She’s Alive!: Anxieties and Animations of the Female Monster
From its conception, throughout its creation, and to the point of its destruction, Frankenstein’s female monster is shrouded in anxiety. In fact, the unborn character of the female creature is frequently overlooked in Mary Shelley’s novel, in which Frankenstein’s (male) monster is usually the focal point. Through this essay, however, I aim to shift the spotlight from the male to the female creature in order to reveal some of the underlying fears surrounding the female monster—fears that are present in not only Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but also James Whale’s film Bride of Frankenstein, and subsequently John Logan’s television series, Penny Dreadful. While Mary Shelley never actually brings the female monster to life in her novel, she introduces the possibility of a female monster that comes to fruition in these later adaptations.
The female monster’s notable absence in the novel, as well as subsequent presence in these adaptations, can be read as salient manifestations of the anxiety of an uncontrollable female sexuality. This anxiety manifests itself in a fragmented body. As Shelley plants the seed of the female monster in the text, Whale harvests it in 1935 by imagining a version in which the female monster is animated. Whale’s film animates the corpse Victor destroys in Shelley’s text, playing out Victor Frankenstein’s fear that the female monster might reject her mate. Whale’s depiction of this rejection forces the audience to confront their anxiety of feminine hybridity by directing their gaze to a creature who is human, animal, woman, and bride. Given these abundant anxities, there is no question as to why she was never given a chance at life in the novel and why she is destroyed so abruptly after her animation in Bride of Frankenstein.
Without ever bringing the female monster to life as a character in the novel, Mary Shelley plants the imaginative seed of a female companion in the minds of her readers. While Frankenstein’s monster and the animation scene receive a surplus of critical attention, the female monster is not usually afforded the same degree of consideration; this may be because Victor destroys her before she is ever born. However, Shelley gives the female monster a less literal kind of birth; in Frankenstein, Shelley creates the female monster as a concept. The creature tells Victor, “I am alone, and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects. This being you must create” (Shelley 118). As Shelley writes the creature’s demand, the female monster begins to take shape in the mind of the reader. As such, it enters a conceptual space as a “deformed and horrible” companion “of the same species.” These are the descriptors that help bring the creature to life for the reader, even if Victor does not.
It is worth noting, however, that Frankenstein’s monster does not describe his companion as female—instead, he immediately uses a feminine pronoun. The sense of immediacy implied by the automatic use of this pronoun births both the companion and her female identity simultaneously. Given these very specific terms, Frankenstein’s monster is doing much of the creating himself. Despite his lack of involvement in the literal piecing together of the female monster’s body, the monster sets demands that attempt to control the female monster before she is even animated. Through words alone, the monster—and of course, Shelley—shape the female monster as a character, despite her existence as only an unborn concept.
Victor Frankenstein grapples with the decision of whether or not to meet the demands of his creature. Ultimately, he agrees to create a female companion for his creature and engages in what he deems “a filthy process,” in which “[his] mind was intently fixed on the sequel of [his] labor, and [his] eyes were shut to the horror of [his] proceedings” (Shelley 137). This diction implies that the making of the female monster is somehow more difficult than the first creature; it is not necessarily more difficult in the labor itself, but Frankenstein’s reaction to his work becomes “intermixed with obscure forebodings of evil” during the long creation process of the female monster (Shelley 137). Victor’s own anxiety about creating a female monster is absorbed and embodied by this unborn creature through Victor’s physical act of laboring with her. Victor frequently mentions his work, labor, occupation, or creation; the female monster is described as a process, not as a complete entity. In this way, Erin Hawley argues that the female monster’s body is a metaphor for silencing: “Her unfinished body represents or reminds us of her incomplete story, and of the abrupt way she is vanished from the narrative of Frankenstein when Victor casts her into the sea” (Hawley 220). Referring to the female creature only as an unfinished process calls attention to the fact that she is never given a narrative or even a chance at life in the novel.
Before completing and animating the female monster, Victor Frankenstein is overcome with the need to “consider the effects of what [he] was now doing” (Shelley 138). Victor is filled with many fears concerning the female monster that all circle around the enigmatic word—might:
I was now about to form another being of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate…[she] might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other…might he [the creature] not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She might also turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him and he be again alone. (Shelley 138)
Victor’s chaotic thoughts reflect his anxiety about the uncontrollable nature of the female creature. Ignorant of how she will look, behave, and feel towards the already-completed monster, Frankenstein is afraid of unleashing unknown, unforeseeable possibilities when he brings the female monster to life. At the forefront of these fears is female sexuality; her desire may be independent of what Victor or the creature have in mind. Victor, in particular, is principally concerned that he may not be able to control this conceptually malignant female being. If the female creature were to be animated, she would have the individualized desire to choose her mate; Victor’s lack of control over the sexuality of the female monster is enough of a threat to his patriarchal power as creator to make him destroy his creation before it is ever animated.
Although the female monster is never given the chance to have her own narrative in the novel, Shelley’s unfinished female creature inspired others to being her to life. For example, James Whale animates the female monster in his 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein, a sequel to Frankenstein (1931), also directed by Whale. Whale’s adaptation goes beyond the story Shelley tells in her novel by bringing the female monster to life. Cleverly, Whale saves the animation scene for the very end, building the audience’s anticipation and essentially using her animation to drive the entire film.
