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)