“To Be Answered Only With Groans”: The Language of the Deferred Desire in Frankenstein’s Consciousness
Frankenstein’s Creature is, to be sure, an essential actor in the unraveling of Shelley’s narrative. For this reason, it is logical and arguably necessary to question his unnamed status throughout the novel. He is described as many things: a “monster,” a “wretch,” and a “thing such as even Dante could not have received,” but nonetheless remains officially nameless. Alone, feared, a social pariah at best, the monster is clearly in conflict with the rest of society, but more specifically, the fact that the Creature has no name underscores a further, more fundamental conflict with language itself. The defining aspect of the Creature is his struggle to find identity in a society that abhors him, yet because of the constraints engendered by society’s linguistics, his identity amounts to nothing more than a lack thereof, a void where a sense of wholeness might have been.
As the Creature becomes increasingly aware of himself as a separate and distinct entity, he falls subject to a socially and linguistically influenced set of metaphors and representations that attempt to locate him in relation to the social order, and in turn classify him as an individual. Of greater import, though, is the space between the Creature’s subjective identification and his actual intentions. The charade that language imagines as “self” is at best “a delusory construct plagued in its very constitution by imaginary identifications with a spurious sense of wholeness or unity.” He desperately yearns to positively engage the world, to find companionship and arguably even love, but owes to language the unflinching denial of these desires. Furthermore, there is a space between what the Creature’s appears to wish for (wickedness and destruction) and his true longing, which is to restore a Lacanian union with his creator Dr. Frankenstein so that he might exist as an undifferentiated form of the force from which he originated and channel Lacan’s uncharacteristically unknowable “Real.”
At first I stared back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror. I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am.
The Creature’s realization of his physical self is the genesis of his – and arguably Justine’s, William’s, and Dr. Frankenstein’s — ultimate demise. According to Lacan’s theory of the “mirror-stage,” the Creature undergoes a drama “whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency,” and from that moment on assumes “the armor” of an identity whose contours come to shape his development throughout the story. When he discovers the “god-like science” of language as revealed to him through the French family and their “articulate sounds,” he is vitally transformed. As has already been established, language transcends the realm of speech, and its “words” carry a weight we as participators in its scheme could never truly begin to anticipate. Herein lies the difficulty: once the Creature is introduced to the family and their language, he is incarcerated by the fecklessness of linguistic civilization. Though he is first “unable to believe” the reflection, he is given no choice but to embrace what he calls “the monster that I am,” to accept a socially constructed symbol for lack of any other choice.
Lacan borrows from and slightly alters Freud’s idea of the Oedipal Complex, essentially arguing that the human desire to reconcile the hollow, linguistic, fragmented self is gauged by an Oedipal struggle with cultural images and standards enforced by language. The Creature engages the same issue, an issue that often manifests itself in his relationship with the French family in the countryside. A rest in the Creature’s “movement along a chain of desired objects…that can never convert themselves into the object of desire,” the family embodies a part of a series of battles the Creature fights — and continually loses — to retrieve totality. What is interesting, though, is that the family only serves to accentuate his lack of unity. When he visits the family in hopes of winning them over, only to “escape unperceived to his hovel…overcome by pain and anguish,” he realizes that “like Adam” he is “apparently united by no link to any other being in existence.” Here, we grasp as readers that the sense of self-unified identity he searches for has been replaced by an identity defined more by what is not there than what is; the family is involved in uncovering his true identity only by revealing how truly unreachable it is.
Crestfallen and unthinkably alone, the Creature migrates further towards Lacan’s Symbolic Order. Like Addie Bundren of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (a melancholic, dejected woman contemplating her identity), he is forced to reckon with the jumbled mess of language, a game of signifiers and signified objects, that has come itself to signify only the absence of what he seeks to unearth within himself. Both having been “violated and then made whole again by the violation” created by language, which alienates those who participate in it, they are at the same time empowered with a sense of unity because their being is defined by that very violation.
Why Anse…I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquefy and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar.
Addie, lying in the dark next to her husband, wonders at the ineffectuality of words, symbols “profoundly without life,” whose meaning loses legitimacy, at which point we forget their names. Addie is more willing to accept her Lacanian fate and the flaws of language — “I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that word was just like the others: just a shape to fill a lack” — than the Creature, who insists that Dr. Frankenstein “comply with his requisition” for a wife, “a companion of the same species, and same defects.”
Nevertheless, both characters are equally powerless in trying to grasp pre-linguistic identities. Addie has learned that we can’t “get at” anything on this earth “until we forget the words,” and the Creature soon discovers that in response to his question, “What was I?” language can answer “only with groans.”
I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion.
Perhaps the most powerful moment in the novel, this is an image of the Creature standing somberly over the newly deceased body of Dr. Frankenstein. At his lowest point, he is confronted in the most absolute manner with the reality of his estrangement from the “Real.” Having been a “slave of language” since his “jaws first opened…while a grin wrinkled his cheeks,” the Creature is, if examined closely, set free from linguistic bondage.
Now that his source, his imagined self-oneness, is quite literally dead, he is no longer forced to face his severance from it. In this sense, he has indeed been aborted, purged of the angst intrinsically present in watching from an empty doorframe the “cold molasses” flow slowly from darkness into the vessel of language. Now the creature must come to terms with Dr. Frankenstein’s abortion, and strive to find satisfaction in the shape and echo of the words that whittle the centers of our being into yearning. Lacan’s language, because of its twofold nature, is at once capable of nothing and everything, and it is reasonable to consider, instead of worshiping the frustration, celebrating the substitutes. They are, really, all that we have.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. London: The Penguin Group, 1992.
Lacan, Jacques E. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 441-445.
Lacan, Jacques E. “The Instance of the Letter.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 447-461.
Rivkin, Julie. Ryan, Michael. “Strangers to Ourselves: Psychoanalysis.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 390-396
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Random House.1987.
How Binary Oppositions Are Shown in Frankenstein
A binary opposition refers to a pair of related non-physical elements that are opposite in meaning; it is an important concept of Structuralism which defines the contrast between two mutually exclusive terms. Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is rich in these contrasts and none are more relevant and remarkable as the oppositions allegorised in the relationship between Victor and his creature. These can be separated into seven binaries which interlink, blend, blur and mutate to deconstruct the text; creator and created, civilized and savage, inclusion and rejection, love and hate, life and death, good and evil, and freewill and determinism. Between each of these there exists a boundary, a human-applied liminal threshold which divides the two and creates the opportunity for the swapping, shifting and breaking down between the two characters to procure only misery and suffering as Victor dies and the creature disappears into ‘darkness and distance’ .
Binary oppositions in themselves are exceptionally problematic as the contrast between two mutually exclusive terms is difficult to define and separate. When we envisage two elements that are opposed in meaning or significance we often see only two entities that lie on opposite ends of a spectrum and negate the infinite mass of possibilities which lie between them. Furthermore, we incorrectly imagine a clear-cut boundary between the two which is as negotiable as the forward slash between light/dark. Whilst as humans we are capable of identifying the difference between light and dark, or hot and cold, the boundary between the pair is fabricated entirely from human subjectivity as stated in the Protagorean maxim, ‘man is the measure of all things’ and therefore compelled to disintegration. In terms of hot and cold, we place our perception as the fulcrum of measurement; we are comfortable in our climate at anywhere around twenty degrees Celsius, anything distinctly above or below this is branded hot or cold without a moment’s consideration for another body’s subjective opinion, or the concept of infinity (there is no limit to how hot or cold something can be) and the perpetual decimals in temperature shift which may completely alter a state of being; this demolishes the notion that there is some kind of imaginable boundary where one can cross from hot to cold or vice versa. This is complicated immensely if we replace temperature with morality, the binary opposition between good and evil, as subjectivity shreds any possibility of a shared human knowledge which would allow for an easier understanding of hot and cold. By this means, the boundary between good and evil is non-existent, yet we still place value on the two as a binary opposition.
