Monday, May 11, 2009
Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, surely the most famous mother-daughter pair in English letters, never got to know one another: Wollstonecraft died ten days after her daughter’s birth. During her lifetime, Wollstonecraft wrote fluently about motherhood and its place in society, and she thought deeply about the education a mother might provide a daughter. In a letter, she wrote (of her first daughter, Fanny):
With trembling hand I shall cultivate sensibility, and cherish delicacy of sentiment, lest, whilst I lend fresh blushes to the rose, I sharpen the thorns that will wound the breast I would fain guard—I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit.
Though Shelley’s mind was not to be unfolded by her mother in the sense Wollstonecraft meant, I wonder whether we might find a hint of her mother’s influence in Shelley’s most famous work. Here we find in the maternal role young Doctor Frankenstein, whose unchecked ego renders him wholly unconcerned with whether his creation will be fit for the world it is to inhabit. The result, of course, is monstrous, as the doctor relates:
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
“Frankenstein” can be read as a parable of the dangers of motherless creation—lacking an actual mother and against Mother Nature. In one of the most memorable (and comically horrifying) images from the book, the doctor realizes that, having thrown himself into his work roughly (with none of Wollstonecraft’s “delicacy of sentiment”), he has violated the institution of motherhood. In a dream, he imagines that he embraces Elizabeth, his bride to be:
But as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel.
The New Yorker mayo de 2009