Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Frankenstein And Feminist Ethics

Mary Shelley
I've always had a thing for Mary Shelley. I love the book Frankenstein, and have always thought it a seriously philosophical work -- nothing like the monster movies that came later. Shelley's life, full of adventure, literature, politics and parenting, was incredible.

So I was excited to read Jill Lepore's New Yorker article contextualizing some of the history of Frankenstein. I already had the opinion that the book is more about motherhood than about science, but it was cool to see everything assembled in a tidy package. As I wrote about before, if you've read the book, you know that what changes the creature from a kindly awkward creature into a violent monster is that his creator despises him. He has no one to love him. He has no mother. This leads to the violence that ruins the lives of everyone in the story. Lepore talks about Shelley's miscarriages and how many infants she gave birth to who died soon after being born -- basically, "eight years of near-constant pregnancy and loss."

I learned two new things about Frankenstein. One is that the story wrapped within a story wrapped within a narration allows the novel to depict different perspectives all at the same time. Lepore says it's like nesting dolls. and because of this, people debated whether the politics of the book are revolutionary or counter-revolutionary.

A second, more interesting, thing is that the creature's account of his eduction closely follows the conventions of the slave narratives of the time and that the creature's experience was understood to implicate the institution of slavery.

You may remember that the creature, on being chased out of the lab and roaming the countryside trying to find warmth, shelter, and companionship, then listens to a family through a hole in the wall and later comes upon books by Milton, Plutarch and Goethe. This is how he learns to read and write and think in language. I learned from Lepore's piece that despite Sir Walter Scott finding this "preposterous," it actually echoes stories like that of Frederick Douglas, who learned to read by trading with white boys for lessons and later from reading books. I had no idea that Shelley and her contemporaries were following debates over abolition, or that the relationship between the creator and his creation was widely seen as a parallel for the United States and slaves who, if freed, were sure to seek vengeance. Now I want to read Elizabeth Young's Black Frankenstein.  

One thing Lepore doesn't discuss, that I've always wondered about, is the relation between the motherhood themes of Frankenstein and the philosophy of Shelley's father, William Godwin. Shelley was the daughter of Godwin and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, but Wollstonecraft died soon after giving birth, so she was raised by Godwin (and, eventually, a stepmother). Godwin was a utilitarian and a famous impartialist -- meaning that ethically we ought to treat each person as equally deserving of our moral consideration.

I learned from reading Peter Singer that Godwin proposed a thought experiment: you are outside a burning building and inside is a famous author and also your father, who happens to be the author's valet. The author writes the kind of books that bring moral uplifting and happiness to many people. You have to decide whether to save the author or your father. Godwin said you should save the author, because morality requires impartiality, and impartially the author will bring a greater amount of happiness and well-being to the world than your father ever would.

I don't know much about Godwin, but doesn't that sound like the opposite of the themes of Frankenstein? Part of the point of the book is that without that deep and highly partial love that a parent can give you, you cannot develop into a proper human (or, proper creature in this case).

I'm not saying utilitarianism is pro-monster, obviously. It's more a question of how love fits into it, and how caring is essential to ethical life. Shelley's perspective fits with contemporary feminist ethics and ethics of care, but now I'm curious of what she thought of her father's philosophy.

In the end, one of Shelley's children lived, and after a serious of difficulties, Shelley devoted her later life to bringing up her son, educating him, supporting him and her father, while traveling and writing. Along the way, she helped all kinds of people, especially women whom society disapproved of. We love you, Mary Shelley!

1 comment:

Katy said...

I've also re-discovered Carol J. Adams discussion in the Sexual Politics of Meat about the Monster as a Vegetarian. <3