In addition, no two binary opposites are of equal merit, an idea developed by Claude Levi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida who both commented on the necessity of a ‘dominant’ element in binaries; it is a fundamental element of human nature to organise everything into hierarchal order. This dominant element is the ‘presence’ and is positive and the other the ‘absence’ or ‘lack’, which is negative. Cold is thereby the ‘lack’ of heat and evil the absence of good; heat and goodness are the ‘presence’. However, as Nietzsche alludes to in his essay On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense, this attribution of the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ is simply a ‘human construct’ ; there is nothing innately negative about coldness or darkness or evil or even the word negative, it is simply something that humanity has deemed non-beneficial and therefore ‘bad’. Shelley explores this notion in her deconstruction of the binary between Frankenstein and his creature. Victor is at first represented to be the former, ‘presence’, and the positive and the creature the latter, ‘absence’ and negative. Almost every binary opposition, where Victor was the positive and his creature the negative, is blurred and reversed. At first Victor overcomes the laws of nature in creating his creature, but in destroying his machinery in the sea the binary of Science and Nature is inverted as the natural sea swallows the scientific technology. Victor’s physical creation leads to his mental destruction and the creature’s acquisition of knowledge leads to his mental development. The creature desires integration into society and Victor desires to escape from it. The creature wants to live happily and Victor wants to die fighting. The creature wants to be equal by having a wife and Victor loses all of his family because he refuses to allow his creature one. The creature is at first determined entirely by Victor, but in learning of the nature of life with the DeLacey’s he gains a level of free-will, meanwhile Victor is enslaved by the threat to all of his loved ones; this notion is epitomised in the creature’s line ‘you made me but now you are my slave’.
In the Structuralist theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, units of language are defined by signs indicating what they are not as ‘in language there are only differences’ . These opposing relative and negative signs derive from the syntagmatic and paradigmatic context of conceptual and phonic differences meaning that ‘language is a form and not a substance’. Saussure would argue that there is the idea of a ‘something’ and ‘not something’ within this form which defines signs and creates binary oppositions. This holds true when referring to physical entities; here there is only the presence and the lack. The opposite of the moon is not the sun, but no moon, the creature learns this in his coming to terms with the world and the DeLaceys in Volume II chapters III to V. The creature follows a process akin to Saussure’s notion of differences to ‘learn to distinguish between the operations of my various senses’. He does this through discovering series of binary opposites, the first of which is light and dark; the creature is blinded by the light before ‘darkness then came over me and troubled me’ and then ‘light poured in on me again’. This greatly confuses the creature and leaves him as a ‘poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing’. This shows that a lack of binaries leads to suffering and blending binaries also causes suffering, there is only joy when there is a comfortable equilibrium of the two, which is almost impossible. In identifying physical objects such as the moon/not moon, stream/not stream, foliage/not foliage, the creature is confused binaries as they are not opposites but lack or absence of the thing itself. In learning conceptual language with the DeLacey family the creature learns that some words produced ‘pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness’ and reflects on this language of opposites as a ‘godlike science’. He learns of ‘fire, milk, wood, bread’ through what they physically point to, but has difficulty when it comes to ‘good’ ‘dearest and happy’ as they rely on opposites to be identified. If words do not have an intrinsic valuable meaning, then the monster is not a monster until he is named ‘the wretch, the filthy demon’ by Victor; he is allocated a place within the system before he has even done anything monstrous. This deconstructs the binary idea that Frankenstein and his creature are opposites.
Whilst the notion of conceptual opposition is certainly recognisable in Frankenstein, as with the idea of the creator and the created, the more prevalent and interesting themes of the novel occur in the grey area between and the imaginary border which separate binary oppositions which gives way for shifts; as with the creator and created binary: ‘you made me but now you are my slave’. These boundaries are a kind of liminal threshold between states, yet are far more complicated and ambiguous than a simple border line between two states. This idea is tangible in Shelley’s deconstruction of binary oppositions; she begins her novel at this metaphorical border, with Victor on the scientific border of great discovery and Walton on the geographical border of the North Pole. Furthermore, both are trapped in a liminal limbo; the Victor through his mental capacity and Walton through the physical polar ice. Victor manages to overstep his boundary and create the creature who becomes his binary opposition, however over the course of events in the novel this binary is shifted immensely, the new border (between creation/created, civilized/savage, inclusion/rejection, love/hate, life/death, good/evil, and freewill/determinism) is swapped, shifted and broken down until Victor loses everything and dies. Frankenstein crosses the liminal border of science and creates a creature that then destroys everything Victor ever loved. Walton, who sees this and decided ultimately not to cross the literal geographic border, is allowed to live and return to the comfort of home.
The relationship between Frankenstein and his creature is far more complicated and contains far more ambiguous binaries that classical representations of antithetical characters such as God and Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is constantly referred to throughout Frankenstein. The separation between heaven and hell and good and evil is exceptionally clear cut, Shelley employs this as a reference to depict how the nameless creature is somewhere between Satan and Adam and throw our sympathy between Victor and the innocent and helpless creature. This is epitomised in the creature’s line ‘I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed’. Analysing Umberto Eco’s essay The Narrative Structure in Fleming and James Bond as the ultimate depiction of perfect binary oppositions further demonstrates the lack of clear cut binaries and the blending which occurs in Frankenstein. Bond and Villain are absolute opposites where Bond is the ‘Anglo-Saxon, masculine and loving’ protagonist and the Villain is the ‘foreign, impotent and sexually deviant’ antagonist, or ‘variant’ to Bond. The creature is in no way comparable to these villains, as he wants to love and live as a human, and Victor wishes to die fighting the creature. Terry Eagleton argues that we ‘cannot catapult ourselves beyond this binary habit of thought into an ultra-metaphysical realm’, so we can only form understanding of the world through the discovery of opposites. However he goes on to say that ‘one term of antithesis secretly inheres within the other.’ The idea that an element of every entity exists within their opposite is fascinating when applied to the creature and Frankenstein. In many ways they are one and the same person and it is the creatures attributes which are similar to a ‘good’ human, mingled with the fact that he is not a human which produces horror; as Diana Fuss states in her 1996 book Human, All Too Human, ‘sameness, not difference, provokes our greatest anxiety’ .
The opposition of inclusion and rejection, situated within good and evil in Frankenstein and the creature, is another primary example of the mutation of binaries through the breakdown of boundaries. On his first discovery of evidence of humanity, a supposed blessing of the fire left by ‘wandering beggars’, he quickly ‘thrusts’ his hand ‘into the live embers’ only to unearth the harshness of the human inferno and see his ‘joy’ turn to a ‘cry of pain’. This is a very early metaphor for the creature’s attempt at inclusion in humanity, but he is burned through his ignorance of amorality. ‘How strange’ he reflects ‘that the same cause should produce such opposite effects’. The creature is intrinsically moral; he never once fights back, and maintains the belief that he is ‘the same cause’ as humanity and therefore can be part of it. The creature, however, is not part of the same cause. Humans are created from ‘nothing’ in a sense that they begin as an unimaginably small element and grow and develop, Frankenstein’s creature does not grow or develop, he is created out of chaos from mixed parts of other humans, and therefore he is not human and devoid of many human traits. Humans gain morality from experience but the creature already has innate knowledge as he is built from other humans who have already gained it; why else would he know instantly to eat berries and not branches or twigs?
Finally, Victor Frankenstein, like Faustus and Icarus, is the epitome of the hyper-ambitious man who seeks to transcend his corporeal imprisonment and reside in the realm of divine authority having attained absolute truth; he wishes to reject himself from humanity by escaping it. However, Victor is a man and will always be a man; he is tries not be a man by surpassing the laws of humanity and playing God, and is therefore punished with suffering through the death of loved ones and ultimately his own death. The creature, although he is built out of man, is not a man and so will never be accepted as one. However he exists (or at least tries to exist) in a man’s world (or at least a world entirely defined by the ideas of man). Therefore by trying to become part of it in wanting acceptance into the social life of men and wanting a woman (which is in the patriarchal society a man’s possession), he is committing the same illicit offence to transcend his place and is condemned to the same fate of his creator; death and suffering. Both Victor and the creature overstep the boundaries of whom they are and who they can be which break down binary oppositions and cause suffering.
Derrida, Jacques. Of grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. 88
Eagleton, Terry Literary Theory: An Introduction Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008
Eco, Umberto. The role of the reader: explorations in the semiotics of texts. Bloomington: 1984
Fuss, Diana. Human, all too human. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Nietzsche, F On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, 1873 m in Rivkin and Ryan.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in general linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and J. Paul Hunter. Frankenstein: the 1818 text, contexts, nineteenth-century responses, modern criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Rays of Personal Glory, Selfishness and the Persecution for Immortality
The desire to make history to discover what remains undiscovered, or to know what remains unknown is a timeless human goal. Although many have failed to realize this dream, a very few have been wildly successful in its pursuit. The immortality afforded these select few has, of course, only served to encourage those who come after. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein is a literary meditation upon this intensely human desire here exemplified by the title character’s quest for personal glory by means of scientific discovery.
