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EMPLOYMENT, MODIFICATION AND SUBVERSION OF THE

MILTONIC MYTH IN MARY SHELLEY’S ‘FRANKENSTEIN’

A close reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein enables one to draw several


parallels between her novel and John Milton’s English epic Paradise Lost.
At each level Mary Shelley’s own understanding and modification of the
Miltonic myth can also be observed. Thus, when the two works are studied
in conjunction, one observes, not merely the overt thematic points of
confluence but also the numerous points of departure.
The dynamics of the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his
created being echo the relationship between God and Adam or perhaps even
God and Satan. Frankenstein, like Milton’s God, is an arbitrary,
authoritarian entity. There occurs and immediate, irreconcilable alienation
between him and his created being. However, Mary Shelley’s pronounced
humanist sensibilities can be attributed to the fact that Frankenstein, unlike
God, is not omnipotent and in the mortal combat between him and the
Monster, he is physically dwarfed by the latter and thus faced with the threat
of annihilation. The absent mothers in Mary Shelley’s novel are made
conspicuous by their absence. The alienation owing to absent mothers and
arbitrary fathers happens at dual levels- textual and autobiographical. Mary
Shelley’s own life was acutely influenced by the death of her mother Mary
Wollstonecraft and the overarching presence of her father William Godwin.

The portrayal of Frankenstein’s created being is replete with revolutionary


undertones. The Creature, like Satan, is an “overreacher” and thus attempts
to challenge the authority of his own creator. In this portrayal Mary Shelley
could have been influenced by the precepts of Humanism or more
significantly, the French Revolution. The Monster’s rhetoric is charged with
revolutionary fervor as he demands equality and freedom from his creator,
Frankenstein. This could also be reflective of what Burton Hatlen calls the
Romantic perception of Milton as a “revolutionary artist”. He further
observes that “Blake’s summation of this Romantic conception of Milton
was seminal: The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels
and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is that he was a true poet
and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”1. Such an interpretation of
Milton thus renders Mary Shelley’s own moral standpoint in the novel rather
ambiguous and makes the categories of “good” and “evil” porous.
Dream sequences recur in the works of both Mary Shelley and Milton.
While Eve’s dream sequences in Books Four and Five warn her of a
1
. HATLEN,BURTON-MILTON, MARY SHELLEY AND PATRIARCHY
prospective temptation and fall, the “Monster” usually appears before
Frankenstein in his dreams. This depiction lends itself to psychoanalytical
readings. In the divided psyche of Frankenstein one sees the co-existence of
moral, social and psychological dualities.
It is significant a rhetorical question posed by Adam to God in Paradise
Lost, forms the epigraph to Mary Shelley’s work. Burton Hatlen’s essay
asserts that the epigraph further intensifies the ambiguity of perspective that
is seen throughout the narrative-“Ambiguity characterizes the novel. The
interrogative mode of the quotation from Milton that forms the epigraph to
the novel is thus appropriate for a text that raises more questions than it
answers”.2 However, it is not mere ambiguity that the epigraph imparts. It
also anticipates the mode of critical interrogation in that is prevalent in Mary
Shelley’s work.
There is however a significant way in which Mary Shelley modifies
Milton’s epic in order to make her work amenable to feminist
interpretations. In Paradise Lost, the Fall has been largely attributed to Eve’s
transgression. This can been seen in the following lines-

Led Eve our credulous mother, to the tree


Of prohibition, root, of all our woe3

In Frankenstein, one may well say that it is the protagonist’s utter negation
of the feminine principle that leads to his moral fall. Victor Frankenstein’s
act of “creating” human life points to his attempt to usurp the female womb.
Thus by creating a story wherein the Fall of man happens, not due to the
actions of a woman, but due to the undermining of their significance, Mary
Shelley, radically questions the Miltonic myth from a feminist perspective.
The essay ‘Milton, Mary Shelley and Patriarchy’ by Burton Hatlen
observes-“ In pulling together this complex of material Paradise Lost offered
Mary Shelley, as it offered many other English writers, an invaluable
summation of the Judeo-Christian mythos of creation, or as I have here
described it, the mythos of patriarchy”.4 It is this myth that the work
questions and reverses.
This reversal can also be seen in the fact Frankenstein simultaneously enacts
the role of numerous characters from Paradise Lost. Diane Long Hoeveler in
her essay titled ‘Frankenstein, feminism and literary theory’, takes into
account the feminist critique of Frankenstein given by Gilbert and Gubar.
2
. PAGE 1, ibid
3
MILTON, JOHN-PARADISE LOST(BOOK 9, LINES 644-645)
4
PAGE 1, ibid
She observes-“Gilbert and Gubar interpret Frankenstein as “Romantic”
reading of Paradise Lost, with Victor alternately playing the roles of Adam,
Satan, and Eve. The first two roles had become fairly standard topics of
discussion in the criticism of the novel, but the last role, “Victor-as-Eve”
was to assume a distinctly important function in the evolution of American
feminist approaches to the work”5. The construction of Frankenstein as Eve
undercuts his role of a supreme male patriarch and broadens the scope of
psychoanalytical readings of the novel.
Mary Shelley also significantly subverts the idyllic vision of the Garden of
Eden as presented by Milton. Shelley describes Frankenstein’s bourgeoisie
family, with its appearance of tranquility and contentment as a modern
Edenic space. By locating the potential for violence and transgression under
such apparent peace, the novel perhaps critiques the complacency of
bourgeoisie existence and thus anticipates social revolution.
The dynamics of the creator-created relationship are operative also between
the author and novel as her creation. The tension in the novel is not merely
between the characters but also the nuanced relationship between the author
and her work which works at a metafictional level. The line “I bid my
hideous progeny to go forth and prosper”6 may be seen in this context.
The conclusion of Frankenstein is a complete reversal of the Miltonic as
well as the Judeo-Christian myth. The conclusion shows the death of
Frankenstein, the creator, along with the death of his Monster. Here too it is
important to note that Frankenstein’s death is a dishonorable one for he is
killed by his own created being. The Monster however chooses to end his
own life. This completely undercuts the notion of all-powerful mastery in
social, inter-personal and religious spheres. By ending the dialectical
struggle between the two individuals, she also perhaps, in an anachronistic
manner, lays the theoretical basis for socialist society. Thus, though Milton
grants Satan significant agency, his egalitarianism remains incomplete. This
egalitarianism is actualized in Mary Shelley’s novel.
Yet another significant point of departure from the Miltonic myth occurs
when God-like-Frankenstein and the Satan-like-Monster merge together in a
way such that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. It is thus
perhaps not a mere misinterpretation that in common parlance Frankenstein

