A Feminist Reading of The Birthmark and Frankenstein

Film poster for Pretty Woman - Copyright 1990,...
Film poster for Pretty Woman 1990, Touchstone Pictures (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo

Hawthorne’s The Birthmark and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are warnings not to meddle with Nature, at first sight. But at their core they are stories of men, who create and shape women to fit their desires; of women as gifts and possessions of men; stories of men who treat and abuse them as objects, art, or science experiments – stories as ancient as Genesis, Pygmalion, or as modern as Pretty Woman.

In Frankenstein, Elizabeth was a gift for Viktor, just like the female bride was a gift for the Monster. So while Viktor was the Monster’s master, the Monster was the Bride’s master, a logic men have derived from Genesis, even before it was put down in writing. Good men surrender their will to God; good women surrender their will to men.

Boris Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Boris Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

This is the case of Georgiana and Aylmer in The Birthmark. Georgiana has no agency, as most women have historically lacked. When women married they were supposed to be clean slates, to be pure and “perfect”. The hand on Georgiana’s cheek is literally a sign of her impurity, as if she had been touched by someone else. This is a sign of sexual agency, and, much like in Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, a mark that only women bear and that leads to death. Georgiana learns to hate herself under Aylmer’s male gaze and to feel disgusted by whatever he is disgusted by. She reveres her husband and abandons herself, and she pays for that idolization and passivity with her life.

But Aylmer, on the other hand, merely looses a prized toy because his scientific hubris leads him to think he can perfect Nature—a Nature who is invariably female. The fact that Georgiana and Aminadab, the foreign, savage, brute of a lab assistant, symbolize Nature, and that Aylmer represents Man, as in Mankind, is predictably chauvinist and androcentric.

Women in these stories are a subset of Nature to be perfected or tamed. It is narratives like these, so powerful and rich that they continue to shape our understanding of the world, which keep women from being accepted as full human beings, to this day.

2 thoughts on “A Feminist Reading of The Birthmark and Frankenstein

  1. Thank you for the reference :) At the half-way point in our course, it seems to me one of the thematic undercurrents does seem to be feminism, or lack of it in the selection of readings. I don’t know if this is deliberate, or a bleak reminder of how few women have written in the past in Science Fiction / Fantasy. At least Mary Shelley got a few licks in against the system with her harsh portrayal of Victor F.

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