Both Victor Frankenstein and the Arctic explorer Robert Walton, whose letters open the novel, possess an insatiable thirst for privileged knowledge of those things that are unknown to the common man. Shelley presents their stories as being in some sense parallel to each other: each is a failure, and each suffers from the same fatal flaw. Walton, a voyager, explores the secrets of the natural earth, in the company of a crew of men on the same mission. Victor works in solitude to penetrate secrets of a metaphysical nature: namely, the principle of life. Though they explore entirely different realms, Walton and Victor are both bound by a common cause. Each longs to further the knowledge of mankind and to glorify his own name.
The reader is invited to stand in the place of Mrs. Seville, Walton’s sister and the recipient of his letters. The selfishness of Walton’s ambition is not immediately apparent; it only becomes clear when the reader takes the subtleties of Walton’s point of view into account (Walling 35). In his opening letter, Walton attempts to assure his sister that he is safe and to remind her of the reason for his journey: he wishes to confer an “inestimable benefit”(2) upon all mankind. The reader may initially perceive this wish as sincere, but this is not precisely the case. Above all else, Walton craves fame, and he presents his desire as altruistic only in order to inspire his beloved sister’s admiration. She, for her part, had anticipated his journey with “evil forebodings” (1).
In his ensuing letters he speaks of his intrepid crew, first briefly introducing his lieutenant, whom he describes as “madly desirous of glory”(5). It is clear that Walton assumes that his crew has the same passion for this journey that he does; he believes that they would willingly sacrifice their lives for the cause. Walton’s assumption is spectacularly mistaken, and reveals him as utterly insensitive to the real motivations of his crew. Walton goes on to say that the life of one man would be “a small price to pay” (11) for the success of the expedition and the advancement of the entire race.
Walton’s “cause,” however, is nothing more than his lust for fame hardly edifying to humanity as a whole. Walton’s self-regard becomes apparent in that he never once asks about his sister’s well being, despite the fact that he has not seen her for a number of years. He believes that she is pining for him and spends every moment awaiting his return. In each of the letters, Walton reveals the disproportionate quality of his ambition through his redundant references to “glory”, “admiration” and “triumph.”
Victor Frankenstein desires to acquire knowledge hidden from the eyes of the common man. He talks of ridding the world of disease as a means of making man immortal. Although his altruism seems genuine, the personal glory that his discovery would provide him dominates his thoughts. He aspires to the absolute, unlimited powers of a god, and believes himself to be a genius, with a natural propensity to discover the secret of life itself. He declares to Walton that men of his extraordinary intelligence “however erroneously directed” (28) almost always provide new benefits for mankind.
The danger of pride and egotism is one of the novel’s central themes (Kiely 166). Significantly, Victor begins his tale with the story of Beaufort, a man whose pride results in his own demise, thereby leaving his daughter an orphan. It is from the union of this girl with the elder Frankenstein that Victor is born.
The decision to adopt Elizabeth Lavenza ends Victor’s days as an only child. If the dangers of pride and egotism are a part of the novel’s foundation, then the horrors of isolation serve as one of its beams of support. Shelley seems to suggest that solitude gives rise to pride and self-love; intimate companionship is thus an absolute necessity for living a moral life.
It is significant that, in Victor’s mind, Elizabeth does not join the family as an equal member but as a “gift” to him; it is as though his parents recognized the hazards presented by his solitude and attempted to save him from them. Even after Elizabeth joins the family and a second child is subsequently born, Victor elects to be alone, avoiding crowds and having only a single close friend. He seems almost proud of his introversion: he regards it as an emblem of his individuality, his elevation above the common man.
The novel reflects Wollstonecraft Shelley’s own philosophical views. She alludes to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher of the French Enlightenment, whose theories greatly interested her. Rousseau argued that humanity was in essence good; only the influence of society led to the corruption of man. He also argued, somewhat contradictorily, that humans are at birth weak and innocent and thus require guidance and proper education. Without such guidance, the nature of the isolated man would become irretrievably degraded by society. Rousseau maintained that “A man left entirely to himself from birth would be the most misshapen of creatures” (Stevenson 110). This notion is absolutely crucial to Frankenstein: while it undoubtedly applies to Victor, it finds its most direct and literal illustration in the character of the monster.
Frankenstein’s research, as well as the desire for fame that animates it, so entrances him that he neglects his family and friends. He works in solitude; thus isolated, he becomes incapable of resisting his obsession. The obsessional quality of his labors is apparent in his description of himself through such words as “unremitting”, “dedicated”, “tortured”, “resistless”, “frantic”, and “engaged” (33). He admits that he had become “pale with study”, “emaciated with confinement”; he was so focused on his endeavors that he “lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (34).
Frankenstein was written during the period of the first industrial revolution, and it contributed to some of the developing ideas of the age. The novel (like the Marxist theory that it might be said to prefigure) implies that men embody themselves through their creations (Wolff 153). Wollstonecraft Shelley extends this idea to suggest that a creation can only be a magnified image of its creator.
Many critics have argued that Frankenstein lacks complex characterization, insofar as Victor and his monster have the same personality. The confusion of the name of the creator with that of his monster (who is deliberately given no name) is but one example of the results of this misreading. These critics fail to recognize the philosophical implications inherent in Victor’s mirroring of his monster and vice versa. As man was made in the image of god, the creature is made in the image of his creator Frankenstein. The novel makes this connection explicit through the monster’s realization that his form is but a “filthy type” of Frankenstein’s own (93).
It is on a “dreary night of November”(34) that Frankenstein finally realizes his ambition; the concrete accomplishment, however, spectacularly fails to approximate the ideal (Kiely 162). Victor’s creature-child (the prodigious birth of his unholy experiment) is cobbled together out of fragments of the dead; though Victor chose the fragments for their beauty, the monster is grotesquely ugly. Victor describes the creature as a “catastrophe”, a “wretch” and finally, a “monster” (35); this rapid progression indicates the speed with which his hope of immortality has led instead to ruin. Frankenstein’s decision to abandon his creature reveals his “scientific” pretensions to be a sham: he flees, rather than examining the creature to determine the reason for his failure (Kiely 172).
In creating the monster, Victor longed to produce a superior race of men. The monster can be seen as Victor’s “child”: he is a reproduction of Victor (his uncanny double). The creature, like a child, is expected to mirror Frankenstein’s own desires; Frankenstein imagines that this “new human” will be infinitely grateful to him, and will overwhelm his creator with worship (Brooks 224). The relationship between creator and creation reproduces the Biblical myth of the creation of man albeit in a non-Christian context (Levine 11). Although Victor wishes to play the role of god, he lacks the requisite knowledge (recall that the Christian god is held to be omniscient). His human imperfections can only conceive of something less than himself. The monster thus becomes an eternal self-inflicted wound upon his creator, and serves as a horrific embodiment of the consequences of hubris and ambition.
Appropriately enough, Victor Frankenstein begins his cautionary tale with a warning against the overzealous pursuit of knowledge: “How much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (31). His reference to knowledge as a “serpent”(13) once again recalls the Christian myth of Creation: Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise because a serpent persuaded them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Frankenstein’s tale has a profound effect upon Walton: he is filled with remorse for endangering the lives of his crew, and thus consents to turn the ship about. His “moral transformation” is hardly complete, however: he is furious at being deprived of his chance at glory. Frankenstein, too, is hardly redeemed by book’s end: he raises himself from his deathbed to exhort Walton’s crew to continue their expedition despite the fact that they will thus be courting death. He instructs them to “be men” and to be dauntless in the face of the “danger and death” that surround them; only in this way, he maintains, can they acquire glory and avoid disgrace.
Victor Frankenstein dies a failure, insistent that his fate is an “accident of circumstance, the result of insufficient knowledge, or an imperfection in nature itself” (Kiely 160). Though he tells Walton to “avoid ambition” (162), he blames nature itself for his failure and fails to take responsibility for the catastrophic effects of his selfish pursuits. In the world of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, redemption (at least for mere men) remains impossible.
Brooks, Peter. “‘Godlike Science/ Unhallowed Arts’: Language, Nature,and Monstrosity”. The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.
Levine, George. “The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein”. The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. 3-30.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. Candace Ward. New York, Dover, 1994. Based on a reproduction of the third edition of 1831, as originally published by Colburn and Bentley (London).
Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1987.
Stevenson, Leslie. The Study of Human Nature: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Walling, William A. Mary Shelley. New York: Twayne, 1972.
Wolff, Robert P. About Philosophy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.
