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Jane Maree Maher

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About the author

Jane Maree Maher hold degrees in Arts & Law from the University of Melbourne and completed her doctoral studies at La Trobe University. She is currently a Lecturer at the Centre for Women's Studies & Gender Research, Monash University in Melbourne. She teaches and researches in the fields of women's studies, cultural studies and literary theory. Her current research interests include feminist theories of embodiment, reproductive technologies and representations of maternity.

Publication details

Volume 9, May 2002

Making Reproductive Meaning: Shelley, Visuality and Pregnancy

"How slowly the time passes here ... yet a second step is taken toward my enterprise."
(Shelley, 1993:1)

Modern cultural and scientific constructions of pregnancy in contemporary Western cultures circulate around two central points – origin and visibility. Genetic testing and ultrasound pictures are commonplace reproductive experiences in this context and contribute to the apparent certainty and determinability of gestation. These two structures for the interpretation of pregnancy are grounded in epistemological models that dominate scientific discourses, where modes of revelation, discovery and the charting of territory form the predominant metaphors. These activities and metaphors also underwrite the landscape of Shelley's Frankenstein too and this conjunction has sparked my interest in thinking of cultural constructions of pregnancy through the framework of Shelley's text. Despite its historical, social and contextual distance from modern practices like ultrasonography, Shelley's text offers a blueprint for thinking of pregnancy as a process rather than an object to be understood. This insight, drawn from a time of significant scientific development, may be usefully applied to some contemporary questions and debates around images and meanings of reproductive activity. In particular, Shelley's attention to how process and product are gendered in reproductive activities offers an illuminating frame for some of the metaphors and images used in contemporary Western culture for pregnancy and the work of the gestating body.

Shelley's narrative describes a young man's obsession with discovering the origin and 'spark' of life. Victor Frankenstein succeeds in animating a monster constructed from discarded human body parts. He is horrified, however, by the monster and his own hubris and rejects his creature. The creature, never named in the text, responds to this rejection by seeking revenge on a cruel world. The pair journey across continents and landscapes, finally dying together. Shelley's narrative does not offer a direct account of this story, but presents the tale inside the letters of an orphaned explorer, Robert Walton, who meets the pair as they are coming to the end of their tortured relationship. Walton's attempt to reach the North Pole has stalled in an ice floe. He tells of meeting Frankenstein and then his creature in letters to his sister. This layering of narrative sits beside the central motif of discovery through penetration to the center, either of the polar icecap or of the mysteries of human life in the text. This exploration of ways of knowing and acquiring insight Shelley's representation of reproduction and its meaning in Frankenstein.

Contemporary western understandings of pregnancy are also undergirded by a desire to penetrate the previously opaque pregnant body and to determine the origin of reproductive activity. This exploration has not literally crossed continents but has concentrated on a visual mapping of pregnancy and its genetic materials. And it has formed the ways in which we acquire knowledge about pregnancy. Views into the interior of the womb construct a landscape we then feel able to enter and explore. Fetal surgery follows from such visibility and cultural knowledge about pregnancy is determined by these referents. For Shelley's protagonists, Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton, the desire to penetrate, either the hidden and unseen mysteries of the body or the great landmasses, reflects this same nexus between visibility and the call to activity. Visions and voyage are dominated by what Shelley's sea captain, Robert Walton, describes as the “intellectual eye” (Shelley 1993:14). Shelley's critical exploration of the limits of this eye underpins my exploration of reproductive meaning in Frankenstein and its potential for rethinking some contemporary constructions of reproduction.

The connection between Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and scientific reproductive discourses has provoked many critical accounts of the novel. In my view, the continuing critical interest in this text is located in its structural engagement with the processes of science and the production of knowledge as much as it is located in the subject matter of the plot. Janine Marchessault argues that the particular relevance of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is found in its 'refusal to oppose essence to construction or nature to history' (Marchessault 2000:55). This comment refers to the shifting terrain that Shelley maps in Frankenstein, the rejection of simple binaries and determined contours in the complex social, cultural and temporal framework of the text. I argue that contemporary Western cultural constructions of gestation are generally focused on the 'moment in time' imprints of pregnancy offered through visual technologies and origin markers like genetic testing and that this representational framework leads to an occlusion of the fundamentally incremental nature of gestation. This focus on a reproductive moment echoes Shelley's description of the coming to life of Frankenstein's monster, with a “convulsive motion” (Shelley 1993:45).

