"Mummy, possest": Sadism and Sensibility in Shelley's Frankenstein
Anne Williams, University of Georgia
Shelley may have been familiar with Donne's lyric. According to William
St. Clair, Godwin was, unlike most of his contemporaries, an enthusiast
of Donne and Sir Thomas Browne. He was given to reciting the poet's work
at social gatherings (St. Clair, 222-23).
is reminded of Romeo's exclamation upon finding Juliet's unconscious body
in the tomb: "Shall I believe / That unsubstantial Death is amorous /
And that the lean abhorred monster / Keeps thee here in dark to be his
paramour?" (Romeo and Juliet 5.3.102-105)
a creation myth, Shelley's narrative revises the Genesis account, in which
God the Father circumvents matter altogether in his creation process.
Her tale recalls those that Joseph Campbell identifies as being told by
cultures in transition from matrilineal to patriarchal orders. In these
myths, a hero associated with light slays a dragon or other monster (the
disguised body of the mother goddess) and makes the world from her flesh.
Frankenstein, however, is different in that in this tale of "mummy,
possest," the dead flesh is not passive. It is both "realized" within
the conscious world and driven by seemingly demonic forces.
Poovey thoroughly explores this dimension of Shelley's anxiety in "My
Hideous Progeny: The Lady and the Monster" in The Proper Lady and the
Woman Writer (114-142).
and Gubar cite some of the incredulous responses to the fact of Mary's
authorship: "'She has no business to be a woman by her books,' noted Beddoes.
And 'your writing and your manners are not in accordance,' Dillon told
Mary herself. 'I should have thought of youif I had only read youthat
you were a sort of . . . Sybil . . . but you are cool, quiet and feminine
to the last degree. Explain this to me'" (242-243).
narrative of the creature's history could be read as an allegorical rendering
of Freud's principle of thanatos, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle,
in which he defines as the instinct of living matter to return to its
former, inanimate state, but on its own terms. Peter Brooks develops this
insight as a principle of literary plotting in his book Reading for
translations of Justine are my own.
writes in The Confessions: "I found the experience [of childhood
punishment] less terrible than the expectation of it had been, and what
is most bizarre is this is that this punishment increased my affection
even more for the one [the governess Mlle Lambercier] who had inflicted
it on me . . . . Who would believe that this childhood punishment received
at eight years of age from the hand of a woman of thirty determined my
tastes, my desires, my passions, myself for the rest of my life, and this,
precisely in the opposite sense to the one that ought to follow naturally?
. . . Tormented for a long time without knowing by what, I devoured beautiful
women with an ardent eye; solely to make use of them in my fashion, and
to make so many Mlle Lamberciers out of them" (Qtd. in Noble, The Masochistic
Pleasures of Sentimental Literature, 13-14).
See, for instance, Hogle.
The ease with which the novel of sensibility blends with the Gothic and
even the pornographic is readily explained: feeling is gendered female
in patriarchal culture, since the mother seems to be the source of all
emotion, as we see in Sade's dream. G.J. Barker-Benfield shows in The
Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain
that the cult of sensibility promoted women's interests by publicly expressing
their desires and "capitaliz[ing] on their 'naturalized' gender characteristics,
above all, on the moral authority of their putatively finer sensibility."
He also notes that "the gendering of sensibility sexualized it, associating
desire with the rake/victim dyad" (xxvii). Furthermore, the cult of sensibility
was founded on a "scientific, materialist interpretation of "the nervous
system as the material basis for consciousness" (xvii). In other words,
the ultimately material basis of the cult of sensibility traps women in
the old patriarchal dichotomy of mind and body, even as it offers a basis
for ascribing more value to the culturally "feminine." The rake/victim
dyad is organized around the cultural power that men have and women do
not. It may be represented by Emily St. Aubert and Count Montoni as easily
as by Pamela and Squire B; unfortunately, it also furnishes the paradigm
for the doomed Justine and the innumerable libertines who abuse her.
This statement was true when I wrote it. I have, however, subsequently
discovered Beth Lau's essay "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
and Frankenstein." Her analysis is much more thorough than
mine, though essentially congruent.
Allusions to Coleridge are equally prominent in Shelley's second novel,
The version of "The Rime" that I have quoted is, of course, the more familiar
text Coleridge published in 1818, the same year as Frankenstein
(See Lau). Even so, I am not particularly interested in questions of direct
influence here; more interesting, it seems to me, is that Coleridge's
portrait of deadly maternal beauty coincides in significant ways with
Shelley's tale may be read in light of cognitive scientists' research
into the structure and function of metaphor. We are able to think about
abstract ideas, they suggest, by means of mapping concrete experience
(the "source domain") onto the "target domain," the unknown thing we want
to think about.
Frankenstein's dream was necessarily Mary's, whether it was an actual
dream or her fantasy of a dream that she provides for her male protagonist.
Prior to that dream, she had probably read The Monk, particularly
since Lewis was Byron's guest at the Villa Diodati in 1816 (Marchand 2,