Nature Adorns Her Chosen Dwelling Places: An Ecofeminist Approach to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Anwesha Sengupta, Naba Ballygunge Mahavidyalaya, Kolkata

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Abstract

‘Ecofeminist theories reflect differently on the relationships between women and the natural world and between misogyny and ecological crisis’, Shepard Krech opines and ecofeminism is a widely researched theory today. Under the camouflage of horrors of science and the consequent danger of thwarting the female body in the process of procreation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein upholds lengthy narratives describing the majestic nature—in her gentility, tranquility, and magnificence as well as in a mad anger. One can trace an image of a woman in the plethora of the vivid descriptions of Nature. She has been exploited and ravaged in the cruel hands of science implemented by the protagonist, and this phenomenon bears a close parallel to the oppression of women in the hands of patriarchy, and this shared distress of Nature and Woman is the tenet of Ecofeminism. This paper is an attempt to reread Frankenstein through the lens of Ecofeminism and discover the close affinity between Nature and Femaleness and Femininity and ecological stances and feminist postulates that underscore the novel.

“But Frankenstein’s attempt in Mary’s view, violates the laws of nature, of natural modes of procreation and reproduction; he is therefore pursued and punished in the novel by Mother Nature, who curses him with physical and mental disease, denies him a maternal instinct and the opportunities for natural procreation. She pursues him with the very thunder and lightning he has stolen from her and finally brings about his death from natural causes at the age of twenty six.” Mary Mellor

Mary Shelley’s celebrated dystopian science fiction Frankenstein manifests the creation of a gigantic creature by an erudite scientist beyond the natural process of procreation and the immediate abandonment by the creator out of horror and repulsion. Utilizing the intricacies of science and natural philosophy and deploying the ingredients scraped out of the entrails of Mother Earth, Victor Frankenstein completely dismisses the role of female body and womb in the creation of his enormous superhuman. As the novel traces the revenge carried out by the ‘Monster’ in the pangs of being left out by his creator, it also charters the colossal presence of Nature in her variant moods. Like Percy Shelley’s West Wind, Nature in the novel is preserver and destroyer—sometimes she is soothing, caring and doubles the onlookers’ delight when acknowledged and appreciated, sometimes she is majestic, awe-inspiring, typical of the Nature depicted in Romantic poetry with the harmonious combination of ‘strangeness and beauty’ while at other times the author projects Nature in her fearsome and violent mood, implicitly protesting the injustice imposed against her. Mary Shelley has associated Nature with the image of a woman in the narratives of Walter, Frankenstein and Monster. There are lengthy passages where a reader won’t fail to delineate the constant unification and oneness between the femaleness/femininity and Nature. It is this alliance between Nature and Woman that makes possible to reread Frankenstein in the light of Ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism is significantly a new theory that attempts to combine the tenets of socio-cultural theory of feminism with those of environmental studies. With the recent awareness of the massive devastation on the environmental resources and the exploitation of ecology to galvanize the growth and enrichment of economy, environmentalists have given voice to their collective protests against the ecological destruction. Conceived by Francoise d’Eaubonne in Le Féminisme ou la Mort (1974), ecofeminism is the close affinity between ecology and women due to the shared oppression they undergo in a strictly gendered society wherein both are identified in terms of productivity. Mary Mellor opines:

Ecofeminism is a movement that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women. It emerged in the mid-1970s alongside second-wave feminism and the green movement. Ecofeminism brings together the elements of feminist and green movements, while at the same time offering a challenge to both. It takes from the green movement about the impact of human activities on the non-human world and from feminism the view of humanity as gendered in ways that subordinate, exploit and oppress women (Mellor 01).

The feminists have looked at the exploitation of nature as a close affinity with the oppression of women under patriarchy. Mythologically and culturally, Nature has always been considered Mother Nature, thereby thrusting her maternal instinct of protectiveness and nourishment as well as fertility and productivity. Patriarchy asserts that masculine power has complete and unquestionable control over female body, woman’s sexuality and her womb and that her femaleness is determined by the fertility of her womb; similarly Earth is only identified by her potentiality of production. Catherine Roach draws a close proximity between Mother, Earth and Nature affirming that this connection unifies the trio against a threatening patriarchy:

We speak of “Mother Nature” and “Mother Earth”. How does the image of Earth as mother function in our patriarchal world, and how is the environment affected by this association with the female and the maternal? I argue that engendering the Earth as female mother, given the meaning and function traditionally associated with “mother” and “motherhood” in patriarchal culture, will not achieve the desired aim of making our behavior more environmentally sound, but will instead help to maintain the mutually supportive, exploitative stances we take toward our mothers and toward environment. This analysis brings out one of the fundamental points of ecofeminism: the way we think about and treat the environment is related to the way we think about and treat women (Roach, 46-47).

