Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1338
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
The following entry presents criticism of Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818). See also, Mathilda Criticism.
When Mary Shelley wrote of Victor Frankenstein and his monster, she brought to life a story that would fascinate audiences through the ensuing centuries. Although the story seems "classic" to readers and movie-goers at the end of the twentieth century, Shelley's novel was something of an anomaly when she published it anonymously in 1818. The genre of science fiction did not yet exist, and novels themselves were often looked upon as "light" reading that did not rank with serious literature. In the twentieth century, however, Frankenstein has gained recognition as a pioneering effort in the development of the novel and as a progenitor of science fiction.
Frankenstein was Shelley's first major literary production, completed when she was not yet twenty. Her life up to that point had been shaped by the presence of powerful intellectual figures: her father, political philosopher and novelist William Godwin; her mother, one of the earliest advocates of women's rights, Mary Wollstonecraft; and her husband, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary grew up without a formal education—a situation typical for girls in her era—but with the formidable training of her parents' writings and the many classics available to her in her father's library. Because Wollstonecraft had died ten days after Mary's birth, Godwin raised her and her half-sister alone at first, then with a stepmother who apparently cared very little for the two girls. Mary escaped her home life in July 1814, when she eloped with Percy Shelley, who deserted his wife in order to be with her. With little money at their disposal, the pair travelled the continent, living primarily in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. At the time Mary began writing Frankenstein in 1816, the couple's financial difficulties were exacerbated by personal loss: there were suicides in both of their families, and three of their children died in infancy. The one child who would survive was born in 1819, just three years before Percy Shelley drowned in Italy.After her husband's death, Shelley struggled to support herself and her son, Percy Florence, often writing in order to earn money. A small stipend from Percy Shelley's father, Sir Timothy, brought with it some financial security, but also the condition that Shelley not publish under her married name. Consequently, her five novels and other publications all appeared anonymously. Sir Timothy increased the allowance again in 1840, enabling Shelley and Percy to live with a greater degree of comfort. Shelley died in 1851, after several years of illness.
Plot and Major Characters
Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a series of framing narratives: one narrator's story told within the framework of another narrator's story. The events described by the creature (which Shelley composed first) appear within Victor Frankenstein's narrative, which in turn appears in a letter written by Captain Robert Walton—an explorer who met Frankenstein in the North Pole—to his sister. Consequently, the reader's experience begins at the end of the drama, when Frankenstein and his monster have removed themselves from human society and are pursuing each other in perpetuity across the tundra. Walton then relates Frankenstein's story, which returns to his childhood, when Victor developed his initial interest in science. Some years later, Victor's planned departure for University is delayed when his mother dies; Frankenstein's interest in science simultaneously turns to the possibility of reanimating the dead. Working in comparative isolation at the University, Frankenstein pursues his obsession until he succeeds—bringing to life a pieced-together body. He immediately flees his creation in horror.
Entirely isolated, fully grown but without any guidance in its social and intellectual development, the creature makes its own way in the world; his story, told in the first-person as related to Victor some time later, occupies the center of the novel. The reader witnesses the gradual degradation of what began as an apparently good and loving nature. Because the creature's monstrous appearance inspires horror wherever he encounters humans, his potential for goodness falters, especially when Frankenstein fails to supply him with the companionship of a mate. Turning vindictive, the creature sets out to recreate for Victor the isolation of his own circumstances, gradually killing the members of his family, including Elizabeth, the beloved adopted sister who has just become Victor's wife. The two characters finish "wedded" to one another, or to the need to destroy one another, in the emptiness of the arctic tundra.
The issue that occupies Frankenstein most prevalently and explicitly is that of creation, manifested in a variety of forms. Shelley signalled the significance of this to her reader from the start with her subtitle and her epigraph: the one referring to the classical myth of Prometheus, and the other, taken from Book Ten of Milton's Paradise Lost, referring to the Genesis story: "Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?" (Paradise Lost X, 11.743-45). The three characters invoked by these allusions—Prometheus, Lucifer, and Adam—share a history of rebellion, of a desire to "steal" some of the godly fire of life or knowledge for themselves. Shelley reflects the many layers of this mythology in her own rendering with the temptation and power Frankenstein finds in knowledge, as well as the danger that surfaces once it becomes apparent that he has either misused his knowledge or overstepped his bounds in acquiring it.
With the rise of feminist and psychoanalytic literary criticism late in the twentieth century, another aspect of the creation theme surfaced: reproduction. Viewed in this light, Frankenstein has usurped the prerogative of creation not from god, but from woman, and has thus tampered with the laws of nature and social organization. Generally, this approach to the novel critiques traditional gender roles and the bourgeois family as depicted in Frankenstein. The novel abounds in depictions of different familial relationships, particularly when read in light of Shelley's family history: woman's relationship to childbirth, daughter's relationship to mother, daughter's relationship to father. Fundamental to the novel's two main characters, despite the extreme differences in family relationships, are the stories of their intellectual and emotional development, which resonate deeply within the era in which Shelley wrote. The nature of the human individual, the nature of that individual's development, the basic issue of inherent goodness or evil, concerned many artists and thinkers of the Romantic age.
Frankenstein immediately became popular upon its publication, when it fit neatly into the current fashion for the Gothic novel, a genre abounding in mystery and murder. It would be some time before critics would look at Shelley's novel—or any novel—as a serious work of literature; initial critical attention often reduced Frankenstein to an aside to the work of her husband and the other Romantic poets. The first significant shift in critical reception occurred in the middle of the twentieth century, when major critics like Harold Bloom and M. A. Goldberg took it up with enthusiasm, exploring its Promethean and Miltonic echoes. Readers generally understood the novel as an evocation of the modern condition: man trapped in a godless world in which science and ethics have gone awry.
While most Frankenstein criticism has stressed the importance of Shelley's biography as a reflection upon the work, the approach has been central to psychoanalytic and feminist critics. The latter led a resurgence in Shelley criticism in the early 1980s, discovering in her work not only one of the earliest literary productions by a woman author, but also a source of rich commentary on gender roles and female experience at the beginning of the nineteenth century. At first, the biographical emphasis tended to reduce Shelley's creative and intellectual achievement to an effect of postpartum depression, experienced when she lost one of her babies immediately after giving birth. Later critics explored more and more aspects of Shelley's familial relationships, often considering her novel as a reflection of complex oedipal conflicts, or finding in her an early and rich feminist voice.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2867
SOURCE: "Appendix A," in Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text, edited by James Rieger, The University of Chicago Press, 1982, pp. 222-29.
[When a third edition of Frankenstein was produced in 1831, Shelley wrote a new introduction, reprinted below with James Rieger's notes. Shelley briefly recounts her biography, with an emphasis on her intellectual development and the events that led to the "waking dream" in which she first envisioned Victor Frankenstein and his creature.]
The Publishers of the Standard Novels,1 in selecting Frankenstein for one of their series, expressed a wish that I should furnish them with some account of the origin of the story. I am the more willing to comply, because I shall thus give a general answer to the question, so very frequently asked me—"How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?" It is true that I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print; but as my account will only appear as an appendage to a former production, and as it will be confined to such topics as have connection with my authorship alone, I can scarcely accuse myself of a personal intrusion.
It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing. As a child I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to "write stories." Still I had a dearer pleasure than this, which was the formation of castles in the air—the indulging in walking dreams—the following up trains of thought, which had for their subject the formation of a succession of imaginary incidents. My dreams were at once more fantastic and agreeable than my writings. In the latter I was a close imitator—rather doing as others had done, than putting down the suggestions of my own mind. What I wrote was intended at least for one other eye—my childhood's companion and friend;2 but my dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed—my dearest pleasure when free.
