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The Fluidity of Gender Dynamics in Shelley's 'Frankenstein'

A Study of Gender Issues of Shelley's Gothic Masterpiece

In Anne Mellor's feminist critique of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Mellor conflates between sex, gender, and desire. She maintains that all males in the novel are killers and rapists, whereas the females are victims and naïve. To be a male, according to her, is to act masculine and desire heterosexual relationships, and to be a female is to act feminine, be an altruist, and thus possess the ethics of care, which are according to her are typically female than male (Mellor 120). For instance, she contends that the two spheres in the novel are divided. The public sphere is run by men and "masculine power," the private sphere is led by women and "feminine affection" (Mellor 116). She also claims that due to the "[horrifying image] of uninhibited female sexuality" males usurp the females by either killing them or "substituting" heterosexuality with passionate relationships with men in order to eliminate them and create a society for men only (Mellor 119). However, in this essay, I argue that Frankenstein clearly demonstrates that biological sex, social gender roles, and desire are, as Judith Butler says, not identical. This can be seen in Victor and Henry's repressed homoerotic feelings, Walton’s homosexual desire and feminine attitude, and Alphonse's femininity and ethics of care.

Victor's homoerotic feelings for Henry Clerval shows that sex and desire do not necessarily have to correlate. Although Victor was in a relationship with Elizabeth, but this relationship was imposed on him as his mother pressured him into it. Victor was not interested in Elizabeth sexually, as he had homoerotic feelings for Henry. And at some point, Victor and Henry's repressed homosexual feelings for each other erupt. For instance, during Victor's sickness and Henry's compassion toward him. After giving life to the creature, Victor suffers from a fever for the whole winter and during his illness Clerval was his "kind" and "attentive nurse" who instead of "spending that time in [his] study, as [he] promised [himself], has been consumed in [Victor's] sick room" (Shelley 50). Henry risked his future as he neglected his studies for the long period Victor was sick, preferring to watch over Victor. In a society dominated by patriarchy and compulsory heterosexual norms, it is extremely unusual for a male to nurse. So, in such case, what was expected from Henry is to hire a female nurse for Victor, and to carry on his studies. However, Henry, against all the odds, deviates from such a norm and gives up everything to nurture Victor. As Victor shows gratitude for Henry, Henry's reply to him verges on the homoerotic, and subtly reveals Henry’s repressed sexual feelings, "you will repay me entirely, if you do not discompose yourself, but get well as fast as you can" (Shelley 50).

Walton's femininity and homosexual desires also show that gender, sex, and desire are not identical. Walton’s attitude is feminine having been under the "feminine fosterage" of his sister (Shelley 8). He spent his childhood engaging in stereotypically feminine activities that would later shape his character. He recalls the period where he spent "his first fourteen years of [his] life" reading (Shelley 8). Apart from that, Walton's sexual desire is not identical to his biological sex. He fantasizes about "the company of a man who would sympathize with [him], whose eyes would reply to [his]," he expresses his "greatly need" of a companion that is affectionate and who would not loathe him as a "romantic" (Shelley 8). Further, after rescuing Victor and getting him on the ship, Robert similarly nursed Victor that Henry did. He took care of him until he started gradually to get better before his health started declining. After Victor's death, Robert is inarticulate with grief about the unfortunate death of that "glorious spirit" (Shelley 196). Tears were streaming down his face, and nothing that he would say could express the "depth of [his] sorrow" (Shelley 196).

The difference between sex and gender could also be seen in Alphonse's feminine behavior and ethics of care. Mellor, for instance, assigns the ethics of care for females only, claiming that men are only concerned with "identifying moral laws as abstract principles which clearly differentiate right from wrong" whereas a female ethics of care "rests on the premise of non-violence—that no one should be hurt" (Mellor 125). She discusses, also, that the ethics of care are only attributed to the “traditional female morality” (Mellor 125). However, Alphonse Frankenstein’s ethics of care shows that they are not necessarily and "typically female" (Mellor 125). Two years after he married Caroline, Alphonse gave up his public life, politics and decided to stay home and watch over his kids. Victor recalls that his father was a tycoon, a respected public figure who "passed his younger days perpetually occupied by the affairs of his country" (Shelley 21). Yet, he ditched all that to be there for his wife and children. Alphonse was very caring of Victor and his siblings and was "possessed with the very spirit of kindness," as he recalls that he often overindulged them. The devotion and altruism Alphonse show towards his wife and children could be interpreted as a stereotypical feminine behavior. Thus, having a male sexual organ does not determine one's gender roles. Alphonse is not interested in being a syndic or public figure, but he prefers to stay home, watch over his kids and do the stereotypical gender roles of a mother. By doing so, he subverts from the imposed gender norms that are produced through the "stylized reputation" of those performances over time (Butler 2500).

However, some critics may argue that the relationships among men in the novel do not necessarily have to be affiliated with homoeroticism, as it could merely be a reflection of the strong homosocial bonds these men have that have grown from years of friendship and mutual concern, as in the case of Victor and Henry. Further, other critics may also point to the fact that Victor has had a relationship with Elizabeth for an extended period of time, and finally after many difficulties and misfortunes they do get married as he occasionally mentions how much loved her even to the extent of regarding her as "[his] own to protect, love and cherish" (Shelley 25). Although Victor was indeed in a relationship with Elizabeth, it is evident that he was not interested in Elizabeth at all. He constantly seizes any possible opportunity that would allow him to keep distant from her and runs away from the Frankenstein household and each time he does that; it is for a long period. Also, if he truly loved her, he would not have left her on her own during their honeymoon after the monster's deadly threats that he will be with them on his wedding night. He deliberately leaves her, though aware that if left alone the monster would kill her, so he could finally get over with this relationship. His relationship with her was not based on mutual interest and love, and Victor, not having the heart to tell Elizabeth about his homosexual desires, welcomes and seizes this opportunity that would finally relieve him from this imposed relationship. 


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Selections. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent Leith, W. W. Norton, 2010, pp. 2547-2555.

Mellor, Anne. “Usurping the Female.” Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. Methuen, 1988. pp. 115-126.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Collins Educational, 2010.

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