Fantomina and Frankenstein: How Gender Roles Are Shown
It is no surprise that the function of men and women in a society plays a huge role in the pieces of literature that would arise during a specific time. The roles of both men and women in the 18th century, for example, may even align with those in the next century. For instance, both Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina: Love in a Maze (1735) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) depict women as nothing more than objects. In Haywood’s novella, Fantomina is described as a “Victory” after she is assaulted by Beauplaisir whereas in Shelley’s novel, Elizabeth is introduced, after the death of Caroline, as a “pretty present” for Victor. However, because they were written a century apart, the two texts also demonstrate a difference in response to the roles that were upheld in each of the societies the texts took place in. Both Haywood and Shelley critique the traditional roles of women during their time period but while Fantomina challenges the traditional roles of a woman, the women of Frankenstein uphold them.
One of the ways that Fantomina challenges the role of a woman in British society is by changing her appearance from a lady of higher social standing to a woman of lower standing – a prostitute. When Haywood states that there is no authority figure nor anyone Fantomina knew in town to whom she is accountable, she is suggesting that a lady should not be acting in such a manner, but the protagonist is still able to get away with it (Haywood 36). At the Playhouse, she resides in a gallery box at the theater, which is a key symbol of wealth and class, but as a prostitute, Fantomina smoothly enters the Pit, where the prostitutes mingled with the men, in a “free and unrestrain’d Manner” (Haywood 36). It is here that Haywood reveals the impact of one’s behavior and clothes on their social status. When the protagonist changes both her behavior and clothes, she is no longer a “Lady,” but a “Woman.” Yet with the downgrade of her status, she is able to experience a new sense of freedom, where she also mingles with men. One of the men Fantomina converses with is Beauplaisir and by doing so, she defies the societal restriction of women pursuing men, while also carrying out long sojourns outside of her town. Whereas a woman of low birth possessed the freedom of interacting with any man she wished, a lady did not. Fantomina had spoken to Beauplaisir before, but “then her Quality and reputed Virtue,” or in other words, her virtuous status, kept her from making advances (Haywood 36). Because she is unrecognizable now, Fantomina finds pleasure in freely conversing with him. However, if an authority figure or anyone Fantomina knew were around, she would not have attempted to pursue Beauplaisir at the Playhouse as herself. Furthermore, as her feelings for him strengthen, Fantomina goes to great lengths to win the affection of Beauplaisir, especially embarking on “whimsical Adventures” on the false pretence of visiting a relative in the country (Haywood 52). The protagonist’s severely virtuous mother abruptly arrives upon hearing rumors about her daughter to constrain the vast deal of freedom that she was exploiting. This suggests that British women were restricted from traveling outside of their town and were to be kept in check of taboo behavior. Lastly, Fantomina challenges the societal expectation of unmarried women’s sexuality as being a restrained quality. Under her disguises as Fantomina, Incognita, and Celia, the protagonist engages in intercourse, which she refers to as her “Virtue” and “Honor,” multiple times with Beauplaisir (Haywood 38). While unmarried men in 18th century Britain exercised their freedom to have intercourse before marriage, women were expected to remain virgins until marriage, which is evident in Fantomina’s deliberate plan in hiding her charades for the security of her reputation (Haywood 40). If women had done otherwise, they were unfit to be married because they would have “nothing left to give” to their husbands (Haywood 39). By having intercourse before marriage, the protagonist establishes a new sense of freedom that she will use as a way to manipulate Beauplaisir while she is Incognita. Typically, a man would have more power than a woman but in this case, the protagonist uses her sexuality as a way to gain some control over him. Incognita had him “always raving, wild, impatient, longing, dying” and this newfound power that the protagonist now possessed differed from the stereotypical image of power between men and women (Haywood 50).
Frankenstein reveals that it was a crucial responsibility for women to provide happiness to their male counterparts. Elizabeth adheres to this norm by believing that it is the “most imperious duty” to deliver happiness to her uncles, cousins and Victor and she is “determined to fulfill her duties with the greatest exactness,” even after the death of her aunt (Shelley 26). Shelley’s usage of the words “imperious” and “greatest exactness” suggest that Elizabeth’s priority was not to render happiness to herself, but to the men in her life. It also shows that women were expected to be forgetful of themselves, especially their own emotions, in respect to men. In order to fulfill her duties, Elizabeth was expected to sweep her feelings under the rug, as if they were insignificant and insubstantial. Another instance where Elizabeth demonstrates her dedication to providing happiness to her male counterparts is when she writes to Victor, even after suspecting him of cheating: “Be happy, my friend; and if you obey me in this one request, remain satisfied that nothing on earth will have the power to interrupt my tranquility” (Shelley 135). The word ‘cheating’ can be defined as acquiring feelings for a person while being in a commitment to another. Elizabeth displays a lack of anger or sadness when she accuses Victor of loving and seeing another while committed to her and urges him to seek his own happiness. This would bring Elizabeth “tranquility” and when she states that nothing in the world would be able to ruin her tranquility, Elizabeth insinuates that Victor’s happiness is the source of her everlasting happiness. Thus, Shelley indicates that the happiness of women was dependent upon the happiness of men. Shelley’s purpose of Elizabeth’s character in the novel was to accentuate the effects of Victor’s transgressive science, which ultimately leads to her death. While Elizabeth is portrayed as merely collateral damage in a fight between Victor and his creature, Margaret Saville demonstrates no significance to any of the major characters and is only included for the enhancement of the plot. Women were presented as passive figures whose presence, or lack thereof, emphasized the dominance of a male voice. Although Shelley introduces Margaret as the very first character in the novel, she provides little to no information regarding Margaret’s personal life even though she is whom Walton’s letters are directed towards. Additionally, she is not even granted a voice because she only reads the letters and never writes back even when Walton informs her of the harsh weather, which could put his life in danger, thus proving she is passive. For instance, Walton writes to his sister, “You will not hear of my destruction, and you will anxiously await my return” (Shelley 153). As a result, the readers are left to infer how Margaret must feel knowing that her brother’s life is at risk. On top of that, the reader must also infer whether Margaret would condemn or pardon Victor’s transgressive and harmful experiment. Hence, she is merely an idea because in addition to being written as a figure of moral support for Walton because of his loneliness, Shelley does not confirm whether or not Margaret is still alive. Not only was Elizabeth portrayed as collateral damage in the fight between Victor and his creature, but also Justine. Justine’s character revealed that women were submissive and held no power in their male dominated societies. After being falsely accused of murdering William, Justine confesses to the court, “I did confess; but I confessed a lie. I confessed, that I might obtain absolution; but now that falsehood lies heavier at my heart than all my other sins…ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me, he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was…” (Shelley 58). Justine is seen as an object of undeserving blame and despite knowing that the accusations brought upon her are false, she admits to murdering William. Justine falls as victim to a corrupt justice system and an unforgiving priest who manipulates her into believing that she is the monster he said she was. This implies that women are easy to control and are scapegoats to the wrongdoings of men. Furthermore, no one but Elizabeth made an effort to continue the investigation but, even Elizabeth’s stance against the accusations proved no significance in turning the execution over. As Anne K. Mellor states in “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein,” “the impassioned defense she gives of Justine arouses public approbation…but does nothing to help Justine,” (357). However, Victor was the only one who could prove her innocence. He was the one who possessed the power to reveal who the real killer was yet, he chose not to for the protection of himself. Therefore, it is evident who held the power in Victor’s and Elizabeth’s relationship.
In both Fantomina: Love in a Maze and Frankenstein, women were seen as nothing more than objects of love and purity whose ultimate faith was marriage. While Fantomina challenged the traditional roles of women, Elizabeth, Margaret and Justine adhered to those in their society. Haywood’s and Shelley’s texts succeeded in exposing the traditional roles of women during the time they were written in.
The Influence of Frankenstein on the Author’s Life and Literature
Frankenstein, recognized as one of the most famous literary works of horror ever written, was the direct result of three brilliant authors challenging themselves to create a story that would incite fear and horror in the reader. Mary Shelley and her husband Percy, along with friend and fellow writer Lord Byron, decided they would each write horror stories, read them, and declare a winner after all had been read. After a vivid dream, Mary Shelley began writing the gripping tale of Victor Frankenstein. Although the challenge by her fellow writers, along with an obscure dream, was the impetus for her writing, many specific and often tragic events throughout Mary’s life greatly affected the way she shaped her novel (“Mary Shelley” 2). Frankenstein, often viewed only as the horrifying tale of a scientist gone mad, can be analyzed as being the articulation of the fears of a woman, Mary Shelley, about pregnancy, birth, and as a direct result of influences from other writers and even her own parents.
