Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:  What I Went in Search Of and What I Found

Jolene Zagarovich writes that “the intersection of Gothic literature with gender studies has a lengthy history” (260), which might be a bit of an understatement.  Because Shelley’s novel is well-examined in the fields of both feminist theory and gender studies, I initially looked toward representations of female gender identity as I undertook reading the work.  It seemed like a path that, though well-traveled, might yield a hidden trail.  Passages like “[Elizabeth] was docile and good-tempered, yet gay and playful as a summer insect” (65) immediately leap off the page.  Elizabeth transforms later in Victor’s eyes from “a pretty, good-natured girl, whom everyone loved and caressed” into “a woman in stature and expression of countenance, which was uncommonly lovely” (107).  I put a pin in this transformation, noting the movement from the behavioral (which is performative) to the visual.  Certainly, in a novel in which the tragic figure is considered visually repugnant, there was an opening to explore.  When his creation wakens, Victor immediately recoils, exclaiming that “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (84, emphasis mine).  There had to be something in this space between the visual and the performative.

I found the stirrings of an answer in Susan Stryker’s remarkable and foundational essay/performance “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.”  Stryker writes

The monster problematizes gender partly through its failure as a viable subject in the visual field; though referred to as “he,” it thus offers a feminine, and potentially feminist, resistance to definition by a phallicized scopophilia. The monster accomplishes this resistance by mastering language in order to claim a position as a speaking subject and enact verbally the very subjectivity denied it in the specular realm (241).

I quickly scribbled “The Looked at and the Heard” in my notebook.  The power of language in sculpting behavior and identity is an area worthy of research, one I intend to pursue.  There is work in the monster’s exhortation to “hear me, before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head” (126).  But that’s not the only place Stryker’s essay got me.

In my first graduate paper, I used the term “gender superposition,” borrowing from quantum theory the idea that a bit can be not just on or off, but in both and neither positions simultaneously.  I was describing Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of Alex De Large in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), although I may have first used the term in an undergrad paper describing Constantia in Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond or the Secret Witness.  It occurred to me while reading Stryker’s essay that recognition of the superposition still links oneself to the binary.  This may be fine when focusing on electromagnetic fields.  When discussing human identity, however, we might consider on, off, and both/neither as viable points on a continuum, but we must also consider that there is an infinite amount of space in between.


Works Cited

Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein.  Edited by D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf.  Broadview, 1999.

Stryker, Susan.  “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 1, no. 3, 1994, pp. 237–54. EBSCOhost,

Zigarovich, Jolene. “The Trans Legacy of Frankenstein.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 2018, pp. 260–272. JSTOR,



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