Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1814 when she was only nineteen years old, having grown up in a household vibrant with writers’ energy all around her. Her father was William Godwin, a well-known author, and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was also a writer and predominant feminist. Although coming from such a background, Mary Shelley was forced to publish her first novel, Frankenstein, anonymously. Women at this time were appreciated largely for their ability to birth babies and fulfill their duties as scripted by the men in their lives. Indeed, John Langdon Davies warns women in A Room Of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, “that when children cease to be altogether desirable, women cease to be altogether necessary” (112). In a regulated culture such as this, many women writers were unable to publish their writings under their own names, or, quite frankly, at all. As a consequence of this, women writers began writing in a male rather than female voice in order to fool the audience and therefore become accepted. Woolf suggests in A Room of One’s Own, that since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial.’ And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction…One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. She was admitting that she was ‘only a woman,’ or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man.’…She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others (73-4).
Virginia makes a valid point in her statement. Men and women are distinct in the way they think and live. They make decisions based on different ways of seeing the world. Therefore it makes sense that their writing styles would be different. It is as if, when writing Frankenstein, Shelley was in constant conflict with the feminine voice that was trying to escape but being held back, muzzled in some respect by the male voice that the public demanded. These gender-coded contrasts are striking and numerous.
In Frankenstein, when the monster is narrating his journey to Victor Frankenstein, he discusses at length his encounters with the De Lacey family. Shelley uses beautiful, poetic language to write portions of the monster’s regaling yet abruptly changes her tone mid-text, causing the narration to become cold and unconcerned seeming. For example, when the monster sees the family members one by one for the first time, he describes their appearance. Shelley’s linguistic style in this section might be considered as “feminine.” When the monster sees the young girl, he describes her as having a “gentle demeanor” looking “patient yet sad” (107). This is a lovely way of describing a character rather than simply saying the young girl was quiet and seemed upset. Further on in this same section, when the monster is telling Frankenstein how he felt while watching this family, he says:
The young girl was occupied in arranging the cottage; but presently she took something out of a drawer, which employed her hands, and sat down beside the old man, who taking up an instrument, began to play, and to produce sounds sweeter than the voice of the thrush or the nightingale. It was a beautiful sight, even to me, poor wretch! who had never beheld aught beautiful before. The silver hair and benevolent countenance of the aged cottager won my reverence while the gentle manners of the girl enticed my love. He played a sweet mournful air, which I perceived drew tears from the eyes of his amiable companion, of which the man took no notice, until she sobbed audibly; he then pronounced a few sounds, and the fair creature, leaving her work, knelt at his feet. He raised her, and smiled with such kindness and affection that I felt sensations of peculiar and overpowering nature: they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions. (108)
A rush of feeling and sensitivity move through this piece, enabling the reader to relate to the monster’s pain, joy and confusion. Shelley creates a tone here, overflowing with warmth and comfort. The monster uses words such as “benevolent countenance,” “gentle manners,” “sweet mournful air,” and “sensations of peculiar and overpowering nature.” It’s at this moment in the book that the monster becomes human, indeed, perhaps even feminine, to the reader rather than a gruesome creature. Soon after this passionate description delivered by the monster, Shelley in a moment of sudden realization of her own sex perhaps, changes the tone of the monster’s words by writing, “they sat down to eat…the meal was quickly dispatched” (109). Moments such as this clearly show an abrupt change in voice causing a virtual slap in the face for the reader, quickly waking them up from the splendor of the monster’s previous feminine narrative. This demonstrates Woolf’s statement: “It is fatal for any one who writes to
think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (104). Shelley implies by her work that she thought about her sex frequently, preventing her from writing out of truth. If only she had been able to hear Woolf’s opinion: “The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his (or her) experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace” (104). Shelley couldn’t have been free or at peace if she was unable to write in her own gendered voice.
To further compare Shelley’s shift in voice, Frankenstein contains many letters from various characters in the novel. Shelley had a challenge in writing these portions, because they go back and forth from male to female narrators. Shelley’s voice, when writing a letter narrated by Elizabeth, ironically suggests a masculine undertone. Elizabeth’s letter to Victor pleading him to write of his health contains such language as “For a long time I have thought that each post would bring this line, and my persuasions have retrained my uncle from undertaking a journey to Ingolstadt” (63). This sentence disputes a feminine narrator: Elizabeth sounds abrupt and distant, while another letter, narrated by Victor’s ailing father, suggests femininity. Shelley’s use of language as well as punctuation in the letter from Victor’s father (telling Victor that William has been murdered) implies a feminine narrator. “William is dead! -that sweet child, whose smiles delighted and warmed my heart, who was so gentle, yet so gay! Victor he is murdered!”(71). Punctuation in this quote is extremely important in indicating a feminine writer. The linguistic style would represent itself better if Elizabeth rather than Victor’s father had written this letter.
Even though Shelley’s voice transforms many times in Frankenstein, the novel remains a classic. She ought not to be looked down upon for these variations, but on the
contrary, one should only be convinced further of her talent. However, Woolf might disagree, for she pointed out in A Room of One’s Own when speaking of Mary Carmichael’s first novel Life’s Adventure that Carmichael “wrote as a woman, but as a woman who had forgotten she was a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself” (93). This point raises the following question: Is Shelley’s female writing voice more enjoyable for the reader because it’s natural? Perhaps the real trick is, if you’re going to write as a man, as Shelley did, it’s best to write as a woman writing as a man, declaring a vicious catch twenty-two in the complicated world of women and fiction.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1998.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, 1989.