Dissecting Queer Identities in Frankenstein
By: Date: July 26, 2020 Categories: Essays,Frankenstein Tags: , , , ,

Dec 6th, 2019

Frankenstein, the book, the man, and the creature, have all become icons within the queer community.  Modern variants of the story tend to tint it to make it reflect a more queer ideal.  Movies like Rocky Horror Picture Show and shows like Penny Dreadful have become staples in the cultural view of the novel, assuming homoeroticism upon it.  But this tone, the assumption of queerness in Frankenstein, is present in both the original and 1831 novel as well.  These modern interpretations did not spring from a fanciful misunderstanding of the text.  Frankenstein is an inherently queer novel.  Through Victor’s relationships with Henry, Walton, and the Creature, as well as his and the Creature’s own natures, Frankenstein weaves a story of queer dilemma, delving into both gay and transgender identities.  By looking at writings on both the novel and its adaptations, I intend to show both how and why Frankenstein has been adopted as a story and a symbol for queer audiences.

The first item to discuss is the Creature and his identity.  His appearance, his creation, and his treatment all echo the transgender experience.  Susan Stryker, a trans woman and the author of  “My Words to Victor Frankenstein”, writes that a transgender body “is the product of medical science” (Stryker, 238).  She says that she finds a strong affinity for Victor Frankenstein’s Creature, as she too has been “flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that which it was born” (Stryker, 238).  The well-known depiction of the Creature is that of a being covered in stitches and the novel presents him as a patchwork figure with skin stretched too tightly across his frame.  As a trans individual myself, the parallels are striking.  A male figure, the Creature’s too tight skin and many scars are deeply reminiscent of a chest after top-surgery, a process through which the breasts of a trans man are removed and the chest is augmented into a more classically masculine shape.  This process, both painful and risky, can sometimes leave the skin deeply scared and grotesquely stretched.  It is an appearance that while gender-affirming, can make the recipient very cognisant of their “otherness” and the scientific nature of their form, something that Stryker self-critically calls “unnatural” (238).  

Her view of her own trans body is echoed in the Creature’s view of himself and the reactions of the many people the Creature stumbles upon.  However, no reaction is more telling than Victor’s own.  As the Creature’s creator, he automatically is faced with the role of Parent.  He, like many parents of trans children, chose to usher some new living being into the world, labored for months over its development, then rejected it in horror upon realizing his idealized son did not fit the mold he had intended.  Following a night of anxiety-ridden isolation, Victor leaves the Creature to fend for himself and abandons him to the world.  This is a forcible reminder of the fate that many trans children face.  They are thrust off the doorstep they once called home and made to face solitary survival on their own, far earlier than they are equipped to handle.  

Alongside this early abandonment, Stryker also likens her treatment by society to that of the Creature’s.  She says at times she feels “less than human” and that her exclusion from humanity has welled within her a “deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist” (Stryker, 238).  Like the Creature, she was asked to find her own way and to “live daily with the consequences of medicine’s definition of my identity as an emotional disorder”, something that plights all trans folks’ lives.  There is immense difficulty in the job market for trans people, with little to no protection from dismissal from occupations or housing based on gender identity.  Like the Creature, we are denied access to employment, housing, medical care, and even human companionship.  Stryker’s point is loud and clear.  From the most immense fear that comes with being trans to the most minute discomfort, the influence of a cisnormative culture is the real aggressor, not the existence of trans people.  This is the Creature’s perspective as well.  He is not a monster, he is interpreted as one.  In the same way that Victor destroys the body of the Creature’s potential mate, Stryker writes that “science seeks to contain and colonize the radical threat posed by a particular transgender strategy of resistance to the coerciveness of gender: the physical alteration of the genitals” (Stryker, 244).  Genitalia in Frankenstein is an area of Victor’s concern as he agonizes over making the Creature a mate.  In a commentary from Jolene Zigarovich on Stryker’s essay, she says that “her [Stryker’s]  subversive identification with Shelley’s monster and the reclaiming of monstrosity in her journey to trans embodiment continues to resonate for those experiencing a similar trajectory of emotion” (Zigarovich, 267-8) which seems to me to be an apt summation of Stryker’s feelings and thesis.

