American lawyer Loretta Lynch said Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be recognized as the person that they are and not a stereotype or an image. A chance to be heard can be considered a basic need as a human living on this planet. There have been people groups over the years that have not had their needs met in the area of communication, denied their right to be heard. Postcolonial literature is a way to give voice to those dealing with its aftermath. Its critics are concerned with literature produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized (Purdue).
Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus is an example of postcolonial literature. Struggles in the novel can be looked at as postcolonial in nature. What is just as important as looking at those examples is the question What is Mary Shelley trying to say? This essay will look at what postcolonialism means, the ways in which we find examples of it in Shelley’s novel, and what is at the root of all of it. I think that Shelley, much like the characters in her novel and the people affected by postcolonialism, just wanted to be heard and that’s why she wrote her novel.
Why did Mary Shelley write Frankenstein? That is certainly the million dollar question. That is, it is the question if you think that she is the one who wrote it. John Lauritsen, a writer and editor at Pagan Press, wrote a book in 2007 titled The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, which explains why he believes that Mary’s husband Percy is the one who really wrote the novel.. In a letter to the editor published in The Chronicle Review, Lauritsen states that his research indicates that Mary had little imagination or talent for writing and that the only reason that part of the original manuscript (minus Percy’s revisions) was in her handwriting because he was dictating it to her.
Charles Robinson, an English professor at the University of Delaware published a version of Frankenstein in 2009 that had two versions side by side, one that included Percy’s notes, and one that didn’t. One of the reasons for his findings is the difference in handwriting styles. Lauritsen discredits this, however, and we’re back at square one. I’ve read non-scholarly conclusions during my research that Percy wrote it because Mary’s poor education level would be indicative of her talent level and thus be the reason she could not have been the author. This brings to mind the ongoing debate regarding the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works: to conclude that one could not write a work of such magnitude simply because of education level smacks of elitism. Let’s assume for the purposes of this paper that Mary Shelley did indeed write this novel, so we can narrow the topic somewhat.
So why did Mary write Frankenstein? Perhaps it was an attempt to deal with painful aspects of personal relationships. Anthony F. Badalamenti, in his piece Why did Mary Shelley Write Frankenstein? suggests that Mary was using the text to deal with the hurt arising from her husband Percy’s painful acts towards her. Calling it substitution or encoding, Badalamenti says it’s the unconscious way of dealing with events that are too painful to deal with within the conscious mind: Encoding brings some relief of a cathartic nature but rarely resolves underlying issues (Badalamenti 420). Not only did Percy create trust issues in their marriage, but her parents contributed to the issues in her subconscious that she has to deal with as well.
Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft died eleven days after giving birth to her, and her father William Godwin still felt the need to have family and remarried a woman who had two children of her own. Both of these contributed to her sense of abandonment, and rejection, so clearly captured in the Monster’s reaction to Frankenstein abandoning him. This shocking response of the creator to the birthed creation was also influenced by Mary’s own experience with childbirth. Her first child was a daughter born prematurely, dying a few days later. Ronald Britton, in his paper Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: what made the monster monstrous? relays a journal entry by Mary in 1815 concerning her deceased daughter: Dream that my little baby came to life again…I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might, in the process of time, renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption (Britton 4).
We can look at the novel as a picture of Mary’s experiences with birth, both with her own and with the birth of her child. This reading of the novel as dealing with birth is influenced by Mary’s pregnancies before and during the novel’s creation. Badalamenti later on in his piece says this is given weight by the length of time that Victor takes in creating the Creature (9 months). He also says that this does suggest that she was equating Victor with Percy…There is more support for the fusion idea in Victor dying at the same age Percy was when Mary finished the novel (428).
Mary may have made reference to herself in the form of Safie, the beloved of Felix DeLacey. Safie is the daughter of the character in the book known only as the Turk. In a tale told by the Creature we find out that the DeLaceys end up in the cottage we find them in because of Felix, who was only trying to do the right thing by rescuing the Turk from the unjust prison sentence he received while all were in Paris. The Turk, who’s only crimes seems to be that he was a foreigner with wealth and a follower of a non-Christian religion. In other words, he was distrusted by the French government because he was the other. Felix’s reward was exile to the cottage in Germany.
