(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 7. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1995) 




From Paracelsus to the Motorway to Hell: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil



Nadia D 'Amelio (Ecole d'lnterprètes de Mons, Belgique)



What happens when Ruth, huge and ugly, is left behind by her unfaithful husband who feels momentary "true" love for the small, pretty, best-selling author Mary Fisher? Moved by her boundless hate for her rival and her unshakeable will to see her feelings for her husband returned, Ruth sets out to reverse the course of her life. Having set fire to her house in Eden Grove and abandoned her children to the care of the horrified lovers, she sets her demonic plan going. Manipulating people and exploiting the violence of sex, she succeeds in splitting the couple, ruining her husband and sending him to prison before Mary Fisher, now a failure, dies of cancer and Bobbo, now a human wreck, is reduced to endless suffering by being made Ruth's slave and an eye-witness of her promiscuity. Indeed Ruth, now Marlene Hunter has literally remade herself in Mary Fisher's image and usurped every facet of her life, including her talent for writing. Pay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil has been acclaimed and interpreted as a witty, cutting, bitter social satire, a wicked modern masterpiece, but her kinship with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has been overlooked. The novel, however, makes a direct reference to the nineteenth century monster at one of the crucial moments of creation:

 Ruth hovered, moaning, drifting, on the edge of life and death. Another electrica] storm seemed to stimulate her into life…. Ruth opened her eyes at the initial bang and during the next few hours her temperature fell to normal, her blood pressure rose, her heart steadied and she sat up and demanded food. Dr. Black, who had dropped the image of Venus on her conch since Ruth's rejection of him, was heard to refer to her as Frankenstein's monster, something that needed lightning to animate it and get it moving. (LLSD 234)



In a satirical vein, the passage recalls the monster's awakening to the world. Ruth is, actually, an updated version of Dr Frankenstein and his monster at once. This paper aims at pointing out important thematic similarities between the two novels as well as the divergences separating the nineteenth century version from its twentieth century counterpart.

The two novels can be read as studies of selfhood, accounts of human monsterdom in general, versions of the Promethean myth showing the accelerated descent into Hell of the modern world, textual dramatisations of the very problems with which they deal, but also as autobiographies in their own right although none of the novels presents itself explicitly as autobiography. Weldon's novel tells Ruth's biography. Yet the first-person narrator's voice alternates with that of a third-person omniscient narrator who remains undramatized and provides a healthy distancing from the narrator-protagonist. The shift in perspective allows the reader to view Ruth and the world in the light of irony and, in many places, of the grotesque. Ruth frees herself from her bonds as a subdued wife and mother, deliberately creates a new life for herself in which men are used for the sole fulfilment of her will. The novel dramatizes a woman's revenge on men and a society which satisfies itself with deceitful appearances. In that sense, Fay Weldon, a famous feminist, had granted the reader a satirical autobiography of her own revolt in the grotesque mode. In Frankenstein the autobiographical reflex is triggered by the ambivalence involved in the very writing of the book. The novel includes clear uses of the autobiographical, not the purely authorial, first-person pronoun. But the notion that it can somehow be read as the autobiography of a woman would certainly seem ludicrous at first sight. Indeed, the novel offers three biographies of men. Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer on his way to the North Pole, writes home to his sister of his encounter with Victor Frankenstein. The latter tells him the story of his painstaking creation and rash abandonment of a nameless monster who suffers excruciating loneliness, and who, in turn, tells Frankenstein his life story. All three biographies are more than simple accounts of fact, they clearly attempt to persuade the listener or reader. On the other hand, Ruth nowhere tries to convince the reader of the righteousness of her new self, of her creation. This difference in tone and motive will provide a way of measuring the two versions of a modern Prometheus up against each other. Indeed, Frankenstein rests on the resemblance between teller and addressee: Walton assures his sister that she wouldn't really disapprove of his behaviour. Frankenstein recognizes in Walton an image of himself and rejects in the monster a resemblance he does not wish to acknowledge. The teller is in each case speaking into the mirror of his own transgression. Ruth is also moved by a strong wish for resemblance but here the creator wishes to resemble the "monster" into which she is turning herself. Besides, the omniscient narrator ensures that every aspect of the tale and the telling should shock the reader into awareness of the horror



