Classic Novels - as relevant as ever: Frankenstein: a Proto-Feminist Masterpiece

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

In a world slowly adapting to pro-women rights and ways of life, Lauren Cassidy shows how Mary Shelley’s work was centuries ahead of us.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is like the monster itself – it’s alive! 

Contemporary pop culture is saturated with references to Shelley’s monster, inspiring film adaptations, television shows, parodies, prequels, and spin-offs. Although many readings focus on Shelley’s mad scientist, his reanimated corpse, and the secret to life itself, Frankenstein – at its core, is a proto-feminist text. An epistolary novel, the story’s structure replicates the sewn-together limbs of Victor Frankenstein’s monster. If you look close enough at its seams, Shelley’s allegorical tale carefully unpicks the joints of patriarchy, deconstructing gender binaries, and essentialism. In an age of #MeToo, revenge porn, trans-exclusionary politics, and countless gender-based crimes, Shelley’s Frankenstein has never been more vital - its pages holding the potential to spark new life in modern activists.

Shelly was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the landmark proto-feminist philosophical text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Conscious of contemporary arguments around women’s rights, Shelley produces a highly imaginative space in Frankenstein, displacing the reader in a world removed from their own. It’s a world where men can defy death, gestate new life, and transcend the laws of science. It’s a world where a writer can discuss fear of pregnancy, postpartum depression, and how maternal love is not always implicit in mothers. Through Victor (Shelley’s literary surrogate), the text explores maternal anxiety; the terror Frankenstein feels towards what he has created, and what it may become. As a man, Victor does not appear monstrous for his aversion – conversely, his progeny is labelled Frankenstein’s Monster. Shelley’s message is cleverly concealed.

Shelley is commonly referred to as the inventor of science fiction. She defied societal expectation, evincing how women can write about the gothic and grotesque; the monstrous, feral, and loud. Her title Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus taps into Greek mythology, exploring how new perspectives can revive, and breathe new life into archaic stories. Committing her modern Prometheus to paper, Shelley showed how new voices are imperative for the advancement of human understanding, empathy, and art.

Shelley’s Frankenstein established a genealogy of empowerment. The author was fearless in her production of a new literary genre, and its pioneering discourse on the inauthenticity of gender, gender roles, and patriarchal hierarchies. Her legacy continues today – in the resurrection of Frankenstein’s monster in infinite facets of popular culture, as well as in the ever-growing science fiction genre, which harbours liminal receptacles for authors, and readers alike. We must forge ahead, and continue to invent new ways of looking at the world. In the words of Shelley herself; “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful”.