Patriarchal Fantasy and the Fecal Child in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and its Adaptations

This essay tries to account for the power that gives Mary Shelley's Frankenstein its unusual place in literary and cultural history. The central thesis is that the fantasy of male creation, a fantasy the novel straightforwardly connects to Paradise Lost and Genesis, refers consistently to the infantile sexual theory of birth by defecation. The power of Mary Shelley's novel has much to do with its exposure of this reference. The novel associates the infantile yet authoritative fantasy of male birth with a pre-Oedipal economy of gift-giving and womb envy that is desperately at odds, in the text, with the Oedipal economy of castration and exchange. The result is that Shelley's novel denaturalizes patriarchal authority and radically subverts its Western mythic or religious foundation. But at the same time the novel recuperates and conceals its own anti-patriarchal critical power by ultimately forcing Frankenstein and his creature to submit to an Oedipal rivalry based on the creature's desire to enter the sex/gender system ideally represented to him by the De Lacey family. The early stage adaptations and the later cinematic tradition even more emphatically recuperate patriarchal authority by making castration and rivalry into the plot's dominant motifs.