The next point I wish to address is the coding of Victor himself and then of his relationship to his Creature.  Our first introduction to Victor is through Walton’s eyes.  We meet Walton longing for companionship, specifically male companionship.  He wants an intellectual and ambitious equal and finds one in a desperate Victor.  This is described in a piece by Michael Eberle-Sinatra where he analyzes how the queerness of Frankenstein is treated in four different film adaptations.  On the subject of Walton, he writes: “Walton’s relationship to Victor in the novel can be read as an instance of repressed homosexuality or, more precisely, as a case of the kind of homosexual narcissistic love that Freud describes in ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’ (Eberle-Sinatra, 187).  Their interactions are carefully controlled and also self-serving.  Walton is looking for himself in Victor.

When Victor is hauled onto the ship he is cold and weak, and every bit the image of a damsel in distress.  I am loath to equate feminine tropes with male queerness, but historically, gay coded characters tend to be given some of these tropes.  Something that is striking is his use of the word “sweetness” to describe Victor (Shelley 11).  On its own, the word is merely an unusual choice for a morally grey and guilt-ridden Victor.  It becomes notable when you mark that a mere nine pages later, Victor uses the same word, “sweetness”, to describe Elizabeth (Shelley, 20).  This is an undeniable parallel, especially when placed so close together in the novel.  Victor’s relationship with Walton is something that Eberle-Sinatra says both directors James Whale and Kenneth Branagh try to dilute in their films.  They make their interactions significantly less tender, which is surprising given Whale’s queer identity and Branagh’s unique melodrama.

Moving to Victor’s relationship with the Creature, Eberle-Sinatra talks about the imagery associated with the Creature’s birth.  He writes that “the language used to describe the making of the Creature by Victor in the novel suggests masturbation, as Gordon D. Hirsch and David E. Musselwhite have pointed out.’ Victor describes how he uses his ‘profane fingers’ in a ‘solitary chamber’ where he keeps his ‘workshop of filthy creation’, and he complains that his ‘heart often sickened at the work of my hands’ (32,113). These masturbatory elements also suggest homosexual fantasies” (Eberle-Sinatra, 187).  The very premise of procreation while eliminating the female element is part of gay discourse, though, with a bit of misogyny.  

This idea is furthered in the words of Judith Halberstam, a source quoted by Eberle-Sinatra.  She says that “the endeavor of Frankenstein to first create life on his own and then prevent his monster from mating suggests, if only by default, a homoerotic tension which underlies the incestuous bond … His creation of ‘a being like myself hints at both masturbatory and homosexual desires which the scientist attempts to sanctify with the reproduction of another being'” (Halberstam, 42).  Victor is, in this line of thinking, clearly creating a companion for himself, one he feels shame for wanting.  This impresses upon the audience that Victor’s strife with the Creature is not just over the fear of the Creature himself, but also a shame for the woman-less purpose and method of his creation.  Victor’s destruction of the “Bride” is a fit of anger, but also a fear of heterosexual procreation.  Victor is terrified of the Creature and his new project creating a “race of devils” that should stalk the Earth (Shelley 155, 156).  He does not want the Creature to have a mate.  Most damning is the Creature’s reaction to Victor destroying the Bride.  He promises Victor that he “shall be with you [Victor] on your wedding night” before murdering Henry Clerval (Shelley, 158).  While the Creature does eventually make good on his promise and pays Victor a visit to kill his new wife Elizabeth, the death of Henry seems to be a direct response to the Bride’s death.  

Henry and Victor’s relationship is the most ostensibly queer in the novel, though it seems to have the least amount of scholarship dedicated to it.  The pair care deeply for each other and seem rather infatuated.  Victor describes Henry with nothing but praise, marking him early as a boy “of singular talent and fancy” (Shelley, 23).  Victor tells us that Henry is handsome, intelligent, and caring, often pairing his descriptions with those of Elizabeth, blending their characters and their significance to his own life.  When Victor falls ill throughout the novel, furthering his role as a damsel, it is Henry who cares for him and nurses him back to health.  Every gesture is one of love and utmost care.

