Frankenstein: The Creature’s Pronouns

In every discussion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that I’ve seen in heard, in person or in print, everyone has used masculine pronouns to describe the creature. Except one: a few years ago, I taught a Romanticism seminar in which one student referred to the creature as “they.” While fully supporting any person’s autonomy in choosing their pronouns, I resisted applying “they” to the creature. All of us were using masculine pronouns to describe Victor Frankenstein, Henry Clerval, and other characters; the creature seemed to fit into the same categories of manhood and masculinity as those characters. Surely the creature identifies as a man, as we would now put it?

Certainly, the book’s other characters identify the creature as a man, and the creature follows models of male desire and violence that he encounters–I think of Frankenstein as a great modern myth of learned, toxic masculinity–and there is some oblique evidence that Victor has created him with male organs of reproduction. But I wanted to take my student’s implied question seriously and point to a moment in which the creature clearly labels himself a man. However, whereas Victor, for instance, talks about himself specifically as a man, I’m not sure the creature ever does.

And the more I looked into the issue, the more I began to realize that there is a much stronger case for “they” than I had anticipated. The creature’s crucial assertion of masculinity, for instance, seems to be his explicitly Adamic request for a female partner. But even there, the evidence is slippery. The creature says, “You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being.” I concede that we have to read against the grain pretty aggressively not to see that as an expression of the creature’s desire to possess a woman in a way that he’s learned from, among other things, Paradise Lost and Felix de Lacey, who thinks that “the captive [Safie’s father] possessed a treasure which would fully reward his toil and hazard.” And that kind of desire is gendered masculine in the novel.

Even in this case, though, it’s really Victor who does the work of gendering the creature and the potential hetero partnership with Creature 2, as in his statement that “They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form?”

The lack of a third-person narrator means that the Voice of the Novel never has to use pronouns for the creature. The 1817/8 Preface that Percy Shelley wrote never genders the creature, either.

But we have a statement from the author describing the creature in the third person: Mary Shelley’s 1831 introduction. I went to the text, fully expecting it to settle the question in favor of “he.”

Quite the contrary. Shelley first refers to imagining the creature as “the phantasm of a man”–so man, yes, but what to do with that “phantasm”?–but from that point on, the creature is a “thing” and takes “it” pronouns: “I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days.” Even if the creature is not human, as this introduction and Victor both suggest, Shelley could use masculine pronouns but chooses not to.

The more I look into this, the more unexpectedly interesting it becomes. I think you can make a case for the creature being and identifying as male all along, with my whole way of thinking here constituting presentist over-reading. In many ways, I still accept the case for “he,” and so far, I have continued using it myself.

However, I can also see a good case for reading the creature as Falling into masculinity, as represented by the way it? frames its desire for a partner and more generally starts to shape its life in the mold of the novel’s men.