Celebrated literary critic, Barbara Johnson dissects Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to discover Shelley's "proto-feminist" message.
Now a shoe-in for any self-respecting English curriculum from high school through graduate studies, the 1818 novel, Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley, has been ascribed as the archetypal text of the horror genre, adapted innumerable times for print and TV, and has become a vigorous source of discussion in contemporary critical circles.
Though Mary Shelley is now a mainstay of multiple literary genres—including Romanticism, British, and Gothic literature, Science Fiction, and even the eponymous discipline of Mary Shelley Studies—her ascendance to canon-hood was far from inevitable. Daughter to a philosopher-novelist and a famous feminist, and wife of the poet de résistance of the 19th century, Shelley’s career may have been doomed to wilt under these formidable shadows were it not for the ministrations of the celebrated literary critic and professor, Barbara Johnson.
Johnson was among the first, if not the first, to link feminism and deconstruction and one of her favorite vehicles for this project, was the analysis of the works and life of Mary Shelley. In 1979 when five star critics of the “Yale School” (also coined by Johnson as the Male School) published Deconstruction and Criticism, Johnson and her colleagues imagined a critical rejoinder:
At the time of the publication of . . . Deconstruction and Criticism, several of us—Shoshana Felman, Gayatri Spivak, Margaret Ferguson, and I—discussed the possibility of writing a companion volume inscribing female deconstructive protest and affirmation centering not on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Triumph of Life’ (as the existing volume was originally slated to do) but on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (28)
Unfortunately this female counter-manifesto (which took on the witty working title, Bride of Deconstruction and Criticism) never came to fruition. But as Cathy Caruth writes in her Foreword to A Life With Mary Shelley, “the women who write in this volume may finally have animated that long-forgotten monstrous Bride.” At its core, the book achieves a similar project as the one imagined over thirty years ago: its chief object of analysis is Mary Shelley; its M.O., to decode Frankenstein, by way of deconstruction, in order to discover the psychic interior of the author.
The book, divided into two sections, focuses first on Johnson’s classic essays exploring Shelley, deconstruction, and the near monopoly of masculine voices in high theory in academe, circa 1980. Attention shifts in the latter portion to a 5-chapter manuscript on Mary Shelley’s major literary influences—Johnson’s last work. Perhaps the most prominent undercurrent, which runs from those early essays clear through to her final theoretical contribution, is her reading of Shelley’s magnum opus as a fundamentally autobiographical text of distinctly feminine origin.
Mary Shelley famously referred to Frankenstein as her “hideous progeny”; in response to this characterization Johnson writes, “the reader begins to suspect that there may perhaps be meaningful parallels between Victor’s creation of his monster and Mary’s creation of her book”—that the book itself is, in some way, a monstrous creation. This forms Johnson’s point of departure, as she interrogates how Shelley identified with her own text. What follows is an insightful commentary on the nature of women’s writing, women’s selfhood, and the confluence of both in women’s autobiography, all assessed through the lens of Shelley’s life and work, and those of her literary contemporaries.
Punctuating these explorations are commentaries from Johnson’s colleagues and fellow theorists, Mary Wilson Carpenter, Judith Butler, and Shoshana Felman, whose Preface and Afterwords draw these two writers—the novelist and the critic—into parallel. While Johnson explicates the significance and signification of a female author recovered from the vault of Romanticism, Carpenter, Butler, and Felman underscore Johnson’s own considerable contributions to literary exegesis, feminism, and deconstruction.
Caruth notes in her Foreword, that altogether these theorists, with Johnson at the helm, form “part of a circle of women listeners and writers that did not quite exist for Mary Shelley and even now may be less a completed circle than a call for others to join a future narrative and critical group.”