The Postpartum Effects of “Adam’s” Birth – An Essay

By Cynthia Ayala

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein has amazed audiences all around the world and has tingled the thoughts and minds of readers everywhere. There is so much to be said that will keep the novel alive for public consumption and thought. But one of the more riveting aspects of the novel is Victor’s clear and initial rejection of his creation, his son, from the beginning and the effects of the “birth” that follows. His reaction and rejection, is a clear indication of postpartum depression (PPD), highlighting his inability to attach to the child. But even more impressive are the after effects and how his delirium, guilt and horror which bring to life his Oedipal and innate desires when visions of Elizabeth are replaced by his mother.

Mary Shelly herself experienced many hardships in her life and at the time of the novel’s conception she was already with child again, after suffering from a miscarriage. Mary Shelly uses descriptive language to bring to life her own tragedy of carrying and subsequently losing a child as she inserts the idea of child bearing into the novel giving Frankenstein a very feminine and godly characterization as the mother of the child. Victor plays both the mother and the father and has fallen into delirium due to his pregnancy of the idea of bringing life to dead flesh. This also reflects onto Shelly and her desire to, in some way, bring back the life of her child. However, once the birth occurs, the monster and the fact that all his work went against the natural order of life and death mortify Victor. The guilt he feels at doing such an act is what prevents him from being able to connect to Adam. This brings to life emotions of disappointment and revulsion:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineated the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? (51)

The above sentence captures his inability to connect to his child. He wants to push it away even after he spent nine months fervently trying to create life and once faced with it, repulsion hits him. Victor’s use of “catastrophe” and “wretch” highlight the emotional mindset that the character is in. This also highlights his guilt. By the way the Victor is questioning himself and his actions, he is showing how guilty he feels about giving life to the abomination and letting his obsession with death overpower him. And now, exhausted and sick with guilt for going against the natural order, he seeks a bed, only to be wrought by nightmares.

The postpartum depression that he faces influences his dreams greatly. Like an actual mother who has just given life, he is exhausted. Today’s science has a complete list of postpartum symptoms, most of which Shelly is able to capture perfectly, perhaps even hinting at the sort of depression she may have felt after her miscarriage. Take for instance the anger Victor feels coupled with the guilt he feels for going over the natural order of things, he expresses nothing but discontent and he makes that very clear to the reader.

“I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself rest and health” (51).

The tone is very clear and very expressive of Victor’s anger at the fact that he created this monster. But there is also frustration and sadness in that text, also symptoms of PPD, which Victor’s expressing. Singularly, when he says “For this” (51) the reader can feel the frustration and bitterness from the word choice and tone.

Further on, the text explores and hints towards his nightmares, another onset symptom of PPD that stem from the “horror and disgust” (51) that has filled his heart. He doesn’t know nor have an understanding that the ugliness is a common trait for newborns and instead sees the monster with higher expectations only to be met with an inability to feel any pleasure and instead experience fear and hopelessness. And faced with such horror, how can his mind not drift off into the darkness confines that hold his deepest desires, such as his love and obligation to marry the mother figure, Elizabeth.

Moreover, throughout the novel he has a clear lack of concentration regarding everything from fulfilling his responsibilities at home, marrying Elizabeth and even procrastinating on the promise he makes “Adam” later on in the novel. Suffering from restlessness, Victor chooses to travel the world with Henry rather than fulfill his many obligations and responsibilities.

Nevertheless, his negative response to creating the monster is an interesting aspect of the story considering he has spent his life obsessed with the concepts of death and life, trying to understand them and going as far as to spend his evenings in graveyards:

Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies derived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm. (46)

While the death of his mother brought out his dark inhibitions and disturbing behavior, it was the birth of Adam, the fruition of that dark dream then brought out his horrors that later haunt him. This is why he dreams of Elizabeth, because in so many ways the fate of Elizabeth and his mother are so interconnected. Victor’s mother brought him Elizabeth as if she were a gift or object and in that moment, he claimed her to be his:

“I have a pretty present for my Victor—to-morrow he shall have it.” And when, on the morrow, she presented Elizabeth to me as her promised gift…All praises bestowed on her, I received as made to a possession of my own…my more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only. (31)

It was his mother who brought him Elizabeth and it was Elizabeth and her scarlet fever that sent his mother away while also bestowing the role of the mother onto Elizabeth:

“My children,” she said, “my firmest hopes of future were placed on the prospect of your union…Elizabeth, my love, you must supply my place to my younger children.” (38)

So now, Victor’s “more than sister” has supplemented the spot of his mother creating a very Oedipal situation where the son must marry his mother. Victor has already established a very powerful link between the two people in his life of whom he cares about deeply but with the death of his mother, both persons have become one entity. Not only does the dream foreshadow Elizabeth’s death, but the dream signifies a very strong connection between his mother and Elizabeth that is finally coming to light for him in this very strenuous part of his life. He has given birth and when he is unable to connect to the creature, his mind drifts to the one entity he has always had a connection to.

Additionally, now as a mother, his mind is trying to connect his actions to that of a “real” mother, or at the very least, someone who has supplemented the role of the mother. His own mother, has warped his idea of what a mother should be so, but the perception has become tainted. Now Victor must try to shape the idea of his future love and “more than sister” into that of his mother. But even Victor’s subconscious knows that that is incorrect, it’s why the nightmare becomes even more prudent for him. Just because she is playing house as the line “How pleased you would be to remark the improvement of our Earnest!” (57), expresses, she’s not his mother and shouldn’t be despite the interconnectedness. Nevertheless, a mother figure is what he needs in order to fill the role he made for himself and he must seek an understanding to that form in whatever way necessary.

Unfortunately for him, because of the fevers he suffered throughout the nine months and the fact that Elizabeth has, indirectly, the interconnectedness shines. Elizabeth has become his mother thus leading him to see his real mother is rotting away in the ground. At the end of the day he is dreaming of kissing his mother and the scene itself is one of abject horror:

But it was in vain: I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Inglostadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms…(51 – 52)

Victor has gone against the natural order all in the name of his mother, in the hopes of defying death itself, bringing about his own Oedipal and incestuous desires that were thrust on him by his mother since the moment that she brought Elizabeth home as if she were an object for him and him alone.

Furthermore, the fact that he sees his decaying mother and the fact that Elizabeth turns into her is a sign of some clear resentment he has at being thrown into this situation by his mother on her deathbed, all because of her desire to care for Elizabeth who was ill. And while he may not have scarlet fever he did have a raised temperature, as the text clearly indicates, due to his erratic behavior of the past nine months. He may have loved Elizabeth but that doesn’t change the fact that his mother placed a heavy burden and a load of responsibility on him because of her death. Victor doesn’t want to marry Elizabeth but marrying her is the burden his mother has placed on him.

Victor may have been trying to do more than overcome death – he may have been trying to also understand motherhood because of the burden his mom had placed on him, trying to understand giving life, the mother-child bond. This burden and the attempt to understand motherhood interconnected the separate identities of Elizabeth and Victor’s mother. Their deaths lead him to change his life, they influence him and put him into a spot that he doesn’t seem ready for. He runs off, locks himself away to do his experiment and gives birth to a creature that he cannot connect to. This leads to his postpartum depression and his dreams that bring to life that he is in love with his mother and Elizabeth, and cannot escape the motherhood that surrounds him, only to have it backfires because the PPD deprives him of that chance. In this Mary Shelly brought to life the “be careful what you wish for”. Wanting to bring back her own child, and maybe a few other people she lost, she wrote a story that highlights everything that could go wrong if a wish that goes against the order of nature (or God) came true.

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