Vegetable love: reimagining sexuality in Frankenstein and "Christabel."
A snake's small eye blinks dull and shy, And the lady's eyes they shrunk in her head Each shrunk up to a serpent's eye, And with somewhat of malice, and more of dread At Christabel she look'd askance! (42)
Geraldine intends to replace Christabel in her father's affections, and achieves this end by using snake-like powers of hypnosis to incapacitate Sir Leoline's daughter and reform the family unit into one that follows rather unorthodox structures of kinship.
Several centuries later, when the dawn of the Enlightenment had come eighteenth-century Europe, a young scientist named Victor Frankenstein was experimenting with unorthodox kinship structures of his own. Whether he is creating new life outside the boundaries of wedlock, negotiating the nature of his relationship to this offspring, or contemplating the creation of an entirely new family, Frankenstein pushes the boundaries of traditional kinship and gender roles as well. Coleridge's Geraldine and the creature from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein can compel their audiences to reimagine the possibilities for human relationships precisely because they simultaneously compel us to reimagine the possibilities for humanity. By alienating "humanness" as an unambiguous category, the works help to denaturalize those kinship structures that exemplify heteronormative ideals, which privilege heterosexual, monogamous, reproductive, and institutionally sanctified sexual relationships. This denaturalization of heteronormative sexuality was also being explored in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by botanists, who were starting to learn more about a sexuality among plants, a category of life that is so radically 'other' to humanity and sexually diverse that it enabled the consideration of sexuality from an entirely new perspective. This scientific work, especially that of Carl Linnaeus and Erasmus Darwin, had a profound effect on the thinking of Romantic writers such as Coleridge and Shelley and allowed them to envision a sexuality that is just a little bit more vegetable.
The links between human sexuality and the natural world have been more recently explored by Timothy Morton in his 2010 PMLA article entitled "Queer Ecology," in which he sets out with a mission to create a new field of study. The way will be difficult, he imagines, and he characterizes his project as "an exercise in hubris [that] is bound to rattle nerves and raise hackles" (273). Though Morton assumes that the fields of queer theory and ecocriticism seem "incompatible," and that their marriage will require a "perverse, Frankensteinian meme-splice," he does not go into detail about why we might assume this (273). Haven't sites of intellectual contact between gender and "nature" always been fraught in productive ways? Whether we are using the euphemism of the birds and the bees or re-examining the ties between sex and gender, biology and the natural world have always been a major part of discussions of sexuality, even if the "natural" discussions have tended towards a desire to conserve a heteronormative and monogamous model of society. The natural world has, however, also been featured in discussions of sexuality that push against the status quo.
This push-back is especially relevant for writers in the Romantic period, who were invested in looking to nature to find their spontaneous overflows of emotion (recollected, of course, in tranquility) to break free of what they saw as the rigid order of the neo-classical eighteenth century. These writers' growing interest in contemporary natural philosophy, which was just beginning to take on the trappings of multi-disciplinary institutionalized Science, allowed them to take a closer look at the natural world and use it to frame a critique of the human one. One writer who was particularly interested in the bridge between science and literature was Erasmus Darwin, whose The Botanic Garden (1791) constitutes a hybrid work between botanical description and sexual poetry. Darwin, as several scholars have argued, forms a critique of monogamy through identification of human and plant sexuality. His work captured the imagination of a number of Romantic writers, and I will argue that both Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Christabel" (1816) are participating in the same tradition when they look to biology and the "natural" world to critique heteronormative structures of kinship, and search instead for alternative forms of affinity. They may not be able to find alternatives with the potential to end happily ever after, but their use of indeterminate endings allows them to undermine the status quo.
Along with their unorthodox depictions of reproduction and sexuality, these works of Darwin, Shelley, (1) and Coleridge have another feature in common: monsters. Dr. Frankenstein's creation is one of the most iconic literary representations of monstrosity, exemplifying the category defined by Sir William Lawrence in 1819 as "a creature in whom the body in general, or some large and conspicuous part of it, deviates remarkably from the accustomed formation" ("Monster" n.p.). To this category we might add the botanical deformities that preoccupy much of Erasmus Darwin's more scientific works, the snakelike creature who poses as the lovely Geraldine in "Christabel," and the countless other monsters that populate the literary and cultural imagination. Today's monsters even include the likes of Sully and Mike from Disney Pixar's Monsters, Inc. (2001).