In order to thoroughly understand the influences that affected Shelley’s writing, specifically Frankenstein, one must have an adequate knowledge of a few key events in Mary’s life. Born on August 30, 1797, Mary Shelley was a prominent, though often overlooked, literary figure during the Romantic Era of English Literature. She was the only child of Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous feminist, and William Godwin, a philosopher and novelist (Classic Writers 199). Mary’s parents were shapers of the Romantic sensibility and the revolutionary ideas of the left wing. Shortly after giving birth to Shelley, Mary Wollenstonecraft, her mother, soon contracted puerperal fever and died. This had a profound effect on Shelley’s thinking as she grew older, taking the tragic event as inspiration to become a good writer (Coulter 2). She was also the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary, Percy, Byron, and Keats were principle figures in Romanticism’s second generation, important though short-lived as it was. Whereas the principle poets of the second generation died young in the 1820’s, Mary lived through the Romantic era into the Victorian. Among her completed works are History of Six Weeks’ Tour, written collectively with her husband, Valperga, a romance set in the 14th-century, and The Last Man, which depicts the end of human civilization, set in the 21st century (Houston and Percy 152).
From a very early age, Mary was surrounded by many powerful and influential writers, shaping her ideas as she grew and eventually leading to the writing of Frankenstein. The Romantics of her time were fascinated with dreams (and Gothic nightmares). Dreams were seen as predictors of what could happen or horrible recollections of what did actually take place. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and “The Pains of Sleep” all reflect a horrible nightmare world of what happens when the subconscious rapes the daylight (Houston and Percy 152). The romantic obsession with the imagination and the creative process undoubtedly had profound influences on Frankenstein. After all, Shelley got the idea for her novel from a nightmare (Coulter 3)! As a direct result of these Romantic influences, Victor himself experiences a complex dream:
“I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon… I beheld the wretch – the miserable monster whom I had created (Shelley 58).”
Thus, Shelley effectively induces this sense of a dreamlike, horrible Gothic fantasy that the writers of the Romantic period inspired in her (Woodbridge 2). This Gothic, misty world based on the idea of what dreams were interpreted as was a central theme to Shelley’s writing and originated from the writing of many prominent Romantic writers of the time.
Central to the underlying theme of Shelley’s Frankenstein is the complex and enlightening process of childbirth and motherhood. Incorporating the dreamlike, unrealistic setting inspired by other Romantic writers, Shelley wishes to express her views, experiences, and fears of becoming a mother. The first tragic event involving childbirth was the death of Shelley’s mother shortly after giving birth to Shelley. Although despairing for her father, later in life Mary took the event as inspiration to become a better writer. Childbirth would come back to haunt Mary later in life. Her first child, Clara, was born prematurely on February 22, 1815, and died March 6. Mary, as any person would be, was devastated by this and took a long time to recover. Mary’s second child, William, was born on January 24, 1816. (William died of malaria June 7, 1819.) Thus, at the time that Mary conceived of the story, her first child had died and her second was only 6 months old (Woodbridge 1-3). There is no doubt that she expected to be pregnant again and about six months later she was. Pregnancy and child-rearing was at the forefront of Mary’s mind at this point in her life.
These experiences of childbirth undoubtedly raised, if not fear, certainly questions about childbirth and why her first child had died. As a result of her bad experiences with motherhood, Mary creates this horrid looking, asymmetrical monster who comes to ravage the countryside (Coulter 4). What is important about the monster is that not only is it hideous, but it starts out its life as a good being, only to have rejection from society and bad “parenting” on the part of Victor turn it into a thoughtless, insensitive murderer (Afterword 195). As Victor meets his creation for the first time after the death of his relatives, the monster proclaims:
“Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall be virtuous (Shelley 81-82).”
This testament of Victor’s monster explains how Victor has failed. Leaving his “child” alone to wander the world with no moral support, Victor has failed miserably at being a good parent (Woodbridge 2-3). Thus, Shelley is able to express her fears of having another child die and not knowing if she will be a good parent by incorporating these themes into the miscarriage of Frankenstein’s monster.
Finally, Mary was influenced greatly by her parents Mary Wollenstonecraft and William Godwin, both influential writers during their lives. Mary Wollenstonecraft is often called the “mother of feminism.” A Vindication of the Rights of Women is probably her most famous work, in which she skillfully used the pen to speak out against the mistreatment of women. Recognizing the Enlightenment thought circulating throughout society, which put reason at the center of societal thinking, she saw a stark contrast with the realities women faced in everyday life. Shelley, although she was never able to know to her mother, took solace in knowing that her mother was a good writer, and that she was using that writing for a good cause (“Mary Shelley” 1-4). Although she never grew to know her mother, Mary was inspired to write by her legacy.
Shelley’s father, William Godwin, was also a famous writer. His works included An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Things as They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams. From an early age Godwin encouraged his daughter to put her thoughts on paper. The company he kept included many great writers of the time. Mary was influenced early in life by these writers, and as a result began to publish her work at the age of ten. Shelley was only nineteen when Frankenstein was published, and wrote throughout the rest of her life. After running away with Percy, Godwin condemned his daughter and their relationship was never fully mended (“Mary Shelley” 2-4). Godwin had a profound effect on Mary, starting her writing at an early age and thus setting the literary stage which she would perform on for the remainder of her life.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, is not simply the tale of a scientist taking the intellectual bonds of man to the limit and creating life from death, but rather a communication by the author, Mary Shelley, of issues which took precedence in her life up to the time of her writing the book. Shelley had many underlying themes that she wanted the reader to pick apart, analyze them for what they are, and simply digest them. She effectively created a story that, while being an enjoyable account of a horrific monster’s life, relays to the reader her fears of giving birth and not becoming a good parent, along with other concerns she had at the time. The way she approached this story was influenced mainly by other writers of the Romantic Period, chiefly Samuel Coleridge and Lord Byron, and her parents, two great writers themselves. Frankenstein was not a simple challenge by a fellow writer to write a book, but more accurately the complex compilation of an eighteen year olds’ diverse life experiences.
Dr. Frankenstein as a Personification of His Surrounding
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Shelley illustrates how the environment tears apart the life of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein. Victor’s generation of a creature from dead matter seemingly deems him an immoral man. However, one often overlooks the fact that Victor is simply the product of his environment. The social and scientific environment that Victor immerses himself in induces his desire to create the monster and compels him to continue its construction. The only environment that comforts Victor is that of nature and of his family. By revealing the manipulative side of society, Shelley shows that even if the monster is Victor’s creation, Victor is equally the creation of his own environment.
In Victor’s world, the value that society places on science eventually incites his obsessive behavior. Throughout his life, people condition Victor to leave behind his interest in old philosophies for the more important concepts of natural philosophy. This scientific society first reaches Victor through his father. Although Victor’s father has no personal experience with the sciences, his knows that the concepts are important to society. Victor explains that his, “family was not scientifical,”(23) but his father still, “expressed a wish that [Victor] should attend a course of lectures upon natural philosophy”(25). His father is also aware that the works of the philosophers that Victor first reads are obsolete. When Victor attempts to share his interest in Agrippa’s philosophy, his father, “looked carelessly at the title page of [the] book, and said, ‘Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash’”(23). In this manner, Victor’s father discourages an interest in philosophy in order to encourage an interest in science – the subject that society says is more significant.
After entering University, Victor’s professors continue to condition Victor for the unnatural deed that he ultimately commits. Professor M. Krempe belittles the works of ancient philosophers from the first time he meets Victor in order to abolish any interest Victor may still have in their works. After Victor confesses to reading the ancient philosophy, Krempe replies, “‘Every minute…every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems, and useless names’”(29). Later, Professor M. Waldman leads Victor to believe that science is the most rewarding study by claiming that natural philosophers, “have required new and almost unlimited powers; [that] they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows”(31). With this claim, Waldman talks about natural philosophers as if they are God, and, thus, instills a sense of awe in Victor. Victor expresses his new enthusiasm for science after his talk with Waldman when he declares, “From this day natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly my sole occupation”(32). Both Victor’s father and his professors extinguish his interest in early philosophers because society deems them rudimentary and claims that ideas of natural philosophy are more consequential.
Once Victor begins his studies, one can see how society’s wishes begin to take over his life. Victor’s obsession with his research proves that the influence he receives from his father and professors works. He explains how tasks that had once been arbitrary and monotonous become enthralling, and, therefore, “the more fully [he] entered into the science, the more exclusively [he] pursued it for its own sake”(32). As his research continues, science slowly begins to take over his life so much so that, his research, “which at first had been a matter of duty and resolution, now became so ardent and eager, that the stars often disappeared in the light of morning whilst I was yet engaged in my laboratory”(32). In Victor’s world, science is an intoxicant that feeds upon itself. He claims that, “None but those who have experience them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder”(33). Therefore, once society sucks Victor into scientific research, it is nearly impossible for him to pull himself out. The influence of his father and professors allow Victor to follow a science-obsessed society down a path of destruction.
