Reviews

Echoing across ages: Shelley and Atwood

The Fantastic in Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood. Author: Suparna Banerjee. Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishers release.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai R.K.Sridharan

Poet Percy Shelley’s wife Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and Margaret Atwood (1939-) are historically divided by a century; they lived during times when social norms with regard to women’s role in domestic and public lives were widely different. Shelley lived at a time when male supremacy was taken for granted. Political power and property rights rested with men. It was an unwritten convention that woman should obey man. England was at the zenith of glory being the supreme coloniser of the greater part of the world. Margaret Atwood, on the other hand belongs to the contemporary postcolonial context when the certainties of patriarchal culture have been offset, sexual equality asserted, and sexist domination eradicated to such an extent as to legalise gay marriage. This was possible on account of the continuing efforts of the writers of the previous century: Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir and Kate Millet.

These disparities notwithstanding, there are marked similarities in their (Shelley’s and Atwood’s) outlook on life and firmly held beliefs, indeed their weltanschauung as regards the values of technological growth and scientific advancement and the role of capitalism which affect individual liberty and personal freedom. Suparna Banerjee’s Science, Gender and History attempts a comparative criticism of the fictional works of these two writers who have proven to be feminists, each in her own way. She has chosen for her close reading Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and The Last Man (1826) and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003). These texts can be variously classified under the genres gothic fantasy, dystopia and speculative fiction.

The monster Frankenstein created by assembling cadaver parts by a crazy scientist obsessed with scientific pursuits kills its creator and dies in solitude, suffering and remorse. This creature, lacking in a healthy emotional life, is not provided with an atmosphere conducive to the growth of a harmonious social system. Shelley critiques the so-called scientific ethics and the scope of scientific enquiry that privileges culture (masculine) over nature (feminine). Atwood’s Oryx and Crake too may be considered as a reworking of the same theme of laboratory created humanoids that develop highly skilled intellects devoid of human qualities. The scientist Crake creates a human hybrid which is strikingly beautiful and immaculately perfect and good but sadly lacking in intellect and imagination, both endowments so necessary for a human. Frankenstein and Crake stand in ironical contrast to each other. Both Shelley and Atwood are reluctant to espouse the cause of science as the discourse of progress and plenitude.

Shelley’s The Last Man discusses how gender-based compulsions limit the scope of women’s lives. The sad, unfulfilled lives of women of the royal Windsor family are examined in close details. The pursuit of man’s political ambitions is seen to be at variance with family harmony. Male ambition smothers female’s personality. Unequal gender relations do not permit women to realise their selfhood. The novel also denounces all political systems and utopian ideals, reason and Enlightenment, and the inevitability of progress. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, written in the wake of the anti-abortionist movement of the 1980s in the U.S. debates the issues relating to a totalitarian society in which women’s sexuality is wholly controlled by religious, fundamentalist principles which do not grant women any control over themselves. Set in an imaginary totalitarian Republic of Gilead, women — handmaids — are treated by the ruling class as objects whose sole existence is meant for reproduction. Since there has been a steady decline in births, the state owns breeders whose occupation is to bear and rear children. Institutionalised patriarchy, religious fanaticism, and biological essentialism are the prime areas of criticism in this dystopian fiction.

Both these women novelists stand united in their scathing indictment of the inventions heralded by techno science, patriarchal misogyny and capitalism as being responsible for creating circumstances hostile and detrimental to liberty for women. Man’s selfish and utilitarian technologies prove disastrous to familial harmony and social welfare. “Indeed, a significant aspect of the apprehension of the human presented in the novels studied is the compelling perception — expressed through apocalyptic visions of loneliness — that human beings cannot live without the context of the social-familial web of relationships and interactions” Both writers hold a lofty conception of art as the sole agency that can hold humanity together creating bonds of trusted relationship with one another. Suparna Banerjee has scrupulously observed every detail in her penetrative comparative study of the four fictional works. Written in an informed but dense and somewhat turgid prose Science, Gender and History does contribute, quite convincingly, to our greater understanding of the two acclaimed feminists, Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 12:56:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/science-gender-and-history-book-review/article7361709.ece

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