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Diacritics, 12 SummerMary Shelley. New York: et, Nancy Friday. New York: Dell,
Diacritics, 12 SummerMary Shelley.
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New York: et, Nancy Friday. New York: Dell, Dorothy Dinnerstein. New York: Harper Colophon, Although these questions and current discussions of them often appear unrelated to each other, it is my intention here to explore some ways in which the three questions are profoundly interrelated, and to attempt to shed new light on each by approaching it via the others. All three of these books, in strikingly diverse ways, offer a critique of the institution of parenthood.
The Mermaid and the Minotaur is an analysis of the damaging effects of the fact that human infants are cared for almost exclusively by women. Even as Dinnerstein describes convincingly the types of imbalance and injustice the prevailing asymmetry in gender relations produces, she also analyzes the reasons for our refusal to abandon nancu very modes of monstrousness from which we suffer most.
Nancy Friday's book, which is subtitled "A Daughter's Search for Identity," mfn that the mother's repression of herself necessitated by the myth of maternal love creates a heritage of self-rejection, anger, and duplicity that makes it difficult for the daughter to seek any emotional satisfaction other than the state of idealized symbiosis that both mother and daughter continue to punish themselves for never having been able to achieve.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an even more elaborate and unsettling formulation of the relation between parenthood and monstrousness.
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The fact that in the end both characters reach an equal degree of alienation and self-torture and indeed become indistinguishable as they pursue each other across the frozen polar wastes indicates that the novel is, among other things, a study of the impossibility of finding an adequate model for what a parent olve be. All three books agree, then, that in the existing state of things there is something inherently monstrous about the prevailing parental arrangements.
While Friday and Dinnerstein, whose analyses directly address the problem of sexual difference, suggest that this monstrousness is curable, Mary Shelley, who does not explicitly locate the self's monstrousness in its gender arrangements, appears to dramatize divisions within the human being that are so much a part of being human that no escape from monstrousness seems possible.
What I will try to do here is to read these three books not as mere studies of the monstrousness of selfhood, not as mere s of human monsterdom in general, but precisely as autobiographies in their own right, as textual dramatizations of the very problems with which they deal. None of the three books, of course, presents itself explicitly as autobiography.
Yet each includes clear moments of employment of the autobiographical, not the nany authorial first-person pronoun. In each case the autobiographical reflex is triggered by the resistance and ambivalence involved in the very writing of the book.
What I shall argue here is that what is specifically feminist in each book is directly related to this struggle for feminine authorship. The notion that Frankenstein can somehow be read as the autobiography of a woman would certainly appear at first sight to be ludicrous. The novel, indeed, presents not one but three autobiographies of men. Robert Walton, an arctic explorer on his way to the North Pole, writes home to his sister of his encounter with Victor Frankenstein, who tells Walton the story of his painstaking creation and unexplained abandonment of a nameless monster who suffers tezt and fiendish loneliness, and who tells Frankenstein his life story in the middle s of the book.
The three male autobiographies motivate themselves as follows: Walton to his sister : "You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday, and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare. Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught?
Hear me; let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips! I will not hear you. There can be no community between friray and me [.
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Still thou canst listen to me and grant me thy compassion. God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance.
They all depend on a presupposition of resemblance between teller and addressee: Walton assures his sister that he has not really left the path she would wish for him, that he still resembles her. Frankenstein recognizes in Walton an image of himself and rejects in the nen a resemblance he does not wish to acknowledge.
The teller is in each case speaking into a mirror of his own transgression. The tale is deed to reinforce the resemblance between teller and listener so that somehow transgression can be eliminated, Yet the desire for firday, the desire to create a being like oneself -- which is the autobiographical desire par excellence -- is also the central transgression in Mary Shelley's novel.
EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Victor Frankenstein, then, has twice obeyed the impulse to construct an image of himself: on the first occasion he creates a monster, and on the second he tries to explain to Walton the fext and consequences of the first. Frankenstein can be read as the story of autobiography as the attempt to neutralize the monstrosity of autobiography. Simultaneously a revelation and a coverup, autobiography would appear to constitute itself as in some way a repression ffiday autobiography.
These three fictive male autobiographies are embedded within a thin introductory frame, added inin which Mary Shelley herself makes the repression of her own autobiographical impulse explicit: The publishers of the standard novels, in selecting Frankenstein for one of their series, expressed a wish that I should furnish them with some of the origin of the story. It might perhaps be instructive to ask whether this change of status has anything to do with the problem of specifically feminine autobiography.
In a humanistic tradition in which man is the measure of all things, how does an appendage go about telling the story of her life?
Before pursuing this question further, I would like to turn to a more explicit version of surreptitious feminine autobiography. Since the author grew up without a father, she shares with Frankenstein's monster some of the problems of coming from a single-parent household.
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The book begins with a chapter entitled "Mother Love," of which the first two sentences are: "I have always lied to nncy mother. And she to me" [p. Interestingly, the book carries the following dedication: "When I stopped seeing my mother with the eyes ofI saw the woman who helped me give birth to myself.
This book is for Jane Colbert Friday Scott. Is autobiography somebody always in the process of symbolically killing the mother off by telling her the lie that we have given birth to ourselves? OnNancy Friday is still not sure what kind of lie she has told.
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This question cannot be resolved by a book that sees the "daughter's search for identity" cull the necessity of choosing between symbiosis and separation, between the mother and the fuull self. As long as this polarity remains unquestioned, the autobiography of Nancy Friday becomes the drawing and redrawing of the portrait of Jane Colbert Friday Scott. The most truly autobiographical moments occur not in expressions of triumphant separation but in descriptions of the way the book itself attempts to resist its own writing.