 of the creation. "The desires for resemblance, the desire to create a being like oneself or to become another self in the new being – which is the autobiographical desire – is also the central transgression" as B. Johnson puts it (p. 58). What is at stake in Frankenstein's workshop of filthy creation is precisely the possibility of shaping a life in one's own image: the motherless monster can thus be seen as a figure for autobiography as such. Turning to Ruth, what is at stake in her creation of herself is the desired image that God has not granted her. The autobiographical drive is clear even though Frankenstein's direct involvement has been transmuted into the medical aid provided in operation theatres. Both novels, in the end, can be read as the story of autobiography, as the attempt to neutralize the monstrosity of autobiography. At once a revelation and a cover-up, autobiography appears to form itself, paradoxically, as a repression of autobiography.

A critical reading of both novels also seems to reveal that the technical advances that make it possible to change the structure of parenthood, to create rather than procreate, threaten to extinguish earthly life altogether. It is startling to note that this seemingly contemporary pairing of the question of parenthood with a love-hate relation to technology is already the focal point of Mary Shelley's novel, where the spectacular scientific discovery of the secrets of animation produces a terrifyingly vengeful creature who attributes his evil impulses to his inability to find or to become a parent. Subtitled The Modern Prometheus, Frankenstein itself refers back to a myth that already links scientific ambivalence with the origin of mankind. Indeed Prometheus, the fire bringer, the giver of both creation and destruction, is also said to be the father of the human race. Therefore ambivalence toward technology can also be seen as a displaced form of the love-hate relation felt toward children. In fact, each of the women writers, in her own way, rejects the child as part of her coming to grips with the nature of mother love: Mary Shelley describes a parent who recoils from the repulsive being to whom he has just given birth and denies kinship; Fay Weldon's  Ruth is denied mother love and later severs her links with her own repellent children to eventually transform herself into a sterile object of desire. Frankenstein, however, is striking for its avoidance of the question of feminity. Monstrousness seems to be so incompatible with feminity that Dr. Frankenstein cannot even complete the female companion that his creature so eagerly awaits. Weldon's novel, on the other hand, brings about the creation of an attractive, sexy woman monster whose monstrosity resides in her usurpation of her rival's image and in her devilishness. In both novels then, monstrosity equals violence and immorality originally provoked by the outside world. Moreover, both women writers succeed in giving birth to themselves on paper. Their declaration of existence as writers, therefore, repeats figuratively the matricide that their physical births have entailed – and certainly all too literally entailed in Mary Shelley's case. Both stories are, in fact,




eliminations of the mother, either literally or figuratively. Indeed, Mary Shelley tells the story of a motherless birth and the wedding night marks the death of Frankenstein's bride, Elizabeth. In parallel, the creation of Marlene Hunter, technically achieved by a team of surgeons, amounts to a motherless birth as well, to the total elimination of parenthood and even of selfhood. It is, in the end, a murderous creation.

Another significant similarity between both novels is that the impulse to write and the desire to create a new self are one in vision. During inclement weather, Victor Frankenstein comes across the writings of Cornelius Agrippa and as a consequence is immediately fired with the longing to penetrate the secrets of life and death. Similarly, it was during a wet summer in Switzerland that Mary Shelley, Byron and several others picked up a volume of ghost-stories and decided to write a collection of tales of their own. Perhaps the most revealing indication of Mary Shelley's identification of Frankenstein's activity with her own is to be found in her use of the word "artist" on two different occasions to qualify the "pale student of unhallowed arts." "His success would terrify the artist," she writes at the catastrophic moment of creation. Frankenstein, in his turn, confesses to Walton: ''I appeared rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines, or another unwholesome trade than an artist occupied by his favourite employment" (p. 55). In Ruth's case, her birth as Mary Fisher's replica involves the usurpation of the latter's skills as an author. The original novelist wrote trash which the cunning copy finds hardly any difficulty to imitate and to improve upon. Seen through the distorting lenses of the grotesque, the identification is still the same between the new self and the act of writing. Ruth, however, has no misgivings about her stolen definition as an artist, which is one more way of asserting her demonic willpower. "I tried my hand at writing a novel, and sent it to Mary. Fisher's publishers. They wanted to buy it and publish it, but I wouldn't let them. Enough to know I can do it, if I want. It was not so difficult after all; nor she so special" (p. 240). The primal creation thus culminates with the experience of writing. But, unlike Frankenstein, she controls her creation: she has become the triumphant master of unholy arts.

