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Queer Masculinity in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

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This paper argues that Victor Frankenstein and his creation exhibit modes of queer masculinity, as discussed by a number of authors including George E. Haggerty, Bette London, and by Joyce Carol Oates. Queer masculinity is defined here as a rejection of traditionally masculine social roles, and the adoption—unwitting or otherwise—of feminine ones. From Victor’s ‘masculine birth’ (Haggerty, 116) of the creature, to the creature’s own ‘male sexuality’ (London, 394) made monstrous by the thought of giving him a companion. Critical secondary texts such as Susan Stryker’s piece, My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage, ‘Insurmountable Barriers to Our Union’: Homosocial Male Bonding, Homosexual Panic, and Death on the Ice by James Holt McGavran, and Monstrous Dialogues: Erotic Discourse and the Dialogic Constitution of the Subject in Frankenstein by Siobhan Craig, among others, will be used to illustrate the existing scholarly discussion surrounding the topic.

I would first like to address a question posed by George E. Haggerty’s essay, “What is Queer about Frankenstein?”. In his essay, Haggerty opens with a counterpoint to the question “what is not queer about Frankenstein?”(Haggerty, 116). Victor Frankenstein begins the novel confessing his sins to Walton, a man who comes to “love him as a brother” (Shelley, 16), spends much of its length constructing the perfect, immaculate male creature, and ends the novel by dying in Walton’s arms. The creature, upon Victor’s death, apologizes for “destroying all thou lovedst” (Shelley, 158), and promptly sets off to destroy himself as his final act. As Haggerty puts it, Frankenstein and his creature are “locked in a dance of death” (Haggerty, 116), and as such both exhibit what he identifies as the queer ‘death drive’.

In the creature’s destruction of the DeLacey homestead, both the creature and the reader are made aware of the “failure of an ideal” (Haggerty, 118)—the ideal here being a fulfilling heteronormative existence. The creature is compelled to destroy all evidence of the relatively happy existence that the DeLacey family because they reject him—a masculine being of unnatural origin.

This death drive is also what urges Victor to destroy the female creature, and is what causes him to dream of Elizabeth being devoured by maggots on page 36 of Shelley’s text. Using Lee Edelman’s text on the subject, Haggerty gives context: “the death drive names what the queer…is called forth to figure: the negativity opposed to every form of social viability” (Haggerty, 125). Victor is made infirm at many points in the novel, effected in the extreme by his own horror at bringing the creature to life. After the creature is awakened, Victor spends many weeks unable to take care of himself, unable to attend any of his lectures at Ingolstadt, and wholly isolated from his friends and family back in Geneva. It is only after Clerval comes to nurse him back to health that Victor is able to recover, but even that convalescence is short lived, as he receives news of William’s death shortly after. Elizabeth, Justine, and Henry all die in quick succession at the hands of the creature, forcing Victor back into isolation—again finding himself, as Haggerty’s essay frames it, completely socially inviable as a result of his duty to the creature. It is only when he is about to die that he is able to take solace in Walton’s presence.

The creature is also “shut out of the pleasures of sociability” (Haggerty, 126). His terrifying form makes him “loathsome” (Shelley, 158) and “appallingly hideous” (158) to Walton when he arrives to find Victor has died. He has no friends or relatives, and the para-social relationships afforded to him by the DeLaceys are long gone, making him completely isolated from all other beings. The creature’s role in Frankenstein’s queer narrative is twofold. He is a male of his species, barred from partnered life, and spurned by all those who lay eyes on him. At the same time, he is a destructive force in Victor’s life. From Haggerty, “The creature is that negativity that Edelman describes, that death drive; and as such his misery is but the measure of all that he would destroy” (Haggerty, 126). The creature is Victor’s death drive manifested, and Victor is his.

Bette London’s essay on the subject of masculinity in Frankenstein, “Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Spectacle of Masculinity” is discussed in Haggerty’s piece, with emphasis especially made on the passage spanning pages 400 and 401. Shelley is obviously not male, and so her writing from the perspective of male character who is surrounded by male companions, and which is focused entirely on the absence of woman in the creation of man, is read by London as being “fetishistic” (London, 400). She goes on to clarify that, in fact, the entire text is a “fetishistic structure” (London, 400) and a “fantasy of masculine creation” (401). In her analysis of the text, London calls upon Nancy J. Vickers, pointing out that the construction of Frankenstein’s creature becomes a ‘male spectacle’ which “upsets the ‘very vocabulary of heterosexual hierarchies’” (London, 401). Heterosexual hierarchies are upset by the text, in London’s analysis, due to the inversion of requisite female discomfort. Instead of an uncomfortable female subject of focus, Frankenstein follows a male ‘artist’ who lays bare a nude male form whom he meticulously sculpts to be well-proportioned and “beautiful” (Shelley, 35). This in turn leads to male discomfort, in the form of Victor’s own post-partum disgust with what he has brought to life.

This upset of heterosexual hierarchies continues in Joyce Carol Oates’ reading of the text, wherein she focuses primarily on how the creature has been effected by his relationship with Victor.

Oates’ analysis of Frankenstein humanizes the Creature, repeatedly acknowledging a “transcendent… romantically unrequited…patient, unquestioning, utterly faithful, and utterly human love” (Oates, 546) that the creature feels for his creator. The essay goes on to discuss the creature’s Miltonian doubles in Adam, Satan, and Eve. “When the demon terrifies himself by seeing his reflection in a pool…he is surely not mirroring Narcissus…but Milton's Eve” (Oates, 547). This observation is not unique to Oates’ essay, as Susan Strycker’s text also discusses the creature’s atypical relationship with male gender.