I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed a considerable time in Scotland. I made occasional visits to the more picturesque parts; but my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay, near Dundee. Blank and dreary on retrospection I call them; they were not so to me then. They were the eyry of freedom, and the pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of my fancy. I wrote then—but in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered. I did not make myself the heroine of my tales. Life appeared to me too common-place an affair as regarded myself. I could not figure to myself that romantic woes or wonderful events would ever be my lot; but I was not confined to my own identity, and I could people the hours with creations far more interesting to me at that age, than my own sensations.
After this my life became busier, and reality stood in place of fiction. My husband, however, was from the first, very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage, and enrol myself on the page of fame. He was for ever inciting me to obtain literary reputation, which even on my own part I cared for then, though since I have become infinitely indifferent to it. At this time he desired that I should write, not so much with the idea that I could produce any thing worthy of notice, but that he might himself judge how far I possessed the promise of better things hereafter. Still I did nothing. Travelling, and the cares of a family, occupied my time; and study, in the way of reading, or improving my ideas in communication with his far more cultivated mind, was all of literary employment that engaged my attention.
In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbours of Lord Byron. At first we spent our pleasant hours on the lake, or wandering on its shores; and Lord Byron, who was writing the third canto of Childe Harold, was the only one among us who put his thoughts upon paper. These, as he brought them successively to us, clothed in all the light and harmony of poetry, seemed to stamp as divine the glories of heaven and earth, whose influences we partook with him.
But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands. There was the History of the Inconstant Lover,4 who, when he thought to clasp the bride to whom he had pledged his vows, found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her whom he had deserted. There was the tale of the sinful founder of his race,5 whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the younger sons of his fated house, just when they reached the age of promise. His gigantic, shadowy form, clothed like the ghost in Hamlet, in complete armour, but with the beaver up, was seen at midnight, by the moon's fitful beams, to advance slowly along the gloomy avenue. The shape was lost beneath the shadow of the castle walls; but soon a gate swung back, a step was heard, the door of the chamber opened, and he advanced to the couch of the blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep. Eternal sorrow sat upon his face as he bent down and kissed the forehead of the boys, who from that hour withered like flowers snapt upon the stalk. I have not seen these stories since then; but their incidents are as fresh in my mind as if I had read them yesterday.
"We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us.6 The noble author began a tale, a fragment of which he printed at the end of his poem of Mazeppa. Shelley, more apt to embody ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliant imagery, and in the music of the most melodious verse that adorns our language, than to invent the machinery of a story, commenced one founded on the experiences of his early life. Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole—what to see I forget—something very shocking and wrong of course; but when she was reduced to a worse condition than the renowned Tom of Coventry,7 he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged to despatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which she was fitted.8 The illustrious poets also, annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task.9
I busied myself to think of a story,—a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.10
Every thing must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase;11 and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand upon a tortoise. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.
Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.12 They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.13
Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.
I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story,—my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!
Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow." On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, It was on a dreary night of November, making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.
At first I thought but of a few pages—of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develope the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world.14 From this declaration I must except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was entirely written by him.
And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart. Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone; and my companion was one who, in this world, I shall never see more. But this is for myself; my readers have nothing to do with these associations.
I will add but one word as to the alterations I have made. They are principally those of style. I have changed no portion of the story, nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances.15 I have mended the language where it was so bald as to interfere with the interest of the narrative; and these changes occur almost exclusively in the beginning of the first volume. Throughout they are entirely confined to such parts as are mere adjuncts to the story, leaving the core and substance of it untouched.
M.W.S. London, October 15, 1831.
1 Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley (London).
2 Isabel Baxter (later Mrs. David Booth), the daughter of W. T. Baxter of Dundee. . . .
4 "La Morte Fiancée."
5 "Les Portraits de Famille." Despite her assertion that these stories remain "fresh in my mind," Mrs. Shelley does not recall them accurately.
6 There were five of them, if one includes Claire Clairmont. In his Preface (p. 7) Shelley omits both Claire and Polidori.
7 "Peeping Tom," who watched the ride of Lady Godiva, was struck blind.
8 There is no evidence that Polidori ever planned such a story. In the Introduction to his realistic Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus (1819), he claims that the "tale here presented to the public is the one I began at Coligny, when Frankenstein was planned, and when a noble author having determined to descend from his lofty range, gave up a few hours to a tale of terror, and wrote the fragment published at the end of Mazeppa."
9 Shelley may not have attempted "the platitude of prose" at all. The following doggerel fragment, editorially dated 1816, may be part or all of his contribution to the contest:
A shovel of his ashes took
From the hearth's obscurest nook,
Muttering mysteries as she went.
Helen and Henry knew that Granny
Was as much afraid of Ghosts as any,
And so they followed hard—
But Helen clung to her brother's arm,
And her own spasm made her shake.
10 It is unlikely that it took Mary Shelley all this time "to think of a story." Byron seems to have proposed the contest on 16 June, when Polidori was laid up with a sprained ankle and the Shelley party slept overnight at Villa Diodati. They would not ordinarily have done so, for their own house was a few minutes' walk away. Shelley's Preface recalls cold, rainy evenings when "we crowded around a blazing wood fire," but the sixteenth seems to have been the only day on which, in Mary's words, "incessant rain . . . confined us . . . to the house." In any case, Polidori noted in his Diary for 17 June: "The ghost-stories are begun by all but me." This date is independently supported by that on Byron's "A Fragment" . . .
11 An allusion to the political theory of Sancho Panza, the commonsensical squire in Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha (II.xxxiii).
12 Polidori's Diary for 15 June records a conversation between himself and Shelley "about principles,—whether man was to be thought merely an instrument." This is almost certainly the discussion Mary Shelley recalls as "many." Polidori had just published his thesis on the psychosomatic aspects of sleepwalking (Disputatio Medica Inauguralis, Quaedam de Morbo, Oneirodynia Dicto, Complectens [Edinburgh, 1815]). He was therefore far more expert than Byron was on such questions as the discovery and communication of "the principle of life." The conversation apparently took place the day before Byron suggested the story contest, not, as recollected here, some time afterwards. . . .
13 Galvanism—here, the application of electricity to dead tissue—had given spectacular "token of such things" in 1803, when Galvani's nephew, Giovanni Aldini (1762-1834), induced spasms in "the body of a malefactor executed at Newgate." Cf. Byron, Don Juan, I (1819), 1034: "And galvanism has set some corpses grinning . . .".
14 Shelley contributed more than his widow recalls here. . . .
15 Another misstatement of fact. . . .
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13010
SOURCE: "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," in The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays in Mary Shelley's Novel, edited by George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, University of California Press, 1979, pp. 88-119.
[In the essay that follows, Knoepflmacher contends that "Frankenstein is a novel of omnipresent fathers and absent mothers," a situation he relates explicitly to Shelley's own family history and the repressed anger at her father that appears to surface in the novel.]
Parental affection, indeed, in many minds, is but a pretext to tyrannize where it can be done with impunity.
—Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
I will keep a good look out—William is all alive—and my appearance no longer doubtful—you, I daresay, will perceive the difference. What a fine thing it is to be a man!
—Mary Wollstonecraft to William Godwin, 10 June 1797
There never can be perfect equality between father and child . . . the ordinary resource is for him to proclaim his wishes and commands in a way sometimes sententious and authoritative and occasionally to utter his censures with seriousness and emphasis. . . . I am not, therefore, a perfect judge of Mary's character. . . . [She] shows great need to be roused.
—William Godwin to William Baxter, 8 June 1812
I learned from your papers that you were my father, my creator; and to whom could I apply with more fitness than to him who had given me life?
—Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
On the first page of Frankenstein, beneath the title and subtitle, appears a three-line quotation from Paradise Lost, X.743-45: "Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man, did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?" The following page contains an inscription that seems far more tame and submissive: "To WILLIAM GODWIN Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &c. / These Volumes / Are respectfully inscribed / By / The Author."