The creation itself must be considered and shown to be, in both novels, either the prelude or the postscript of every fateful event. The point of view from which the two novels are judged, the l9th century novel versus the 20th century novel, will serve as a yardstick to measure the leap in monstrosity that the modern world has enabled us to take. According to the archaic model implicit in both narratives, transcendence of the human condition is equivalent to transgression. The presumptuous deed of creation is invested with the aura of a primal sin against nature, against God, that somehow justifies the ensuing retribution. In Frankenstein, the hero is condemned by nature’s gods to limitless suffering and learns his limited human place  in agony. He, however, blames the catastrophe on Fate and, thereby,




becomes the chief victim of the text's irony whenever he thinks he is addressing the supernatural powers that oversee his destiny. He alone is to be blamed for this blind ignorance of spiritual presence in the world, for his profane usurpation of God's power. The world he inhabits is as much a house in ruins as the world sketched in Weldon's novel. The Gothic is demystified, seen to be the ruin of a anterior world of large spiritual forces and transcendent desires. In Frankenstein, however, contrary to the landscapes of Weldon's novel, das Unheimliche can still be contained in the spacious world of the Alps, of Mont Blanc, of the Arctic and the North Pole. The settings provide a context for an ironic reading: the dissonance of avert and implicit meanings, the obscure sense of having trespassed on sacred ground, the appalling secret of life that craves expression yet must be protected as a holy thing. Ruth's world, on the other hand, bears the scars of a total deprivation of holiness. Frankenstein's workshop of fifty creations in the midst of majestic mountains has become an aseptic hospital, an artificial oasis in the middle of a barren desert where hollow men are reshaped. The desolation and sterility of this wasteland, the complete isolation of the hospital which has to produce its own electricity and provide for all its needs independently, go a long way to qualify the loss of spirituality in modern man and his ensuing alienation from the world, from himself . Every element of Ruth's murderous world has been stolen, as she puts it:

She would have the best of all worlds, of heaven and hell. She slept well. She did not hear the shouts and shots as the police tracked down, cornered and slaughtered the bear in the far reaches of the clinic's grounds, in the pretty, shaded corner where herbicides, fertilisers, insecticides and pumped water, stolen from Colorado, had created an oasis of bush and stunning green, where the facelift patients most loved to raise their bruised countenances to the dappled sun. (LLSD 23l )

 One holy element found in both novels, however, is the power of fire and, in particular, lightning. The adult Frankenstein is brought to revive a forgotten childhood scene when he had witnessed the terrible power of a lightning bolt during a thunderstorm. His father had then discoursed on the nature of lightning which had shocked him into a latency stage. Frankenstein remembers that the event occurred at a time when his enthusiasm for alchemy had increased the urgency of his desire to penetrate nature's secrets. But as he fails to understand the forbidding nature of this sacred sign, when he arrives at University after his mother's death, he abruptly resumes his former studies, reconverted by Professor Waldman's panegyric on modern chemists: "the philosophers … penetrate into the recesses of nature…. They ascend into the heavens ... they can command the thunders of heaven" (F 47).