Victor, himself, argues that the power that a scientific society holds over man is responsible for many evils in the world, not just his creature. He admits that his intoxication is unnatural: “If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind”(38). Furthermore, he claims that this unnatural state of mind ruins men all around the world. According to Victor, “if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed”(38). Victor is able to place blame on society for his creature by shedding light on other evils in the world that stem from the same intoxication that Victor feels from research.
This obsession that society induces causes Victor to isolate himself from all other people–an isolation that only makes Victor more troubled and sickly. Before the scientific environment completely pervades through Victor, he has thoughts of returning home. Victor claims that, “[He] thought of returning to [his] friends and [his] native town, when an incident happened that protracted [his] stay”(33). This “incident” was Victor newfound interest in the human body. Furthermore, before Victor leaves for university, he promises his father he will write to him often, but Victor eventually becomes so involved in his research that he knowingly abandons his family. Victor states, “I knew well therefore what would be my father’s feelings; but I could not tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself, but which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination”(37). Eventually, Victor’s confinement worsens his troubled mind and deteriorates his health. After all the time Victor spends on the creature, “[His] cheek had grown pale with study, and [his] person had become emaciated with confinement”(36). Because society tells Victor to put all his effort into building the creature, Victor must isolate himself from society and bring himself illness.
In contrast to the fact that the unnatural technology of society sickens Victor, the natural environment appeases his troubled state. During his sickness, he remarks his inability to relate to the things that once gave him please: “Winter, spring, and summer, passed away during my labours; but I did not watch the blossom or the expanding leaves – sights which before my work always yielded me supreme delight, so deeply was I engrossed in my occupation”(38). He further remarks about natures’ power over him after his brother’s death, he claims, “When happy, inanimate nature had the power of bestowing on me the most delightful sensations. A serene sky and verdant fields filled me ecstasy”(51). Even before he developed his passion for science, Victor admits to delighting in nature: “The natural phenomena that take place every day before our eyes did not escape my examinations. Distillation, and the wonderful effects of stream, processes of which my favorite authors were utterly ignorant, excited my astonishment”(24). Only the natural environment, in contrast to his unnatural studies that society forces him to complete, has the ability to appease Victor of his madness.
Under the umbrella of natural environment falls love – more specifically, the love Victor shares with his family and friends. Just as love is a natural innate human emotion, the creation of the monster is, conversely, an unnatural process. After creating the monster, Victor feels dreadful, and runs away. However upon seeing Clerval, he remarks, “Nothing could equal my delight on seeing Clerval; his presence brought back to my thoughts my father, Elizabeth, and all those scenes of home so dear to my recollection. I grasped his hand, and in a moment forgot my horror and misfortune; I felt suddenly, and for the first time during many months, calm and serene joy”(41). At this point in the novel, it is almost as if Victor lives two different lives: one in peace with his family, and the other in hell with his creature. When he takes Clerval back to his apartment he remarks how he, “dreaded to behold the monster; but feared still more that Henry should see him”(42). Even after Victor becomes sick again, he remarks how being with his family is his only cure: “But I was in reality very ill; and surely nothing but the unbounded and unremitting attentions of my friend could have restored me to life”(43). When Clerval is around, Victor finally feels at peace. He claims “A selfish pursuit had cramped and narrowed me, until your [Clerval] warmed and opened my senses; I became the same happy creature who, a few years ago, loving and beloved by all, had no sorrow or care”(51). In this way, society slowly tears Victor apart—society pulls him toward the unnatural while Victor’s humanness pulls him to the natural, thus, seemingly creating two different lives.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one can argue that it is not Victor who creates the monster, but rather that society vicariously creates the monster through Victor. The pursuit of knowledge intoxicates Victor in such a way that he cannot deny his urge to create life from dead matter. In one part of his life, Victor’s society compels him to complete this unnatural task, while on the other, he relates to the natural emotions evoked by nature and love. Unfortunately, in Victor’s world, the whole of society lusts for what is new. In this light, Shelley’s Frankenstein, illustrates an allegory that attempts to warn people about the danger of knowledge and technology in a greedy society. Just as Shelley had Victor tell Walton: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow”(35). Perhaps through her novel, Shelley hoped to demonstrate the malicious effects of a greedy society obsessed with unnatural tasks, such as new technology, instead of a society content with the wonders of nature.
Safie’s Objectification in “Frankenstein” Novel
Over time, the presence of patriarchal ideologies in the Western world has lessened drastically. Yet in the past, women have lived in brutal societal conditions that most people, especially men, cannot imagine. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the patriarchal society and its ideals are the reasoning behind many characters’ behavior. The daughter of a Turkish merchant unknowingly becomes involved in what is a commensalism-type relationship with Frankenstein’s monstrous creature. The monster takes advantage of Safie’s stereotypically passive nature by using her as a method of learning the De Lacey family’s language. However, academics are not the only thing he learns from the foreign woman, Safie and Felix’s close relationship forces the monster to recognize unforeseen emotions over his neglect. During Safie’s stay at the cottage, the monster continuously refers to her as “The Arabian,” and emphasizes her appearance showing that he views her as an object. Frankenstein’s monster objectifies Safie in order to further his academics, and advances his emotional intelligence along the way.
Language, institutions, and social power structures have reflected patriarchal interests throughout history, which results in a profound impact on women’s ability to express themselves. Through a feminist lens, men in literature use power to establish systems that naturalize power, and maintain dominance by making women’s inferior roles appear designed. In Frankenstein, Caroline Frankenstein portrays the ideal female character that works to support her father who has fallen ill and nurses him until his death. This exhibits the attributes associated with patriarchal domesticity because she is nurturing and self-sacrificing, as Caroline puts the needs of her father before her own. Traditionally, a woman’s usefulness to men is what defines them, thus the power exercised over women affects their experiences of selfhood. Within patriarchies, women are also typically objectified, and instead of being viewed as the male counterpart, she is the “other” or “that,” making women seem less than fully human. Also, instrumentality, when someone treats a woman as a tool for one’s purposes, is an underlying issue both rooted in patriarchal ideology and, most notably, Safie and the monster’s indirect relationship.
Despite the fact that Safie and the rest of the cottagers do not know the monster is watching them, he decides to form a relationship with Safie that only he benefits from. Though Safie, and the rest of the female characters in Frankenstein, are the products of a female author, Safie still has a demeaning characterization that is typical of the time. When Safie arrives at the cottage, Agatha and Felix begin to teach her English; the monster observes, and “the idea instantly occurred to [him] that [he] should make use of the same instructions to the same end” (Shelley 116). The concept of instrumentality is first introduced after Frankenstein’s monster realizes he can use Safie for his own benefit, which is the epitome of the objectification of women. For the rest of her stay at the cottage, Safie’s usefulness to the opposite gender becomes the monster’s main focus, and exemplifies the effects of patriarchal domesticity. As the monster continues his observances of the happy family, Safie’s lessons become his own as well. Thus, because of a passive female, the monster’s first academic education results: “[His] days were spent in close attention, that [he] might more speedily master the language; and [he] may boast that [he] improved more than the Arabian, who understood very little…” (Shelley 117). Because Safie only exists to serve the opposite gender, whether she is actually learning the language or not becomes irrelevant as she now signifies a means to the monster’s educational end. Although Felix and Agatha view her with much admiration, Safie’s role in the patriarchal society still remains as a passive and objectified female character.