The bitterness of Milton's Adam is intensified in Frankenstein by the companionless Monster: "I remembered Adam' s supplication to his Creator; but where was mine? he had abandoned me, and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him."1 Though recognizing "Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition," the Monster also seems to remember Adam' s fit of rebellion in Book Ten of Paradise Lost when it sarcastically reproaches its own indifferent maker: "Oh truly, I am grateful to thee my Creator for the gift of life, which was but pain" (p. 115). In the speech from which Mary Shelley takes her novel' s epigraph, Adam revolts against that same Spirit of Creation earlier described "brooding on the vast Abyss" and making "it pregnant" (I.20-22). When Adam considers that he can only increase and multiply his own progeny's "curses," Eve invites him to abjure creation, to remain the first and last Man. In Mary Shelley's revenge story, the Adamic Monster who has turned into a Satan forces its neglectful father-creator to experience its own desolation; in Milton's paternal universe, however, the rebellious child Adam must be forced to accept his own role as parent, even if parenthood does convert him into a death-bringer, the father of Cain and Abel. Adam's revolt is short-lived. To deny God's design would be tantamount to submission to a far more terrifying "Universe of death" and to a banishment into the Satanic abode of "many a frozen Alp"—so like the ice-scapes into which the Monster lures its creator—a region where "all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds / Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things / Abominable, inutterable, and worse, / Than Fables yet have feign'd, or fear conceiv'd, / Gorgons or Hydras, and Chimeras dire" (II.622, 624-28).
If the three lines quoted on the title page of Frankenstein thus evoke a locus for the "anger and hatred" that so irreconcilably separate the Monster from its father and creator, the novel's dedication seems to stem from quite opposite an intention. The "Author," who so "respectfully" aligns herself with that other "Author" she will not publicly address as her father, assumes a stance that is as dutiful and self-effacing as that adopted by the exemplary Elizabeth Lavenza, the orphan whom Alphonse Frankenstein cherishes as "his more than daughter, whom he doated on with all the affection a man feels, who, in the decline of life, having few affections, clings more earnestly to those that remain" (pp. 195-96). In her 1831 introduction to the revised version of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley speaks of herself "as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity." Her 1818 dedication, however, pays tribute only to the father who had been her mentor in the decline of his life; it ignores the famous mother whose conflicts with a tyrannical father had helped shape her first published work, a pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. Had Mary Shelley forgotten the rebellious mother who had written that "respect for parents is, generally speaking, a much more debasing principle" than marriage and who had insisted that the "father who is blindly obeyed is obeyed from sheer weakness, or from motives that degrade the human character"?2
Before I attempt to answer that question, let me point out that the quotation from Paradise Lost and the dedication to Godwin have a connection that is so obvious that it can easily be missed. In each passage, a father is addressed by the offspring he has "moulded." And, what is more important, in each passage the father addressed is that offspring's only parent. Like Adam, and like the Monster who calls himself "an abortion to be spurned at" (Walton's last letter, p. 219), Mary Shelley never knew a mother's nurture.
Frankenstein is a novel of omnipresent fathers and absent mothers. It is no coincidence that after killing the child who boasts of his powerful "papa," the Monster should stop to gaze at "the portrait of a most lovely woman" and be momentarily calmed by her maternal beauty, only to remember angrily and ruefully that "I was for ever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow" (p. 139). Nor is it a coincidence, I think, that the Monster's previous "rage of anger," the "kind of instanity in my spirits" that leads him to burn down the De Lacey cottage and to seek "redress," is the direct result of his realization that he will never be accepted as a member of the family of "the old man"—the blind father whose hand he had seized in his unsuccessful plea for affection and kinship (pp. 134-35, 136).
Frankenstein resurrects and rearranges an adolescent's conflicting emotions about her relation both to the dead mother she idealized and mourned and to the living, "sententious and authoritative" father-philosopher she admired and deeply resented for his imperfect attempts at "moulding" Mary Wollstonecraft's two daughters. Fanny "Godwin" emulated the mother who had twice attempted to commit suicide. Her hardier half-sister attempted to master guilt and hostility in the "voyage of discovery" begun by Walton the mariner. As she tries to explain in her 1831 introduction—written after she had completed Valperga, The Last Man, Perkin Warbeck, and nearly a dozen short stories—Frankenstein is unique among her productions. It differs from her other works because in it she refused to "exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around" (p. 228). The adolescent mother and wife could confront "frightful" fantasies—destructive and aggressive thoughts—which the matured professional writer still entertained, yet carefully defused and disguised in most of her subsequent fictions.
Critics have inevitably ventured into biographical speculations in their attempts to come to terms with Frankenstein. In the preceding essay in this collection, Ellen Moers demonstrates the significance for this novel of the death of Mary Shelley's first (unnamed) "female child" in 1815, of the birth of the son she named after her father in 1816, and of the death by suicide, later in that same year and when Frankenstein was well under way, of Mary's half-sister Fanny, whom Godwin had described in 1812 as possessing "a quiet, modest, unshowy disposition," quite the reverse of his own daughter's "singularly bold, somewhat imperious" manner.3 Like Professor Moers, I tend to read Frankenstein as a "phantasmagoria of the nursery," a fantasy designed to relieve deep personal anxieties over birth and death and identity. Yet I prefer to stress the importance of an earlier nursery—of the nurture denied to Mary herself when her mother died of a retained placenta eleven days after her birth and of the highly inadequate substitute for a nursery which she found in her remarried father's household.
Since in my reading of Frankenstein William Godwin may appear almost a villain, it ought to be acknowledged that he was genuinely solicitous about the care and welfare of Mary Wollstonecraft's two daughters. (Indeed, his very solicitude contributed to Mary Shelley's conflicting emotions of allegiance and resentment; had he been more like her maternal grandfather, Edward John Wollstonecraft, a drunkard and a bully, Mary might have found it easier to emulate her mother's rebellious detachment.) Godwin himself had been "brought up in great tenderness" as a child. Just as, in a passage added to elaborate on Victor Frankenstein's happy youth, Victor describes "the ardent affection that attached me to my excellent parents" (p. 31), so did Godwin gratefully remember his own parents. He claimed that his mother had "exercised a mysterious protection over me" and yet, significantly, he never could bring himself to forgive her for sending him away from home while an infant "to be nourished by a hireling."4 This personal understanding of the need for mothering must have been decisive in Godwin's stubborn quest for a second wife to act as surrogate mother for the two orphans in his care. Still, as every biographer has pointed out, Mrs. Clairmont was hardly a Mary Wollstonecraft. Vulgar, mundane, preoccupied with the welfare of her own two children, she failed to establish a good relationship with her two stepdaughters. Rather than compensating Mary for her deprivation, as Godwin had intended, she actually helped activate in Mary a lifelong desire to compensate her father for the loss of his exquisite first wife and their short-lived marital happiness. The situation was hardly improved when, in 1803, before Mary's sixth birthday, the new Mrs. Godwin presented her husband with the son he had actually expected in 1797 when he and the pregnant Mary Wollstonecraft, strangely overconfident of the sex of the child she was carrying, had repeatedly promised themselves a "little William" in their letters.5
Professor Moers hints that the Monster's wanton destruction of little William in the novel is an expression of a young mother's anxieties over the precarious health of her own baby William. The speculation is not entirely new. Back in 1928, Richard Church also thought he detected a "miserable delight in self-torture" and a prophetic "anticipation of disaster" in Mary Shelley's decision to depict the fictional murder of "that fair child" who bears the name of her actual son:
At the time that she was writing this book, the baby William was in the tenderest and most intimate stage of dependent infancy. The mite five months of age was passionately tended—but not very knowledgeably or hygienically—by both his parents. It is almost inconceivable that Mary could allow herself to introduce a baby boy in her book; deliberately call him William; describe him in terms identical with those in which she portrays her own child in one of her letters [in which she alludes to the real boy's identical blue eyes in similar rhapsodic terms]—and then let Frankenstein's monster waylay this innocent in a woodland dell and murder him by strangling.6
Church's clue is valid, as we shall see; but his surmise remains as incomplete as Muriel Spark's added suggestion that the murder of the boy who bears the name of "the child Mary loved more than any" is symptomatic of a split between feeling and intellect that led her "automatically" to identify the threatened child with her own threatened emotions.7
Church, Spark, and Moers are undoubtedly correct in linking the Monster's first murder to Mary Shelley's fears for her second child. Yet these fears, which proved so sadly justified when William died in 1819, also stemmed from deeper and more primal associations. For, in addition to her own son, there were two other "little Williams" who played a crucial role in the fantasy life of Mary Shelley's formative years. The first of these was none other than Mary herself, the little William expected in 1797 who turned into a little girl responsible for her mother's death and father's grief. The second was the half-brother born to Mary's stepmother, William Godwin the Younger, whose arrival she must have regarded as a threat to her relationship with a father to whom she so desperately wanted to make amends.