5
. HOEVELER, DIANE LONG- FRANKENSTEIN, FEMINISM AND LITERARY THEORY(URL:
http://books.google.co.in/books?id=HCm8gzFdrawC&pg=PA45&lpg=PA45&dq=frankenstein,
+feminism+and+literary+theory:+diane+long+hoeveler&source=bl&ots=L-
r4n9LHf8&sig=Za_Ai4j7UCP_KNwzzEFigE_0tf8&hl=en&ei=OeegS6PUMtSfrAfivND5DQ&sa=X&oi=
book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CA4Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=frankenstein%2C%20feminism
%20and%20literary%20theory%3A%20diane%20long%20hoeveler)
6
. SHELLEY, MARY- FRANKENSTEIN
is often believed to be the Monster. The Monster thus completes the
destruction of Frankenstein by not merely ending his life but also by
usurping his name. It is also not merely the inversion Christian myth that
Shelley achieves by this representation. Frankenstein as a modern myth also
represents the ambiguities of morals and ethical positions which
characterizes the modern world. The portrayal does not seek to establish the
precedence of “evil” over “good” but of liberty over servitude.
Both Paradise Lost and Frankenstein are amenable to postcolonial readings.
Victor Frankenstein represents an archetypal White imperial man while
Satan’s movements in Book 9 can be likened to that of an autocratic colonial
plantation owner. However, yet again by showing the death of overarching
master, Mary Shelley completes the critique of colonialism initiated by
Milton.
The process of “making” of a “monster” has been explored in both texts.
Both texts oppose orthodox theology which subscribes to the notion of
inherent “evil”. This opposition, though covert in Milton, is quite prominent
in Mary Shelley’s work. For both Satan and the Monster, the “fall” perhaps
occurs owing to their social and psychological alienation. The following
lines from the two works when studied in connection with each other show
clear similarities of thought and theme-

Me miserable! Which way shall I flie


Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?
Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell
(Paradise Lost, Book 4, lines 73-78)7

““I expected this reception”, said the daemon. “ All men hate the wretched;
how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!””8

Mary Shelley thus is significantly influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost. The


myth of creation portrayed by Milton is employed in Frankenstein and is
interspersed with her feminist, liberal sensibilities. The juxtaposition of
opposites in Mary Shelley’s has been aptly summarized by Burton
Hatlen-“In Frankenstein Mary Shelley responds to all these dimensions of
Paradise Lost: the ‘traditional’ and the ‘revolutionary’, the cosmological and
the psychological, the political and the personal”.9
7
. MILTON, JOHN- PARADISE LOST , BOOK 4
8
SHELLEY, MARY- FRANKENSTEIN (ibid)
9
. HATLEN,BURTON-MILTON, MARY SHELLEY AND PATRIARCHY(ibid)
BIBLIOGRAPHY
PRIMARY TEXT:

1. MARY SHELLEY- FRANKENSTEIN (WORLVIEW CRITICAL


EDITION)
2. JOHN MILTON- PARADISE LOST (NORTON CRITICAL
EDITION)

SECONDARY TEXTS:
1. BURTON HATLEN-MILTON, MARY SHELLEY AND
PATRIARCHY(WORLDVIEW CRITICAL EDITION)
2. DIANE LONG HOEVELER- FRANKENSTEIN, FEMINISM AND
LITERARY THEORY (URL:http://books.google.co.in/books?
id=HCm8gzFdrawC&pg=PA45&lpg=PA45&dq=frankenstein,
+feminism+and+literary+theory:
+diane+long+hoeveler&source=bl&ots=Lr4n9LHf8&sig=Za_Ai4j7UCP_KNwzzEFigE_0t
f8&hl=en&ei=OeegS6PUMtSfrAfivND5DQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=
3&ved=0CA4Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=frankenstein%2C%20feminism%20and
%20literary%20theory%3A%20diane%20long%20hoeveler)

SRIMAYEE BASU
B.A (HONS) ENGLISH- 3RD YEAR
ROL NO: 749