In her analysis of Bride of Frankenstein, Erin Hawley begins with the trailer itself: “The trailer shows us tantalizing shots of the spectacular creation scene but keeps its title character hidden from the audience—the words ‘What will she LOOK like?’ are superimposed over a shot of the bandaged bride (222). A large part of the film’s marketing was concerned with attracting people based on that exact question. People came to see the film to fulfill their curiosity: what would a creature who is human, animal, and female even look like? Hawley writes that Bride of Frankenstein “has the power to imag(in)e the unimaginable, to bring something out of the shadows” (Ibid.). As a film, it utilizes the advantage of representing the female monster in a visible physical space. The film has the ability to capture what the novel could not—the female monster’s appearance.
At the end of the film, even more anticipated than the female monster’s reaction to the creature is the removal of her bandages—the reveal. Will she be monstrous? The camera focuses for a generous amount of time on the female monster’s bandaged body, highlighting her feminine shape. In this moment, she is monster and woman united; one cannot be seen without the other. Bride of Frankenstein takes over the narrative from Shelley’s novel and directs the gaze towards a body that, as readers, we thought was destroyed forever. Not only does Bride of Frankenstein animate the female monster and reanimate the Frankenstein story, it also animates Victor Frankenstein fear that the female monster will reject his creature.
When the female monster’s bandages are finally removed, she is revealed to be beautiful despite the scars on her face. She wears her ascribed role: a white bridal gown. But as Frankenstein’s monster reaches out for the newly animated female creature, she reacts with a scream—she is horrified by the appearance of the creature. Unlike the intentions of the male creature and her creator, the female monster refuses to play the role of the creature’s bride. Whale’s film plays out the fear of uncontrollable female sexuality expressed by Victor in Shelley’s novel when, despite her similarity to the male creature, the female monster his hideous form. When the female monster does not meet his expectations, the creature kills both her, the mad doctor who created her, and himself. In Whale’s adaptation, the female monster cannot survive the restrictive demands of true womanhood; she does not acquiesce to the submissive role ascribed to her, nor is her nature pure. Rather, the female monster is an amalgamation that cannot be reduced to one role or identity.
Embedded in the identity of the female monster, especially in Bride of Frankenstein, are the several ontological categories that come together to create her monstrous form: human, animal, female, and bride. The female monster is a cyborg, or, drawing on the work of Donna Haraway, a body of “transgressed boundaries” such as human and machine, human and animal, or natural and cultural (149-150). Frankenstein’s monster is also a cyborg, constructed from both human and animal parts; however, I argue that the female monster is an even more convincing cyborg because of her societally constructed positions, or roles, as a woman and a bride. As a creature consciously constructed to be female, she is expected to be a beautiful object of desire, pleasing to man’s gaze despite being a product of the same grotesque process that made the creature. The title of the film itself mechanically constructs the role that the female monster is destined to fulfill: bride. Before her animation, before the female monster ever has a chance to speak her mind or decide whether or not she wants to engage with the creature in any kind of way, she is constructed to be his bride, mate, and loving companion. But she turns out to be a cyborg—one who does not behave according to how she was coded. As a result, she is punished through death, never allowed a real narrative, much screen time, or a voice.
John Logan’s contemporary television series Penny Dreadful also resurrects the female monster and the Frankenstein universe. In this adaptation, the character Bronam a London sex worker fallen from grace, dies and is reanimated by Victor Frankenstein to become Lily Frankenstein. This female monster is intended to serve as the male monster’s mate, but she is also the object of Victor’s desire. For example, before Victor animates the female monster, he is alone with her naked body. He touches her sternum, observing her stitches, likely in the name of science. But then he touches her breast and invades her dead body for the sake of his desire. A lifeless body, the female monster is the site of sexual desire. She can be the object, but not the subject. She can be desired, but cannot herself desire.
The female monster’s animation scene in Penny Dreadful reaffirms her role as a sexual object for both Victor and the creature. Both are present for her animation, in which they repeatedly and competitively yell, “Let her live!” As in Bride of Frankenstein, the lure of the scene is the reveal of her body after she is animated. Her dainty and delicate fingers grip the edge of the tank, a signifier for her constructed feminine identity. When she stands up from the tank, she does not look like she was just resurrected, but instead like she emerged from a swimming pool—dripping wet, shivering, and in need of assistance. Also, she is not positioned eye-to-eye with Victor and the creature; she is instead elevated on a pedestal in which her body becomes the spectacle. They both stand there ogling, visually taking in her body. From her birth, the female monster is conflated with sexual desire—not a desire that is uniquely hers, but one that is projected onto her from Victor and the creature.
While she is hypersexualized, John Logan’s imagining of the female monster differs because is allowed a history, narrative, and purpose outside of what is ascribed to her. In other words, after the female monster rejects both the creature and Victor she is not killed off but becomes a rich character who seeks revenge on those who have hurt her. Compared to Shelley’s novel, in which the female monster never lives, and Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, in which the female monster is quickly killed after her rejection of the male creature, Penny Dreadful affords the female monster bodily and sexual agency. Logan’s adaptation offers hope that the transgressive female monster might be a site of subversive potential for expressions of female sexuality and hybridity.
Bride of Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale, Universal Pictures, 1935.
“Fresh Hell.” Penny Dreadful, written by John Logan, performance by Billie Piper, season 2, episode 1, Showtime, 2015.
Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, 1991.
Hawley, Erin. “The Bride and Her Afterlife: Female Frankenstein Monsters on Page and Screen.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 3, 2015, pp. 218-231.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Oxford UP, 2008.