The Allegory of Childbirth in the Material and Dream of Shelly’s 1831
Introduction to Frankenstein
1816 was a year without summer, a year of bitter rain and biting fog. The previous year had seen the massive eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora, a climactic crisis resulting in failed crops and widespread famine. The freezing summer alone brought a monstrous ice dam to Switzerland and an unrelenting torrential rain to India severe enough to spread cholera to Moscow.
It is in the midst of this sunless summer that we find Mary Shelley. At only 18 years old she has already suffered the birth and subsequent death of a daughter, Clara, as well as her mother’s early death as a result of Shelley’s own birth in 1797. This cold summer is the second in a succession of three cold summers, one that will grow more and more frigid before concluding on a very hypothermic note. This cold summer will bring the pregnancy of a second child, a son this time, and the suicide of a step sister, Franny. This cold summer will bring shivering parties and nightmares of her deceased daughter. Most importantly, however, this cold summer will bring Frankenstein.
Picture Mary Shelley (then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) seated by a bright fire in June of 1816. This summer in Lake Geneva, Switzerland has been a quiet one, spent largely indoors, and this night in particular is no different. In an effort to stave off boredom, the party’s host (himself a famed poet), Lord Byron, suggests a friendly competition. Each member of the party must write a horror story of his or her own—victory to whoever is in possession of the most twisted imagination. In the days and nights that followed, Shelley recalls,
“I busied myself to think of a story—a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations” (Introduction to Frankenstien, 1831).
Eager for inspiration, Shelley took heed of the minds that surrounded her, especially those of her soon-to-be husband and their host.
“Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and [Percy Bysshe] Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth…Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” (Introduction to Frankenstien, 1831)
Thus it was in dream, that shadowy summer of 1816, that the story of Frankenstein was born—but Shelley’s “acute mental vision” extends far beyond her fiction. She dreamed of a monster, turned that dream into a horror story, and that horror story into a mimetic novel—a thinly veiled meditation on the biological injustice of motherhood and the separation of childbirth and its attendant dangers.
In the mid 1800s, it is estimated that a staggering average of up to 29.3% of women would die of unknown complications from childbirth—now understood to be puerperal fever, a postpartum bacterial infection caused by the (standard, at the time) poor or nonexistent hygiene in medical practices and resulting in an agonizing and typical death. (Semmelweis) This common model of death as a result of childbirth would, unfortunately, have been all too familiar to Mary Shelley as she dreamed of her famed monster. Shelley’s own mother had died of puerperal fever resulting from a residual piece of placenta left inside her post-delivery. Tragically, the nightmares of childbirth extended far beyond maternal fatality—even if a mother did manage to survive the delivery of her child, there was an estimated 12% chance that the infant would die within the first year of its life, too often the salvation of a mother’s life effectuated the death of an infant. This concern, as well, would have been all-too pressing for Shelley that summer night in 1816, as her first daughter Clara had died shortly after her premature birth on February 22nd of 1815. An entry from Shelley’s journal dated “Sunday, March 19” describes a “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived.” Beyond the concerns and dangers endemic to the process of childbirth and the time directly subsequent to it, there was the jeopardy of deformation. The general understanding in Shelley’s time of the deformation exhibited in babies born of incest was that the deformities in question were merely a mechanism of nature—a showcased proof of the hidden sin of conception. Recognizing human sin, nature intervenes, identifying the resulting child as an object of sin, and putting that object on display. The child is punished with deformity as an extended punishment to its creators. Frankenstein’s monster is no different: the sin in incorrect creation is indeed the Doctor’s, yet it is not the doctor who pays.
These hazards for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women, which so often led them to an unfair fate, were no doubt heavy on Shelley’s mind as she, then pregnant for a second time, placed her sleepless head on her pillow the night she first dreamed of Frankenstein’s monster. In fact, in accordance with Freud’s theory of the Manifest Content of dreams, Shelley’s recollection of her monstrous dream is not the whole story, but merely a superficial representation of a psychological expanse—the monstrous manifestation of the Latent Content of Shelley’s dream allegorizes the monster of childbirth. The biographical facts, events, and traumas of Shelley’s life alone are proof: hers was a life littered with cases of postpartum maternal and infant deaths. Motherhood was an incredibly brave endeavor, one potentially motivated by love, but also wrought with fear—Shelley would have had access, all too ready, to these tensions and apprehensions. It makes sense, then, that when challenged with the theme of horror, Shelley’s unconscious imagination projected the horrors of reproduction onto an extended range of preternatural possibilities—ultimately landing on the man-made monster.