These friendly monsters are recruited by Judith Halberstam (2) in The Queer Art of Failure (2011) to explore the idea that texts might use the notion of "failure" to critique heteronormativity and instead suggest other forms of kinship and affinity. She includes Monsters, Inc. in a new genre of CGI animated films from Pixar and other studios that she calls "Pixarvolt," which she values for their ability to make "subtle as well as overt connections between communitarian revolt and queer embodiment and thereby articulate, in ways that theory and popular narrative have not, the sometimes counterintuitive links between queerness and socialist struggle" (Halberstam 29). These films, which also include Chicken Run (2000), Toy Story (1995), and Finding Nemo (2003), "draw much of their dramatic intensity from the struggle between human and nonhuman creatures" (28), thus highlighting monstrosity, whether it comes in the form of professional monsters or talking sea creatures, as a particularly fruitful site of queer affiliation. As Halberstam notes:
Monsters, Inc. makes monstrosity into a commodity and imagines what happens when the child victim of monstrous bogeymen speaks back to her demons and in the process both scares them and creates bonds of affection, affiliation, identification, and desire between her and the monsters. (44)
These comparable bonds are manifest in a variety of ways in these Romantic texts, especially ones that include monsters, but the earlier authors are not yet equipped to imagine an alternative to heterosexuality. They must open a space for the critique of heteronormative monogamy before searching for an alternative.
In this essay, I will explore the ways in which Shelley and Coleridge reflect upon botanical sciences in order to open up space for critique of heteronormative structures. I will first examine the political and scientific underpinnings that function as context for "Christabel" and Frankenstein. I will then explore how these authors portray gendered violence in the texts as a way of highlighting the problems inherent in traditional models of marriage. Finally, I will look at the potential sites of queer kinship and affinity in these texts, as the authors experiment with possible solutions to the issues they have raised.
Darwin, Botany, and Radical Sexual Politics
Halberstam places value on 'failure' as a way to reimagine the queer subject's place in society precisely because, as Sir William Lawrence puts it in his definition of the monster, failure "deviates remarkably from the accustomed formation." Prolific deviation from the accustomed formation of sex and kinship was difficult to come by in eighteenth-century polite society, but it was beginning to be a topic of great interest in the botanical sciences. As natural philosophers discovered the seemingly limitless sexual arrangements in the plant kingdom, some wondered about the "naturalness" of monogamy in human beings. An important researcher in this new discourse was the Swedish natural philosopher Carl Linnaeus, who used metaphors of human sexuality to discuss the reproductive systems of plants. As Alan Bewell puts it,
Linnaeus had indicated how botany could be used to talk about sex, gender relationships, and the social order; how to read human sexuality into plants; that is, how to import human analogues into the plant kingdom so that they could be re-imported back into social life. (134)
Though many had dismissed botany at the time as a benign subject, especially suitable for young ladies, this social element added a political bite to Linnaeus's treatise. Carl Seligo points out that not everyone was receptive to this radical edge, as Linnaeus's "contemporaries balked at the implication that there could be so many natural alternatives to monogamy" (70). Erasmus Darwin, whose work was familiar to both Mary Shelley (Seligo 79) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Fulford 127), continued with this metaphor in his Loves of Plants (Part II of The Botanic Garden). The poem depicts a polyamorous utopia in which "sister-wives" (Darwin l. 154), "feminine males" (n. 157) and orgiastic combinations of "many males [and] many females" (n. 264) proliferate. In Darwin's time, however, the critique of monogamy inherent in the botanical narrative was even more topical--in the wake of the French Revolution, social hierarchies that had always been taken for granted were up for new examination. Even the family was starting to be seen as a political unit vulnerable to critique.
