Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is queer in many ways, one of which is the anti-normative nature of Victor Frankenstein’s creation of fatherhood, and how he eradicates motherhood and femininity to create his queer creature.
By Arezoo Izadi
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, a novel first published in 1818, continues to be deeply embedded in culture and media. Mary Shelley pens the tale of the mad and obsessed scientist in search of life, going against the rules of nature and motherhood. Victor Frankenstein succeeds in creating life out of lifeless matter and creates »the monster«, a lost and nameless creature that will take everything that he cares for away from him. Frankenstein’s creation of life and fatherhood as well as the manners in which he eradicates both motherhood and femininity in his journey are queer in the anti-normative sense.
Despite the fact that queer studies were developed long after the novel was published, Frankenstein’s adaptations and their camp qualities in the early 20th century indicate that the novel was being read queerly by scholars1Rigby, Mair. »do you share my madness?« Queering the Gothic, edited by William Hughes and Andrew Smith, Manchester University Press, 2009, pp. 36-54.. Queer theory was developed from gay/lesbian studies and feminism in the 90ies, and it is mostly concerned with the instability of identities and the supposed »naturalness« of categories2Kruger, Steven F. »Queer Theory.« A Companion to Literary Theory, edited by David H. Richter, WILEY Blackwell, 2018, pp. 609-629.. The queer is in contrast to the traditionally believed »normal ways« of thinking about the topics of gender and sexuality3Ibid., and it is any resistance to normativity, even if not sexual4Ibid.. Queer theory makes countering and resisting normativity possible5Ibid.. To relate this to Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s queerness comes from his attempt to create life from death, killing motherhood alongside femininity and birthing a mortal fatherhood in the process. Frankenstein is just as queer as Prometheus, if not more. While Prometheus resists the norm to grant fire to men, the modern Prometheus does so in giving them a life distinct from motherhood and God.
The Queer as Non-Normativity
Regardless of his actions not being sexual, Frankenstein is still queer in going against the ideological normativity and the traditional belief that life is given from the mother and God. In other words, non-normativity is almost synonymous to the queer, as the queer is developed once a struggle against the normative exists.6Haggerty, George E. »Gothic Fiction and Queer Theory.« The Gothic and Theory, 2019, pp. 147-162. Accessed 13 Feb. 2023. When Frankenstein maniacally sets out to derive life out of death, he queers »the very notion of God«7Haggerty, George E. »What is Queer about Frankenstein?« The Cambridge Companion to »Frankenstein«, 2016, pp. 116-127. Accessed 13 Feb. 2023.. Aside from that, when Frankensten conceives life in this way, he improperly and disloyally cites »the norm« i.e. birth from the mother, in a process that Judith Butler originally labeled »subversive repetition«8Kruger, Steven F. »Queer Theory.« A Companion to Literary Theory, edited by David H. Richter, WILEY Blackwell, 2018, pp. 609-629.. What is also queer about Frankenstein is his obsession with death and the decay that it brings once he leaves Geneva on a quest for generating life. Although Frankenstein’s initial purpose is learning how to reanimate dead beings, he marvels in having found the secret to life in an epiphanic moment. Once Frankenstein starts to create his queer creature, he becomes as queer as he can be when he goes through the »unhallowed damps of the grave«, »charnel houses« and even tortures »the living animal«9Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text. EPUB, Penguin, 2018.. Life and death turn into tangible concepts to him, which he intends to overcome.
Looking at it from a psychological view, Victor Frankenstein leans toward fatherhood for the immortality it potentially offers10Veeder, William. »The Negative Oedipus: Father, »Frankenstein«, and the Shelleys.« Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1986, pp. 365-390, www.jstor.org/stable/1343479. Accessed 13 Feb. 2023., before understanding that fatherhood’s mortality is even more vulnerable than motherhood’s. In fact, he overlooks that being one with fatherhood and the father »involves death as a precondition rather than simply as a consequence«11Ibid.. In Frankenstein, it is the death of motherhood that preconditions the queer birth of fatherhood. Caroline Frankenstein, Victor’s mother, is one of the first characters who passes away, however, her image is constantly present. As the symbol of normative life and life in general, it is noteworthy that Frankenstein, the queer, keeps associating this symbol to death, decay and adversity. Alphonse Frankenstein meets his future wife while she is kneeling by her father’s coffin, an image that is later immortalized in one of the most vivid images of her association with death once Frankenstein enters his father’s library.
When Caroline dies, it is because of her affection for Elizabeth Levenza, Frankenstein’s future wife, whom Caroline cares for remarkably. She sacrifices herself for Elizabeth, making her Caroline’s substitute. It is after Caroline’s death that Frankenstein leaves Geneva and starts his journey. Although it is hinted at times that he condemns his mother’s death for what passes afterwards, scholars and readers alike believe that Frankenstein’s incentive for leaving Geneva and starting to seek out life and reanimating deceased beings comes from his desire to resurrect the mother. However, this argument can be rejected with an analysis of Frankenstein’s nightmare after he has successfully assembled the creature. In this nightmare, he witnesses Elizabeth healthy and beautiful; once he embraces her and kisses her lips, her features transform and Frankenstein finds himself holding the corpse of his mother with grave-worms crawling all over her13Ibid..
Firstly, the mother’s death in Frankenstein’s nightmare is in direct contrast to her serene death in the diegetic reality. Secondly, it is significant that he has this dream after having created fatherhood as if he is symbolically killing the mother, bringing to mind Freud’s concept of »the negative Oedipus« in which the son’s aim is to murder the mother in order to get to the father14Veeder, William. »The Negative Oedipus: Father, »Frankenstein«, and the Shelleys.« Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1986, pp. 365-390, www.jstor.org/stable/1343479. Accessed 13 Feb. 2023.. Once Frankenstein kisses Elizabeth, he does not wake the mother from the dead similar to a fairy tale, nonetheless, he reduces the mother’s substitute to the mother’s morbid corpse15Ibid.. Frankenstein does not aim to resurrect the mother and bring her back to life; his purpose is, in fact, to move beyond the mother and motherhood in order to reach fatherhood, which he does once he is awakened from the nightmare.
