Arthur Paul Patterson
WHILE I SAT at the breakfast table, I felt the blood drain out of my face and into my stomach as I listened to her ramble. It wasn't the scattered content that made me so uncomfortable. The content itself was a disconnected diatribe of newsy gossip and trivia, punctuated by misplaced maxims that in their popular form might have actually meant something. Despite the dogmatism, moral superiority, and intensity that was expressed through her tone and bodily gestures, I felt humiliated, embarrassed. Although outwardly there was nothing to be afraid of - I experienced dread.
I looked sideways at my friend who was also listening to the monologue. She looked bored; when our eyes met, and she saw that I was disturbed, she made a facial expression that seemed to suggest that I ignore what I was hearing. I supposed that that would have been the wisest thing to do, given that our guest seemed to be unhinged from reason and incapable of dialogue. Since there was so very little to explore in my guest's conversation, I decided to remain silent and ask myself why my stomach kept tumbling, my heart pounding and my mind periodically revolting against my resolve of silence.
Beyond the obviously high blood pressure, and tense, angry appearance of my guest I sensed a presence. There was a saturated heaviness in the air that made it hard for me to breathe. I was getting light headed and my imagination seemed to draw me to another conversation, one that had already begun somewhere inside myself. The middle-aged housewife metamorphized into a blood thirsty version of Kali, the Destroyer goddess. It was as if this deeper, red-tongued archetype were translating the inanity of my guest's words into language that made sense of my humiliation and fear.
Wild-eyed Kali informed me that my guest was an incarnation of what lies within the domestic chattering that dominates and oppresses many women and men. She spits out words that suggest my revulsion is rooted in the truth that there is a similar region within myself, a region where all the repressed passivity and domesticity festers and erupts in putrefaction. Because this region is consciously associated with care, giving life, and creating a perfect environment of safety, its unconscious shadow perpetually threatens revenge. This, of course, was not the way she said it. Rather, in a fury she shrieked and howled, promising to avenge the wounded woman within and without. She derided me for imprisoning women and neglecting the feminine within myself, thus driving them insane.
Waking from my reverie, I heard my guest, in a tone that seemed lucid but disconnected from her coffee clutch ramblings, thank us for inviting her into our lovely home and say that she would like to help us with the dishes. My fear returned.
Superficially, the women in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus are opposite of my breakfast guest. They are virtual angels full of kindness, compassion, social consciousness, moral guidance and are not quick to criticize or harangue. Corporately, they share an unjust fate as truly "innocent victims." Elizabeth's mother dies in childbirth. Elizabeth herself suffers loneliness and eventually death through the hands of her less than sensitive fiance Victor. Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein is reduced to "straw plaiting" slavery by her father's financial pride. Later she dies nursing the "scarlet fever stricken" Elizabeth back to health. Safie, an Arabian woman, is forced to flee her father's harem for the more liberated European Christendom. Margaret Saville suffers undeserved estrangement from her brother Robert, who was captured by an Arctic dream and had fallen under the influence of Victor, the Modern Prometheus. Justine, the epitome of gothic victimization, whose hard working loyalty to the Frankenstein family was above reproach, was first despised by her husband-forsaken mother for no obvious reason, and later, viciously executed for the death of her murdered charge William Frankenstein. Added to the litany of human casualties must be the Woman Creature, a dismembered potential partner of the Monster, viciously murdered by her Creator, Victor Frankenstein.
Modern interpreters of Frankenstein are frustrated by these porcelain caricatures of womanhood. Some think Mary simply focused on the evils of men and therefore, in true ideological fashion, minimized the foibles of women. More chauvinist critics agree with this interpretation, adding that Mary was blind to her own flaws and was being morally self righteous. Withstanding their purity and passivity is difficult but not as much as anticipating, then witnessing, their utter demise without an inkling of the will to power on their part. All, without exception, stood in need of empowerment. If we look closely at Mary's novel, however, we recognize her genius, even if it is more accurately considered her unconscious intuition, that the women and men of Frankenstein are separated from each other by flaws that keep them in relational holding patterns that lead to mutual destruction. These same flaws distorted my breakfast guest and mar the lives of other women today.
Married in the 1950's, my breakfast guest grew accustomed to stereotypical gender roles. While she reigned supreme in the home as the sole provider of domestic services that included cleaning, child-care, interior decoration, and cooking, she found herself excluded from even the most menial outer world activities such as wage earning or writing checks, and was discouraged from procuring a driver's license. She was as ignorant of her husband's outer world as he was of her domestic one. Over the years, their relationship suffered due to the mutual unfamiliarity of each other's worlds. The outside world had become so unfamiliar that she developed a mild form of agoraphobia. The fear of being in open or public places is a particularly crippling illness that may prevent its victims from even leaving home. As ludicrous as it sounds, her visiting my home could have caused her anxiety. The situation was unfamiliar and therefore, not safe. Her rage could have been the product of not knowing what to do in a strange environment. She obviously lost her boundaries enough to produce a flooding from her unconscious that impeded communication and normal relationship. I was expecting her to be able to function in the new environment as a full participant; instead my expectation for conversation set off an emotional response of meaningless chatter. Since the connection between leaving home and growing up is so firm, I realised that the elderly woman in front of me had never grown up, that her self-centered, idiosyncratic way of talking was the result of being subjected to domestic enslavement.