Absent mothers and the fear of the maternal

Absent mothers

Frankenstein is notable for its number of dead, absent and substitute mothers:

  • Victor's own mother is an orphan, rescued by his father
  • so too is Elizabeth, repeating the pattern of rescue in the next generation
  • when Caroline Frankenstein dies, Elizabeth becomes mother to the younger children
  • Justine is another rescued orphan, her birth having caused the death of her mother (as did Mary Shelley's of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft), and William dies in her care
  • the mother is also absent in the de Lacey family.

Margaret Saville is the only living, mature mother in the novel, and she plays no part in its action.

The motherless monster

In her essay on the novel (reprinted in Fred Botting (ed), Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays, listed in the bibliography), Margaret Homans discusses this absence and points out that, because of Frankenstein's circumvention of heterosexual creation, the monster is another of the novel's motherless children.

  • in this case, however, the mother's absence is not a consequence of her death, but of Frankenstein's denial of the maternal principle.
  • if we take into account the fact that nature, in both poetic and scientific discourse, is usually feminised and characterised as a mother, then Victor's transgression against the process of sexual reproduction and his unnatural creation of the monster is also an anti-maternal action.

Victor Frankenstein and sex

In Volume 1, Chapter 4, immediately after he has animated the monster, Victor rushes away from his laboratory and hides in his bedroom, where he falls asleep and has a troubling dream. He dreams that he meets Elizabeth in the street and embraces her; but she is then transformed into the decomposing body of his mother and when Victor wakes from his dream, the first thing he sees is the monster:

  • sex, death and the monster are thus linked in a single image
  • the episode establishes a clear link between Victor's avoidance of sexuality, both in his own relationships and in creating the monster, and his desire to reject the memory of his mother.
More on the creation of the monster:
Margaret Homans argues that while Frankenstein is creating the monster – while he is pregnant with it, one might say – he is full of excitement and anticipation; but as soon as it is ‘born', he hates and rejects his own creation, his own ‘child'. Margaret Homans further suggests that this motif in the novel is related to the causes of Mary Shelley's own anxieties about childbirth: the death of her mother shortly after she was born, the frequency and difficulties of her own pregnancies and the deaths of her first three children while they were infants.
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