As early as the 1790's Ann Radeliffe firmly set the Gothic in one of the ways it would go ever after: a novel in which the central figure is a young woman who is simultaneously persecuted victim and courageous heroine. But it was a woman, a generation later, who turned the Gothic tradition brought about. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, in 1818, made the Gothic Novel over into what today we call science fiction. Frankenstein brought a new sophistication to literary terror, and it did so without a heroine, without even an important female victim. Paradoxically, however, no other Gothic work by a woman writer, perhaps no literary work of any kind by a woman, better repays examination in the light of the sex of its author. For Frankenstein is a birth myth and one that was lodged in the novelist's imagination by the fact she was herself a mother.

    Mary Shelley was a unique case, in literature as in life. She brought birth to fiction not as realism but as Gothic fantasy, and thus contributed to Romanticism a myth of genuine originality: the mad scientist who locks himself in his laboratory and secretly, guiltily works at creating human life, only to find that he has made a monster. That is very good horror, but what follows is more horrid still: Frankenstein, the scientist, runs away and abandons the newborn monster, who is and remains nameless. Here is where Mary Shelley's book is most interesting, most powerful and most feminine: in the motif of revulsion against new-born life and the drama of guilt, dread and flight surrounding birth and its consequences. Most of the novel, roughly two of its three volumes, can be said to deal with the retribution visited upon monster and creator for deficient infant care. Frankenstein seems to be distinctly a woman's mythmaking on the subject of birth precisely because its emphasis is not upon what precedes birth, not upon birth itself, but upon what follows birth: the trauma of the afterbirth.

    Frankenstein represents an entirely new vision of the Female Gothic. And while Mary Shelley's story certainly has implications for a multitude of literary themes (religion, science, colonialism and myth, just to name a few), the horrific depiction of the monster's creation suggests a link to the most feminine of activities: childbirth. The excerpts here explore that link, between Shelley's myth of "motherhood" and the new Female Gothic it engendered.

© Ellen Moers


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