Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a Defense of the Ethics of Care
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Feminist analyses of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have yielded fruitful interpretations that make sense of what might otherwise be considered inessential details in the narrative. Specifically, the anxieties and politics of birth and motherhood have been brought forward as central concerns of the novel. However, given the influence of the liberal, Marxist, and radical strains of feminism in the period that laid the foundations of feminist Frankenstein scholarship (the 1960s-80s), most of this work has focused on the burdens of motherhood, the bonds of womanhood, or the oppressive structure of the family, in some cases accusing Shelley of offering a defense of patriarchy. These influential strains of feminism were themselves influenced by the most dominant theories in philosophical ethics, deontology and utilitarianism, both of which emerged from the same Enlightenment intelligentsia that included Shelley's parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. However, in the 1980s, a line of feminist inquiry began to yield an alternative to influential moral theories: the ethics of care. In contrast to the dominant theories, which tend to laud principle- or calculus-based ethical reasoning that assumes interchangeability of moral subjects, the ethics of care emphasises particular relationships and the fact that people are not interchangeable, having different vulnerabilities, dependencies, and dependents. Most importantly, care ethics accuses traditional ethics of ignoring children altogether, creating the illusion that the paradigmatic moral subject is neither dependent nor obligated in non-voluntary relationships. The ethics of care presents challenges for some strains of feminism, particularly in that it takes as given certain natural differences between all people in terms of abilities and circumstances rather than seek to eliminate such differences, and that it argues in favour of the same self-sacrificing values that many feminists have argued have contributed to women's oppression. Because of this dissent, I have decided to approach Frankenstein from the ethics of care, reading it as a criticism of the masculinist values and assumptions embedded in the emerging moral theories of Shelley's period. I will argue that Victor is emblematic of the detached individualistic ethical reasoner valued by masculinist theories and criticised by care ethicists. The Frankenstein family and the DeLaceys both provide examples of caring relations as contrasts to Victor's behaviour. The Creature, offspring of an incomplete moral theory, is both victim and perpetuator of masculinist individualistic, calculus-based moral reasoning. He is more aware than Victor of the necessity of caring relations, but he follows an ethic of retribution inspired by principle-based theories. He knows he needs a partner, but speaks of her in the language that Victor speaks of him—as property. The glimmer of hope in the novel lies with Walton, who, unlike Victor, is willing to engage in dialogue across difference, and finally to set his high aspirations aside for the well-being of his crew.
DegreeMaster of Arts (M.A.)
CommitteeThorpe, Doug; Ophir, Ella; Jenkins, Mariacarmen
Copyright DateOctober 2014
Ethics of Care