“The transsexual body is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born” (Strycker, 238). The creature, as Strycker says, is made of ‘flesh torn apart and sewn together again’. He is an artificial man in the most literal sense. When Strycker writes that she finds a “deep affinity” (238) with the creature, she touches on something that many other scholars of queer theory discuss when writing about Frankenstein. From Strycker’s essay, “like the monster, I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment…my exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I…direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist” (Strycker, 238). The creature, unable to form any viable social connections with the humans around him, goes about the destruction of all of the relations to his creator in the attempt to make at least one other person feel what he is feeling. If his creator did not think him disgusting, he would not be excluded from humanity, and if he had a partner, he would—at the very least—have someone to commiserate with.

Returning to Oates, she again highlights the theme of love in the text. “He cannot be blessed or loved: he springs not from a natural union but has been forged in what Frankenstein calls a ‘workshop of filthy creation.’” (Oates, 550). The creature is bereft of any compassion from those around him due to the fact of his birth. He tells Victor over and over again that all he would require to stop his rampage is that he not be despised. “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous” (Shelley, 68). The creature does not enjoy making Victor miserable, but is forced to do so in the attempt to make Victor understand how his actions have hurt him.

Oates closes the essay by calling the text of Frankenstein a “remarkably acute diagnosis of the lethal nature of denial” (Oates, 553). In doing so, Oates points out another aspect of the queer nature of the text. To deny the creature love is to send him spiralling into bouts of rage and malfeasance, and to deny the creature’s humanity is to do the same. In Susan Strycker’s essay, she calls on the work of less charitable works of analysis to further her own position. “Mary Daly makes the connection explicit by discussing…transsexuals as the agents of a ‘necrophilic invasion’ of female space. Janice Raymond…is less direct when she says that ‘the problem of transsexuality would best served by morally mandating it out of existence’ (Strycker, 238). As she points out, these critics of what was then known as transsexuality mirror Victor Frankenstein’s own opinions of the creature. Transphobes, frightened of what they do not understand, attempt to dehumanize the women that they speak about by calling them ‘necrophilic’, something that could be said of the creature by Frankenstein when he refuses to make the creature a mate. In addition, the disgust that drives them to demand legislation against transgender individuals also mirrors Victor’s words to the creature—as Strycker points out—on page 67 of Shelley’s text. When Victor shouts to the creature, “Begone, vile insect!” (Shelley, 67) he is expressing a hatred rooted in fear. The creature here becomes a stand-in for all other abnormal, created men.

There are a number of scholars who take inspiration from Strycker’s essay, including Mair Rigby, James Holt McGavan, and Jolene Zigarovich.

In Mair Rigby’s essay, she discusses the intersection of queer theory with the study of gothic literature. As she puts it, “Gothic texts open a space for recognizing the construction of ‘queer’ bodies as uncanny” (Rigby, 51). Uncanny, here, refers to that which has become alienated through repression. Queerness is “familiar but frightening” (Rigby, 51). So too is the creature to Victor after he is brought to life. Returning to the passage on page 35 of Shelley’s novel, Victor remarks that he had “selected his features to be beautiful”. Victor intended to create something marvellous, something admirable, but instead he creates something grotesque. The beautiful features that Victor had chosen, “only formed a more horrid contrast with [the creature’s] watery eyes” (Shelley, 35), creating something that Victor recognized, but that scared him so badly that he immediately fled, only to be followed into his bedroom by his creation.

James Holt McGavan’s writing on the subject of Frankenstein focuses more on Victor’s relationships with other men in the text—primarily Walton and Clerval. “The major same-sex relationships in the novel are…interrupted…by death” (McGavan, 55-56). As McGavan points out, one of Walton’s earliest desires in the text of the novel is for a male companion to spend his time with. Victor recuperates in Walton’s cabin, fawned over by Walton, and in the company of no one else as he regains his faculties. Victor is nursed by Clerval in a similar way when he is recovering from the creature gaining life. These homosocial relationships are especially healing to Victor, who does not seem to be soothed entirely by Elizabeth when in her presence during the trial of Justine. McGravan notes that, when Victor is entrenched in the pursuit of creation, the text reads as a “secret yet scarcely disguised gay adventure” (McGravan, 60). Victor's repeated desire to "penetrate into the recesses of nature” (Shelley, 29), which McGravan notes is often read as an assault on the feminine ‘Mother Nature’, can also be read as “a male’s anal penetration of another” (McGravan, 60).

In the same vein as Susan Strycker, Jolene Zigarovich’s focus is on the atypical gender of the creature. Her text introduces the concept of the transgothic, a discipline which “helps us understand the genre as a mobile one that actively crosses boundaries and margins, creating and marking various forms of transitions and migrations in its narrative path” (Zigarovich, 264). In her essay, Zigarovich highlights a number of queer readings of Frankenstein, including one that I believe sums up the creature-as-queer reading quite well. The creature, like Boots Potential in his piece “Monster Trans”, experiences an “unquenchable urge to fuck shit up” (Zigarovich 268).

In conclusion, Victor Frankenstein exhibits queer masculinity both in his homosocial personal relationships, and his relationship to the creature. The creature, in turn, has become an icon of atypical male gender, and exhibits queer masculinity in his alienation from society at large.