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Written by Timothy Sexton
Degradation by a Concurrence of Circumstances
In her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Shelley's mother--Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley--asserts that no room for debate exists over the fact that women are “degraded by a concurrence of circumstances." Her father’s textbook on anarchy, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, essentially argues that the ability to use reason in the name of self-rule is inescapably hindered rather than an assisted by powerful institutions.
Even more so than the novel from which it was adapted, the 1931 film version of Frankenstein uses the physical manifestation of the Creature to explore themes related to being “degraded by a concurrence of circumstances” as well as institutional obstructions to a degraded character being allowed to use reason in the name self-rule. In other words, by distilling Mary Shelley's novel down to the bare essentials of a scientist who creates a degraded form of life which nevertheless aches to be understood as a creature of reason, Frankenstein touches upon issues that had clearly been whirling around the Godwin household since Mary was a baby. Maybe the dissemination of those ideas into a simple horror film was merely a case of osmosis, or maybe it was the work of a writer and director that intuitively understood the basic nature of the source material, but the film clearly pursues a thematic path that ultimately must be understood as one equating its creator with her most evocative creation.
One of those concurrence of circumstances is the curious lack of a strong female character in the novel and an even greater dearth of powerful feminity in the film. Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth cleary fails to fulfill the expectations of a model of radically progressive femininity that might be expected from the offspring of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. While this absence seems inexplicable at first, the more one learns about Mary Shelley, the more clearly the film's theme of comes into view.
Far more than in the novel, the cinematic realization of Frankenstein’s creature is viewed with immediate and intense suspicion and is endowed with irrefutable inferiority by every adult with whom he comes in contact. The Creature is incapable of not being viewed as incomplete,unfinished and stitched together from a collection of others, as it were. This degradation of the circumstances of his origin eventually can be explained--whether by intention or merry accident--as a thematically coherent answer to the question: where is Mary Shelley in Hollywood's Frankenstein?
Mary Shelley almost certainly must have felt that she was viewed as inferior because she was a woman and even among those among whom she moved who famousy took up arms in the battle against misogyny, she might still have developed an inferiority complex on the fear that others saw her only in terms of the lofty company she kept. A company they may not have felt she had the intellect to keep up with.
The absence of any strong female protagonist in Frankenstein becomes thematically explicable because it is Boris Karloff's exquisitely reasoning Creature who is the real doppelganger of the female author of his story. When one examines the story behind the story of the making of this film all the way back to its core center at which Mary Shelley stands alone, the greatest change one may experience in revisiting Frankenstein becomes how easy it is look at Boris Karloff and his big metal bolts and realize that Frankenstein’s Creature transforms into a woefully underestimated young teenage girl in a long flowing gown sitting among a group of men with a sly smile more mysterious than that of the Mona Lisa playing about her lips.
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