Now picture Mary Shelley: pregnant and grieving, surrounded largely by men in a seemingly eternal winter. Picture her listening, silent and devout, to Lord Byron and her soon-to-be husband discussing Darwin’s experiments—the casualness of their conversations of re-animated corpses and the creation of life, the consequence-free ease with which they could speak genderlessly of human progress, human sparks. Picture Mary Shelley on the sidelines of a discussion about human life dominated by men who could never themselves (however enlightened, radical, or sympathetic they may have been) share the female-specific risks of reproduction or fathom the boundless anxiety of a pregnant woman considering the perils of birth. This inequality is not political, but biological; even the most liberated of men would never have to actually roll the dice of childbirth. Shelley embodies this inequality, a radicalism that is far more radical and personal than that of her husband or father or any other member of their male circle (composed arguably of the most radical minds in Europe at the time). No man can ever truly understand the reality of childbirth that women live with as a potentially fatal and uncontrollable requirement. No man can understand the reality in which to be a pregnant woman in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is to be a monster, subject of man and chance, enlightened experiments of birth and death.
Indeed, the conventional role of women in the early nineteenth century was utilitarian accessory at best. Women were expected to oversee the household, educate children, wait on their husbands, and, above all, reproduce. In Shelley’s time, a woman was a player in a male game—a man had a daughter until she became another man’s wife. After marriage, women’s titles changed, but the roles and value systems did not. As a daughter, a woman’s value was in her potential to be a wife. As a wife, a woman’s value was in her ability to reproduce. For 19th century women, childbirth—with all of its danger of potential fatality—was not an optional risk. A woman was expected to play the roles of both Frankenstein and his monster; she must conduct the experiment of creating life, as well as act as the experiment’s subject. If the infant dies or is deformed, the woman has failed in her experiment. If the woman dies as a result of childbirth she is, herself, a failed experiment—a monster, so to speak.
When the Eucharist is displayed in the Catholic practice, it is held in a special container called a Monstrance. The Eucharist is understood as God’s presence, an idea of a deity made real, summoned. In Ecclesiastical Latin, The Eucharist is a monster; “Monstrance”, from the Latin verb “mōnstrō” (principle parts: mōnstrō, mōnstrāre, mōnstrāvī, mōnstrātum), meaning to show, point out, indicate—basically, to demonstrate (from the Latin “de” and “mōnstrō,” translating to “of indication”). At its etymological roots, a “monster” is merely an idea made visible. Or, more specifically, a hidden sin demonstrated. God, the product and producer of this summoning alchemy, is not necessarily a monster. Neither, one could argue then, is Frankenstein’s monster, nor is a pregnant woman. In fact, she is no monster at all, but a by-product—a summation, neither divine nor sinful. Mōnstrāre in the Latin connotes something powerful yet immaterial made demonstrable. Indeed, there is a Monstrance in Shelley’s monster, as well as one in Shelley herself. 19th century pregnancy was a game of potentials and an unborn baby, the epitome of potential, is indeed something powerful and immaterial.
In Frankenstein, Shelley struggles with what she can’t control—which, for a woman in nineteenth century, is everything. The enduring culture of maternal obligation, imposed upon her by the longstanding customs of male domination, dictated that she must (serving her purpose as a woman and a wife) reproduce. External forces (be they God, science, or the weather) determined her fate, as well as the fate of her child. In her 1831 Introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley writes: “Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.” Frightful indeed was the terrain of 19th century reproduction, confused with traps and fatal probabilities. Women miscarried. Those lucky enough to carry to live birth frequently died in the process. Even if both parties manage to survive the birth and postnatal period, the resulting child may be tragically deformed (then referred to as a monstrous birth). Even the successful birth of a normal baby – arguably the best case scenario—is a contract in disguise. With the birth of a child comes the birth of a mother, a woman’s obligatory transformation to drudgery and the inherent loss of freedom. It is of these horrors and more that Shelley dreams on that cold summer night in June, and it is out of that dream that the story of Frankenstein emerges. Shelley’s masterpiece is, indeed, about a monster—but not the one you might expect. It’s about the monster of pregnancy, the Eucharist. It’s about the monster you bring about for yourself, that (like God, like death, like a child) far overpowers you.
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