Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Fate of the Earth
Theodore Roszak comments on his latest book
- a novel - The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein.
[ EL #24, Winter 1996-97, p 26]
Why do we call the environmental crisis we are living through today "the rape of the Earth?" Why does that phrase seem so appropriate? Could it be because rape is the violent caricature of union? And union, the healing of our divided soul, is what technological power needs in order to be used with wisdom? At the center of her classic tale Frankenstein, Mary Shelley placed a love story, a tragic love story of a marriage - a union, as she always called it - that failed to take place. In writing the greatest of all Gothic tales, I believe she found the myth that addresses all the great questions of environmental destruction and healing. I could think of no better way to honor the insights she had buried in her novel than to tell the story again in her words and mine, this time bringing out all that lay hidden in the surrounding shadows of the tale. The very act of assuming a woman's voice to do that was transformative. Each time I fell into that voice, I felt I was learning something I could not learn in any other way. I was opening myself to the possibility of seeing many things - a broken marriage, a failed love, the loss of a child, an act of rape and abandonment - as a woman would know these things. Of course I needed help. But that very act of asking women - some of them ecofeminist activists, some feminist psychologists, some artists, some midwives, some practicing witches - was part of my education. I hope I have done justice to what they had to teach. Above all I hope I have given Mary Shelley the voice she could not assume in her own day. At the conclusion of The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein, Elizabeth, having discovered the dark truth about Victor's experiments, is driven mad. But her madness is prophetic. She sees all about her the death of nature in our time at the hands of Frankensteinian science. These are her final words as she waits in her bridal chamber for her "belated wedding guest," the monster who has vowed to take her life. In the original novel, Mary Shelley strongly hints that Elizabeth's death is a sacrificial act carried out in love and surrender.
...I stare long at the great canopied bed that fills most of the chamber. I think: Tonight, were I any other newly-wedded woman, I would be meant to lie in this bed as naked as I stand now, wrapped in my husband's passionate embrace, learning the lawful delights of the flesh. Tonight, were I any other women, I would stand at the threshold of a lifetime's delights of the flesh. Tonight, were I any other woman, I would stand at the threshold of a lifetime's fulfillment as loving wife and mother. But this shall not be for me. I shall lie upon this bed like the sacrificial lamb awaiting the expiatory stroke. And I shall not rise to see the light of day again.
I have this brief time, this hour... I am impelled to write. I will leave these words... I see the death of the world. I see great machines in the womb of the Earth. And I see the mountains crumbling. And I see the lightening chained and made a slave of men. And I see great Nature humbled. And I hear the sky roaring with an iron voice. And I see the Earth sprout a deadly garden of billowing fume, by tens and by hundreds great blossoming flowers of fire. And I hear the electricity speak with a million voices. And I see the men building cities that have no need of sun or moon... And I see the men conjuring their fantasies out of captive matter... And I see monsters bowing down to their makers and rising up against them. And I hear the rapping at the window and know who is there. And I hear myself greet my belated wedding guest. And I hear myself ask for the mercy of forgetfulness. And I see myself lie down upon this bed. I see myself stretched upon this bed. I see myself a naked offering. I see myself the last woman on Earth. The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein has just been released in paperback by Bantam Books. The book received the the 1996 James Tiptree Award, a prize given by the feminist science fiction writers for "literature that expands our understanding of gender." ###
Theodore Roszak is Professor of History and Director of the Ecopsychology Institute at California State University, Hayward. He is the author of The Voice of the Earth and senior editor of Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, (a best-selling Sierra Club Book). The eco-psychology website can be visited at Ecopsychology On-Line.
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