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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Romantic Reimaginings: Adapting Mary Shelley’s Female Monster

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Gracie Bain discusses the adaptive history of Mary Shelley’s Female Monster.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the female creature Frankenstein creates for his monstrous son is assembled but not animated. In a fit of regret and concern for humanity, Frankenstein rips her body apart—creating what is arguably the most explicitly violent scene in the novel. He suspects that she may become rational, or worse yet, willful: “She, in who in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal” (129). In the film, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), directed by James Whale, she is animated but destroyed by the male monster when she refuses him. Though she is the title character, the Bride’s only dialogue is her scream of terror/horror. I, like many others, was unhappy with the female monster’s portrayal. What happens when the Bride desires and wills? What exactly is it about the female body that provokes violence? It is my argument that in each of these texts, she is destroyed because she either has the potential to will or she does actually enact her own will.

The Bride’s scream in Bride of Frankenstein

Elizabeth Hand’s novel, The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora’s Bride (2007), embodies the cultural fascination with Frankenstein’s female monster as an adaptation of an adaptation. In the novel, the Bride survives the fire intended to kill her in Bride of Frankenstein. She teams up with Dr. Pretorius and escapes to Berlin—followed by both the Frankensteins and the male monster. Eventually, Elizabeth Frankenstein kills her husband, reanimates him, and attempts to convince the Bride to join her in what is essentially an all-woman murder squad. The Bride refuses and kills Elizabeth. If we look at Frankenstein as her origin, Bride of Frankenstein as her animation, and Pandora’s Bride as the enactment of her will and desire, we can read the character’s progression as reflective of the power of monstrous bodies—specifically female ones. If adaptations function as a place of critical analysis, then Whale’s film and, perhaps more interestingly, Hand’s novel, allow our culture to work through what exactly happens when female monstrosity is paired with a monstrous will. What exactly is monstrous about the female will and body?

In Willful Subjects, Sara Ahmed argues we name someone willful when “they are not willing to be means” (42). To be willful is to refuse the “right” kinds of authority. It is to “‘snap the bond,’…understood as snapping the affective tie of the family as well as the bond reproduction, understood as fate, or even fatality” (Willful Subjects 113). In Shelley’s novel, it seems that it is the potential for the Bride to enact those reproductive bonds in the wrong way that gets her destroyed. Frankenstein rationalizes that she may want to destroy humanity—that she might not will the right way. She could potentially destroy humanity by accepting the male monster as her mate or by refusing him. In Bride of Frankenstein, she does snap the familial bond between her, the monster, and Frankenstein when she screams in terror at the male monster. In Pandora’s Bride, Pandora refuses to go with Henry Frankenstein peacefully. Instead, she defeats the evil Frankenstein and his wife, Elizabeth, who eventually turns her husband into an animated monster himself. One could read the Bride’s will in Whale’s film and Hand’s novel as simply doing the right thing. It would be morally wrong to create “a race of devils” as Victor puts it in Frankenstein (129). I am more interested in the ways that her willful refusal is read as being willfully hopeful. Reading the Bride’s refusal as a decision of morality is undercutting the potential for the action of willing.

Cover of The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora’s Bride by Elizabeth Hand

In Hand’s novel, when her will is fully realized, there is a repetition of mind language: “I already knew my own mind…. you will recall that I did actually possess a mind” (Hand 11-12). She chooses her own name after refusing the one suggested by Pretorius—Lilith, the fallen woman— because she does not see herself as a fallen woman. When Donna Haraway argues in “A Cyborg Manifesto” that unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg is not looking for a father or a creator, she forgets the Frankenstein’s monstrous daughter. While Haraway argues for a being without myth, the female monster is the creature and creator of her own myth. She chooses the name of Pandora: “That should be my name…. Dr. Pretorius said that someday a woman will write of the New Eve. So I will be the New Pandora. I will not be any man’s bride or any man’s toy. Whatever strengths I possess, whatever I have hidden inside of me, whatever I unleash upon men, I will do so knowingly” (32). She refuses to be a bride, to be an Eve, instead, she chooses to open the box and find hope: “I thought of the legend from which I had drawn my name….one moral to be drawn from it—Woman as the cause of Humanity’s misfortune–was cruel and egregious. Yet there was solace…to be drawn from its other conclusion…hope survives” (198). The development of reason that urges the male monster to reconnect with his creator urges the female monster to be willfully hopeful in herself. To be willfully hopeful is to ignore that which makes us avoid Pandora’s box.

Mary Shelley’s text may give us an unsatisfactory ending for the female creature, but it does provide a springboard to explore the themes of willfulness and desire that are more subtly represented in her novel. Contemporary adaptations that engage Shelley’s female monster explore the complicated relationship between desire, willfulness, and hope.

Works Cited:
Ahmed, Sara. Willful Subjects. Duke University Press, 2014.
Bride of Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale, performances by Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, and Elsa Lanchester, Universal Pictures, 1935.
Hand, Elizabeth. The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora’s Bride. Dark Horse Books, 2007.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. Edited by Susan J. Wolfson. 2nd edition. Pearson, 2007.

Gracie Bain is a first-year PhD student at the University of Arkansas. Her research looks at the intersections of Victorian popular literature, affect theory, and crime literature.