In That Not Impossible She: A Critical Study of Gender and Individualism in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dan Chapman offers a reading of one of fiction’s most famous monsters that is, much like the novel’s eponymous hero, reliant upon existing knowledge while urgently pushing forward to new discovery. Chapman’s product, however, is not nearly as tragic. Paying especial attention to themes of individualism and gender identity, Chapman carefully incorporates the voices of other scholars into his conversation and orients even the casual Romantic scholar to the context in which he is writing while weaving in new ideas of his own throughout. While there is some overlap between the three major sections of his book, Chapman’s argument generally flows from a focus on creation as a myth to the construction of identity and finally to the process of “becoming” something rather than being born as something with special attention given to gender identity. Because Chapman references other works from the period and theories of gender in general, this book will appeal to anyone who is interested in Shelley, gender studies, or Romanticism. This work is also highly accessible in both style and use of sources. Thus, while scholars who are more familiar with existing scholarship may find some of Chapman’s less profound ideas to be redundant, scholars who are new to the conversation should especially enjoy this book. While some of his ideas (like his thesis concerning possessive individualism) that are either unclear or muddled in the course of his argument require additional examination, Chapman has provided an efficient, thoughtful, and, at times, creative reading of Shelley’s classic work.
Because of her status, as Chapman puts it, as “feminism’s first daughter,” Shelley’s works have long been subject to readings that look specifically at gender (68). Similarly, because of the Creature’s “quest for selfhood and identity” that is central to the text, Frankenstein has also seen much scholarship concerning the nature of identity and the individual (42). Thus, at its core, Chapman’s reading is nothing new. However, Chapman deftly addresses this issue himself by the amount of grounding he gives his argument. Indeed, very few of his points does he even try to promote as solely his own. Most of them are rooted in evidence found in another source that he either just reports or often nuances in some new way to fit his argument. Therefore, as we consider how Chapman’s argument works in context with existing scholarship, we must point out that it does- and, indeed, almost must with this heavily mined topic-- overlap with existing scholarship and ideas that are, perhaps, familiar already.
The Creation Myth
Starting with “The Creation Myth,” Chapman addresses several important roles that creation plays throughout Frankenstein. Pointing to some of the obvious parallels and direct references to Genesis and Paradise Lost in Frankenstein, Chapman argues that “Shelley wants us to recognize” these intertextualities (19). However, he says, “something radically different happens in her text” (19). This difference is found in Frankenstein’s subtitle. This is not just a story of Prometheus; Shelley’s Prometheus is a modern one. Acknowledging these intertextualities with creation myths is nothing new. However, Chapman succeeds in making an important distinction here. Frankenstein, he says, is a “recreation myth” because it takes place “in an already fallen world” (21). Some of the most noteworthy examples Chapman gives of this modern-ness and the immediacy that it lends this myth have to do with the structure of the text. The “rapidly emergent novel,” he says, is itself a “modern form” (21). He also argues that in placing the narrative in an epistolary genre with a title that is a name (often seen in non-fiction works like autobiography and biography) Shelley “lends a dubious sense of authenticity to what follows” (24). Thus, Chapman forms a convincing argument that it is “by implementing modern conventions of storytelling” that “Shelley is able to root the reality of her piece firmly in her own time, and ours” (26).
The Nascent Individual
In “The Nascent Individual,” Chapman examines the development of the Creature as an individual. Chapman’s overall argument here is that individual identity cannot be created without a society. He calls attention to the fact that the creature seems “instinctively social” to the point that his “entire sense of identity depends upon it” (51). And when “society cannot understand the monster” the “Creature is unable to fully understand himself” (54). Chapman pulls several examples of this from the novel including how it occurs “through the language itself” as the Creature is never named and never even attempts to name himself (55). Chapman cites this as an example of how “simply put, one cannot be an individual on one’s own” (55).
One of Chapman’s most interesting arguments that appears to be the least supported by secondary sources and, thus, the most his own addition to the conversation, is his relation of the book to the issue of slavery. He points out the “Hegelian master-slave dialectic” between Frankenstein and his Creature as both characters know “their indebtedness to one another for their own existence” (47). He also references biographical information to support this point. He argues,“As the product of such a radical and free-thinking home, Shelley would have been only too aware of the injustices of slavery, and it is hard not to see the references to slavery in the text as indicative of her condemnation of it” (47). Chapman provides adequate examples here that make a convincing argument for this reading of the text that may be new to his readers.
In his third and final major section, “Becoming,” Chapman focuses specifically on gender in Frankenstein, an issue that he has dealt with peripherally throughout his argument. He begins by explaining some biographical context for Mary Shelley that is relevant to her opinions on gender. He references Shelley's tragic experiences with motherhood as her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist writer, died young and her own firstborn died in infancy. He says, that the Creature is like Shelley in that it is “an offspring born without a mother” and by the time Shelley wrote Frankenstein she was also “a mother without an offspring” (73). Although this information about Shelley is already well known, Chapman uses it efficiently and to his advantage. By relating Shelley to her character, he opens the discussion for how gender functions within the novel. “Like the Creature's physical appearance,” he argues, “its gender amounts to little more than a construction” (80). His main thesis, which is highly convincing if not entirely groundbreaking, is that gender is constructed, not born or built in and that “Shelley draws attention to this through the metaphor of artificial creation”(83).
In evaluating Chapman’s argument, we must address several issues that are at play in the entirety of the book. First, there seem to be several errors in continuity that need to be mentioned. One of these is simply the use of “man” or “mankind” to both include and exclude women. In one place he cites “Men” as a term that excludes women (78), but he later says that the reader can assume “Man” includes women “by extension” (89). Another example of this is when Chapman tries to refute the idea, quoted from Gilbert and Gubar that the creature is “born free of history” (qtd. in Chapman 44). He claims that this assumption “is shown clearly to be very wide of the mark” since the Creature is indeed “bound to the environment from which it was produced”(44). He later directly contradicts this statement when he says, “If woman is man without history, as Austen suggests, then Frankenstein’s Creature embodies just such a woman” (88). While these errors are small and the reader could usually assume what it is the author means, in a book as short as Chapman’s with an argument that is so well researched, these continuity errors are shocking.
The second thing that is confusing in Chapman’s argument is the issue of Lockean ideals. In his introduction, Chapman gives a brief explanation of Macpherson’s interpretation of John Locke and “the possessive quality of individualism” (7). He then continues to claim throughout his argument that in Frankenstein this “possessive individualism of Locke...is savagely attacked” (95). While Chapman’s thesis here may be acceptable, it is startlingly opaque throughout his reading. His constant referral to Lockean ideals, which he seems to consider as central to his argument, without fully explaining them is confusing. In order to understand these points, the reader must already have or obtain some outside knowledge on Locke and possessive individualism. For a book that does so much to introduce new scholars to the conversation, the use of this source in particular seems to be exclusionary.
Despite these shortcomings, however, Chapman’s book proves to be a useful addition to Frankenstein scholarship. Pulling extensively from existing criticism and coloring it with philosophy (especially from Locke), Chapman has produced a reading of Frankenstein that gives thoughtful and creative attention to the roles gender and individualism play in the story. He efficiently synthesizes the existing commentary on gender and the individual in Frankenstein while adding his own important insights along the way in a manner that can serve to orient new scholars and interest experienced ones.
Chapman, Dan. That Not Impossible She: A Critical Study of Gender and Individualism in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. United Kingdom: Concept, 2012. Kindle eBook.
Contributed by Autumn Weese