But later on, Frankenstein himself finds that, within the darkness of vaults and charnels, he only dabbles in filth and that his heart sickens when he disturbs "with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame." When he is ready to draw rebellious Promethean fire from the heavens, to complete the creation, the whole grandiose endeavour turns out to be a catastrophe:

With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of. life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…. My candle was near]y burnt out, when ... I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open, and a convulsive motion agitated the limbs. How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe?" (F 56)

Frankenstein for whom only life and death were ideal limits, who saw himself as the Creator of a new generation of happy and excellent people, its father par excellence, must be brought face to face with his own monstrosity or resume his human status. The ominously terrifying storm breaks out at a crucial stage of Ruth’s self-creation. Contrary to Frankenstein, the modern creator is fully aware of her sacrilege. she defies God with wide-open eyes and asserts the Devil's power on earth while the technicians of creation wish they had never involved themselves in the last outrage against sacrality:

A violent storm on the eve of the second major operation fused the power supply again. Such storms were not unusual in the area. The sudden darkening of the day, the violent clouds tumbling through the unnatural dark, the rifts of sudden. piercing light: but this was, unusually, a dry storm. No rain fell to gladden the heart hereafter, in the sudden sprouts of green and general giddiness which could be expected to compensate for the earlier terror.
"God's angry, " said Mr. Ghengis, suddenly frightened, longing to go back into obstetrics.
"You are defying Him. I wish we could stop all this." "Of course He's angry," said Ruth. "I am remaking myself. " (LLSD 233)

The dry storm and its dreadful lightning in the darkness of the sky are clear signs that the world's sacrality has been violated beyond any conceivable limits and that nothing but wrath is to be expected from Heaven. But Ruth's self-damnation is so irremediably total that no sign could possibly stop her. Ruth, a modern creator and a creature at once, has followed her husband's irremediable curse and pledged herself to the Devil, recognizes but the demands



of her will and can't be bothered with the sacrality of life. In Frankenstein, on the contrary, the creator is increasingly abandoned to morbid anxiety and, still pursuing his monster in the Alps, can recognize in the spectacular setting "a power mighty as Omnipotence." Although he is the usurper of God's omnipotence, he has not, ironically, relinquished his – possibly artistic – belief in the holy.

An examination of the motif of the double yields more similarities between the two Promethean figures. This will sharpen the reader's awareness of the irreducible otherness of the new self, of the Creature as an independent "other self" only seemingly representing the traditional alter ego. Ruth's utmost desire is that her husband reciprocate her need for love, but she becomes acutely aware of her own exclusion from sympathetic relationships and is only left with the violence of sex. She then begins to searingly objectify the negativity she arouses in others and we recognize, as with Frankenstein's monster, that aggression is but a by-product of disintegration. Paul Sherwin argues that Frankenstein's monster's main characteristic is his virtuality. Indeed what the Creature represents may multiply almost endlessly. As Sherwin puts it:

If, for the orthodox Freudian, he is a type of the unconscious, for the Jungian he is the shadow, for the Lacanian an object, for the Romanticist the Blakean "spectre," for another a Blakean "emanation"; he has also been or can be read as Rousseau's natural man, a Wordsworthian child of nature, the isolated Romantic rebel, the misunderstood revolutionary impulse, Mary Shelley's abandoned baby self, her abandoned babe, an aberrant signifier, difference, or as a hypostasis of godless presumption... (p . 40)

Marlene Hunter can also trigger various signifying effects. She is most of all the clear signifier of the monstrosity of a godless nature relying on the powers of reason and technique, or still alienating labour. The new Ruth and Frankenstein's creature are like their mystic version, a hybrid of Milton's Adam and Satan. Another signifying chain may lead the reader not to an overload of signification but, in Ruth's case in particular, to a meaningless Chaos. The searing irony, the satirical drive at work in The Life and Loves of a She-Devil render any interpretation reductive of the whole meaning. Besides, the two signifiers in search of signification may also be taken as literal beings that mean only themselves. The creatures are conceived as geniuses of liminality within texts capable of a subtle interplay of revelation and concealment. Indeed, the two creatures dream to signify, to touch reality. Ruth herself, although she can use reality and people to her own ends, is still touched by the insatiable passion of the signifier. A constantly renewed "dreaming to" that no dream of satisfaction can satisfy pushes her, step by step, to new extremities of outrage.