But Shelley's text questions whether a reproductive moment can fully reflect the steady animation of the fetus through many convulsions, flutters and exchanges of bodily fluids across the placenta. It is this emphasis on the weight and meaning of time in the physiological processes of gestation that is embedded and acknowledged in the structure of Frankenstein. Shelley's narrative frame focuses attention on the importance of time and offers a productive re-reading of gestation that focuses on process rather than the instantaneous “creation”, in either a genetic or visual mode. I focus particularly on the temporal shifts in Shelley's novel and the way in which the text frames Victor Frankenstein's learning process as part of his epistemological vision and its fatal limits. Shelley's text suggests an alternate movement through time in the framing structures of her novel. In a multitude of ways, the privileging of origin and visible knowledge, acquired by the 'intellectual eye', is challenged in Frankenstein.

Here, I offer an outline of the key feminist analyses of visual technologies that are relevant to my examination of reproduction. In conjunction, I argue that Frankenstein's focus on the role of the maternal is more properly read as a focus on the engagements and activities of gestation. Finally, I examine Shelley's use of time in the text: in the descriptions of Victor Frankenstein's intellectual progress: in the confusions of date and location in Walton's letters, and the cascading narrative structure, arguing that these strategies offer new models for thinking gestational activity as process rather than product.

The process of pregnancy

For many feminist writers, modern pregnancy has become a paradoxical cultural figure. It is highly visible through the routine use of reproductive technologies like ultrasound. This visibility, however, has not necessarily equated with a closer attention to the processes and meanings of pregnancy itself. Instead, it has functioned to construct gestation as a field for intervention. Rather than increased visibility leading to increased symbolic or cultural weight of gestation, there has been a partial occlusion of the specificity of pregnancy that is intensified and expressed in the routine use of visual technologies to read and interpret pregnancy. The epistemological paradigms of Western medicine are dominated by the image as the key vector for full and valid knowledge. The shape and feel of the pregnant belly, either internally or externally, is no longer the point of contact for knowledge about pregnancy. Rather, images of the interior, which bring the fetus into focus, are the primary transmission points of knowledge about gestation. This “looked through” quality of the previously opaque pregnant belly has crossed over from medical science into the popular imagination. The belly is now an easily interpreted symbol – small baby here! In newspapers, on public transport, in advertising, the bump is depicted with a child inside. Images of pregnant bodies are taken to be a representation of a mother and a child, rather than the depiction of a unified, complex physiological state. As a result of visually acquired understandings of the corporeal, we render the pregnant body and the fetal body as two. We fail to see the 'embodied unity represented there', the importance of the ongoing processes of gestation, that are actually the precondition of the state of pregnancy (Vasseleu 1991:56).

This focus on the visual presentation of pregnancy has had important cultural and social outcomes. Given that the images of pregnancy focus on the health and development of the fetus, the import of the visibility of the pregnant woman has shifted to her responsibility to the fetus (Duden 1993). The pregnant woman can be viewed as the vessel, rather than as the precondition for the continuing existence of the fetus. As Cynthia Daniels has noted, the distinction between mother and fetus facilitated by scientific explorations of the pregnant body has been essential for feminist reconfigurations of motherhood in abortion debates, for example, but has also proved inadequate for expressing 'the relational nature of pregnancy' (Daniels 1993: 5).

The inadequacy of science to understand and examine the interrelatedness of reproduction is also addressed in Shelley's narrative in Frankenstein. David Thomson describes a fascinating tension between the excessive nature of the material in Shelley's novel and the sometimes fussy insistence of the prose (Thomson 1995:17). This tension can also be found in contemporary Western representations of gestation. The endless repetition of pregnancy across time and cultures can lead to a sense of everydayness that masks the excessive, undirected nature of gestation. Pregnancy becomes notable in a Western cultural context only as the site of particular technological interventions or, in certain other contexts, as a potential health hazard for the fetus. This leads to a lack of signification for seemingly ordinary physiological processes of gestation. Much more cultural attention is given to the potentially harmful crossover in the placenta than is given to the endless crossover of productive fluid that enables fetal development. While these processes form the primary object of medical attention, they are disconnected from the pregnant woman since they are viewed through technological lenses and scientific paradigms of knowledge.