Even after the birth of this rival man-child, Mary eagerly tried to repair her father's loss both of the philosopher-wife he had worshipped and the philosopherson he had hoped for from his first union. In the same 1812 letter in which Godwin contrasts Mary's imperiousness to Fanny's passivity, he notes approvingly that, unlike her half-sister, his daughter had shown herself true to her parental stock by responding to his teachings: "Her desire for knowledge is great, and her perseverance in anything she undertakes almost invincible." It seems fairly obvious that this extreme eagerness to learn was related to Mary's even greater eagerness to please the father for whom she had, as she later would put it, from very early on entertained an "excessive and romantic passion." Still, her deep thirst for knowledge and her active identification with his own learning, so like the impulse that binds the Monster and Walton to the more deeply studied and "philosophical" Victor, seems to jar both with Mary's lifelong insistence on her ignorance, timidity, and "horror of pushing" and with Percy Shelley's self-justificatory, yet believable, description in "Epipsychidion" of an unresponsive and indifferent wife. Indeed, visitors who came to the Godwin home detected no real distinction between Mary and the torpid and unambitious Fanny; Coleridge, for instance, found "the cadaverous silence of Godwin's children quite catacombish."8
This discrepancy is crucial to Frankenstein and to Mary Shelley's self-divisions into aggressive and passive components, a raging Monster and a "yielding" Elizabeth. But the discrepancy itself is easy enough to reconcile. In 1838, two years after Godwin's death, Mary Shelley was finally able to voice her disappointment in the exacting father-tutor she had tried to please:
My Father, from age and domestic circumstances, could not "me faire valoir." My total friendlessness, my horror of pushing, and inability to put myself forward unless led, cherished, and supported—all this has sunk me in a state of loneliness no other human being ever before, I believe, endured—except Robinson Crusoe.9
It is clear from this account that Mary could, when "led, cherished, and supported," be the active and responsive, even "somewhat imperious," child described by Godwin in his 1812 letter; but like "Lucy," who lost her mother as an infant and whose case history is described in Erna Furman's A Child's Parent Dies: Studies in Childhood Bereavement, she could also resort to the defence of withdrawal and passivity whenever thwarted in this acute need for support.10
Mary Shelley's identification with the total isolation of Robinson Crusoe is significant. By 1838 she might have allowed another fictional analogue to characterize her sense of desertion. Yet the qualifying use of the adjective "human" prevents an identification with the Monster: the motherless creature who clings to the blind De Lacey to plead for affection and support is pointedly distinguished by its "un-human" features. What is more, the Monster is aggressive. As a male, albeit a male who wishes a female complement to subdue its "evil passions," it can find an outlet for hatred not permissible for nineteenth-century daughters. Fearful of releasing hostilities which—without a maternal model—she regarded (or wanted to regard) as exclusively male attributes, Mary Shelley could resort only to passivity as a safer mode of resistance. Again like "Lucy," Mary experienced a depressive crisis at the age of fifteen in the same year in which her father had hailed her "invincible" drive for knowledge. Noting that his "bold" daughter had suddenly become so listless that she showed "a great need to be roused," Godwin sent the teenager to the Baxters in Scotland, where she observed a happy family nucleus for the first time in her life. Recalled from Scotland by her father two years later (is it sheer coincidence that Victor Frankenstein should destroy the female monster in the Hebrides?), she soon became reacquainted with Shelley, the anti-authoritarian son of Sir Timothy. It was during their honeymoon at Marsluys that Shelley, perhaps to help her weather the bitterness of her father's disapproval, encouraged Mary to write her first piece of fiction. The title of that story, now lost, was "Hate."11
Yet, unlike Shelley the iconoclast, she was not cast for the role of rebel. Even her elopement could not be construed as an act of open defiance. The poet, after all, had presented himself as her father's eager disciple, as one who would—and could—put into practice the principles of the "inestimable book on 'Political Justice.'" It is not too fanciful therefore to suppose that the young girl who pledged her love to Shelley over her mother's grave at St. Pancras Churchyard hoped to revive or resurrect the short-lived union between her own parents. Shelley had been betrayed, Mary was willing to believe, into a marriage with one inferior and unsympathetic to his genius. Had she not seen her father debased by just such a union with her stepmother? She would nobly rescue Shelley from her father's fate, and, in the process, repair the damage done by her own birth. Through her, the "little William" her parents had expected could be born again, and, by giving it the nurture she had herself lacked as a child, she would be able to assume her dead mother's identity and role. Yet the child once again was a female, and again the bond between mother and daughter was short-lived; after recording her successful nursing of the baby for three consecutive days, Mary Shelley laconically wrote: "Find my baby dead. Send for Hogg. Talk. A miserable day. In the evening read 'Fall of the Jesuits.' Hogg sleeps here."12 The unemotional, seemingly indifferent tone of this and subsequent entries (the next one ends: "Not in good spirits. Hogg goes at 11. A fuss. To bed at 3") is broken when she records her dream, on 19 March 1815, "that my little baby came to life again; that it only had been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived."13
As Professor Moers observes, this dream is linked to the fantasy of animation that underlies Frankenstein; yet it could hardly have been Mary Shelley's first wishful "dream" of making the dead come alive. Before, a child had wished to restore a mother; now, a mother wished to restore a child. The restoration again became a possibility after the birth of a male "babe" in January of 1816.14 By naming her first male child after her father, Mary could signify the reparation she had so long intended. The offering was as deferential as the dedication of her first literary offspring to the "Author" of Political Justice, of Caleb Williams, and of herself. But, like that dedication, it was also double-edged.
By 1816, the surrogate life with Shelley had already been sorely tested. No "little William" could breach the sense of loneliness and desertion she once more intensely experienced. Not only her father, but also her father's substitute, had been found wanting.15 The integration that she, like the Monster, had yearned to find through a mate who might take the place of a rejecting father seemed impossible. Although she clung tenaciously to her second child, the rebelliousness and self-pity she had previously stifled began to surface. Like the Malthusian Adam of Book Ten who resents his own birth and decides to resist his Father by not procreating, she resented her role as perpetuator of a male line.
The 1831 introduction makes much of the "hideous" thoughts that went into the making of Frankenstein. As if to deny that these thoughts germinated within her, Mary Shelley overemphasizes her passivity, the defense to which she had previously resorted to her father's (and to Shelley's) chagrin. She insists that she had no control over her revenge story: "My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me." If this tactic recalls Coleridge's own distancings from an "unhallowed" and possibly demonic imagination, it also strongly resembles both Victor Frankenstein's trance-like activities and the Monster's repeated claim that its vengeful crimes are solely attributable to the neglect of, and contempt for, all its eager efforts to please.