The ideology of the nuclear family as a political structure was of growing concern in the political climate of the French Revolution. Lynn Hunt explains the metaphorical link between patriarchal family structure and absolute monarchy by arguing in The Family Romance of the French Revolution that "most Europeans in the eighteenth century thought of their rulers as fathers and of their nations as families writ large" (Hunt xiv). As it became increasingly apparent that the patriarchal family of the French monarchy was not an effective or sustainable model, Hunt points out that there was growing anxiety among revolutionaries over how to navigate the post-patriarchal world. What would a new model of political family look like, and what role would women play in this new model? Would the heteronormative family structure "be thrown out altogether in favor of a model based on isolated, independent ... individuals?" (5). The key outlets through which revolutionaries were able to work through these anxieties and offer alternative models of society were art and literature: for Hunt, "novels, ... paintings, and ... political pornography ... are examples of genres in which family romances can be dramatically enacted" (14). In other words, political theorists of the time had identified the normative family structure as potentiality problematic, but the issue had to be moved into the realm of the aesthetic for investigation and experimentation.
On the other side of the channel, Erasmus Darwin took up this call with gusto. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, and described himself as "all French both in chemistry and politics" (qtd. in Priestman 195). He first published The Loves of Plants in 1789 during a period of what he described as "guileless libertarianism" (74) before the tyrannical horrors of the later Revolution turned most of British society away from Jacobin ideals. Revolutionary legislators in France legitimized their disapproval of the traditional family structure--inextricably linked to the monarchy they detested--by ensuring that "the contractual association of free individuals was now supposed to replace the patriarchal family despotically controlled by the father as the fundamental unit of the new polity" (Hunt 42). With this change in the legal language of matrimony, the radicals redefined marriage as an agreement between two consenting adults instead of a property exchange. This meant that in France there was more space open for the type of free love that Darwin illustrates in The Loves of Plants, which was deemed a necessary alternative to the untenable patriarchy of the monarchy. According to Bewell, this critique is made visible in the poetry when "Darwin's description of the incredible diversity of plant sexuality, along with its human analogues, ... implicitly calls into question the artificiality and restrictiveness of monogamous marriage" (Bewell 135). Darwin thus brings together the fields of science and poetry, which allows him to simultaneously highlight the humanity of the natural world and the inhumanity of society, in service of a radical critique of regulated sexuality.
Darwin's ideal society, however, was not without its flaws, at least by modern standards. Martin Priestman points out that several scholars "have focused on the masculinist assumptions underlying Loves: the phallocentric primacy given to the stamen [and] the virgin/ whore stereotyping of its pistil-heroines" (75). (3) Even in its own time, the poem was not exactly embraced by either Coleridge or Shelley--in fact, Coleridge wrote in a letter to Thelwall that he "absolutely nauseated" the poem (Coleridge Letters 164).
In Shelley's case, while she "took [Darwin's work] very seriously" (78), Seligo and Anne K. Mellor both argue that Shelley was nevertheless pointing out potential flaws in Darwin's ideas when she wrote Frankenstein. Darwin, Coleridge, and Shelley, however, all put pressure on the links between biology and society in their works, even if they may have disagreed on the significance of the moral implications of rejecting monogamy. Though Darwin simply critiques monogamy in favour of free love, Coleridge and Shelley explore the harmful effects of reproductive monogamy without being able to explicitly offer an alternative.
The Violence of Marriage
As Shelley and Coleridge explore the problematic nature of heteronormative monogamy, their representations liken the institution to violence in one way or another, despite the fact that it may not appear conventionally so. In Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, Slavoj Zizek introduces the concepts of subjective and objective violence as different ways of understanding the infliction of harm. He defines objective violence as that which has been normalized as a seemingly inevitable part of society, and subjective violence as that which shocks and upsets the normal order of things. In this case, objective violence is a useful way of looking at reproduction. While reproduction does not constitute direct interpersonal conflict, childbirth inflicts a great deal of death and destruction to untold numbers of women. This violence is often seen as unavoidable, but is in fact implicated in institutionalized heteronormativity. Though the authors might not have thought of monogamy in precisely these terms, the traditional marriage's position as a form of objective violence is highly visible in Frankenstein and "Christabel."