The children, being nourished by the placenta of the mother, after delivery gets torn off from the connecting umbilical cord and get the identities of the father, like the plants getting nourishment from the Mother Earth, are however in the possession in male-run market economy. Thus Nature, like women, nurtures with her eternal femininity, but becomes an erasure due to her femaleness.

Frankenstein traces the chronicle of a scholar, who, out of his hubris, decides to create a ‘new species’ that has never been created and that would transcend mortality. In his attempt of creation with muscles, fibres and other organs and infusing ‘life spark’ into it, the creature he creates turns his plans into topsy-turvy, as it ends up in being an unspeakably ‘horrible’ ‘Monster’. The creator Victor Frankenstein absconds, and the tale charters the punishments inflicted by the Monster to Victor, who in the verge of death meets the narrator, Walton. In Frankenstein, we can observe the gradual extinction of the female characters, through natural or unnatural death. What strikes us is that, the mothers die quite an early death, leaving the children in the custody of the fathers. The lack of the protective care from a mother-figure is hence conspicuously absent in the text. The only woman whose loving presence pervades throughout is Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s cousin and fiancée. In spite of not being a biological mother, maternal instincts are dominant in her nature and she is almost a mother-surrogate for the male members of the family in Geneva. Ironically, she never becomes a mother in the sense of procreating, because she dies on her wedding night, brutally murdered by Frankenstein’s monstrous ‘child’. The motherly instinct of an all-pervasive and all-forgiving love is however traced in the Mother Nature, and incessantly bestowed on Victor. Chased by the Monster who has killed Victor’s brother William and indirectly Justine who was falsely accused for it in the act of avenging Frankenstein’s desertion of him, the exhausted Creator, on the verge of breakdown seeks for solace in the lap of Nature:

Even I, depressed in mind, and my spirits continually agitated by gloomy feelings, even I was pleased. I lay at the bottom of the boat, and as I gazed at the cloudless blue sky, I seemed to drink in a tranquility to which I had long been a stranger…(Shelley 107).

The Monster, as he narrates his pitiful tale to Victor, trying to move the latter’s irresponsible, callous heart and knock him to the sense of realization of the custody of his ‘child’, gives us glimpses of his anchorage in Nature. In times of relentless hunger, the Mother Nature provided him with berries. Being severely beaten by the cottagers, and later his appetite for love being crushed by the de Lacey family, the poor Monster, without a biological or a nurturing mother, is soothed by Nature. Not being born inside a woman’s womb, the creature had no mother to comfort him, and here the need for a human mother is satisfied by Mother Nature:

[M]y spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future guilded by bright rays of hope, and anticipations of joy (Shelley 77).

The physical and mental agony of the creature, after being maltreated by Felix de Lacey, is minimized by Nature: “The pleasant sunshine, and the pure air of day, restored me to some tranquility…(Shelley 92). The calm comfort provided by Nature to the turmoil of the hearts of both Victor as well as the Monster has a close relation to the unsaid love of a mother.

As the feminists believe that the only reward for femininity—the way of appreciating the feminine virtues of care-giving and love—is loving the female and not exploiting or violating her; the environmentalists’ postulate is ‘Love Mother Nature’. Mellor observes in Feminism and Ecology that ‘love’ for Nature is ‘exhortation to care for and maintain the health of the Earth (47). In the novel under consideration, the love for the Mother Nature is rather deconstructed into the deliberate obliteration of her entity and replacing her with science. Victor thereby becomes a modern man, and the power of Nature is described in science, the domain of masculine elitism. The language has a major role to play in the exercise of patriarchy, and language is basically phallocentric. Victor’s description of the destruction of the oak tree by lightning and his emphasis on ‘electricity’ as the destroyer, drives home the ecological destruction under the hands of insensitive science. If tree as a natural element is equated with woman and science with male, this graphic description implicitly underlines the oppression of woman in the hands of patriarchy:

[I] beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and as soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared and nothing remained but a blasting stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbands of wood (Shelley 23).