Moving back to Victor’s relationship with the Creature, my next point will address James Whale, the director of the 1931 Frankenstein film.  It is the argument of Mark and Michael Bronski that Whale introduced a more widespread queer lens to Frankenstein by virtue of his own gay identity.  They discuss his “gay sensibility” and how it opens a “discussion of sexuality and eroticism” (Bronski, 10).  This “gay sensibility” term that they coin refers to the specific affectations that a gay identity superimposes onto a text.  “In this way,” they reason, “both the novel and the film become contemplations of both the source and uses of gay sensibility in art” (Bronski, 11).  They allude to the campiness of The Bride of Frankenstein before diving into the parallels that the Creature and Victor’s relationship has with the desire to suppress homosexual identity and the guilt felt from wanting to act on homosexual desires.  

Examining this in a meta sense, the film Gods and Monsters, directed by Bill Condon, gives a fictionalized biography of James Whale’s final days.  It depicts him straddling the razor’s edge of a desire for love and a desire for death.  When he meets young Clayton Boone, he is attracted to him but tries to provoke a homophobic response in Boone in an attempt to end his own life.  Examining a troubling situation, the Bronkis draw a parallel between how Victor feels about his Creature and how Whale views Boone.  They write: “Ever the director, Whale imagines himself Frankenstein and Boone the preternaturally innocent but murderous ‘monster’” (Bronski, 12).  He seeks to quell his desires and his fear of getting older and losing his attractiveness by dwelling in his memories of war and his guilt while picturing Boone as a Creature, something developed by him that could be provoked into murder.  

While the similarity between the two couples splits because Whale and Boone actually develop an affectionate relationship, they show how the dynamic in the book could have developed.  Boone, a heterosexual man, wrestles with his preexisting views while also enjoying the attention that Whale gives him.  This attempt to reexamine prejudice is directly countered by Whale’s own attempts to make Boone uncomfortable and get a violent response.  He wants Boone to be the angry Creature and kill him in a fury.  He has the weight of his war history on is shoulders and seeks an escape.  The only way for him to destroy what he has done is to end his own life.  Victor, in the novel, is guilt-ridden and madly seeks to obliterate his Creature, hoping to rid the world of his sin.  Whale cannot physically end his guilt without ending himself.  Victor, at least for a time, thinks he has a recourse in eliminating the Creature.  

The parallel is deepened by calling on Boone’s “son-like admiration of Whale and his gaining a new sense of self”, something that is invoked by the Creature in the book as something he lacks in his relationship with Victor (Bronski, 13).  This blending of relationships between parent and child with sexual relationships is a common theme in the book.  Victor’s own father took care of his mother as a daughter before they were married.  As someone betrothed to his cousin and with pseudo-related parents, Victor does not seem to have the best starting grasp of these relationship differences.  Through the Freudian lens, it is a very simple logical leap to see how Victor could mix these two relationship dynamics.  This is enhanced also by Victor first describing his beautiful Elizabeth to us at her adoption.  However, the Creature, though built by Victor, was not birthed by him as a child.  The Creature awoke in the enormous body of a man, a man intended by Victor to be beautiful, though gigantic.  It seems a logical leap to imagine that it was not a familial bond that Victor wanted when he constructed the Creature.  The care he took in selecting parts, in describing how he should be a marvel of manhood and a specimen of creation, coupled with how secretive Victor was in his work, it is easy to see how he could have been making the Creature as a companion for himself.  The Bronskis remark that, in both the novel and the fictionalized biography of Whale, “portraying the idea that eroticims -specifically homoeroticism- can be a redemptive experience in the face of horror and trauma”, a redemption that both our scientist and our director seem to sorely crave (Bronski, 13).

