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Mary Shelley & Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny by William Veeder (1986)

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Cover of Veeder's book. Image source: http://www.abebooks.com/book-search/isbn/9780226852256/

In this 1986 scholarly book by William Veeder, the author sets out to show that by looking at Mary Shelley's life, her most famous work Frankenstein, and her later works a reader could understand more about each of these topics. Through his research, Veeder proclaims that all of Mary Shelley's works have an element of androgyny and bifurcation, its opposite, at the center of their themes. However, as the title of this book asserts, the author focus on Frankenstein, only including evidence from Mary’s other works when it supports arguments about her most well-known work. Veeder is working in the feminist tradition, but also uses a psychoanalytic approach to Mary Shelley’s literature. He draws on previous interpretations of Mary’s works by P.D. Fleck and David Ketterer in their connections between Mary’s life and her masterpiece, as well as Robert Wexelblatt and Christopher Small.

This is a well thought out and well researched work with some notable idiosyncrasies. The author refers to Mary’s husband Percy by Shelley, though this is a name that can be applied to both members of the couple, and can be additionally confusing in a book focused on Mary Shelley. He also refers to Mary as “Mary Godwin” at several places in the text, though after her marriage to Percy she called herself Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and did not use the surname Godwin. Veeder assumes that his reader is familiar with the biography of Mary and Percy Shelley and their circle.  It would be helpful to note each person’s relationship to the couple the first time they are mentioned.

The SelfEdit

Veeder uses the images of Eros and Agape as the symbol for bifurcation and androgyny. Eros represents marriage based on inequality, where one partner needs to be seen as a god or goddess. Agape represents a marriage based on an equal partnership. Mary Shelley’s works attempt to show that a person can be androgynous without being “unsexed”, which was a common critique at the time. Rather, a person who has achieved androgyny has positive traits traditionally attributed to both males or females. Gender traits and the way the contribute to love and marriage was popular in fiction at the time Mary Shelley was writing. This can be seen in the novels Tom Jones and Pamela, as well as the novels of Jane Austen.  

In both Mary’s writing and her life, many of the men represent Eros rather than Agape. Her husband Percy, friend Lord Byron, and father William Godwin all suffered from excessive pride, which kept them from being androgynous. In Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein, the main character Victor Frankenstein and the frame narrator Robert Walton are described by Veeder as androgynous "when they are at their best", though much of the evidence is to the contrary. The author says this because they have concern for others and have affection for the women in their lives. However, both want the power that gods have which puts them in the category of Eros. Victor creates life and Walton wants to be the first to explore the North Pole. Both also fail to put trust in their relationships. Victor puts off marrying Elizabeth and Walton ignores much of his sister’s advice. But have what Veeder calls Promethean, or childlike pursuits. They follow their own will without considering those around them, which means they represent Eros most of the time.

The OtherEdit

Veeder puts forward the idea of characters in Mary’s work and life molding other characters. Frankenstein's Victor molds the creature because he is more suitable than Elizabeth, Falkner, the title character in Shelley's later novel, molds his adopted daughter Elizabeth, Percy molded Mary when they married because she was young, and Mary molds her story of the monster. Molding others is an Eros characteristic because one has to put themselves above another to mold them. In spite of this molding, many of these men feel that the women have failed them. Percy feels that his first wife Harriet has failed him because she does not nurse their child. Victor is upset that his adopted sister Elizabeth has failed him by infecting her mother with the scarlet fever that kills her. This irrational disappointment is another Eros characteristic and is also a way to stay above one's partner.

In the next chapter, Veeder focuses on the parents in Frankenstein. In Frankenstein, the mother dies at the beginning and ignites Victor’s curiosity about death.  However, Victor’s father pushes him in the direction of science. In traditional society, the son takes the place of the father. When Victor makes the creature, he takes the place of both the mother and the father. Victor then uses the monster to indirectly kill his father by causing him so much grief. According to Veeder, Victor usurps his father in order to gain power in his family. This argument does not ring true, however, because it seems Victor as though Victor would give up this aspiration as his family life disintegrate, but he does not face a major emotional change again after the creature has been made.

Complication and ConclusionEdit

According to Veeder, the character of Safie lives out Elizabeth’s vision for herself. She is educated, but also gets to be with the man she loves, Felix. Victor wants Elizabeth to stay home rather than be with him. Elizabeth is not a weak woman, but she is absent from Victor's life after he leaves home and her letters give the impression that she would prefer not to be.

At the end of the novel, Victor fades away before the monster arrives and he does not confront his creation. Victor does not elevate himself above other men, which was part of his goal. Rather, he polarizes the male and female elements of himself at the end of the novel. His is unable to carry out his will because he is weak. He becomes a victim of his uncontrollable desires. Because he is unable to balance his psyche, he is unable to be a part of society, and withdraws himself from others on numerous occasions throughout the novel. On the other hand, the creature seems to have reached androgyny at the end of the novel, according to Veeder. He knows his true wants, but is still capable of being gentle. He desires to be part of the domestic sphere. Victor keeps the creature from become fully androgynous because he does not have a mate and is unable to enter society due to his appearance.

Works Cited Edit

Veeder, William R. Mary Shelley & Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986. Print.

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