The contemporary Western cultural assignment of maternal identity to the pregnant body may be seen as partly reflective of or even responsive to this disjunction. Since pregnancy is framed in medico-scientific terms, affective emphasis is given, instead, to the activity of “motherhood” in and through pregnancy. But the physiological processes should not be loosely characterised as 'maternal' as this suggests an intentional aspect in these activities of the reproductive body. While the embodied pregnant subject may feel maternal, this subjective frame is not the one that drives the process of gestation. One may stop a pregnancy once conceived, but one does not determine conception by processes of the will nor does one direct the formation of the placenta, the production of pregnancy hormones or the softening of the cervix in preparation for the birth. In pregnancy, the fantasy of domination over the body must be negotiated within bodily processes that are not subjectively directed. Yet this figuration where physiology is as important as the subjective in the process of pregnancy is often subsumed beneath a concentration on pregnant women as 'mothers-to-be'. Maternal subjectivity is not the key driver of the processes of pregnancy, but our references to pregnancy emphasise the identity of mother in the pregnant embodied subject.

In Shelley's text, the exploration of the relationship between maternal identity and gestational process is fundamental to the narrative. Mothers are largely dead in the text and gestation emerges and is represented in the extraordinary charnel house creation by Victor Frankenstein. These two aspects of the text are intimately connected. Victor's life is redirected by the death of his mother. Elizabeth has no mother. The de Lacey family that educates the Monster in his wooden hovel is without a mother, as is the young Turkish woman Safie that becomes Felix's wife. Captain Robert Walton, charged with carrying the story of Frankenstein and his creature to the world and the reader, is also an orphan like all characters in the text. “No mother had I to bless me” says the Monster, (Shelley 1993:94) speaking for them all. But this absence of mothers does not equate to the absence of a gestational frame in Frankenstein. The lack of a maternal figure acts as the initiating force for Victor's project to create life in order that he can control it. And his tale of creation has superficial resonance with childbirth narratives. He gathers, works and waits to be acknowledged as the “creator of a new species” (Shelley 1993:43). The “grin [that] wrinkles” the Monster's cheek (Shelley 1993:46) at the point of his coming to life recalls that of the generic toothless baby. But there are key distinctions between this act of generation and the incremental process of gestation. Rather than acting as the initial phase of a relationship, this process leads to complete disassociation. The instant that animates the Monster is also the instant that Victor repudiates him.

In evaluating the use of childbirth metaphors, Susan Stanford Friedman makes the point that women's association with reproduction has precluded them from the possibility of production (1989:76). Victor's activity is a flight toward product that proves inadequate preparation for his reproductive outcomes. His assembling of relevant facts and material elements cannot offer a meaningful frame for the entirety of the enterprise. As medical science with all its omniscient vision of the pregnant women's body continues to struggle to master pregnancy and birth, Victor's scientific assay does not succeed in casting aside the need for temporal engagement and connection in the process of gestation. It seems clear that dominion over the parts of the body cannot adequately replicate the import of the embodied activity of gestation. Lack of attention to the process of creation leads to carnage in Frankenstein. No conflation of pregnancy and maternal subjectivity is possible in this frame – there are no mothers and gestation is masculine, non-nurturing and ultimately unsuccessful.

Not only metaphorically, but physiologically, the pregnant body insists on attention to process. In pregnancy, there is conflation, confusion and temporal contiguity of two differing entities that coexist in one corporeal space. These entities can be seen to have differing projects; one is engaged in a process of nurture, the other in a process of development. Yet, the precondition of gestation is that these two entities cohere. Without connection, there is no pregnancy and it is the ongoing connection that eventually allows for the process to move toward differentiation in birth. This aspect of pregnancy is often absent from contemporary reproductive narratives, as it is absent from Victor's account. The life of the infant is “seen” to commence at birth with its departure from the mother's body. This constitutes the act of reproduction as momentary; it offers temporal parity to the maternal and paternal involvement - it privileges the father at the moment of ejaculation, the mother at the moment of the “push”. It occludes gestation, as a process constituted in and through time.

This attention to the temporal process is made explicit in Frankenstein in the contrasting pedagogical and epistemological development of Victor Frankenstein and the Monster. Victor's time at university is marked by a frantic and rapid, almost rabid, consumption of knowledge. His 'unremitting ardour' (Shelley 1993:43) leads him to 'outstrip' all his professors (Shelley 1993:54). His deep immersion in his epistemological task means that the change of season; 'the blossom [and] the expanding leaves' (Shelley 1993:44), makes no impression on him. Although his pursuits are in the natural sciences, in “life” as it were, Shelley's text repeatedly marks how the frenetic pace of Frankenstein's activity worked to obscure the structures and meaning of “life” rather than reveal it. The description of Victor's disconnection, while at university, from those around him and his family in Geneva, functions as a rehearsal of the actual deaths that will occur as a result of his labours. His headlong rush toward 'the accomplishment of his toils' is an inherently problematic project in the narrative development.

