Sexy Beasts: Womb Envy and the Monster
By Desmond Reddick
03 July 2007 — Maybe the most interesting monster ever created, Frankenstein's monster is the second most portrayed film character next to Dracula. But his intricacies and themes run much deeper than his fanged friend. In the following column I'll discuss the sexual underpinnings of the monster and his deranged creator both in the novel and in various films. (Of course, I'm not worried about spoiling in a 200 year old book so if you haven't read it and you want to, steer clear.) The film adaptations will essentially be covered in iconic sequences and themes, so there will be very little to spoil. However, you cannot discuss this theme in the novel without exploring its many plot points in depth.
One also can't discuss the sexual themes found in the Frankenstein mythos without first discussing its author and the novel's well-chronicled but legendary origins. The daughter of an atheist, anarchist philosopher and an early feminist, it seemed that Mary Shelley was destined for intellectual greatness. More importantly, her mother died soon after her birth from a form of sepsis. Her father left the child rearing to nannies, but in every account I've ever found he's been described and stern, over-bearing and disapproving. This is important to note as Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus is her only major work, and themes can be found throughout the novel that could very likely stem directly from these life influences. Mary spent much of her literary career as an advocate and editor for her husband's work — Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was her husband with whom she would travel to Switzerland in 1816 and gain the inspiration to write the defining novel that would see its release close to her 19 birthday — a year and a half later. For an interesting account of this trip, the 1986 film Gothic is an anthology film fictionalizing a sinister result of the participants' ghost stories.
As far as the ramifications of the novel in a sexual context, there are three overt readings: the monster as a sexual predator, the monster's search for a lover and, the biggie, womb envy on behalf of Victor Frankenstein himself.
In the novel, the monster — while a very sympathetic and intelligent character — is often in sexually questionable situations. He spies on an old man and his two children through a hole in a wall. Sure, he's slowly learning about language and literature, but he's also noticing how beautiful the man's young daughter is. Of course there is at least one scene of the monster peering in through the window of Frankenstein's young cousin / fiancée. Not to forget that the murders of both Elizabeth and Frankenstein's little brother have sexual overtones as well
The above are not only creepy, they are sexually aggressive activities. Of course, the most iconic aspect of the Frankenstein film adaptations is his interaction with the little girl. While the Frankenstein's monster of the James Whale Universal film is of a much simpler intellect, the scene brings to mind a definite connection between the simple or mentally challenged monster and the little girl. The little girl trusts him by showing him how she throws flower petals into a lake and he violates that trust by picking her up and throwing her in. In essence, the manhandling of the little girl, despite the good intentions, can clearly be seen as a form of assault — and anyone with a logical mind would look at a brutish mentally challenged fellow manhandling a little girl and automatically assume sexual assault.
The final example I'll use depicting the monster as a sexual predator (although there are countless) is in the film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This film, starring Robert De Niro as the monster, shows several instances of lecherous behavior, such as violating a woman's body by touching her without invitation and peeping through windows. De Niro's monster is a grotesque, disgusting mess of a pervert and he perfectly portrays the vision of Frankenstein's monster that I'm outlining.
The monster's search for a lover is another important sexual aspect of the story. His first moments of life are spent reaching out to his father / mother and being rejected. This sets off a sequence of events which are clearly the fault of Victor Frankenstein alone. The sequence with the little girl at the lake is reminiscent of this, but nothing is more reflective of this than his search for a bride.
In the novel, the search for a bride is a more involving aspect of the story. The monster demands it and Victor goes back to the slab to assemble him a female counterpart, if only so his creation will leave him alone. In the novel, Victor first plans to create the bride without a womb so that they will never be allowed to procreate (the physiology of two reanimated corpses having offspring aside). But what eventually happens is that he is so disgusted by the thought of those two creatures loving each other that he tears apart the corpse of the bride to dire consequences for himself. This is depicted in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein quite faithfully, but the Universal films handled it differently altogether. In Bride of Frankenstein the monster gets his counterpart, but in an ironic twist of fate she rejects him in the way that his creator did in the novel and first film.
I quite enjoy this reading of the story as there's something poetic about the monster's need to belong and the true monster being the man who created him. Of course, this sexual connotation does not have to be taken alone. When one thinks of how monstrous Victor Frankenstein is, it's hard not to take the following reading.
The most important sexual (in a Freudian kind of way) connotation the novel and films give us: Victor Frankenstein's need to create. Frankenstein's drive to create life goes beyond most men. If men want a child they will go the fun route and invite a lady into the equation. Not Victor. He has a fiancée waiting for him back at home; therefore his desire to create life is exclusive to himself. This selfish desire leads to a grave mockery of what the society at the time would see as God's will. Not only that: but his insane quest to play God goes into the realm of grave robbery and defiance of his family. This desire blinds him to all of the damage he is doing and is only shattered when he sees the grotesque creature before him. Instead of taking responsibility for his actions and ending the creature's recycled life, he rejects the creature and flees — bringing about the terrible end of the novel. Clearly he is a victim of his own faults. When one considers that Shelley was pregnant whilst writing the novel and the health problems her mother faced from childbirth, it's no surprise the fear she had tied to the creation of life.
From Shelley's novel to Thomas Edison's early Frankenstein to the near pornographic Flesh for Frankenstein, sex is tied so closely to the story of the creature that it is impossible to deny. It exists to serve the story, so any denial of it would fall flat (like the futuristic eugenics-laced re-imaginations). So don't deny the sexual aspect of Frankenstein's monster because we all know what happened when Frankenstein himself tried to deny things.