Writing and Melancholia: Saving the Self in Mary Shelley's 'The Mourner'

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
To date, like the rest of her short fiction, Mary Shelley's compelling short story, 'The Mourner' (1829), has received scant critical attention, perhaps because, as Anne Mellor suggests, it belongs to what she considers to be Shelley's period of more traditional writing. 

More likely, however, the text has not received extensive consideration for the same reason that critics have ignored much of her other work: that is, their general unavailability. In recent years, more of Shelley's corpus has been made accessible, thanks to the efforts of editors such as Charles Robinson, who has edited Shelley's short stories. But attention to Shelley's literature has been thwarted, as Robinson suggests, by the very critics who sought recognition for her while 'confess[ing] the inferiority of her work; or, at most, select[ing] one or two other novels, stories, or essays by which to prove that her first novel was no mere accident'. This unfortunate tactic tends to make all of Mary Shelley's works subservient to Frankenstein. Moreover, apologists for Shelley, notes Robinson, have 'criticized her for lacking a sense of humor, for failing to construct plots or develop characters properly, and for writing with no nobler purpose than providing for herself and her son Percy Florence between her widowhood in 1822 and her son's coming into the Shelley estate in 1844' (Stories xii). Such appraisal was not likely to inspire others to look more closely at Shelley's stories and novels than had other dismissive critics.

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It does not help as well that Mary Shelley was fascinated with certain themes which she investigated repeatedly. Again, the tendency has been for critics to locate an uber text to which they relate all other investigations of a particular theme. For example, at first glance, 'The Mourner' appears to revert to the motif of a daughter's abandonment explored by Shelley in her novel Mathilda. While the plot of 'The Mourner' forgoes the theme of incest probed in Mathilda, written ten years earlier, as we would expect of a story published in a giftbook such as The Keepsake, Shelley returns to the theme of a woman who loses her mother early in life, is abandoned by her father and later reunited with him, but forfeits him through death. Usually, critics append a note about 'The Mourner' to a discussion of Mathilda, thereby suggesting that 'The Mourner' is merely a repetition, and a less thorough one at that, of Mathilda's themes. The critics who do spend significant time analyzing Shelley's work predominantly turn immediately to the biographical implications of the theme of the orphaned woman as it reflects Shelley's personal history. Equally inviting is the well established critical hermeneutic which often employs Shelley's fiction to support ideological claims about her domestic feminism on the one hand and her subversive politics on the other.

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While we can learn much from these readings, they often inadvertently subsume Shelley's works under biological and ideological approaches which have become the staple of Mary Shelley criticism. For example, Emily Sunstein suggests that Shelley, who was being pressured by Trelawny to provide biographical information about Percy Shelley despite Sir Timothy Shelley's admonition to Mary never to do so, 'duly killed herself off that summer in ... "The Mourner"' as a reflection of her desire to be left out of Trelawny's biography. Kate Ferguson Ellis, contending that Shelley was indeed the radical child of radical parents, proposes that the theme of 'The Mourner' is Shelley's critique of '... the ideal of perfect daughterhood against which [Ellen or Mary Shelley] is measured, an ideal that pre-figures one of perfect wife-and-motherhood in which no self-effacement is enough'. Mary Shelley herself would object to these biographical readings, since she believed that 'the merely copying from our own hearts will no more form a first-rate work of art, than will the most exquisite representation of mountains, water, wood, and glorious clouds, form a good painting, if none of the rules of grouping or colouring are followed'.

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Such readings, while insightful, do not consider how Shelley utilizes complex narrative and psychoanalytic structures to reduplicate the theme of the orphaned daughter in continually diverse ways, each of which deserves to be considered in terms of these individual contextualizations, even as we pay attention to the structural consistencies which sustain a cohesive vision in her work. 'The Mourner' is of particular value to Shelley scholars not merely because it substantiates our speculations about the relationship between Shelley's personal experiences and her writing but also because its psychoanalytic fabric reveals structural and aesthetic complexities which have hitherto gone unnoticed in her work. For 'The Mourner' is more than just the repeated account of an orphaned daughter. In this compact short story, Shelley inverts the structure of her previous work, Mathilda, where the title character, always the text's central focus, enfolds the tale of the survivor Woodville into the history of her own demise. Conversely, in 'The Mourner', Shelley encrypts the suicide Clarice Eversham's story in the survivor Horace Neville's narrative. Shelley thereby concentrates the reader's attention not only on the tragic repercussions of Clarice Eversham's descent into melancholia, but also on the means by which Horace Neville survives irreparable loss and melancholia.

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That I refer to Neville as a melancholic, despite Shelley's title, points to another of Shelley's stylistic devices: that is, her penchant for titular ruse, a stabilized naming of a work that is disrupted by the ensuing story. At issue here is whether or not we can perceive Neville as a 'mourner' in contrast to Clarice Eversham's role as melancholic. By examining how Shelley obfuscates the distinctions between the two terms, I will demonstrate how she anticipates Freud's later difficulties in demarcating their differences in his essay, 'Mourning and Melancholia'.After establishing that both Neville and Eversham are melancholic personalities, I propose to offer a reading of their situations informed by Julia Kristeva's investigations into melancholic pathology. Seeking to subvert the all-encompassing oedipalization of female characters exemplified by Terence Harpold's purely Freudian analysis of Mathilda, which I have contested elsewhere, I will argue that both Neville and Clarice cannot fantasize consistently what Julia Kristeva calls the 'imaginary father', a mother/father conglomerate, and consequently fall into depressive states which couch an 'unsymbolizable, unnameable narcissistic wound' that is entirely non-referential to an outside agent. I will conclude that Neville survives his melancholy through a dynamics of sublimation whereby his object cathexis is transformed into a nameable melancholy effected through his association with Clarice. ...


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