Instead of being sensitive to the oak’s destruction, Victor contemplates on utilizing the intricacies of electricity in the creation of a human being and inventing an electrical machine that would suck the fluid from the clouds: science/culture thus asserts the ecological oppression and annihilation of the feminine entity.

The sexual entity of Nature is also traced from the narratives of Walton and Frankenstein. Walton expresses a pleasure as he travels through Petersburgh: ‘I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks which plays upon my nerves, and fills me with delight (Shelley 07)’. Read in terms of ecofeminism, the Nature is here described as seductive, caressing the shipman. Walton’s further proposal of satiating his ‘ardent curiosity’ by treading on a land never before visited, through an ecofeminist’s lens may be interpreted as a man penetrating through a woman’s virginity. Even Frankenstein’s act of digging deep into Nature, ravishing her entrails to dig out corpses from her belly to use them in his scientific enterprise can be read as a rape. Mother Nature is thus raped, and that underscores an incestuous relationship. Strangely, Victor’s fiancée was his cousin Elizabeth Lavenza, and Elizabeth loved the motherless Victor with her maternal instincts: the marriage between the two sardonically also signifies incest. Another level of interpretation can also suggest that the Monster was begotten out of a union between Victor Frankenstein and Mother Earth, the receptacle of the Earth was thus the woman’s womb that provided the raw materials (ovum) which germinated into a human with the life spark (Frankenstein’s sperm). The ‘life spark’ and its indispensable role thus propound patriarchy and the erasure of woman. Collard’s opinion confirms the continuous oppression of ecological resources:

In patriarchy, nature, animals and woman are objectified, hunted, invaded and colonized, owned, consumed and forced to yield and produce (or not). This violation of the integrity of the wild, spontaneous Being is rape. It is motivated by a fear and rejection of life and it allows the oppressor the illusion of control, of power, of being alive (Collard 01).

Mother Earth’s reproductive organs were thus scraped off and impregnated outside her body, thus also depriving her from her rightful motherhood and possession over the child.

If the ecology is allied with women for procreative, fertile femaleness and malleable femininity of both, they are also aligned with the issues of feminism. The oppressions of the women gave way to uproar and protest of the feminists, and that can be equated with the anger of Nature when she is active in destroying. Nature punishes the patriarch Victor with the other side of her being—violent, harsh and furious. The complete denial of the role of female body in reproduction incites the Nature with fury, and hence at the last moment of creation, ‘the rain pattered dismally against the panes (34)’, the Nature violently declaring her presence that was so callously denied. She avenges her erasure with coldness, pulling Victor finally into glaciers till he dies. If the Monster’s revenges through the murders of Victor’s family members including that of newly wedded Elizabeth be the chief reason, Nature’s implicit conspiracy with the Monster too has a considerable role.

The ecofeminists interpret that spiritual and social ecofeminism can be perceptible. In the novel, social ecofeminism is the repeated oppression and devastation of nature to pronote scientific ventures by men. On the other hand, Elizabeth Lavenza’s emphasis on Ernest to be a farmer ‘with a healthy, happy and […] least hurtful life’ depicts her rootedness with Earth. She is spiritually connected to Nature and is pitted against Victor who violates nature to establish a different culture. This affirms Gould Davis’ point:

Man is the enemy of Nature: to kill, to root up, t level off, to pollute, to destroy are his instinctive reactions. Woman is the ally of Nature, and her instinct is to tend, to nurture, to encourage healthy growth, and to preserve the ecological balance (Davis 335-6).

The depiction of Nature—in her variegated roles, where she is acknowledged or denied, appreciated or exploirted, have close connection with the theories of feminism and environmentalism and thus Frankenstein has possibilities to be read from Ecofeminist approach.

References

Collard, Andree and Joyce Contrucci. Rape of the Wild. London: Women’s Press, 1988. Print

Davis, Elizabeth Gould. The First Sex. New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1971. Print

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge,1989. Print

Mellor, Mary. Feminism and Ecology. New York: New York University Press, 1997. Print

Roach, Catherine. “Loving Your Mother: On the Woman-Nature Relation”. Hypatia, 6.1(Spring 1991): 46-51. Wiley. Web 14 March 2015 www.jstor.org/stable/3810032

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc, 1996. Print

Anwesha Sengupta is Lecturer, Dept. of English, Naba Ballygunge Mahavidyalaya, Kolkata.

The Golden Line: Volume 1, Number 2, 2015

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