The Monster's acquisition of knowledge, on the other hand, is an exhaustively described and incremental process. From the outset of the Monster's narrative, there are details of the first feelings of sun and water on his body: attention is given to each experience, each encounter with the other and to the acquisition of each individual skill. There are echoes of developmental narratives in this part of the text – the Monster's acquisition of language is laid out in terms of mimicry, response and desire that are familiar in psychoanalytic accounts of coming to speech, but the structure functions to slow and concentrate the reader's attention. 'The energy of [Victor's] purpose' (Shelley 1993:45) is replaced with comprehensive descriptions of each day's activities; the 'bread, cheese, milk and wine .. of the shepherd's breakfast' (Shelley 1993:82). The Monster's 'surprise and grief' at the decay of the leaves and the onset of winter (Shelley 1993:101) directly confronts Victor's insensible passage through the changing seasons. This distinction is intensified as one considers the cultural respect accorded to scientific accounts of life and the apparent banality of the child learning and uttering its first words. Shelley's text reverses this attention and respect. The textual space dedicated to the search for the origin of life fills little more than six pages. By contrast, the Monster's description of his coming into being lasts more than thirty. In this inversion in textual structure and weight, the relative value accorded to the mastery of a discipline and to the engagement in the pedagogical process is marked. Victor Frankenstein himself is brought to this realisation when he learns the Oriental languages with Clerval after his scientific conquest. 'I did not contemplate making any other use of them', Victor says and thus finds joy and melancholy that soothes his unquiet mind (Shelley 1993:54).

The scientific association of knowledge and sight is interleaved in these differing epistemological accounts. Frankenstein's laboratory activity is consistently framed through vision. His 'eyes swim', his 'eye-balls ... start from their sockets' (Shelley 1993:43) as he pursues his quest. His activity is framed in the language of visibility: his attention is fixed upon objects (Shelley 1993:41), his 'vision' is designed to lead him to enlightenment out of darkness. The perspective of the Monster's narrative counters this framing. Everything he learns, he sees through a crack in the side of the de Lacey's cottage. Fullness of sight is not that which offers education. Indeed, it is only the blinded old Mr de Lacey who is able to “see” the Monster's true virtue. Sight is continually inscribed as an imperfect reflection of the truth and as the sense that leads to the Monster's rejection and his consequent murderous lusts. The moments of true civilisation for the Monster come through sensation – 'the loveliness of the sunshine and the balminess of the air' arouse gentle emotions (Shelley 1993:108) and calm his rage, while visibility presents only a threat. Sight, with its apparently instantaneous interpretative function, is registered as an imperfect vector for knowledge. Frankenstein rejected the monster in an instant on seeing him – this proved a fatal mistake. Processes of learning that take time, on the other hand, are valourised in Shelley's text as offering real insight. This attention to time is specifically addressed in the structuring device of Walton's letters, which present the story of Frankenstein and his monster to the reader.

Taking time to see clearly

Although the reader is drawn into action in Shelley's text that appears temporally coherent, the framing device of Robert Walton's letters reveals the impossibility of the narrative “present”. These letters recount Frankenstein's story and contain the Monster's narrative to the reader, but the process that delivers them to the reader is not revealed. The reader leaves the ship in the ice floe and the letters in the ship. This disjunction of narrative and reception is an important one that furthers intensifies the distance already engaged through the structural frame of the letters. Knowledge in this text is not presented mimetically. The temporal activity of reading and interpreting is made explicit as we are always already reading letters addressed to someone else and we do not know when or how we are reading them. All our reports are on the page, at a remove from the action.

This uncertain narrative beginning emphasised in the lack of year on Walton's letters, stresses temporal location in all communications and engagements. In the broader context of the text's attention to mitigating its excessive material through attention to “realistic” detail, it signals an important lacuna. This attention to detail often appears clumsy. Walton's letter to a beloved and apparently intimate sister that narrates why he has begun his journey – 'you may remember' (Shelley 1993:60) – demonstrates a desire to provide a clear origin for his travels, even at the expense of dramatic verisimilitude, since she could not possibly have forgotten. In the Preface, Shelley seeks to situate the substantive content of the tale in the realms of scientific possibility. She refers to Darwin and asserts that she 'preserves the truth of the elementary principles of human nature, while [she has] not scrupled to innovate upon their combinations'. She argues the possible, rather than the improbable, for her horror tale. Yet, at the end of all of these indicators of “real” provenance, the origin of the letters remains unexplained.