When it comes to Victor Frankenstein’s creation, he gives birth to a queer, lost and nameless creature who is marginalized for its queerness, especially by Frankenstein himself. This queerness is both physical and beyond that16Rigby, Mair. »do you share my madness?« Queering the Gothic, edited by William Hughes and Andrew Smith, Manchester University Press, 2009, pp. 36-54.. Not only is his appearance queer in the strange sense of the word, but also his existence puts »the nature of reality« into question17Ibid. as he symbolizes the forbidden knowledge and desire for creating life18Ibid.. The emotions Frankenstein experiences, having created the creature, are not comparable to what he felt when he was seeking the secret of life i.e. enthusiasm; in fact, from the moment his creature starts breathing, Frankenstein as the father, sees him as the other and the queer.
The creature is similar to »the Gothic’s wanderer«, the queer who endlessly travels, and is not confined to one place as opposed to »the normalcy stability of home«, because he has been rejected or ejected by a center19Ibid.. The center, in this case, is Victor Frankenstein himself. After being rejected by the villagers who are petrified of his queer appearance and having reserved to live in the forest i.e. a center, the creature starts to observe the De Lacey family from whom he learns the essence of domesticity. The domesticity he witnesses, however, is everything that he cannot have.
Following being rejected by the De Laceys as well, the creature starts bringing down all that is domestic and innocent, starting with setting fire to the De Lacey’s Cottage and murdering William, Frankenstein’s little brother. Before killing William, the creature’s eyes fall on the locket that William is wearing, and he sees the portrait of Caroline Frankenstein, which is yet another example of the mother’s image being associated with death. For a moment, it seems like the image of the mother is enough to change the creature’s mind. Nonetheless, the rage and hatred for the father exceed whatever delight the mother could have. Once the creature puts the locket in Justine Moritz’s keeping, which leads to her being blamed for the crime, he continues what Frankenstein initially started alongside erasing motherhood, which is eradicating femininity.
Having confronted his creator, the creature makes a deal with Frankenstein so that he creates a female companion for him, one alike himself, in exchange for the creature being as far away as possible. In this way, both of their happy endings depend on an unborn female. When Frankenstein commences the creation of the female creature, his emotions are incomparable to the enthusiasm he felt when creating the male creature. In contrast, his actions resemble a heavy weight on his mind as he likens his emotions to insanity. He even feels the future generations cursing him for having threatened humanity with his selfishness. At some point in the process of creating his female creature, Frankenstein has doubts and convinces himself that it is better to annihilate his novel creation rather than to give in to the creature’s request for happiness and survival. As the monster threatens him, Frankenstein’s fatherhood undergoes a turning point in which he becomes the slave and his creation the master. Significantly, in the decisive moment in which the creator becomes the destroyer and tears his creation apart, Victor Frankenstein commits his most queer act.
Resisting the Norm of Reproductivity
When Frankenstein destroys the female creature, it results in the creature cursing him, promising that he would be there on his wedding night. This, in time, leads to the death of Elizabeth when Frankenstein, fully conscious of a serious threat to Elizabeth’s life, arranges their wedding as a trap for the creature. Through causing the deaths of both the female creature and Elizabeth, Frankenstein commits his most queer act. As Lee Edelman believes, the queer is most forceful when he is in opposition with a »temporality«, one that he terms as »reproductive futurism«, which is orienting towards a future that depends on »the ideology of reproduction«21Kruger, Steven F. »Queer Theory.« A Companion to Literary Theory, edited by David H. Richter, WILEY Blackwell, 2018, pp. 609-629.. Modernity has developed what can be known as »repro-narrativity« which normalizes the »oedipal household« on which its progress depends, and it is what normalizes the belief that »generational succession« is directly connected to one’s life having impactful meaning22Warner, Micheal. »Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet.« Social Text, No. 29, 1991, pp. 3-17, www.jstor.org/stable/466295. Accessed 13 Feb. 2023.. Frankenstein already resists future-oriented politics when he eradicates motherhood; however, what makes the case of the female monster more distinct is the fact that Frankenstein eliminates any possibility of a reproductive future for the creature and by extension, for himself once Elizabeth dies as well.
With both motherhood and femininity out of the way at last, only fatherhood remains; nonetheless, the fatherhood that the protagonist desired has already started its slow demise. At last, Frankenstein, pleading to destroy the one responsible for all his misery, starts to hunt the creature. Halfway through his hunt, he weakens drastically and stills to tell his tale to Walton. The queer journey that started from seeking life out of death, as Frankenstein aims it, returns to death once again. With Frankenstein dead, fatherhood lies in its grave too. Frankenstein and his fatherhood both perished but not without the cost of those most dear to him, each death crippling his strength more and more, from William to Elizabeth and Clerval.
Having made its permanent mark on both pop culture and the literary canon, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus appears as quite queer in the main character’s anti-normativity and resistance to any future-oriented life. Victor Frankenstein as »the father«, with accessing life through death, removes motherhood and femininity, eradicating the chances of a reproductive future not only for himself, but also for his queer »monster« whom he refuses to acknowledge; the creature who continues to be marginalized for its queerness, driving him to cause fear and ruin. As it appears throughout the novel, this is all at the expense of the destruction of the mother and all that she replaces and represents.