Banned Books: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
29th Mar 2012
Ever since Shelley committed her dream to paper, the story, like its protagonist, has had its entrails torn out, examined and reconfigured as a metaphor for the monster of the modern day, and apartheid South Africa had a whole host of fears that could breathe new life into the scientist’s disastrous experiment.
The ban came six years after the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and five years after the Immorality Act was amended to prohibit unmarried sexual relations between ‘Europeans’ and ‘non-Europeans’.
For a government founded on separation, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster represented a horrifying ‘amalgamation’ of people.
The fictional creation was constructed in a dissecting room and formed from discarded parts of numerous human, and perhaps animal, bodies. The result was the nightmare embodiment of a miscegenation taboo.
The gothic novel would also threaten a government built on mass oppression with its promise of uprising and mutiny.
For Frankenstein has been recast as a narrative of slave revolt ever since parallels were drawn between the monster that turned on his master and the case of Nat Turner, who led an uprising on a Virginia plantation in 1831.
In Black Frankenstein, Elizabeth Young explains that ‘as a destructive, vengeful figure, the Frankenstein monster incarnates white fears about black power’.
She goes on to discuss how the creator-creation dynamic has become a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy, and quotes Michael Moore’s suggestion that America constructed the monsters that became Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
Shelley’s morbid take on reproductive politics allows for a new ‘obscene’ reading, this time for her unnatural vision of a cyborg, androgynous birth.
The author herself had plenty of reasons to associate birth with death – her own mother died in childbirth, she consummated her teenage affair with Percy Shelley on Wollstonecraft’s grave and nearly bled to death after a miscarriage in the years that followed.
So Victor Frankenstein defies the heterosexual monopoly on procreation, throws himself into a workshop laboratory and produces the first ‘test-tube baby’, only to abandon the creation that he defines as an ‘abortion’.
After fleeing from his horrific creation, Frankenstein falls into fitful sleep, where he dreams that he is holding his dead mother’s shrouded corpse in his arms.
The birth of the monster then coincides to the death of the mother, or rather, the mother becomes a corpse like those reanimated and assembled into a new monstrous form.
Victor has abandoned his progeny and murdered his mother – he cannot abide either parent or child and it is testament to his fusion of the two roles that the name Frankenstein is most often used to refer not to the scientist, but to his nameless creation.
In banning the horror story, the South African government could not quash its mutiny. A tale born from death cannot be deadened and a ban will only spark a new mutation.
Frankenstein outlives its censors and survives, motherless and free, to be torn apart and created anew by a fresh generation of readers. It continues to fulfil Mary Shelley’s parting words, her address to the 1831 edition: ‘I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.’