The Reproductive Sublime in Anthropocenic Literature, Part I: The Frankenstein Bicentennial

Livia Arndal Woods

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) has a big birthday on the horizon, a whole host of celebrations are afoot to mark the occasion, and this is the second Medical Health and Humanities blog post in as many weeks to take the novel as its subject. This hubbub reflects not only the perennial popularity of Frankenstein, but also that the tale of Victor and his monster has come to serve as one of the central myths of a modernity marked by individualism, increasing mechanization, and global economies. Unlike many pre-modern myths of hubris in which humans imagine they can employ the powers rightly belonging to supernatural realms or beings, the “dangerous…acquirement of knowledge” at Frankenstein’s center is neither divine nor unholy but scientific and medical (31). Whether one reads the novel as “an allegory of the feminine experience of childbirth” or “about a man giving birth without the participation of a woman,” Frankenstein is a reproductive parable that, in figuring the yearning for individual control over the creation of life as a global threat, has seemed to gather rather than shed relevance in this twenty-first century (Harris). As scholars of literature, philosophy, and bioethics have prepared projects, conferences, publications, and symposia to honor Frankenstein’s bicentennial this year, scientists have reported break-throughs in editing the genes of human embryos.

This is the first post in a series of three in which I will consider what I think of as a “reproductive sublime” – a desire for and terror in the face of increasing human control over reproduction – as a recurring theme in Anthropocenic literary visions of science fiction, near future, and dystopia. Here, I employ the occasion of Frankenstein’s 200th birthday to briefly outline the very broadest gestures of this literary tradition of reproductive sublimity in the Anthropocene.

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Feminist readings of Frankenstein have consistently recognized reproductive terror as a driving force in the novel. Roughly sewn together a la Frankenstein’s monster, such readings can be narrativized something like this: Mary Shelley’s own painful history of the violence and horror of pregnancy and childbirth may explain why she composed a fable in which that violence acts not upon the bodies of women but upon the psyches and futures of men; using a neglected pre-scientific tradition and cadavers like those upon which eighteenth and nineteenth medicine worked in order to establish claims of knowledge and authority, Victor assumes the traditionally feminine role of life-giver (partly in reaction to the death of his own mother), experiences a period of twisted gestation marked by a language of “labor” and conception, a horrific “birth,” perhaps a post-partum rejection of the offspring, and the threat of a dystopian future in which man’s ability to control the creation of life undermines the value of human life.

Though these details are particular to Frankenstein, a central narrative drive toward reproductive control and the terrors attendant upon such (over)reaching mark a literary tradition.  Notable twentieth-century examples of the reproductive sublime include Brave New World, 1984, and The Wanting Seed and the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries have seen a rise in popular dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives that, in part, reflect our troubled recognitions of ourselves as actors in an Anthropecene, a geological, historical, and conceptual epoch defined by the human ability to form and deform the world(s) around us and for which the industrial revolution that helps locate Mary Shelley’s life and work serves as a date of particular importance. We can consider the dystopian reproductive imagination of Frankenstein in conversation with, for example, that of Margaret Atwoods’ 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale, P.D. James’s 1992 The Children of Men, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 Never Let Me Go, their popular film and television adaptations, and the recent Atwood-inspired red-cloaked demonstrators against laws that undermine women’s medical autonomy in Washington.

This narrative tradition and its contemporary hyper-visibility speaks to the literary emergence and rise of Anthropocenic reproductive desires and anxieties. In our contemporary moment, the early nineteenth-century possibilities of meaningful and reproducible interventions (the use of forceps, for example) in the dangerous work of generation have bloomed into unprecedented agency over reproduction (not only the recent editing of embryonic genetic material, but also developments in IVF and prenatal surgery, for example). This agency – though available only to the most affluent humans – is an evocative expression of the ways in which Anthropocenic “social, cultural and political orders are woven into and co-evolve with techno-natural orders,” an expression that Frankenstein’s ongoing popularity at 200 and a literary tradition of the reproductive sublime helps to make legible and that I will continue to explore next month in Part II (Hamilton et al. 4).

 

 

Works Cited

Hamilton, Clive, et al. “Thinking the Anthropocene.” The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch, edited by Clive Hamilton et al., Routledge, 2015.

Harris, Cynthia. “Neonatal Jaundice in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Medical and Health Humanities, 8 Oct. 2017, https://medicalhealthhumanities.com/2017/10/07/neonatal-jaundice-in-mary-shelleys-frankenstein/.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by J. Paul Hunter, 1 edition, W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.

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