Science, Gender, and History: The Fantastic in Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood

By Tringali, William | Journal of International Women's Studies, January 2017 | Go to article overview

Science, Gender, and History: The Fantastic in Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood


Tringali, William, Journal of International Women's Studies


Science, Gender, and History: The Fantastic in Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood, Suparna Banerjee, 2014. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. 160 pages. Index included. ISBN (10): 1-4438-6220-7. ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-6220-2. 41.99 [pounds sterling], hardcover.

Suparna Banerjee's book Science, Gender, and History: The Fantastic in Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood discusses the topics mentioned with its title in the works of two of each of its mentioned authors. Each of Banerjee's chapters are further divided into sub- chapters with headings that inform the reader which aspect of science, gender, or history they will be focusing on, though ultimately the book succeeds in weaving the three subjects together. This book's four chapters are divided by novel. Chapters one and two focus on Frankenstein and The Last Man by Shelley. And chapters three and four focus on The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake by Atwood. Banerjee ties all four novels together, but the strongest ties are made between Frankenstein and The Handmaid's Tale and The Last Man and Oryx and Crake.

Within chapter one, Frankenstein: Radical Science, Nature, and Culture Banerjee states her defining ideology around which her arguments in the book are based. Discussing gender, culture, and nature, Banerjee follows Ortner's approach to understanding gender from an anthropological perspective. Banerjee takes the Enlightenment's anthropocentric arguments of man as an "autonomous being separate from and in control of his natural environment", and connects them to Ortner's argument of culture being a transcended "composite" in which humanity "attempts to assert control over nature. Nature, or the natural, is by Banerjee's argument a "realm to which woman is perceived to be closer than man". Banerjee argues that the alignment of man and woman within this dialect of nature and culture is "universal" and is used in her discussions of all four novels, regardless of the historical time period in which they were written (13).

Chapter one serves as a strong opening chapter for the book. This chapter covers the horror of a being of purely cultural creation floundering in his lack of connection to the natural, along with Shelley's both support of the ideals of the French Revolution and her dismay with its bloody coups. Banerjee also uses this chapter to tie Frankenstein to Shelley's later work The Last Man, along with Atwood's Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid's Tale. Banerjee's second chapter engages the three focuses of her title with equal fervor, Banerjee's argument even involving to include a fourth focus.

The Last Man: Apocalyptic Speculation Beyond (Auto)biography opens with discussions of women's status within society. Discussing the nuances of Shelley's critiques, Banerjee argues that The Last Man shows "too much emotional investment inter-gender relationships can become self-destructive for women" while simultaneously noting that even "unfeeling" and ambitious women, like The Countess, "on her own, can reach nowhere near political power" (36, 37). The ideal woman of this era must be completely committed to her male relationships (husbands, sons, fathers, etc.) but being so committed to these relationships will destroy them. In this way, Shelley argues for the rectifying of "such schizoid and inequitable social arrangements" (38). Beyond this, Banerjee also argues that The Last Man explores the value of art. The fine Roman columns of The Last Man do not inspire or joy in the last human on Earth, but instead remind him of the beauty that will die with him. Battling against Romantic ideals of Art solving the world's woes, Banerjee states that art "depends for its immortality on the continuance of mankind". The value of art is instead its ability to link different generations and function as the "epitome of human culture" as opposed to its legacy on Earth (46).

This fourth focus of art is expanded upon along with science, gender, and history, in chapters three and four The Handmaid's Tale: Dystopian Speculation in the Feminine and 'Open Markets and Closed Minds ': Apocalyptic Speculation in Oryx and Crake. …

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