The temporal unreliability indicated by the letters operates within the overlapping tales also, as there are significant gaps where time is lost. Clerval restores Frankenstein to full consciousness after his Monster-induced collapse by offering a letter from Elizabeth that has already lain at his side for several days (Shelley 1993:50). Frankenstein's father sends the account of William's murder four days after the boy's death. Even then, the father considered not writing (Shelley 1993:56-7). Walton's final notes indicate that Frankenstein's tale has taken a week to unfold on his ship, yet the narrative is seamless, unbroken by real action, such as sleep or nourishment. In all these inscriptions, the question of origin, that animates Victor Frankenstein's frantic search, is always effectively barred from view. As Frankenstein refuses to reveal the secret he has uncovered, all actions are loosed from their origin. Justine is executed for the murder of William that she did not commit. Frankenstein rages against the Monster for this crime, although he is clear at the foundation of this misfortune. Even his professed wish to save Justine by confessing to the crime is foiled by his absence from Geneva at the time (p. 64). Like the dates at the beginning of each letter, the starting point is always somewhat obscure. Even the multi-layered narrative structure where each tale springs from inside the account of another intensifies this lack of a clear beginning: Frankenstein speaks from Walton's letters, the Monster from Frankenstein's account.

In these temporal dislocations, knowledge is produced is through exchange and relation. Frankenstein can tell his tale because Walton cares for him aboard the ship. Walton receives the Monster's final assurances that Frankenstein had vainly sought through fruitless months of tracking. Although Victor continued to catch glimpses of the Monster, he could never find him. The point of beginning, of conception, never forms the point where the narrative is produced. Instead, narrative is constructed through a series of temporal engagements and connections that shift and flow. Seeing or knowing the beginning is finally rejected in this text as valuable: the denouement of Frankenstein is 'lost in darkness and distance' (Shelley 1993:170). It is the process of knowing that carries the weight of Shelley's text and its meaning.

The accent on time as the most important aspect for knowledge and insight in preference to determinate and visible origin is made clear through these textual limitations. The death and destruction in the text represent a challenge to scientific tales of derring-do, but the structure also emphasises that the desire for product over process as doomed to failure. The Monster does finally offer his promise to do no further harm, but to Walton and not to Frankenstein for whom the securing of such a promise had become life's only ambition. Shelley's complex temporal narrative frame privileges interaction and contiguity over product of which there is none in Frankenstein.

The “intellectual eye” that Walton described at the outset, I argue, is one that structures discrete bounded objects and separates them. It presents epistemological questions as individual puzzles to be mastered. It is this eye that Shelley's text, both through its content and its structure, contests as the most useful mode for acquiring knowledge of processes of creation and discovery. Her use of letters, conversation and shifting narrative circles emphasise the processes by which knowledge is produced and understood. The intellectual eye, the one that sees each entity as discrete, is fatally deceived in Frankenstein. This processual reproductive matter of Shelley's text leads us to the reproductive matter of our own cultural constructions of pregnancy.


The visible registers of pregnancy that predominate in our cultural landscapes offer two entities in the form of the single pregnant body. Rather than a vision of the multiple and entwined body/subject exchanges that are irreducible in pregnancy, these Western contemporary visual readings confirm the singularity and divisibility of the fetal and maternal entities. But these modes of visualisation, which result in the cultural icon of the anthropomorphic fetus, run directly counter to common scientific understandings of fetal development. In their presentation of the fetus as formed, they deny epigenesis, the widely accepted model of fetal development. Rather than representing a process where the embryo becomes more complex morphologically at each point, visual technologies are read as presenting a fully formed fetal “human”. Size is the only element of change that is recognised. Nancy Tuana has argued that epigenesis has been scientifically established and recognized for some time, but has not really impacted on understandings of pregnancy. Even while the developmental interaction is noted empirically, its mechanical representation is continued (Tuana 1990:82). Although such visual modes of intervention in pregnancy have become the preferred method of identification and understanding, there is space to contest the implications of such knowledge. Instead of determining truth through the dissecting frame of vision, as Foucault described the operation of the clinical gaze in The Birth of the Clinic (1973), the Monster constructed from corpses in Frankenstein is re-animated inside the frame of time. For pregnancy and gestation, these are clear statements about the incremental nature of gestation rather than the fixed and instantaneous images suggested by genetic testing or ultrasonography. Shelley's focus on time and process offers a reformulation of gestation where “darkness and distance” are conceived as an integral part of the picture, not an aspect of it that requires immediate excision.


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