One of the strongest stances against monogamy and reproductive heteronormativity in today's critical theory is taken by Lee Edelman in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). Edelman's book aims to explore the way in which the glorification of the figure of "The Child" in politics and culture affirms a heteronormative social order at the expense of legitimizing queer subjects. Many hold up "The Child" as the ultimate unquestionable good in society, and imagine children as the only ones with the power to make a better world. Edelman argues, however, that the orientation toward the future that is bound up in this assumption stifles any political resistance by shifting focus away from the present. Both Frankenstein and "Christabel" similarly offer a critique of heterosexual reproduction and the inordinate amount of value placed on it in their social milieu by highlighting their potentially fatal consequences. In "Christabel," the eponymous character's mother "died the hour that [Christabel] was born" (Coleridge l. 191), and Geraldine seems to have no mother at all. The danger of motherhood would have been all the more resonant to Shelley, whose mother Mary Wollstonecraft died from complications after giving birth to her (Michel 242). While in Frankenstein we are not explicitly told the circumstances of Elizabeth's mother's death, it is presumed to have some connection to the infant daughter she left behind. Similarly, Victor Frankenstein's mother does not die in childbirth, but it is clear that she dies as a result of being a mother--she contracts her fatal illness because she cannot bring herself to "refrain from attending upon [Elizabeth]" (Shelley 26), and her dying words are dedicated to ensuring that her maternal duties are fulfilled by her niece. Though neither of these authors directly denounces motherhood or heteronormativity, their association of fatality with heterosexual reproduction opens up a space to critique the hegemony of motherhood.
While the depiction of motherhood as a death sentence constitutes a system of objective violence perpetrated against women within heteronormative monogamy, these works also deal with the issue of subjective sexual violence. Though there is no explicit depiction of rape in either Frankenstein or "Christabel," the spectre of gendered violence hangs over both texts. Frankenstein's depiction of the murder of Elizabeth on her wedding night, and Geraldine's narration of her abduction, carry strong connotations of rape, but neither author goes so far as to depict the sexual assault outright. Erasmus Darwin similarly invokes the vulnerability of the female flowers, noting the necessity for male plants to guard them from sexual danger. This can be seen throughout the language of Darwin's poem, where "four youths protect [Digitalis] from the circling throng" (Darwin II. 425), or even in the ostensibly empirical notes, in which Darwin represents the insemination of a passive female: "the female of the epilobium angustifolium, rose bay willow herb, bends down amongst the males for several days, and becomes upright again, when impregnated" (I. 51 n.). In these depictions, the passivity of the female is crucial, as her feeling and experience is inconsequential to the outcome. She is there to be either protected or impregnated by external forces, exemplifying the epitome of patriarchal oppression. One could extend this passivity further to reconsider the ambiguity surrounding the language of rape in these works. Rather than displaying a reticence to literally depict such a disturbing act of violence, the absence of actual forced coitus in "Christabel" and Frankenstein highlights another sinister aspect of the institution of marriage and the value it places on a woman's virginity--the fact that it does not really matter to the wider social sphere whether a sex act takes place or not.
The relationship between sexual violence and political exchange of women is made all the more salient with reference to "Christabel," with its gothic or medieval setting. The setting, which is introduced in the first line by the invocation of the "castle clock" (l. 1) is reinforced by the "betrothed knight" (28), the "damsel bright" (60) and the medieval Catholicism of the narrator's prayer to "Jesu, Maria" (56). The poem begins with the restless Christabel going to the woods at night to pray, and her encounter with Geraldine in the forest. Geraldine explains her presence in the woods by telling a tale of being abducted and abandoned by "five warriors" (79). The description of her ordeal is charged with the vocabulary of sexual assault, as she tells Christabel that her captors "chok'd [her] cries with force and fright" (81) and that they "rode furiously behind" (84) after tying her to a palfrey. Benjamin Grossberg highlights the fact that "there is no explicit sex," but maintains that the violence remains sexually charged, as she is "manhandled, bound, and tied to a perhaps phallic palfrey" (150). There is no need, however, to make the palfrey into a symbolic phallus or quibble over whether or not a sex act actually occurred. In medieval English law, according to Christopher Cannon, "both abductions and rapes were tried in the end using the very same procedures" (81), despite subtle differences in the statutes. This conflation is due to the fact that the victims' families in both cases could make a civil suit for damages to correct "a wrong committed against those who had a material interest in the marriage of a particular ward" (80). In other words, legal strictures were deliberately put in place to enforce patriarchal monogamy. It is of no legal consequence whether a sex act occurred in Geraldine's abduction or even whether she consented to it--the systematic oppression has already failed her.