When the Turk found out that the DeLacey family were now poor cottage dwellers, he became a traitor to good feeling and honour (Shelley 101) and broke his promise to Felix and Safie of a union. Safie is betrayed by her father, who denied her love, while being motherless, much like Mary, who was also motherless and very much felt betrayal by the father as well, especially when he became estranged after the engagement to Percy. This point is made even more visible when we view the story as coming from the Creature, who could also represent Mary in the novel. This
After Percy died in 1822, Mary released the novel two more times. The original (1818) we know was published anonymously. I’m sure that this did not sit well with Mary and I think that was part of the reason she re-released it with her name as the author. The softening the image of Victor in these later editions gives credence to the belief that Victor was a stand-in for Percy, whether consciously or subconsciously. People often soften their anger issues towards a person when that person dies.
In a male dominated profession, it was not conceivable that a tale such as Frankenstein would be written by a woman. This idea that a woman was not capable of such writing (and the reason Frankenstein was published anonymously the first time) was typical of the patriarchal system. Her publishers wanted Percy’s commentary on her work included so there was an implication that he perhaps wrote it. This system made Mary (and other women) feel like outsiders, being made the lesser in a relationship that clearly benefited the masculine (publishers, Percy) over the feminine (Mary, other women). Waiting till after Percy died to publish her authorship and to make changes (twice) shows that she was trying to reclaim her work. She was tired of it and did something about it. In short, she wanted to be heard.
Another term for outsiders would be the other.
The other is a way of defining one’s self. The concept of the self cannot exist without making someone the other. By introducing the concept of the other to describe people groups outside of the normal as a way to control them, thereby making the self superior. Edward Said in his book Orientalism says that the West uses the concept of the other as a way to control the Orient, to justify its actions in the act of colonialism, and that in pointing out their otherness, thos empires of the west have a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy (Said xxi).
In his book Culture and Imperialism Said talks about how structures and locations appear in literature. In British culture and literature, one might be concerned over the way that places of power are set in the cities of England, and that they are connected to other places by making them subordinate (Said 52). Literature helped to maintain the empire by insisting that it was better in the empire. Western writers contribute to the building of authority of the West by depicting the devaluing and exploitation of the colonized lands as necessary. Said’s favorite example of this is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which shows a slave plantation owned by the character Thomas Bertram as mysteriously necessary to the poise and beauty of Mansfield Park (Said 58).
Mary Wollstonecraft in her review of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative says that the philosophy used to justify the treatment of the slave nations used the differences in their appearance to make them the other, degrad(ing) the numerous nations…below the common level of humanity, and…conclude that nature…designed to stamp them with the mark of slavery (Bugg 655). This, Bugg says, sets up Wollstonecraft’s use of slavery as an analogy for gender oppression (Bugg 656) in her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Mary Shelley also tackles the case off the other in Frankenstein. The younger Mary uses the physical difference of the Creature to point out the imbalance of power between the other (Creature) and the DeLacy’s (European society). The first that we read of the Creature is in a letter composed by Robert Walton to his sister. He is described as a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island (Shelley 13). It is only when the Creature starts his education (based in colonial literature) that he learns how his differences will will determine his existence (Bugg 659). His education becomes the means by which regular society (the DeLaceys) makes him feel like the other.
Mary Shelley didn’t have it easy. Abandoned by her mother in death and by her father when he remarried, she felt cast aside by him and looked at as a rival by her stepmom. In a society that made her feel like the other because of her sex, she looked for love and an outlet for her anger and grief. Her relationship to Percy didn’t solve these issues. Her experience in getting her novel to market made her feel like the other as well. Published anonymously because no one would believe a woman could write such a novel, it probably wouldn’t have been as well read either. These experiences combined with a desire to be heard galvanized literary magic into Frankenstein, making it a leading example of postcolonial literature. Mary found a voice, and in reclaiming her novel satisfied her need to be heard. Thank you.
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