At least in the early stages of its growth and education in the ways of "man" (Mary Shelley deliberately seems to eschew the words "humanity" or "mankind") the Monster is a most willing student. Not only does it quickly master the lessons intended for Safie (whose name means "wisdom"), but it is eager to please the De Laceys by anonymously performing the most menial tasks. Like a child who reveres grownups, it looks upon the family "as superior beings, who would be the arbiters of my future destiny." The Monster fantasizes "that it might be in my power to restore happiness to these deserving people," particularly to "the venerable blind father" whose losses have been greater than his children's (p. 103). De Lacey first wins the Monster's "reverence" by the soul-stirring music of his violin. Significantly, the ugly Monster and the beautiful Agatha respond identically to the "sweet mournful air." Indeed, when the Monster later kneels at De Lacey's feet, it hopes to win the same recognition earlier accorded to De Lacey's kneeling daughter:
He played a sweet mournful air, which I perceived drew tears from the eyes of his amiable companion, of which the old man took no notice, until she sobbed audibly; he then pronounced a few sounds and the fair creature, leaving her work, knelt at his feet. He raised her, and smiled with such kindness and affection, that I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature. .. . I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions [Pp. 103-4]
Frankenstein clearly draws on Mary Shelley's recollection of her vain attempts to win "notice" and approval as her father's pupil. (Indeed, after her elopement she remained most interested in the "conduct" of the second "little William" being "moulded" in her father's house.16) In her 1831 introduction she depicts herself as "a devout but nearly silent listener" to Byron's and Shelley's discourses on "the principle of life." She deliberately belittles both her "tiresome unlucky ghost story" and her ideas, which, she says, required "communication with [Percy's] far more cultivated mind." But the belittlement can hardly conceal her ready appropriation of the subject discussed by the two poets and "poor Polidori." Their conversation about the piece of flesh that twitched "with voluntary motion" may well have evoked, in her mind, the piece of flesh that caused her mother's death. But it was clearly their speculation that perhaps a "corpse would be reanimated" that attracted and repelled her so powerfully.
Mary could not acknowledge to her 1831 English readers that the topic which the three men had so casually touched upon was integral to a private fantasy she had by 1816 long cherished and recently despaired of—the fantasy of restitution that would reconcile the apparently antagonistic aims of resurrecting a mother and regaining a father's undivided love. In the 1831 introduction it is Shelley, and not his wife, who soon starts a story "founded on the experiences of his early life." Although Mary Shelley dwells on her own early life in Scotland (an "eyry of freedom" in which she was "not confined to my own identity"), she ostensibly dwells on this past only to suggest her subsequent acquisition of a greater sense of "reality." The wife of a husband "anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage" thus wants above all to stress her maturation. She has outgrown "the indulging of waking dreams" and must apologize for the "so very hideous" production of a "young girl." Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that the introduction should depict her Scottish fantasy life as wholly "pleasant" and thus in no way connected to the "ghastly image" that overwhelmed her in 1816 when forbidden and ugly material had, like the Monster itself, come to life.
That "hideous progeny," Mary Shelley insists in 1831, is her very own. Though she acknowledges Shelley's "incitement," she stresses her originality with unaccustomed forcefulness: "I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband" (p. 229; italics added). Indeed, there is a faint note of resentment at the two "illustrious poets" who, "annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task" (p. 225). The seed they have so carelessly implanted in Mary (and "poor Polidori") becomes a burden that is hers alone. It is she who has to give birth to a "hideous progeny," because she can better understand the pains of abandonment. Like the Monster, the author has been deserted. And, if we are to trust her account, she began her story neither with Walton's frame or Victor's account of his idyllic youth, but with the scene of desertion in chapter 4, with a father who rejects the stretched-out hand ("seemingly to detain me, but I escaped") of the "miserable monster whom I had created" (p. 53). Victor's repulsion of "the demoniacal corpse I had so miserably given life" will unleash antagonistic emotions that Mary Shelley had resisted and would stoutly continue to resist.
Yet the Monster does not become truly demoniacal until it murders little William and thereby causes the death of the guiltless Justine. As it explains to its creator, "I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend." Unlike the "fallen angel" he professes to have become, the Monster insists that evil need not be its good: "Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous" (p. 95). The words recall another male demonist created by a female imagination, Emily Bronte's Heathcliff, who asks Nelly to "make me good." Yet Mary Shelley was far less willing than her Victorian successors to acknowledge her attraction to the anarchic and the destructive. Her violent figures are inevitably males; she could not have depicted a Jane Eyre who bloodies a boy's nose or a Maggie Tulliver who mutilates her dolls. And, whereas Emily Bronte quickly passes over the particulars of Heathcliff's early deprivation, Mary Shelley lingers over the Monster's painful degradation before she will depict it as an enraged murderer and fiend.
By the time the Monster does strangle little William our sympathies have so fully shifted from Frankenstein to the Monster that the action almost seems justifiable. Like little William, the Monster has been an innocent more sinned against than sinning. Though no "darling of a pigmy size," it is a genuine Wordsworthian child who has been able to "wander at liberty" and to derive intense "pleasure" in the natural world. It is as delighted by "the bright moon" and "the little winged animals" (p. 98) as any Romantic child of a feminine Nature.17 But unlike Wordsworth's asocial children, this grown-up child desires socialization, human contact. On observing the De Laceys, who are exiled from society and yet remain self-sufficient as a family unit, the Monster discovers that its "heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures" (p. 127). It is from them that it—like the Mary Shelley who observed the Baxter family—learns the rudiments of kinship:
The youth and his companion had each of them several names, but the old man had only one, which was father. The girl was called sister, or Agatha; and the youth Felix, brother, or son. I cannot describe the delight I felt when I learned the ideas appropriated to each of these sounds, and was able to pronounce them. I distinguished several other words, without being able as yet to understand or apply them; such as good, clearest, unhappy. [Pp. 107-8]
The absence of a "mother" in this paragraph (which ends on the word "unhappy"!) is conspicuous. Less apparent, I think, is the strange fact that Agatha is called "sister" but never "daughter," even though "brother" Felix, who will tear away the old man with the single name of "father," is accorded the name of "son."
It is its own exclusion from such a system of relations that later leads the Monster to maintain that both the killing of little William and the execution of the innocent Justine have been a warranted retaliation, the outcome of "the lessons of Felix, and the sanguinary laws of man" (p. 140). Felix had removed his father from the Monster's reach after mistaking its Agatha-like feelings for the contrary emotions of hatred and violence. That the creature should still so vividly remember this potential brother's action after the deaths of William and Justine seems rather poignant. For, in its way, the murder of William was a delayed fratricidal act.
After it has burned the De Lacey cottage the Monster manages to reassert its softer nature. On entering "a deep wood," it blesses the sun and "dared to be happy." But its "hatred" for its "unfeeling, heartless creator" is soon reactivated when it is accidentally cast in a life-giving role like that of its own deserting father. Just as Victor had animated the corpse from which he created the Monster, so the Monster tries "to restore animation" to a young girl it has rescued from drowning. But again a gesture of kinship is rewarded with a wound—a literal injury this time—from the "ball" shot by "the man" who, like Felix, misreads an expression of the benevolent side of the Monster's divided personality as an act of aggression. Unlike a Mary Shelley who desperately clung to her Agatha- or Elizabeth-self, the Monster now yields to its destructive impulses and vows "eternal hatred and vengeance."
