she would provide in her article redundant, it can be frustrating to, in the middle of a work, be told to go read something else and come back later.

Ancillary Argument Edit

A decent chunk of Hodges’ article is devoted to reminding fellow feminist scholars (and outsiders) not to adopt simplistic (misogynistic) views of women writers. For example, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar referred to Shelley’s “disguised set of identity shifts and parallels” simply as “bewildering” on page 230 of their essay “Horror’s Twin: Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve” (contained in their collection of feminist scholarship The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination). Hodges takes a fair bit of her time to describe the double bind faced by women writers-in short, “if speech is associated with masculinity, then a woman must lose her identity in order to make self expression possible” (157)- to establish her defense against shallow understandings of Shelley’s use of discontinuity. She argues that by writing a woman is transgressive and that transgression will likely be reviled, usually via critics who claim that women are less capable and lack all skill or nuance. Hodges cites a handful of real critics who did this to Mary Shelley following the initial release of Frankenstein, seemingly to illustrate the type of company one is keeping when adopting simplistic views of women writers.

Appeal Edit

The payoff of the article is Hodges’ hilarious, insightful interpretations of Victor Frankenstein and his creature. Without a fundamental understanding of the societal implications of patriarchal power structures, these observations would seem like meaningless finger pointing. If the reader is a feminist, Hodges’ points are simultaneously brilliant and genuinely funny. She casts Victor as “the bearer of the qualities of god-like power and knowledge that characterize the masculine position in culture” who sets out to create a new species because it “will flatter his ego”, who gives “his creature an especially large frame as if to insure that it will reflect him at twice his size”, thus serving the same purpose often expected of women, “the flattering mirror”. (159) This is not where the feminine qualities of the creature end. In fact, he is the character who most closely reflects the struggles of a woman writer. In the beginning he wants nothing more than to assimilate, but he is rejected by his creator and patriarchal society time and again. The creature attempts to create his own society and (Hodges claims) his own language, but is refused by Victor Frankenstein out of fear for the ramifications that would be felt in his own culture. The creature is left in the middle, neither able to escape or enter society, forced to use the language of others though it can never be his own. Hodges points out that this is seen as dangerous by Victor Frankenstein, though the creature “performs in an alien language, he never fully inhabits it” (much like Shelley) and because of that “his language always seems to be a disguise for something terrifying that is unspoken.” (160) The creature is capable of dismantling the language of Victor Frankenstein simply by using it, as Shelley is capable of destroying (and creating a new mode for) the novel by writing as a woman, because her novel is inherently (and purposefully) revolutionary.

Works Cited Edit

Hodges, Devon. "Frankenstein and the Feminine Subversion of the Novel." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature. Vol. 2, No. 2. Tulsa, OK: U of Tulsa, 1983. 155-64. 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 "Frankenstein and the Feminine Subversion of the Novel".

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