We’re very excited to be exploring feminism in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. If you’re new here, we’ve previously explored feminism in Jane Eyre, Hamlet, and the works of James Joyce, and many more.
Last August, on Eclipse Day, my son was sitting at the kitchen table, holding the pinhole camera we’d made, when he asked, “Mom, what are those?” His voice was tinged with something I could not put my finger on. Something curious but also disgusted. I looked at him, my eyes following his finger downward,where he was pointing at a trail of fat maggots inching across our kitchen floor.
There’s something that feels illicit about an eclipse—the way the moon crosses over the sun so that for a few moments, night conquers day and all is dark when it shouldn’t be. It feels briefly apocalyptic, a glimpse at the end of the world. Perhaps the appearance of maggots in my kitchen, so close to the life I made, were a result of this celestial phenomenon.
I lied to him. “They’re caterpillars, bud. And they’re confused because of the eclipse. I bet the moon is disrupting their natural navigation.”
But why are caterpillars acceptable and maggots cringeworthy? Julia Kristeva defines abjection as our repulsion to reminders of our delicate materiality. My disgust of wriggling maggots is based in my fear of death; they are a reminder of rot. (The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.)
I needed to get them out of my space, so I sent my son upstairs to brush his teeth, bent down with some tissues and started to squish. Halfway through my mission, my thinking changed.
These maggots, these larvae, are more than just embodiments of death. They are babies. And maybe it was the eclipse, or maybe it was the fumes from the bleach, but then I thought, maybe I am thinking about them all wrong. Maybe these helpless invaders are not only reminders of death, but also life. Something in between.
In the early pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, she describes Victor’s exploration into the liminal space between the living and the dead: “…I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain. I paused, examining and analyzing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life…” From life, death and from death, life. How monstrous.
I went from angrily crushing them between my fingers to being tinged with tenderness. Something about the newly realized juxtaposition—death worms as fly babies—combined with the still unshakeable feeling that I had been invaded suddenly felt a whole lot like motherhood.
Pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing can seem like an invasion. And for many second-wave feminists, motherhood was seen as a scourge on our fight for equality. Yet for others, like the brilliant Adrienne Rich, motherhood was more complicated; necessary, sometimes joyous, but not what was portrayed in literature and culture. With the birth of children there are moments of breathtaking beauty, but also moments of terror, dissatisfaction, and confusion.
In the first essay of her collection Of Woman Born, “Anger and Tenderness,” Rich includes glimpses of her journal entries: “Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance…And yet at other times I am melted with the sense of their helpless, charming and quite irresistible beauty…” Rich encapsulates the flux of motherhood, of feeling monstrous in her anger and awestruck at their tiny magnificence. Because she leaves these missives in journal format, her words feel like secrets, whispered confessions.
Rich is revealing this secret: motherhood sometimes feels like a constant shifting of power, and there is no homeostasis. Like Rich, I have felt these feelings in my own mothering. Though on Eclipse Day, it wasn’t my child causing me to vacillate between feeling lovestruck and worn out. Crushing the maggots on my floor felt like a monstrous flex of power. And yet, they stirred in me a twinge of something softer. Many have described the birth and death of the woman upon motherhood, about the joy and pain of raising a child. These maggots were a representation of both. New life, old death. Suddenly those worms morphed into something new, something apart from the narrative I’d had of their existence.
The maggots-as-death trope is as old as literature itself. They are used to evoke disgust and fear in the Bible. They can be found in Chaucer (“The Monk’s Tale”) and Shakespeare (Hamlet). In the anonymously authored “diary” Go Ask Alice, maggots appear in the narrator’s horrific dream about her newly dead grandfather. And Toni Morrison writes maggots into scenes that encompass death and children in both Sula and God Save the Child. But my own thoughts about maggots-as-babies don’t align with these stories. A small thing, I know. But for a moment it knocked me a little off-kilter.
In “Anger and Tenderness,” Rich also questions whether her inability to cohere to literary images of motherhood made her “then abnormal, monstrous.” If maggots no longer cohere to the literary trope, who is the monster? The squisher or the squished?
