Neonatal Jaundice in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Cynthia Harris

 

To many readers, Frankenstein is best read as a “birth myth,” even as a “cautionary obstetric tale” that warns of the horrors of motherhood.[1] These interpretations have historically relied on seeing Victor Frankenstein as analogous to the pregnant and later post-partum mother, possibly even to Mary Shelley herself. In my Fall semester series, I will argue that Victor is not a maternal stand-in, but a father in quite a literal sense: Shelley’s depiction of the monster’s creation is firmly rooted in contemporaneous scientific beliefs about the paternal contribution to conception. Rather than being an allegory of the feminine experience of childbirth, Frankenstein is about a man giving birth without the participation of a woman, an extraordinary occurrence that the intellectual and scientific frameworks of the time suggested was, nonetheless, entirely possible. As we will see, Frankenstein is an emphatically masculine birth myth.

Victor Frankenstein’s literal parenthood is first suggested by the fact that the Creature behaves as a real, human child. Shelley hints at the Creature’s equivalence with a human child in a variety of ways. The Creature’s gestational period is approximately nine months, from the beginning of Frankenstein’s experiments (or, tellingly, “labours”) to the moment his progeny awakes: “Winter, spring, and summer passed away during my labours, but I did not watch the blossom or the expanding leaves […] the leaves of that year were withered before my work drew near a close […] It was a dreary night in November that I beheld my man completed” (80).

Along with the temporal echoes of human gestation, the earliest descriptions of the Creature also identify him as a human child. “His eyes—if eyes they may be called—were fixed on me. His jaw opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds while a grin wrinkled his cheeks […] one hand stretched out to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs” (82). Despite Frankenstein’s response of revulsion, the Creature’s initial behavior seems very much like that of an infant, reaching out with a grin and a gurgle for his parent.

The question of why the Creature is yellow is a popular one in Frankenstein scholarship. At birth, the Creature is described as jaundiced, possessing a “dull yellow eye” and “yellow skin”—an allusion to the very common condition of neonatal physiologic jaundice (81). John Sutherland, for example, draws on a body of feminist scholarship when he notes that “there is a persuasive biographical explanation for the yellow monster being jaundiced” as “one or both of Mary’s children may well, one assumes, have been born with [jaundice], possibly fatally in Clara’s case.”[2] While I agree that the Creature’s jaundice is used to subtly identify him as a neonate, Sutherland pathologizes the jaundice unnecessarily. Physiologic jaundice is an exceedingly common and temporary finding in neonates—some data suggests up to 50% of newborns—due to their low activity of an enzyme needed to convert a pigment from blood cell breakdown, bilirubin, into an excretable form.[3] In the first few days of life, this pigment may accumulate and lead to an innocuous jaundice coloring that quickly fades. There are, of course, pathologic forms of neonatal jaundice, but they are far less common, do not resolve without modern medical intervention, and are largely fatal. Numerous critics have argued that Shelley would have been very familiar with the presence of jaundice in neonates. Given that in the overwhelming majority of newborns the jaundice fades, Shelley would have been equally familiar with the harmlessness of the finding.

Importantly, there is a conspicuous absence of any further mention of jaundice as the novel continues. By the end of the narrative, when Walton meets the Creature he describes his hand as “like those of the mummies, for to nothing else can I compare its colour and apparent texture” (241). The marked jaundice has disappeared as the Creature has aged, just as it does in healthy neonates.

The monster’s neonatal jaundice is particularly intriguing for two reasons. First, it serves as a subtle connection between a human newborn and the newborn Creature. Second, it acts as a clever misdirection, suggesting a pathology or sickness to the Creature when there is none. Indeed, as we will see, it is Victor who suffers from real disease.

Understanding the Creature as a newborn human rather than an invention clarifies Victor’s role, changing him from scientific creator to parent. More than a genderless parent, however, Victor is a father, as we will see next month when we examine the novel’s interest in the ideology and methodology of purely paternal childbirth.

_________

[1] Bewell, Alan. “An Issue of Monstrous Desire.” Yale Journal of Criticism, vol. 2, no. 1, 1988, pp. 105–28.

[2] Sutherland, John. “Why Is the Monster Yellow?” Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?: Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction. Oxford: Oxford U, 1999. 39-43. Print.

[3] Intensive Care Nursery House Staff Manual. UCSF Children’s Hospital. 2004.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Original Frankenstein. Ed. Charles E. Robinson. New York: Vintage, 2009. Print.

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