At the end of the chapter on loss of virginity, Nancy Friday writes: Txet took me twenty-one years to give up my virginity. In some similar manner I am unable to let go of this chapter. This chapter has revealed a split in me.
Intellectually, I think of myself as a sexual person, just as I had intellectually been able to put my ideas for this chapter down on paper. Subjectively, I don't want to face what I have written: that the declaration of full sexual independence is the declaration of separation from my mother. As long as I don't finish this chapter, as long as I don't let myself understand the implications of what I've written, I can maintain the illusion, at least, that I can be sexual and have my mother's love and approval too.
Dinnerstein's autobiographical remarks are more muted, although her way of letting the reader know that the book was written partly in mourning for her husband subtly underlies its persuasive seriousness. In her gesture of rejecting more traditional forms of scholarship, she ple not for the validity but for the urgency of her message: Right now, what I think is that the kind of work of which this is an example is centrally necessary work. Whether our understanding makes a difference or not, we must try to understand what is threatening to kill us off as fully and clearly as we can.
Not only would that task be for me unmanageably huge. It would also be against my principles. I believe in reading unsystematically and taking notes erratically. Any effort to form a rational policy about what to take in, out of the inhuman flood of printed human utterance that pours over us daily, feels to me like a self-deluded exercise in pseudomastery.
Clearly, great pains have been taken to let as many seams as possible show in the fabric of the argument. The preface goes on: I mention these limitations in a spirit not of apology but of warning. To the extent that firday succeeds in communicating its point at all, this book will necessarily enrage the reader. What it says is emotionally threatening.
Part of why it has taken me so long to finish it is that I am threatened mwn it myself. This description sounds uncannily like a description of Victor Frankenstein's monster.
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Indeed, Dinnerstein goes on to warn the reader not to be tempted to avoid the threatening message by pointing to superficial flaws in its physical make-up. There are indeed numerous ways in which The Mermaid and the Minotaur can be seen as a modern rewriting of Frankenstein. Dinnerstein's book situates its plea for two-sex parenting firmly in an apparently twentieth-century double bind: the realization that the very technological advances that make it possible to change the structure of parenthood also threaten to extinguish earthly life altogether.
But it is startling to note that this seemingly contemporary pairing of the question of parenthood with a love-hate relation to technology is already at work in Mary Shelley's novel, where the spectacular scientific discovery of the secrets of animation produces a terrifyingly vengeful creature who attributes his evil impulses to his inability to find or to become a parent. Subtitled "The Modern Prometheus," Frankenstein itself indeed refers back to a myth that already links scientific ambivalence with the origin of mankind.
Prometheusthe fire bringer, the giver of both creation and destruction, is also said by some s to be the father of the human race. Ambivalence toward technology can thus be seen as a displaced version of the love-hate relation we have toward our own children.
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It is only recently that critics have begun to see Victor Frankenstein's disgust at the sight of his creation as a study of postpartum depression, as a representation of maternal rejection of a newborn infant, and to relate the entire novel to Mary Shelley's mixed feelings about motherhood. Her own mother, indeed, had died upon giving her birth.
The idea that a mother can loathe, fear, and reject her baby has until recently been one of the most repressed of psychoanalytical insights, although it is of course already implicit in the story of Oedipus, whose parents cast him out as an infant to die. What is threatening about each of these books is the way in which its critique of the role of the mother touches on primitive terrors of the mother's rejection of the.
Yet it is not merely in its depiction of the ambivalence of motherhood that Mary Shelley's novel can be read as autobiographical. In the introductory note added inshe writes: The publishers of the standard novels, in selecting Frankenstein for one of their series, expressed a wish that I should furnish them with some of the origin of the story.
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I am the more willing to comply because I shall thus give a general answer to the question so very frequently asked me-how I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea. When Mary ends her introduction to the re-edition of her novel with the words: "And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper," the reader begins to suspect that there may perhaps be meaningful parallels between Victor's creation of his monster and Mary's creation of her book.
Such parallels are indeed unexpectedly pervasive. The impulse to write the book and the desire to search for the secrets of animation both arise under the same seemingly trivial circumstances: the necessity of finding something to read on a rainy day.
During inclement weather on a family vacation, Victor Frankenstein happens upon the writings of Cornelius Agrippaand is immediately fired with the longing to penetrate the secrets of life and death. Similarly, it was during a wet, ungenial summer in Switzerland that Mary, Shelley, Byronand several others picked up a volume of ghost stories and fkll to write a collection of spine-tingling tales of their own. Moreover, Mary's discovery of the subject she would write about is described in almost exactly the same words as Frankenstein's discovery of the principle of life: "Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me" [ p.
In both cases the sudden flash of inspiration must be supported by the meticulous gathering of heterogeneous, ready-made materials: Frankenstein collects bones and organs; Mary records overheard discussions of scientific questions that lead her to her sudden mmen of monstrous creation. Perhaps the most revealing indication of Mary's identification of Frankenstein's activity with her own is to be found in her use of the word "artist" on two different occasions to qualify the "pale student of unhallowed arts": "His success would terrify the artist" [ p.
Frankenstein, in other words, can fridah read as the story of the experience of writing Frankenstein. What is at stake in Mary's introduction on well as in the novel is the description of a primal scene of creation. Frankenstein combines a monstrous answer to two of the most fundamental questions one tdxt ask: where do babies come from? In both cases, the scene of creation is described, but the answer to these questions is still withheld.
But what can Victor Frankenstein's workshop of filthy creation teach us about the specificity of female frdiay