Mary Shelley 's Understanding Frankenstein As A Woman 's Book Essay

Mary Shelley 's Understanding Frankenstein As A Woman 's Book Essay

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In 1985, Moer coined the term ‘birth myth’ to describe Frankenstein as a “woman’s book” about post-natal depression (79), and this idea has since been developed upon. However, the tradition of understanding Frankenstein as a ‘birth myth’ has been primarily considered in light of the biographical details of Mary Shelley’s life and their correspondence with her work. Particular attention has been given to the impact of her mother’s death shortly after Shelley’s birth and the subsequent trauma of the death of her daughter who was born premature (Williams 30). Hence, Moer suggests that ‘no outside influence’, other than Shelley’s personal losses, is necessary to explain the ‘fantasy of a newborn as at once monstrous agent of destruction and piteous victim of parental abandonment’ (85). However, from 1800-1850, the maternal mortality rate averaged, according to records, one in two hundred mothers died in childbirth and this risk increased with every pregnancy (Chamberlain). Moreover, infant mortality rates were also alarmingly high: an estimated ‘244 children in every 1000 died before their fifth birthday’ (Currie 103). This had an understandably severe impact on the ‘psychology of the English family’ (Currie 104):

High birth rates, accompanied by high death rates for children under the age of ten years old, meant that family life was fragile and uncertain… The harrowing grief of mothers and fathers who lost children to disease or accident is indeed all too apparent in diaries and letters of the period (Payne).

Furthermore, the children who were born with defects or deformities were often treated as public curiosities of “monstrous births”. For example, The Scot’s Magazine ran a story entitled an ‘Account of a Monstrous Birth’, featu...

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... child’s development could potentially be affected severely and adversely by a mother’s mental state when the baby is developing in the womb. In Mary Shelley’s story ‘Mathilda’, the legacy and impression of the dead mother are clearly passed directly onto her daughter when the ‘mother’s spirit was transferred into her frame’ at the moment of birth (34). While the concept of “original sin” was becoming less accepted – Shelley’s father Godwin did not endorse the idea in his parenting (Sunstein 43) – the idea of “Maternal Impression” placed particular importance on the female role of nurturing the child, not just after it is born, but also in the womb. Thus, Frankenstein is both biologically and emotionally unsuitable for the female role of birth that he usurps; the unnatural labour that takes a physical toll on him may also have adversely affected the unborn creature.

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