The last item I want to address is the presentation of Frankenstein in popular media starting with the illustrations by Lynd Ward.  His illustrations appeared in an edition of Frankenstein published shortly after the release of James Whale’s film.  The idea was to market the book to a new audience that was excited about the movie they had just fallen in love with.  The images Ward created were based on both the images from the film as well as stagings of Frankenstein as a play.  Grant Scott tells us that Ward was influenced by H.M. Milner’s play that “called for the monster to wear ‘close vest and leggings . . . heightened with blue, as if to show the muscles’”, already a much more objectively sexy image than the lumbering and scarred giant from Whale’s screen, though I am sure tastes vary (Scott, 208).  He goes on to note that Ward emphasizes “the Creature’s powerfully muscular body and the fact that he portrays him neither as hideous nor as deformed — as the monster we expect — but as remarkably human” (Scott, 208).  As part of my research, I looked through his illustrations and they are deeply suggestive.  The Creature is intricately muscled and nearly always nude.  He alternates between standing over Victor in an ostensibly dominant manner and being prostrate in an apparently submissive manner.  Their relative sizes are always exaggerated, another topic that was addressed in class.  The Creature in these illustrations is massive with hugely exaggerated hands set against a very minute Victor.  This, like the feminine trope, is not one that I happily apply, but the size difference is also a faction of queer coding.

Grant notes that “most recent queer readings situate the novel within the genre of ‘‘paranoid Gothic’’ and see Victor’s highly unstable and conflicted emotional state as the consequence of his latent homosexual attraction to the creature. They trace the permutations of Victor’s divided consciousness and his painful oscillation between homoerotic longing for the creature and homophobic loathing at the buried emotions it raises in him” (Grant, 211).  This draws up in-class discussions of homoerotic pursuit as well as the guilt and shame previously attributed to Victor.  Grant refers to the iconic image of the Creature standing over Victor’s bed as a threat and that the image presents the Creature entering the “sodomitical space”, indicating that Victor’s subsequent flight was not just terror, but gay panic.  These illustrations assume that the reader is gleaning this overtone from the text.  There is nothing shy in Ward’s depictions.

He is not alone in the realm of modern interpretations.  Rocky Horror Picture Show is a touchstone of current interaction with Frankenstein.  It clearly presents a queer reading of the text, one that while certainly a deviation, has clear roots in the original text.  Frankenfurter building Rocky for himself is not that far to stretch what Victor wanted from his Creature.  Mel Gibson’s Young Frankenstein and its musical counterpart draw direct attention to the Creature’s sexual ability, and other media that uses Igor tends to hint at his and Victor’s relationship.  Frankenstein: A New Musical, which is a fairly faithful adaptation, shows Victor getting pleasure from selecting the Creature’s body parts making many viewers question the performer’s intent.  

Interpreting Victor Frankenstein as a gay man and the Creature to be an icon for the trans experience is almost a mainstream idea.  While much of this has been impressed upon the text by new versions, all of the ideas can be traced back to Mary Shelley’s original novel.  Subversive in countless ways, Frankenstein continues to be an outpost for the overlooked.

Bronski, Mark, and Michael Bronski. “GODS AND MONSTERS: The Search for the Right Whale.” Cinéaste, vol. 24, no. 4, 1999, pp. 10–14. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41690095?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=%28%28frankenstein%29&searchText=AND&searchText=%28gay%29%29&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3D%2528%2528frankenstein%2529%2BAND%2B%2528gay%2529%2529&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_expensive%2Fcontrol&refreqid=search%3Acb3a1cda71650fcf9a8ed05c92889dbd&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Eberle-Sinatra, Michael. “Readings of Homosexuality in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Four Film Adaptations.” Gothic Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, Nov. 2005, pp. 185–202. EBSCOhost, doi:10.7227/GS.7.2.7.http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=4&sid=935ba226-897f-4cd1-872c-8802dd5a34e7%40pdc-v-sessmgr01

Halberstam, Judith., Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995), p. 42. 

Scott, Grant F. (2012) Victor’s Secret: Queer Gothic in Lynd Ward’s Illustrations to Frankenstein (1934), Word & Image, 28:2, 206-232, DOI: 10.1080/02666286.2012.687545 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/02666286.2012.687545

Stryker, Susan. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein” Performing Transgender Rage Published 1994 DOI:10.1215/10642684-1-3-237 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/659f/0ebf73727be55ecfbe1ea637ffb28c35bff4.pdf?_ga=2.80791696.644719058.1575338578-1342035644.1575338578

Zigarovich, Jolene. “The Trans Legacy of Frankenstein.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 2018, pp. 260–272. JSTOR, ters%2F%3Frefreqid%3Dexcelsior%253Aeac044236b13bbd5b8ba44a62b5f3e29&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_SYC-4802%2Ftest1#metadata_info_tab_contents

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