Though Frankenstein is not set in the Middle Ages, the consequences of patriarchal monogamy are just as apparent in the novel's suggestion of sexual violence. The growing threat of sexual violence in the novel starts out subtly with William Frankenstein's murder, when the audience learns that "the print of the murderer's finger was on [William's] neck" (70) There is no explicitly sexual language, but penetration of the creature's hands into the flesh of a vulnerable victim is nevertheless suggestive. A more overt suggestion of rape comes later on in the novel with the description of Elizabeth's murder. After Victor has betrayed his creation by destroying the female monster he had promised to create, the monster vows to "be with [Victor] on [his] wedding-night," (183) a phrase that threatens to revisit on Victor the forcible insemination of life that he first wreaked on his offspring. Instead of harming Victor himself, however, he carries out his threat on the supposedly passive female. In a scene that echoes Fuseli's "The Nightmare," Elizabeth's corpse is described in a sexually charged manner: "She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair" (189). While it is not difficult to imagine that the monster has literally raped Elizabeth before Victor's entrance, the position of the crime as one committed against Victor renders the occurrence of an actual sex act immaterial from his perspective. The monster has usurped his position of dominance over Elizabeth on the wedding night, as should be his right in the type of monogamy that was starting to invite critique.
This conflict over Victor's right to possess Elizabeth sexually is evocative of his desire to exert control over nature, and Shelley highlights this connection through the language and imagery she uses in both cases. The similarity between Shelley's description of Elizabeth and Fuseli's image has also been noted by Anne K. Mellor, who asserts that "the monster, like Fuseli's incubus, leers over Elizabeth, enacting Victor's own repressed desire to rape, possess, and destroy the female" (Possessing Nature 126). Victor's desire to rape, in Mellor's estimation, goes beyond his relationship with Elizabeth into his relationship with nature. In another chapter, Mellor argues that Erasmus Darwin provides the model of a virtuous relationship with Mother Nature, which involves "careful observation and celebration of the operations of all-creating nature with no attempt to radically change either the way nature works or the institutions of society" ("Feminist Critique" 95). Frankenstein's mentor, M. Waldman, expresses the opposite when he describes the pursuit of science as one that can "penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places" (30). Here Waldman is using sexual language to convey a violent description and subjugation of the female body through exposition. Shelley's critique of patriarchal gender relations that lead to sexual violence moves beyond personal relationships into a larger comment on the way the male scientific community seeks to dominate the natural world.
The associations of heteronormative monogamy with various instances of subjective and objective violence show that these authors were in agreement that there are deep flaws in traditional monogamy. Like their counterparts in France, English authors were beginning to realize that heteronormative models were in need of some adjustment. Despite Darwin's optimism, however, it wasn't clear that an alternative could be found for human beings. There were several imaginable ways of challenging the status quo of sexuality, but in Coleridge and Shelley's time these could still only exist as far off possibilities. These possibilities could be explored in fiction, but they could not be brought to a satisfactory conclusion.
Potentials for Queer Affinity
In Frankenstein, alternative family structures are exemplified by the De Laceys, the family watched by the creature while he undergoes his social and literary education. Mellor argues that the De Lacey family offers an alternative to the political injustice of Justine's execution and their own exile from France. They function instead as "a vision of a social group based on justice, equality, and mutual affection" (Mellor 222). The De Laceys fit the model of a heteronormative family--although they take in Safie, a racially other-ed outsider, her pairing with Felix ensures that she enters the family through an exogamous exchange that preserves the patriarchal system. The opportunity for non-normative affiliation with the De Laceys exists only as a potential state in Frankenstein, in the creature's dream of joining the De Laceys to become an interracial and possibly interspecial family of diverse origins. The monster yearns "to be known and loved by these amiable creatures" (Shelley 107), and tests the waters by attempting a homosocial bond with the old man, only to be thwarted when Felix asserts his patriarchal position in the family by lunging at the creature and "with supernatural force [tearing the creature] from his father, to whose knees [the creature clings]" (110). Once again, Frankenstein is a text that criticizes the reproductive nuclear family, but this destruction suggests that there can be no happy alternative.