Yet the Monster wavers still one more time when it sees, not an adult male rival, but a "beautiful child, who came running into the recess I had chosen with all the sportiveness of infancy" (p. 138). The vague syntax almost seems designed to confuse us momentarily—does "the sportiveness of infancy" refer to little William or to the Monster? Assuming "this little creature" to be as "yet unprejudiced," the larger creature is "seized" by the idea to "seize him, and educate him as my companion and friend." The child, however, displays Victor's own adult horror: "monster! ugly wretch! you wish to eat me, and tear me to pieces—You are an ogre—Let me go, or I will tell my papa" (p. 139). Significantly, the scene both reverses and matches the earlier encounter with Felix: whereas the threatened little boy invokes his father to protect him, Felix tried to protect his own father from the Monster's threat. In both cases, however, this threat is only imaginary: just as the Monster has revoked its vows of "eternal hatred" on seeing the harmless child, it had earlier "refrained" from strangling Felix. But when little William utters the name of his father, the oath of revenge is remembered. Assuming that "M. Frankenstein" and his own creator are one and the same, the Monster has found its "first victim": "Frankenstein! you belong then to my enemy" (p. 139). The murder is a delayed act of revenge, not only against a father but also against a father's rival son, like Felix a brother-figure. A huge and alienated Cain kills an Abel who can be sure of his father's support and secure in that father's identity.
If, as Church was the first to suggest, the fictional little William were no more than an analogue for Mary Shelley's real-life "baby boy," then the sympathetic, almost exculpating, attention devoted to all the psychic wounds inflicted on the Monster before it commits the murder would be distracting and illogical, as well as inartistic. The Monster's first choice of "victim" derives its fitness as much from the unattainability of a father as from fraternal slights. Little William possesses the birthright the Monster longs for. Only a course of aggression can obtain for the Monster the parental recognition it desires. And that course will prove irreversible—despite the Monster's pleas for a restraining female counterpart. It will also prove self-destructive.
Frankenstein is a fiction designed to resist that potential self-destruction. The destruction of little William can obviously be related to Mary Shelley's own muted hostility toward her younger half-brother: unlike herself, the younger William Godwin possessed a mother and, as a male, had received his father's identity and approbation. Simultaneously, however, the Monster's murder of the little boy must also be recognized as a self-mutilation which the novel as a whole tries to resist and conquer. Just as Mary Shelley must have feared that the possible death of her own little William might damage her identity, so does the death of the fictional boy mark the irreparable loss of the "benevolent" or feminine component of the Monster's personality, making it indistinguishable from Victor Frankenstein, similarly alienated from his feminine self—a self represented both by his dead mother and by the wife who dies on his wedding night.
I have said that Frankenstein is a novel of fathers and absent mothers, and it is time to examine this statement more closely. The book's central relationship is obviously that between father and child. After his mother's death, the secluded Frankenstein pursues feminine Nature "to her hiding places" to appropriate for himself the maternal role and the blessings of a new "species" created without a mother's agency: "No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" (p. 49). After the destruction of its female complement ("a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself), the Monster becomes father to the man and relentlessly imposes on its creator the same conditions of dependency and insecurity that it was made to suffer.18 Once able to identify with Agatha, the daughter, and to respond so powerfully to the "benign divinity" of little William's and Victor's mother, the Monster culminates its revenge by depriving Victor of Elizabeth. This contest between males divorced from female nurturance is framed by a series of forbidding fathers—the father whose "dying injunction" forbade Walton to embark on a sea-faring life; Henry Clerval's father, who insists that his son be a merchant rather than a poet; the "inexorable" Russian father who tries to force his daughter into a union she abhors; the treacherous Turkish father who uses Safie to obtain his freedom yet issues the "tyrannical mandate" that she betray Felix.
There are kinder fathers in the novel, to be sure, but their kindness is tainted: as Kate Ellis shows on pp. 129-130 below, the "proud and unbending disposition" of Beaufort leads him to seek an exile that results in his loyal daughter's total degradation; the "Italian gentleman" who is Elizabeth's father in the 1818 version (in 1831 she is the daughter of an imprisoned patriot and a German lady who "had died on giving her birth") decides, on remarrying, that it would be preferable to have her educated by her uncle and aunt rather than have her "brought up by a step-mother"—a decision that, in reversing William Godwin's own choice, may be construed as an act of kindness, but nonetheless involves an abdication of parental responsibility. De Lacey and Alphonse Frankenstein are impaired by an impotence and lack of discrimination that Mary must often have regretted in a father who "from age and domestic circumstances could not 'me faire valoir.'" De Lacey can welcome Safie as a daughter but cannot respond to the Monster's need for affection; Alphonse Frankenstein values Elizabeth as a replica of Caroline Beaufort yet cannot believe in the innocence of Justine Moritz. A rationalist, like Godwin, the elder Frankenstein rather cruelly chastens his son's youthful imagination; his disparagement of Cornelius Agrippa actually may have produced, according to Victor, "the fatal impulse that led to my ruin" (p. 33). The 1818 version of the novel is even harsher on the old man whose heart is finally broken by Elizabeth's death. In a contradiction which Mary Shelley emended in her 1831 revisions, Alphonse is also blamed for leading his son to science when he conducts a Franklin-like experiment and draws some electrical "fluid" down from the clouds (p. 35). The Monster's confusion of Alphonse with Victor, when he encounters William, thus seems quite warranted. When, after Clerval's murder, the calm but "severe" magistrate, Mr. Kirwin, informs Victor that a "friend" has come to visit him, the prisoner believes that the visitor is the Monster: "I know not by what chain of thought the idea presented itself that the murderer had come to mock me at my misery." Surprised, Mr. Kirwin rejoins: "I should have thought, young man, that the presence of your father would have been welcome, instead of inspiring such violent repugnance" (p. 177). To the reader, however, the "chain of thought" seems quite intelligible: Alphonse, Victor, and the Monster have all become manifestations of the same truncated male psyche.
Frankenstein questions the patriarchal system (see Kate Ellis on this, pp. 135-136), yet the novel is more than an indictment of fathers as potential monster-makers. If in his parental neglectfulness Victor resembles William Godwin (as well as Percy Shelley), his obsessive "desire for knowledge" and "perseverance" are the very same qualities displayed by the younger Mary Shelley when she wanted to signify her oneness with her father. The novel's attack on a male's usurpation of the role of mother therefore goes beyond a daughter's accusation of a father who could not "me faire valoir." It is also an expression of Mary Shelley's deep fears about an imbalance within herself—the imbalance of a personality that had developed one-sidedly, without a feminine or maternal model. Karen Horney points out that a "girl may turn away altogether from the female role and take refuge in a fictitious masculinity" in order to assuage "disappointments in the father" or "guilt feelings towards the mother."19 It seems obvious that the young woman who addresses the readers of Frankenstein (including the "Author" to whom the book is dedicated) through three male speakers acquired such an attitude in her own childhood. Yet Frankenstein represents a desperate attempt to recover "the female role." Despite its use of male masks and its emphasis on male aggression, the novel tries to exorcise a sadistic masculinity and to regain the female component of the novelist's threatened psyche.
Just as the novel oscillates in its sympathies between Victor and the increasingly demonic monster, so does it oscillate in the sexual characterization of these two antagonists. At first, though nurtured by loving women, Frankenstein is phallic and aggressive, capable of torturing "the living animal to animate the lifeless clay" (p. 49). Conversely, the Monster—purposely not called a "he" in this discussion—initially displays feminine qualities. It identifies with both Agatha and Safie and is respectful of that same Wordsworthian and feminine Nature whose "recesses" its creator is so eager to "penetrate" (p. 42).20 These sexual associations, however, shift with the Monster's first act of aggression, the "mischief that leads it to plant the portrait of maternal "divine benignity" into one "of the folds of [Justine's] dress" (p. 140). The Monster now assumes Victor's phallic aggression; and Victor becomes as tremulous and "timid as a love-sick girl" (p. 51).
Victor's desire to marry Elizabeth is presented as a pathetic and hopeless attempt to reenter the broken circle of affection over which his dead mother had presided. Conversely, the Monster's similar yearning for a female companion is treated as highly dangerous. Victor's marriage to Elizabeth evokes the image of a debilitated patient in need of a nurse (an image corroborated in James Whale's film The Bride of Frankenstein, which implies that the newly wed "Henry" Frankenstein is far too frail to consummate his marriage to the voluptuous Elizabeth). The Monster's desire for a mate, however, raises the specter of "a race of devils" to be "propagated on the earth" (p. 163). Even an unconsummated union holds dangers: Victor fears that the female monster might "turn with disgust from [the Monster] to the superior beauty of man" or that the Monster's own aggression (so far limited to the murder of William and the death of Justine) might be exacerbated upon his beholding his own "deformity" in "female form" (p. 163).