Safie’s incorporation in the story is more than just creating an easy way for the monster to flourish academically and learn the language of Felix and Agatha; she also provides an important emotional channel. From observing Safie’s relations with the cottagers, especially her amorous connection with Felix, the monster realizes how alone he is. His recent education leads the monster to recognize that he does not know anyone like himself: “Other lessons were impressed upon me even more deeply…all the various relationships which bind one human being to another in mutual bonds…I had never yet seen a being resembling me” (Shelley 120). The monster now knows he is alone and despised by all who lay their eyes on him, and that even his creator has abandoned him. However, without Safie’s presence, the monster would not have the opportunity to discover the feelings of “indignation, delight, and wonder,” or become aware of the fact that his creator, Victor Frankenstein, seized his chances of forming bonds. The monster’s disappointment at his life is in response to the joyous demeanors of the cottagers, which are constantly displayed through their lighthearted lifestyle. After witnessing Felix’s admiration for Safie and learning about strong familial relationships, the monster thinks to himself: “But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses…” (Shelley 120). Even though Frankenstein’s monster did not intend to observe lessons outside the academic realm, his self-pity is unnecessary considering it was his decision to treat Safie, someone with humanity, as an object of merely instrumental worth to attain personal goals. Ultimately, the monster further develops his emotional intelligence by taking advantage of Safie’s interactions with Felix and Agatha, but the results were not in his favor. Even for a monstrous creature, the patriarchy still influences how Frankenstein’s monster regards women; by viewing Safie as an object, he reduces an entire gender to the status of mere tools for his own purposes. Based on the monster’s past observations and experience with other women, he believes they are by nature passive and object-like, to the extent of which he refers to
Even for a monstrous creature, the patriarchy still influences how Frankenstein’s monster regards women; by viewing Safie as an object, he reduces an entire gender to the status of mere tools for his own purposes. Based on the monster’s past observations and experience with other women, he believes they are by nature passive and object-like, to the extent of which he refers to Safie as “The Arabian.” Although instrumentality is already a present theme as the monster uses Safie to further his academics, he continues to belittle her existence by rarely using her given name: “While I listened to the instructions which Felix bestowed upon the Arabian, the strange system of human society was explained to me” (Shelley 118). In certain works, some women are not named because only the men or the few unconventional female characters have the privilege of names. Because the monster avoids calling her “Safie,” it represents his view of her as an object that exists for his own self-improvement and promotes male superiority, whether intentional or not. Even in the monster’s first observation of Safie, he places his focus on her physical attributes, fragmenting her body from her mind and personality. When she arrives at the cottage, he is excessively preoccupied with her appearance: “I beheld a countenance of angelic beauty and expression…her features of a regular proportion, and her complexion wondrously fair…” (Shelley 115). This fragmentation objectifies Safie; it separates Safie’s looks from the rest of her, and thus physical appearance becomes the sole representation of the woman. The monster’s conscious decision to degrade Safie’s importance by placing her in an inferior position depicts the predisposed sexist beliefs of patriarchies.
In Frankenstein, the monster’s objectification of the female stranger advances both his academic and emotional intelligence, which reinforces the patriarchal ideologies of the time. Almost none of the women in Frankenstein survive, and all of them live their fictional lives to serve a very specific function to impact a man’s life. The lack of assertive female characters in the novel shows how Mary Shelley emphasizes each gender’s societal constructs. In order to overcome the gender roles that are ultimately destructive for both men and women, people must first recognize the existence of patriarchal societies and gender inequalities. Recently, the public associates the feminist movement with a negative connotation because of radical feminists who advocate for female superiority, which is not the intended goal. Feminism recognizes the stereotypical ideals men are also expected to follow, but ignorance toward these significant issues will only hinder any progress made in attempt to move past patriarchal societies. Feminist activism is especially necessary in developing countries where women and girls are given few opportunities to receive an education or explore beyond society’s glass ceiling. Without the collective effort of the majority, women’s equality can never be achieved, and the patriarchy will forever reign.
Victor Frankenstein Creature as the Mirror
Laced with haunting similarities between the creator and the created, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein implements the Doppelganger effect to further develop the story of one man’s quest for knowledge and the journey that ensues. From the beginning of his journey, to his eventful demise, Victor Frankenstein travels through a broad range of emotions and experiences, almost all of which his creature endures as well. As Shelley develops the character of Victor Frankenstein, she uses the creature– as his doppelganger–to dramatize, and further elaborate upon, what cannot be explicitly explained. It is Victor’s passion rivaled by the creature’s anger, Victor’s determination mirrored by the creature’s obsession, and the isolation they each cause the other that brings the “good” and “bad” aspects of Frankenstein’s character forth into a new light.
From his first days at Ingolstadt to his last in the Arctic, Victor Frankenstein’s passion for his sciences never falters; it is a byproduct of those sciences–the creature–that transforms Victor’s strong emotions into the anger and revenge he dies with. From their first post-animation meeting together, the creature develops an intense anger toward the man who created him, and the feeling is a mutual one. “All men hate the wretched; how then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us” (95). The creature cannot make sense of the rejection he is being faced with, just as Victor cannot make sense of how this detestable being is still standing before him. It is his misguided passion that leads the creature to make many of the threats that he directs towards Frankenstein. As he promises to “revenge [his] injuries; if [he] cannot inspire love, then [he] will cause fear, and chiefly towards [Victor does he] swear inextinguishable hatred” because he is his creator (148).
As Frankenstein is angered by the actions of the creature–whose own actions are, in essence, motivated by anger and a lack of understanding– the creature seeks revenge for what he cannot control. It is his encounter with Felix at the cottage that leads the creature to search for Frankenstein with many questions as his “feelings were those of rage and revenge” (137). With his confusion of matters as fuel, the creature’s anger continues as he witnesses Frankenstein destroy the partner he had been working to animate and “with a devilish despair and revenge” and seeks to murder another person emotionally close to Victor (171). The abuse Frankenstein suffers at the hands of the creature causes him to become just as consumed by anger and revenge as he follows his creature through Europe in hopes of destroying him. Although his father warns him to not be filled with “brooding thoughts of vengeance against the assassin, but with feelings of peace and gentleness” when he hears about William’s murder, Victor neglects this advice and allows–as the creature does–for revenge to consume him (66). After Elizabeth’s death, Victor’s “present situation was one in which all voluntary thought was swallowed up and lost. [He] was hurried away by fury; revenge alone consumed him to be calculating and calm” (210). Similar to the creature‘s response, Frankenstein is frustrated and vengeful after the destruction of his companion and wishes to destroy the person responsible. In his seemingly endless pursuit of the creature, his frustration overtakes and “Again [does he] vow vengeance; again [does he] devote thee miserable fiend, to torture and death” (214). Dr. Frankenstein’s passions never before “turned towards childish pursuits but to an eager desire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately,” but he loses that with the animation of the creature (26).
The determination Victor carries with him to succeed is paralleled by the creature’s as they work towards different goals; it is the consuming facet of their drives that engenders destructive obsession. The creature’s only request of Dr. Frankenstein is to make him happy by presenting him with a mate, and he goes to obsessive lengths to ensure it is fulfilled. When Victor first concedes to his creature, and promises to create another just a visually displeasing as he, the creature promises that if Frankenstein is to “Depart to your home and commence your labours; I shall watch their progress with unutterable anxiety; and fear not but that when you are ready I will appear” (151). Frankenstein sets out to complete his work, determined to give the creature what he is asking for and rid mankind of the monster; however, with Frankenstein’s refusal to continue working on another creature any longer “The monster saw [the] determination in [Victor’s] face, and gnashed his teeth in the impotence of anger” as he realizes he will not be given what he has been longing for (173).
With no mate for the creature, and those who Victor loves being murdered every time the creature is upset, at a certain point, neither Victor nor the creature have much to live for, but they are obsessed with ridding the world of the other that they feel obligated to remain alive until their task is complete. The creature makes many promises to Frankenstein– all which he fulfills–and he “will work at [his] destruction; nor finish until [he] desolates [his] heart, so that [he] shall curse the hour of [his] birth” (148). The doppelganger relationship between the creature and Frankenstein does not only extend to the characteristic that the two share, but also in the way that the creature, literally, follows Victor around as if he is his ghostly double lurking in the shadows– just as he was on his wedding night. After Elizabeth’s murder that night, Victor, once more, allows his emotions to manifest themselves as evil their counterparts while his determination for developing science and learning is replaced by an obsession with the creature and revenge. Victor “worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate object. For this [he] had deprived [him]self of rest and health;” yet his determination to create quickly transforms into an obsession to destroy (48). Upon Elizabeth’s death, Frankenstein vows to never give up his “search until he or I perish;” that obsession does become the end of him (214).
Despite being introverted from the beginning, Frankenstein was still formerly capable of being an integral member of society, with friendships and acceptance from all; the creature takes Victor back into a state of depression and loneliness that he has had to endure. The creature never escapes the exile he is born into. Finally able to tell his side of the story to someone who will not run away, the creature discloses to Walton what it has taken him this whole time to figure out, that sympathy will not be given to him by any biased human being. Even in the cottagers, whom the creature expected to be the most understanding, he finds “[him]self unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around [him] and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin” (137). Justly upset over his loneliness at the time, Victor further makes the decision for both of them to remain isolated. Victor’s refusal to animate a companion for the creature is, essentially, what causes him to be lonely and, in turn, murder those whom the doctor loves. Frankenstein cuts himself off from the rest of the world for the two years he is trying to animate the creature, in addition to the years he has spent worrying about the monster and what harm he can cause. Even when Frankenstein finds a possible friend in Walton, it makes no difference because his anger and obsession have driven him too far to leave the depressive state he will die in, and he does not wish to create any bonds that the creature–or he–can destroy.