Perhaps the most famous example of potential kinship and affinity in Frankenstein is the aborted union of the creature and his female mate. While the creature longs for a heterosexual connection with a female of his species, he nevertheless longs to form a bond that can escape normative European patriarchy. The idea that European values are to blame for the oppressive policing of sexuality is raised in Darwin at the end of the Loves of Plants, when he asserts that "the Loves laugh at all, but Nature's laws" (486) on the plains of Otaheite, now known as Tahiti. Darwin subjects the people of these plains to a romanticized European gaze in a footnote that describes a society on that island which "consists of about 100 males and 100 females, who form one promiscuous marriage" (l468 n.). The monster similarly expresses an understanding that his relationship with the female monster cannot fit into the European model of acceptable relationships, promising that he will take his bride to "the vast wilds of South America" (120). Though the marriage in question would fit the criteria of heterosexuality, the potential bond would violate a number of taboos, as the monstrous origins of the two creatures might be construed as a kind of incest, or even necrophilia. Furthermore, it is never the creature who raises any possibility of procreation--he expresses no interest in starting a family, and participating in the prescribed goal of heteronormative monogamy. He desires only a companion "with whom [he] can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for [his] being" (118). This interchange, however, is doomed before it begins through Frankenstein's destruction of his second experiment.
Another manifestation of non-normative desire in Frankenstein can be seen in Victor's frequent brushes with homoerotic desire. One especially salient example of this desire is in the intensity of the bond between creator and creation. Timothy Morton characterizes the creature as "an object of homophobic fascination" because "Frankenstein's pursuit of him indicates a burning desire" (Ecology Without Nature 194) and Sedgwick notes how Victor "intrusively and in effect violently carves a small, male, intimate family for himself" (Sedgwick 116). Another example can be seen through the intimacy of the bond between Victor and Walton, to whom the scientist divulges all his darkest secrets, save his scientific methods. Walton, through whom the novel as a whole is narrated, is signaled immediately as a man seeking affinity outside of the heteronormative model--he writes home to his sister rather than a sweetheart of any kind, and wistfully longs for a close homosocial bond, writing that he "desire[s] the company of a man who could sympathize with [him]; whose eyes would reply to [his]" (Shelley 8). It is also apparent throughout the novel that Frankenstein values the companionship of Clerval, whom he loves "with a mixture of affection and reverence that knew no bounds" (49) far more than that of Elizabeth. The cancellation of these relationships through the deaths of Clerval and Victor suggests the possibilities of finding kinship outside of heteronormativity can be explored but never brought to their conclusions in Frankenstein.
Despite the suggestions of homosocial desire between Frankenstein and other men in the text, the focus that many critics have placed upon potentially erotic bonds between men, as Frann Michel points out, completely elides the possibility of erotic bonds between women. Michel argues that many gendered readings of Frankenstein have dwelt on the feminization of either Victor or the creature, bonds of male homoerotic desire between Victor and any of the male characters in the text, or discuss the presence of male homosexual panic. She particularly examines the work of Margaret Homans, who detects misogynist motivations for Victor Frankenstein's rejection of heterosexuality. Michel observes that by explicitly depicting Frankenstein as avoiding women by circumventing the "normal sexual relation of husband and wife" (qtd. in Michel 247, her emphasis), Homans is building her case on the presumed heterosexuality of the women in the text. The bonds between Elizabeth, Justine, and Caroline offer potential to explore erotic ties between women, but these bonds are routinely ignored in order to relate these women to Victor's sexuality. Though Shelley has been opening up increased opportunities to explore human sexuality outside of heteronormativity, it remains difficult for these explorations to become visible. If Coleridge, Shelley, and Darwin's project is to be fully appreciated, it is important for critics today to allow access to ideas that fall outside of our expectations for Romantic notions of sexuality.
In the portrayal of non-normative relationships in "Christabel," especially in the case of Roland and Leoline, the presence of a strong, affect-driven, damaged love is not in question. The speaker explicitly states that each had once been the other's "heart's best brother" in youth (Coleridge 405), but there was a falling out that had been sparked by "whispering tongues" that "poison truth" (397). This bond goes far beyond that of ordinary friendship--the reader learns that the men's anger toward "one [they] love" (400) was akin to "madness in the brain" (401) and that "never either found another / To free the hollow heart from paining--/ They stood aloof, the scars remaining" (407-409). It is true that there is no explicit discussion of sexuality between the two in the poem, but one must also admit that this bond is difficult to fit into the standard heteronormative narrative. As Halberstam would argue, these men have "failed" at heteronormativity in that they are not completely fulfilled by their nuclear families and heterosexual relationships--they are missing a relationship with another man, and have the scars to prove it. The critique of heteronormativity opened up in "Christabel" by the poem's depiction of motherhood is left unsolved by the poem's end--while the male bond from the past undoubtedly caused happiness and fulfillment previously, it cannot end happily. Instead, a monster emerges from this part of Leoline's past to spread destruction.