But above all Victor fears the possibility of a female creature not only more aggressive than the novel's remarkably passive female characters, but also capable of surpassing the sadistic and "unparalleled barbarity" of the killer of little William: "she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness" (p. 163; italics added). The implications are clear. Victor seems to acknowledge that the Monster's aggression has been partly justified, but a female who might delight in sadism "for its own sake" is a horror he cannot contemplate. Mary Shelley may well intend to have her readers see the speciousness in Victor's rationalizations—his decision is made when he "had not sufficient light" for his "employment." Still, Victor's terror seems also to be Mary Shelley's. The specter of female sadism is resisted by the novelist who fears her own aroused anger and desire for revenge. Victor rejects the Monster when he destroys the half-formed shape of its female companion; Mary Shelley, too, distances herself from the demonic figure at the casement, whose "ghastly grin" proclaims the retaliations that will follow: the deaths of Clerval, Alphonse Frankenstein, and Elizabeth. Only after the death of Victor will the Monster turn its aggression on itself. In a parody of the self-sacrificing Son, the feminine principle of compassion in Paradise Lost who balances the exacting justice of God the Father, the Monster will immolate itself to save humanity from its own violence.
The only surviving male speaker of the novel, Walton, possesses what the Monster lacks and Frankenstein denies, an internalized female complementary principle. Walton begins his account through self-justificatory letters to a female ego-ideal, his sister Margaret Saville (the British pronunciation of her name sounds like "civil"). The memory of this civilizing and restraining woman, a mother with "lovely children," helps him resist Frankenstein's destructive (and self-destructive) course. Frankenstein and the Monster are the joint murderers of little William, Justine, Clerval, Alphonse Frankenstein, and Elizabeth; Walton, however, refuses to bring death to his crew. In a skillful addition to the 1831 version, Mary Shelley has Walton remind his sister that a "youth passed in solitude" was offset by "my best years spent under your gentle and feminine tutelage."
Mary Shelley, who likened her own "state of loneliness" to that of Robinson Crusoe, lacked the "feminine tutelage" that rescues Walton. Bereft of a maternal model that could teach her how to acknowledge and channel her own aggression, fearful of the unleashed aggression that consumes both Victor and the Monster, she turned to passivity as a stabilizing force. In her story "The Sisters of Albano" (published in Keepsake for 1829), the young nun Maria sacrifices herself for her more passionate sister Anina (who then becomes herself a nun). In Frankenstein the falsely accused Justine Moritz meets her degradation and death with "an air of cheerfulness"—in total contrast to the Monster's rage at the injustices it is forced to suffer (p. 84). In "The Sisters," Anina, "her only wish to find repose in the grave," delays this death-wish (so like both Fanny Imlay's and that of Richardson's Clarissa) until the death of her own "miserable father," whose loss she tries to repair through constant "filial attentions";21 in Frankenstein, Justine can die peacefully since she, "the favourite of her father" until the day of his death, has no such amends to make (p. 60).
This equation of femininity with a passivity that borders on the ultimate passivity of death is, in Frankenstein and in Mary Shelley's own life, associated with a dead mother. Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein, who nurses her dying father "with the greatest tenderness" and is the perfect daughter-wife to Alphonse Frankenstein, is a model accepted by Justine and by Elizabeth yet rejected (or forgotten) by the Monster and by Victor. Caroline is found by the elder Frankenstein near her father's coffin; on her own deathbed, she enjoins the "yielding" Elizabeth to take her place as mother and "supply my place to your younger cousins" (p. 38). It is significant that both she and Elizabeth are invoked in Victor's dream just after he has seen "the dull yellow eyes of the creature" to which he has given life. Presumably one of Victor's objects in finding "a passage to life" is to restore his mother and "renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption" (p. 49); but his dream only underscores his rejection of the maternal or female model.
In the dream, Victor embraces Elizabeth, about whom he had said that she and he "were strangers to any disunion and dispute" (p. 30); when Elizabeth turns into the "corpse of my dead mother" (p. 53) the startled dreamer awakes and beholds "the miserable monster whom I had created." The conjunction of dream and reality, both equally frightening to Victor, forces us to link the four personages, the two females and the two males. The relation between Caroline and Elizabeth is one of fusion: although Elizabeth, like Mary Shelley, is the accidental agent of the mother's death, the "amiable woman"22 harbors no resentment and insists that Elizabeth take her place. The relation between Victor and the two female corpses and the relation between Victor and the Monster are both based on "disunion"; his reaction is identical in each case: he recoils from the association.
But what is the relation between the two female corpses and the Monster? Like the Elizabeth of the 1831 version, the Monster is an orphan; like the young woman whose single remonstrance in the entire novel is her regret "that she had not the same opportunities of enlarging her experience, and cultivating her understanding" (p. 151) as her male friends, the Monster is denied a formal education. It is customary by now to discuss Frankenstein and the Monster as the feuding halves of a single personality. Yet the beautiful and passive Elizabeth and the repulsive, aggressive Monster who will be her murderer are also doubles—doubles who are in conflict only because of Victor's rejection of the femininity that was so essential to the happiness of his "domestic circle" and to the balance of his own psyche.23
Victor's dream, then, can be read as an intrapsychic conflict that has its roots in Mary Shelley's deprivation of a maternal model. Though Frankenstein is the dreamer, it is Caroline, Elizabeth, and Monster who dramatize this conflict. The Elizabeth whose mother died on giving her birth in the 1831 version and whose father deserted her in the 1818 version can find a feminine model in Caroline, and inherit her place. The motherless Monster deserted by its father finds this model in the picture of Caroline, only to be triggered by it into a course of revenge that ends with Elizabeth's death. Victor's dream thus contains an ominous warning. Though male, ugly, and deformed, the Monster is a potential Elizabeth (indeed, what if Frankenstein had created a little Galatea instead of a heroic male of Brobdingnagian proportions?). Yet Victor fails to recover the feminine ideal of nurture represented by Caroline, that sentimentalization of a forgiving Mary Wollstonecraft. By rejecting his child as a Monster, he will also be responsible for the death of Elizabeth, that less monstrous, yet also unduly passive, component of Mary Shelley's personality.
Death remains the only reconciler in Frankenstein, as the dream of Elizabeth's corpse and the reality of the corpse turned Monster foreshadow. For not only Victor and the Monster, but also the Monster and Elizabeth fuse through death into a single personality. Like Keats and Percy Shelley, but for rather different reasons, Mary Shelley was half in love with easeful death. The demise of Caroline so early in the novel suggests that Mary Shelley could endorse this escape from a world of fathers, brothers, husbands, and male justices and identify it with the repose found by her own mother.24 There is strong empathy, too, with the grief the Monster feels as it hangs "over the coffin" of its dead parent, a scene that parallels Caroline Beaufort's own grief by her father's coffin. The Monster's lament ("Oh, Frankenstein! generous and self-devoted being! what does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me?") may seem out of character, as Walton rather self-righteously points out, but Walton of course fails to understand that the Monster has also recovered that softer, feminine side that enabled it before to identify with Agatha and Safie. Indeed, as we shall see in the next section, the very phrasing of the Monster's tribute to Victor resembles the speeches of penitent daughters in Mathilda and "The Mourner."