One important signification of both signifiers emerges straight from the novel's heart of darkness, the creation itself. The creative self is a repellent Demon recalling the one portrayed at the opening of The Book of Urizen, as Sherwin remarks. It is, in fact, a tearful demiurge. Ruth and Frankenstein can be given the same status. Both sever all contact with their families – the most "canny," heimlich, of all circles – and indeed with their familiar selves in order to hallow out a locus of utter loneliness. Isolating selfhood completely, they can raise themselves to demonic status, thereby becoming a force more than a person, an energy wholly concentrated on their dreadful projects. Becoming enraptured with a blinding consciousness of self-excluding real self-awareness, they also become unconscious of the normative world. The creative self may have fallen prey to narcissism and psychosis, but creator and creature are still autonomous agents, not only mere psychic agents. Somewhere in the creators' minds, their self-consciousness watches with horror and fascination the extravagant lives of the uncanny variations of their own selves. From the start Frankenstein and Ruth are fallen beings although both tend to conceive their fall as precipitated by destiny. It is against an evil destiny that Ruth stands up, and her cruel past acts on her as an energizer. Frankenstein's words at the moment of decision strangely recalls Ruth’s pledge to take a demonic revenge on destiny:

 Such were the professor's words – rather let me say such the words of fate…. As he went on, I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being only. So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein – more. far more, will I achieve.... I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. (LLSD 47)

 He emerges here, no longer as an artist, but as a force of destiny which claims at once its subjection to fate and its own freedom. As the artist in Frankenstein gives way to the technician in himself, he is a loser, an ever falling being just as Ruth desperately is. But as they both generate a new self, they are both questers who have mistaken an unholy object for their muse. Turning to stylistic analysis as soon as he begins to describe the lengthy creation process, Frankenstein's style strikingly resembles Ruth's throughout the modern novel: spasmodic, paratactic, juxtapositive and heavily repetitive. The narrators seem to be swallowed up in their narrative consciousness. Their prose is oddly depersonalized. In parallel their creative selves aggressively exclude true acceptance of otherness. They both immure themselves against any foreign body that might threaten their sublime demonic solitude.




The creation was doomed to have a catastrophic turn because creating is not just putting together or dismembering. Therefore the oppressively close darkness into which the creators-creatures descend is a self-engendered desert that discloses what our narcissistic self looks like when the spirit can ascend to nothing but technical heights. By transforming reality into a grotesque godless scene and natural passions into a perversely eroticized shadow life, Mary Shelley and Fay Weldon have given birth to creatures analogous to sin, the perfect image of Satan. As alien figures, either horrid or beautiful, both creatures body forth the unmended dualism between self and alter ego, the contrast between heaven and hell. Both novels grotesquely parody the dream of the sublime artist or of the all-powerful scientist. Any literal birth to a new self must be but a negative epiphany. The sublime is made outrageously grotesque and the creature will be the uncanny sign of the creator's alienated powers. But whereas Frankenstein leaves room for hope in the final resumption of human status. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil claims that the only way to deal with reality is through outrage because God so lamentably failed to create beauty and justice. As Ruth concludes:

I am a she-devil. I wouldn't be surprised if I wasn't the second coming, this time in female form; what the world has been waiting for. Perhaps as Jesus did in his day for men, so I do now, for women. He offered the stony path to heaven: I offer the motorway to hell. I bring suffering and self-knowledge (the two go together) for others and salvation for myself. Each woman for herself, I cry. If I'm nailed to the cross of my own convenience I' ll put up with it. I just want my own way, and by Satan I' ll have it. (LLSD l63- I 64)






BLOOM, Harold (ed.), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, New York-Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.

JOHNSON, Paul, “My Monster / My Self” in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, p. 55-66.

SHELLEY, Mary, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, London: Penguin Books, 1992.

SHEEWIN, Fay, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, Coronet Books, 1983.


All references are to these editions.

     (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 7. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1995)