Much has been written about Mary Shelley’s relationship to motherhood, how it was so fraught with death, how those experiences may have influenced her writing. Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died from complications shortly after giving birth to her, and Shelley had three children, two who died in infancy. It is plausible to read these biographical details alongside Frankenstein and gain a deeper understanding of how birth and death combine in her story. Victor’s mother dies when he is a young man, and, like Shelley’s mother, it is arguably motherhood that kills her. In addition, Victor himself is a mother-figure, a creator of life. Shelley even uses language unmistakably reproductive and maternal to describe the moment he discovers his monster is living: “The astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture. After so much time spent in painful labour, to arrive at once at the summit of my desires was the most gratifying consummation of my toils.” This mix of maternal language, tinged with both awe and pain, feels quite a bit like Rich’s essay.
Rich describes feeling like a monster in her selfishness. Maternal Victor is also a monster, not only because of his own feelings or because of his selfishness, but also because the life he creates is made from death. Frankenstein’s monster is a creature manifested from the corporeal evidence that death is permanent. But understanding Victor as a mother-figure means that his monster is his child. And he is a monster too, lurking in forests murdering his creator’s loved ones. And yet, his murder spree stems from loneliness. His maker has rejected him, abandoned him. Who is the monster here, the creator or the created?
Samantha Hunt, in an interview with The New Yorker, said “When I became a mom, no one ever said, ‘Hey, you made a death. You made your children’s deaths.’ Meanwhile, I could think of little else. It’s scary to think of mothers as makers of death, but it sure gives them more power and complexity than one usually finds.”
Zadie Smith, in her essay “Joy,” writes, “Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.”
In Frankenstein, Shelley writes about a dream Victor has about his love, the woman he hopes to be the mother of his children: “I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; 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 swathe grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel.”
What a mix of pain and pleasure, fear and elation. And though these three women writers are coming from different places, from different times, different experiences, so much is the same. Motherhood and loss, abjection and empathy. Life and death simultaneous.
My maggots, I think, can be understood as occupying the liminal space between life and death. I’ve thought about them often in the year that has passed, perhaps more than one should think about kitchen pests. But there they are, even in their deaths, still living in my thoughts. What can be made of the larvae who often feed themselves from something dead, who are considered only in relation to their connections to decay, and yet, are newly alive? Born from a mother, vilified for surviving. They, too, are Frankenstein’s monster.
Shelley’s novel, perhaps born from her own connections to loss and motherhood, complicates our understandings of life and death. Victor creates new life from dead parts, and the life he creates brings death to others. But why? Because his creator abandoned him. Do we blame Victor for his monster’s violence? (Don’t we always blame the mother? Am I my son? Is he me?) Victor is both a mother and motherless. His creation is both child and monster. Shelley’s book is a story about loneliness, and isn’t that so much of what motherhood is about? When Rich writes about feeling monstrous, I think she is writing about isolation. Secrets whispered about the parts that don’t fit, like the maggots in my kitchen.
When something doesn’t quite fit the narrative we know, we bristle against it, squash it. In feminism, motherhood doesn’t quite fit. So many second-wave feminists felt motherhood was a saboteur to the movement, a setback, a succumbing to patriarchal norms. Now, third-wave feminists (re)try to pin down a motherhood narrative, a bug splayed out under glass. And yet, so often it slips from beneath the pin.
Heather Hewett responds to Rich in the book Mothering in the Third Wave. In it she asks, “Why are we still talking about feminism and motherhood in the same terms, and often in ways that are more personal and less political?” Her question is two-fold.
To answer the second part of her question, we must look backwards: Our second-wave mothers taught us that the personal is political. And so giving voice to the experience of motherhood will always be personal, because each one is different. And these stories are political because women’s bodies are still monitored and dissected by the outside world. Simply telling stories is an act of political bravery. A public confession.
To answer Hewett’s first question, we must consider faults. The language of motherhood fails us because the narrative set up is too rigid, inflexible and exclusive. It is binary, there is little space for the liminal spaces of reality. For every stance there is someone to take it down. For every step forward, someone else falls back. What words could possibly help us come to terms with an experience that leaves a woman both vilified and deified, depending on what room she enters?
The spaces in between, where we explore the grey mess of child-bearing (or choosing not to bear children, or being unable to bear children) are where the stories are. But for too long these stories were focused on the white and middle-class. Hewett’s essay also explains the importance of intersectionality in third-wave feminism and its continued examination of motherhood. She is telling us that what is missing from this conversation is the space for voices that, for too often, have been ignored. We need to change the narrative.
Perhaps we need to remove the binaries. We need to see anger, tenderness, life, death, joy, pleasure, monsters, mothers, children, and loneliness as parts of a whole. Instead of looking through a pinhole camera to catch a glimpse of what is both beautiful and terrifying, we need to look wider.