The monster in "Christabel" comes in the form of Geraldine, who also exhibits a strong suggestion of same-sex desire. A number of critics have noted that "Christabel" is ground-breaking in its depiction of lesbian desire, most notably because of the way it takes lesbianism seriously. Andrew Elfenbein points out that where "previous works had treated sex between women as a matter of pornographic interest, satirical commentary, scandalous exploration, or titillating innuendo," Coleridge's work "for the first time, made lesbianism sublime" (177). Susan Lanser, similarly, argues that the scene of implied sexual contact between the two women "carries images of both pleasure and danger ... [and] suggests that sapphism, though unspeakable, may also be desired" (Lanser 10). The sublimity and desirability of lesbian desire in this context turns it into a force with the unrealized potential to subvert the heteronormative status quo. This potentiality or ambivalence is reflected in the narrator's reluctance to represent Geraldine's naked body--he or she simply tells the reader that it is "A sight to dream of, not to tell!" (Coleridge 247). The ambivalence is compounded by the textual history of the poem's next line. While the 1816 version of the poem gives the innocuous "And she is to sleep by Christabel" (248), Coleridge later heightened the moral rhetoric of the poem by changing the line to "O shield her! Shield sweet Christabel" (n. 2). Clearly, Coleridge was less explicit about the danger of the scene when it was originally published, leaving his readers to learn the outcome on their own. Ambiguity about queer desire and its consequences in the earlier parts of the 1816 version serves as an indication that Coleridge is conducting an experiment here, hypothesizing an alternative to heteronormativity. As the unfinished end of the poem and Coleridge's proposed ending show, however, the hypothesis is roundly debunked.
In the 1816 published version of "Christabel," the story trails off in darkness and chaos, caused by the introduction of Geraldine into the castle. After she is introduced to Sir Leoline as the daughter of Lord Roland, the knight immediately cleaves to her with "eyes made up of wonder and love" (555), as if she were his own daughter. When she begs his protection from a serpent she has seen strangling a dove in a dream, he vows to keep her in the castle and summon her father, telling her that "thy sire and I will crush the snake" (560). This rather suggestive line connotes a reunion between the two men, with Leoline's attachment to Geraldine completing the circle as a non-normative family. The poem even depicts Leoline going so far as to forsake his biological daughter when Christabel asks him to banish the monstrous Geraldine. Geraldine, who is revealed to have "shrunken serpent eyes" (590) spellbinds her former bed-mate when she "look[s] askance" (569) at her, and takes her place at Leoline's side almost as if she is the progeny of desire between the two men. Part II of the poem ends with an image of Christabel's father embracing his new daughter, when "The aged knight, Sir Leoline,/ [Leads] forth the lady Geraldine!" (640-41), and being reproached by the narrator for wronging the child that came of him and his dead wife. The queer family has triumphed and all is lost, which soundly refutes the idea that non-normative desire may offer an alternative to flawed monogamy. Other alternatives would need to be explored in the future.
Despite leaving the poem unfinished, Coleridge revealed his plan for the ending of "Christabel" in a letter to a friend. While the plot of the next sections is rather convoluted, the final resolution reads like something from a queer theorist's worst nightmare:
The real lover returning, enters at this moment, and produces the ring which she had once given him in sign of her betrothment. Thus defeated, the supernatural being Geraldine disappears. As predicted, the castle bell tolls, the mother's voice is heard, and to the exceeding joy of both parties, the rightful marriage takes place, after which follows a reconciliation and explanation between father and daughter. (Coleridge l. 665 n.7)
This resolution is cheerful and optimistic to the point of absurdity, extolling the virtues of heteronormative monogamy. The potentiality for alternative sexuality is neatly erased from the picture, and the knightly lover arrives as a deus ex machina. Though Coleridge may have had this plan in mind for the ending, it is even more prominent in its absence from the published version. While it is clear that Geraldine and Christabel cannot live happily ever after alongside Roland and Leoline in a queer version of an Austen novel, the unpublished ending is no more viable. The unfinished work conveys the dilemma that poets were facing in their response to human sexuality and the beginning of the nineteenth century: the status quo was clearly unacceptable, but no better alternative could come to light.