Victor Frankenstein and the creature bring out the worst in each other; however, without one, the other would not be fully human. As the novel progresses, and Victor’s story unfolds, the characteristics of Frankenstein and his creature meld together to represent one person and their Doppelganger connection proves the complexity of Victor’s self. The line often blurs between the two characters, but as would be expected, it serves the purpose of broadening Victor Frankenstein’s character and dramatizing the aspects of his character that serve the greatest purpose in his battle with the creature.
Analysis of Shelley’s Frankenstein From Different Perspectives
As a relatively new form of accepted literary criticism, gender studies can’t help but to incorporate aspects of multiple other forms of criticism. Gender criticism depends on the distinction, or the lack thereof, between constructed dichotomies in society; It focuses on both perceived and inherent traits of sex and sexuality, and why these differences are revelatory of the society that produces them. In summary, gender criticism relies on the nature, a biological set of traits or values, versus nurture, a social set of traits or values. Two forms of pre-existing criticisms favor each side of this debate. Feminist criticism focuses on the social roles that gender conforms to in society, and examines the differences produced in literature by the differences of the genders. Psychoanalytic criticism incorporates the innate desires and traits present across the entirety of humanity, regardless of social roles and assumptions. In Frankenstein, the interaction between these three lenses can be examined by viewing three integral factors to the plot: the monster, the role of men, and the role of the mother.
The monster, especially when viewed in context of his relationship with Victor, reveals a myriad of assumptions about human society and human nature. Through a psychoanalytic lens, the terror of their relationship is explored, through Victor’s inability to escape his own undesirable self-image, and through his failure to fulfill his Lacanian desire of replacing the role of his mother. Through a feminist lens, the terror of their relationship could be explained by the gender roles present, or more specifically the lack of a feminine influence in a process so similar to birth; the monster reveals the necessity of the female role in society. Gender criticism somewhat incorporates and somewhat diverges from these two perspectives, claiming that Victor’s relationship with his monster can be explained in terms of homosexuality, and that “Frankenstein’s creature can also be read as the embodiment of lesbian panic” and is exploratory of the social terror that lesbianism elicits.
Male desire also invites three similar but divergent perspectives. In psychoanalytic criticism, desire is more broadly defined as the dissatisfaction present after departing from the womb, ultimately only solved in the moment of sexual intercourse, or in death. Psychoanalytic criticism may explain the destruction and pursuit of dominance that occurs as Victor’s way of coping with failing to satisfy his desire. Feminist criticism, in contrast, may define male desire “as a complex construct producing and reproducing a constellation of behaviors and goals, many of them destructive”. It then explains the tragedy that occurs in Frankenstein by the lack of a predominant feminine influence. Gender criticism takes these concepts of male desire and male destruction, and presents the idea that men are conditioned to exhibit destructive behaviors, and the social expectation of Victor to conform to a traditionally heterosexual role is the cause of tragedy.
Lastly, the presence of a maternal role is integral to these lenses when analyzing Frankenstein. In psychoanalysis, the maternal role is a vessel of desire, the way Victor attempts to find satisfaction, both by bringing his mother back from the dead and becoming the birth-giver in creating life. The impossibility of success in both of these cases is indicative of the ever-present human state of dissatisfaction. In feminist criticism, the domesticity of the maternal role is examined and criticized, exploring the restrictions to freedom that it presents, and the unrealistic expectation of total conformation. Gender criticism explores the idea of this identification of conformation, based on the idea that “the primacy of relations between women and the differences between the women involved can signal an improperly erotic bond”. This idea is then interpreted as veiling the emotional relationships between women of the text, and eventually revealing the lesbian undertones present.
Downward Direction: Frankenstein’s Downhill
In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s behaviour becomes more and more grotesque in the buildup to the creation of the monster. When he leaves for the university in Ingolstadt he is healthy, of sound mind and optimistic. However, as his research continues, his mentality and appearance decline and his behavior becomes increasingly obsessive and revolting.
Frankenstein’s abnormal behaviour begins with his obsession with science. Frankenstein explains that science fueled him with an ardour unmatched by any other interest because ‘in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.’ This ‘supernatural enthusiasm’ leads to sleepless nights, spent poring over scientific tomes. Frankenstein begins to neglect his family, and, having surpassed his professors Krempe and Waldman academically, his teachers. This link between the pursuit of knowledge and isolation is one which Walton himself feels. The more Frankenstein knows, the fewer people there are who can empathise with him. This inevitably results in isolation, which leads to a loss of touch with society and, consequentially, with social norms and accepted ways of behaving.
Frankstein’s obsession in these chapters leads him to spend time disassembling dead bodies and in charnel houses. He exhumes bodies in pursuit of the secret of life. He states that his “father had taken the greatest precautions that [his] mind should be impressed with no supernatural superstition;’ as a result, Frankenstein was not afraid of spending nights amongst the dead. Nor was he apparently affected by the vile scenes he witnessed, such as when he ‘beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life.’
As his ambition grows, Frankenstein’s sense of power and desire grows as well. He sees life and death as ‘bounds, which I should first break through.’ Frankenstein believes himself to have discovered God’s role, instilling life where there was none before. He names himself ‘the creator’ of this new species and says that ‘no father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.’ This abject rejection of religion is another stage in Frankenstein’s descent. In his isolated world, he sees himself as a God amongst his creations. This shows that Frankenstein has completely ignored any negative repercussions of his experiments; this fantasy supports his spirits almost entirely. Similarly, he states that “All the steps by which I had been progressively led to [my goal] were obliterated, and I beheld only the result.’ If the outcome is good, Frankenstein believes, the morality or immorality of the previous actions is irrelevant.
Frankenstein’s behavior damages him physically and mentally. In one of the final passages before the monster’s creation, we see Frankenstein’s own life seeming to fade away: ‘my cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement.’ His addiction consumes every hour of his time: he has ‘lost all his soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.’
With this descent in mind, the reader can now assimilate why Frankenstein reacts in the way he does to the monster’s sudden animation. There are a number of reasons. Firstly, the appearance of the monster would be the most frightening. Frankenstein intended for the monster to look beautiful, but, instead, he looked terrifying, with yellow skin, milky white eyes and black lips. This, coupled with the monster’s convulsive motions, would be enough to cause severe and instinctive panic in anyone. Frankenstein has also been a recluse for the last two years, ignoring his family and friends in the pursuit of this goal. He had tortured animals, laid awake in charnel houses and toiled in his laboratory through the night for this goal. The imperfection of it may serve to be both terrifying and devastating. His passion for this project had been the driving force of his work and, now that had gone and the work had resulted in this monster, it is understandable why Frankenstein wishes to escape as quickly as possible.
Secondly, Frankenstein’s sudden awareness of the problems with his creation appear just as the monster becomes conscious: ‘…the beauty of the dream vanished.’ The creation scene, which has a dream-like quality to it, has finally become a nightmare to Frankenstein. Exactly why this happens to Frankenstein at this moment is unclear. The moral boundaries he has crossed and the ethical implications of his decisions may have just become clear to him, mainly because he no longer has this driving passion which supports him, leaving the magnitude of his decisions bare. He has adopted God’s role in the creation of life, but his creation is far from beautiful and it is clearly against the natural order of things.
Another reason for Frankenstein’s reaction is because of the similarities between himself and the creation. When Frankenstein is referring to the discovery of the secret of life, he talks of the ‘painful labour’ which allowed the secret to be his. The word ‘labour’ here has implications of child birth – the monster is his child and is the fruit of his labours. Furthermore, during the creation scene, the words ‘convulse’ and ‘yellow’ are used in relation to both the monster and Frankenstein: ‘his yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles’ and ‘yellow light of the moon;’ ‘a convulsive motion agitated its limbs’ and ‘my teeth chattered, and every limb convulsed’. Later in the novel, Clerval needs to remove the chemical instruments from Frankenstein’s study as it reminds him of the monster too much: in this, the two are unified.
The most obvious reference to the link between Frankenstein and his creation is in Chapter VI. Frankenstein sees the monster lit up by a flash of lightning after William’s death. It becomes obvious to him that it was this monster who had killed William: ‘…my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.’ It is clear that Frankenstein has given to the monster his own isolation and social awkwardness. The creation was innocent when it came into being; it was Frankenstein who was the monster.
There is a clear order to Frankenstein’s swift, dramatic descent. It begins with an obsession with science but soon progresses to isolation, grotesque behaviour, an elevated sense of his own power and, finally, physical deterioration. The denouement of this is a violent and terrified reaction to the monster’s animation. It is clear that, despite Clerval’s best efforts, Frankenstein will be mentally scarred forever – the tragic outcome of his own ambition.