(Literally) Constructing Gender in Frankenstein Adaptations


This week’s theme was adaptations, to include the 1823 play “Presumption” by Richard Brinsley Peake, a melodramatic production heavy on the show tunes and with plenty of gypsies.  There’s even a comedic moment with a duck.  It’s almost if Mel Brooks channeled Peake 150 years later.

Dr. Frankenstein has gone mad by the time the curtain lifts on the first act, having lost himself in “the alchemical art.”  The (potential) bride of Frankenstein in this version is his lost love, Agatha, who he pines for in soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 3, and with Elizabeth in Act 2, Scene 1.  We find out that the loss of Agatha, a beautiful Arabian girl, is what drove him to “deep and fatal experiments.”  The idea of reuniting with her brings him some hope.  Unfortunately, she will become a victim of the creature, although its motivation for killing her is vague, unlike in Shelley’s novel.  With Agatha gone, Frankenstein kills himself and the monster in an avalanche.

In both life and death, her role in the play is as a source of Frankenstein’s angst.  Like the other women in the play, she exists only as far as the reflection or mood of one of the male characters, save perhaps the maid Ninon.  The significant women in the play, Elizabeth, Safie, and Ninon, all start or end up married, reflecting the loss of a similar happiness to Frankenstein and Agatha.  This becomes not only his reason to want to kill the monster, but himself.

We know a great deal of what we know about the Frankenstein mythos from James Whale’s classic films Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  While there is some consideration of gender construction in the former, it is in the latter’s divergence from the novel (or, as the film’s plot suggests, Shelley’s own revision of the story) we find literal gender construction.  It is in the movement from Elsa Lanchester as Shelley and then the Bride we see the transformation from an idealized view of a high society woman into something quite alien.

In the first shot, Shelley is at once demure and alluring, sexualized innocence which obfuscates smoldering intensity.

Elsa Lanchester Mary Shelley


What we have in the bride is not so much monstrous as alien.  The bride’s features are exaggerated versions of Shelley’s, the intensity now revealed.  She transfixes everyone, from the monster to (now Henry) Frankenstein to the eerie Dr. Pretorius.  She develops agency by rejecting her arranged marriage, a decision for which she pays in the monster’s murder-suicide.  In 1935, women expressing willpower must be dealt with in no uncertain terms.

Elsa Lanchester Bride


In Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Helena Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth is much like Lanchester’s with a touch more melancholy thrown in.


Carter Elizabeth

It is Elizabeth who becomes the bride after the monster kills her, as Victor attempts to recover his love, but she is a disfigured version of her old self due to his reconstruction efforts.

Carter Bride

Realizing her monstrosity in her similarity to Robert De Niro’s “sharp-featured man,” she expresses agency in a more modern fashion.  As Victor and the monster argue and battle over who she belongs to, she defines ownership—by immolating herself.  In final death, she claims a power she did not have in life.

Feminine agency in Frankenstein and its many adaptations is an arena worthy of study, and it’s down that road that we’ll head in future weeks.



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