Though it is not represented as a fragment, like "Christabel," Frankenstein similarly ends in medias res, with Frankenstein vowing to continue his pursuit of the monster towards the North Pole and certain death. Like the proposed ending in Coleridge's letter, this ending is presented as a future development but never actually written. Though these endings might seem in opposition to each other--the prospect of living happily ever after in heteronormative bliss against the death of the hero in frozen misery, both signal the demise of potential queer affinities. In this way, Leoline might be suspended in hope of reunion with Roland, and Christabel and Geraldine remain alive in uncertain relation to each other, and Frankenstein will continue pursuing the small, male, intimate family he desires until the end of time.
This lack of conclusions and failure to come up with an alternative way of achieving a happy ending, according to The Queer Art of Failure, is something to be embraced. As Halberstam reminds us,
To live is to fail, to bungle, to disappoint, and ultimately to die; rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite.... Rather than resisting endings and limits, let us instead revel in and cleave to all of our own inevitable fantastic failures. (186)
It has become clear, I hope, through this discussion that Coleridge and Shelley achieved these failures as they were struggling with representations of the extremely complex issue of human kinship. Erasmus Darwin had offered a solution by looking to nature for an example of how the social ills caused by heteronormative monogamy could be solved by a plurality of relationship forms like those he found in the plant kingdom, but neither Coleridge nor Shelley can see this coming to fruition in their literary experimentation. They each take Darwin's idea a step further by adding a human element to the mix, but in each case a monster enters the scene and the story ends in ruin. Perhaps, for Coleridge and Shelley, the combination of theories of human sexuality and the natural world does indeed require a
"Frankensteinian meme-splice," as Morton would put it. They can cut open the dominant narrative of heteronormativity, but they still require many more stitches and bolts to create something new. Coleridge and Shelley could not create new endings to the story of human sexuality, but they could undermine the ones that were already in place.
Leanne MacDonald University of Notre Dame United States of America
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Christabel." Coleridge's Poetry and Prose. Ed. Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson and Raimonda Modiano. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004. 162-179.
Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Fulford, Tim. "Coleridge, Darwin, Linnaeus: The Sexual Politics of Botany." The Wordsworth Circle XXVIII.3 (1997): 124-130.
Grossberg, Benjamin Scott. "Making Christabel: Sexual Transgression and Its Implications in Coleridge's 'Christabel.'" Journal of Homosexuality 41.2 (2001): 145-165.
Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
Mellor, Anne K. "A Feminist Critique of Science." Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Methuen, 1988. 89-114.
--. "Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein." Romanticism and Feminism. Ed. Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. 220-232.
Michel, Frann. "Lesbian Panic and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." GLQ 2 (1995): 237-252.
Morton, Timothy. "Queer Ecology." PMLA 125.2 (2010): 273-282.
--. Ecology Without Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
Seligo, Carlos. "The Monsters of Botany and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Science Fiction, Critical Frontiers. Ed. Karen Sayer and John Moore. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. 69-84.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text. Ed. Marilyn Butler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Swann, Karen. "'Christabel': The Wandering Mother and the Enigma of Form." Studies in Romanticism 23.4 (1984): 533-553.
Warner, Lawrence. "Monster." Cyclopaedia: or, a new universal dictionary of arts and sciences. Ed. Abraham Rees. Vol. 24. Longman et al., 1819. 39 vols.
(1) Throughout this paper, I will use 'Shelley' exclusively to refer to Mary Shelley.
(2) The author, who now goes by Jack Halberstam, has described himself as "a bit of a free floater" when it comes to names and pronouns. In this essay, I have opted to use "Judith" and feminine pronouns because of the publishing metadata for The Queer Art of Failure. For more information, see "On Pronouns" at <jackhalberstam. com>.
(3) See the work of Londa Schiebinger, Janet Browne, Tim Fulford and Ann B. Shtier.
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|Title Annotation:||Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Essays/Ensayos|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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