The conclusion of Frankenstein exorcises aggression. With the death of Victor, the Monster turns its hatred against itself. "You hate me" it tells Walton, "but your abhorrence cannot equal that with which I regard myself (p. 219). These words echo the expression of Mary Shelley's own revulsion, in her 1831 introduction, over the "hideous" embodiment of anger she had allowed herself to create. The Monster now sees justice in destroying its own "miserable frame"; its sadism has turned into self-pity: "I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on." Sadism becomes masochism, the outlet for self-inflicted anger: "Polluted by crimes, and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death?" (p. 220). Rest rather than restitution. The Monster must welcome the death so eagerly embraced by many of Mary Shelley's female penitents, figures often far more guiltless than it has been.
One such figure is that other victim of "injustice," the ironically named Justine Moritz. Mary Shelley asks us to regard the revengeful Monster and the passive Justine who is falsely accused of the murder of little William as exact opposites. Yet are they? If the child's murder can be construed as a fratricidal act on the part of the Monster, why are we told shortly before the murder that Madame Moritz has accused poor Justine of "having caused the deaths of her brothers and sisters"? (p. 61). The accusation is as false as the later indictment: it comes from one who—like Mrs. Clairmont in the Godwin household—clearly prefers the other children to this Cinderella and "neglected daughter." But why is the detail inserted? We must trust the novel rather than the novelist, and the suggestion that Justine may harbor thoughts as aggressive as the Monster's is corroborated by her willingness to confess to the murder. "Threatened and menaced" by her father confessor, charged "with the blackest ingratitude" for killing the child of the woman who had adopted her, Justine tells Elizabeth that she "almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was" (p. 82). And so she dies for the Monster's crime. She is an innocent—and yet so is the Monster. She is its associate: her passive death becomes almost as much a retaliation against injustice as its murderous passion. She can also cause pain: her self-deprecating speeches are as agonizing to Victor as the Monster's later accusations. And Elizabeth, by identifying with Justine's death-wish ("I wish," cried she, "that I were to die with you; I cannot live in this world of misery" [p. 84]), also manages, ever so sweetly, to sharpen Victor's guilt and pain over William's death. Passivity, used correctly, as Mary Shelley knew but could not admit, can be as powerful a weapon as rage.
Novels, as we all know, are relations based on relations: narratives based on the interconnection of characters as well as on the links between these characters and their creator. In a famous illustration in Vanity Fair, Thackeray drew his own mournful and timid face peering out behind the removed mask of laughing jester; in a celebrated passage in Middlemarch, George Eliot, who had privately claimed that Casaubon was based on no other "original" but herself, rejected the notion that Dorothea's mummified husband ought to be regarded as a heartless monster: "some ancient Greek," the narrator volunteers, must have "observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control."25 In Frankenstein, too, the lifting of a monstrous mask produces a startling unveiling: beneath the contorted visage of Frankenstein's creature lurks a timorous yet determined female face.
The unveiling should not really surprise us. For relatio, as Percy Bysshe Shelley seemed to remember in his distinction between poetry and logic, once simply meant evocation: the recalling or bringing back of forgotten or dormant associations that the conscious will must then rearrange and recombine. The fluidity of relations in Frankenstein, which converts each character into another's double and makes a male Monster not only a counterpart of Victor and Walton but also of little William, Agatha, Safie, Caroline, Justine, and Elizabeth, stems from common denominators that can be traced back, as I have tried to show, to Mary Shelley's childhood and to her threatened identity as an adult daughter, wife, and mother. Yet this fluidity of relations, which makes Frankenstein so powerful as an exploration of the very act of kinship and relation, is absent in the novelist's later fictions, even though these later works are equally obsessed with the same intrapsychic conflicts. The later Mary Shelley, who suffered severe new shocks through the deaths of her own William, her daughter Clara, and Shelley himself, seemed no longer capable of the imaginative strength that had enabled her to relate her own adolescent deprivations to the Monster's development and education. Whereas only a matured George Eliot, could, after much experimentation, have produced Middlemarch, maturity for Mary Shelley involved a loss of the powers she had been able to tap in her first novel. Her gradual acceptance of her father's deficiencies, her Amelia Sedley-like cult of the dead Shelley, and her devotion to little Percy Florence, permitted her to domesticate the daemon within and to advocate, in fiction as in life, the renunciatory virtues of an Elizabeth-Justine.
To be sure, there was one more important imaginative outburst and it came, not unexpectedly, after William died in Rome in June 1819. Mary had been able to bear the deaths of her first female child in 1815 and of the year-old Clara in 1818, but the loss of the little boy overwhelmed her as powerfully as the death of the fictional little William had unsettled Frankenstein. Life (or death) threatened to imitate art as the grieving mother indulged the same death-wish to which Justine had yielded. Writing to Amelia Curran three weeks after the burial, Mary Shelley asked to hear about the child's tomb, "near which I shall lie one day & care not—for my own sake—how soon—I shall never recover that blow—I feel it more now than at Rome—the thought never leaves me for a single moment—Everything has lost its interest to me."26 But again, life and creativity came to the rescue: she had been pregnant since March, and Percy Florence was born in November 1819; angered by a new affront from her father and increasingly alienated from Shelley, she was "roused" once more into writing a fiction that might master these turbulent emotions, the novella Mathilda, on which she worked feverishly in August and September.
Shelley had written to Godwin to ask him to "soothe" Mary "on account of her terrible state of mind." Instead, the philosopher (who could not remember his grandson's age) wrote to berate Shelley and to ask for more money to help him fight a litigation. A second letter to Mary proved equally insensitive; instead of consolation for the loss of the boy she had named after Godwin, Mary found herself threatened once more with the withdrawal of her father's love: "Remember too," wrote Godwin, "though at first your nearest connections may pity you in this state, yet that when they see you fixed in selfishness and ill humor, . . . they will finally cease to love you, and scarcely learn to endure you."27 That this bullying accusation of selfishness was taken seriously by Mary Shelley is evident in Mathilda, her most autobiographical piece of fiction, the writing of which must have been almost as therapeutic as the birth, after its completion, of her new male child.
Unlike Frankenstein, with its three male narrators, Mathilda is told by a twenty-two-year-old woman (Mary Shelley's own age in 1819). And unlike Walton who successfully repels the death that consumes Victor and the Monster, this narrator is engulfed by death: in one version of the manuscript, she is a penitent soul in limbo who addresses herself to a female listener who (unlike Walton's sister) is also dead, possibly after committing suicide on suffering a "misfortune" in Rome that reduced her "to misery and despair."28 Elizabeth Nitchie, the critic most extensively concerned with Mathilda, has stressed the biographical implications of the novella's second half in which the lonely Mathilda meets a deprived young poet called Woodville and tries to cajole him into a suicide pact (in the days before their elopement, it had been Shelley who suggested to Mary that they both commit suicide). Nitchie is undoubtedly correct when she reads this second half as a self-castigation on Mary's part for her estrangement from Shelley: "Mathilda expresses a sense of estrangement from, even of physical repulsion toward, one whom she had deeply loved, a realization of her own selfish, petulant, and unreasoning absorption in her grief."29 But in the first half of the narrative Mathilda's guilt and grief are traced to their source in her relationship to her father.
Like Mary Shelley, Mathilda is the daughter of a beautiful, intelligent, and adored woman who dies a few days after Mathilda's birth; like Godwin, her father is crushed by his loss. Although, unlike Godwin, he does not remarry, he leaves his child in the care of a stern and unsympathetic foster mother and (like De Lacey) becomes an exile. Again like Mary Shelley—who in the 1831 preface to Frankenstein speaks of living "in the country as a girl" and of passing a "considerable time in Scotland"—Mathilda grows up in the Scottish countryside. Her sole "pleasures," like the Monster's, "arise from the contemplation of nature alone; I had no companion."30 At this point Mary Shelley begins to invert the fictional parallels: whereas she was recalled from Scotland by her father, Mathilda's father visits her in Scotland when she is sixteen; whereas Mary found herself as neglected as before by Godwin after her return, Mathilda's father tries to compensate for his earlier desertion by lavishing attentions on his daughter; and, lastly, while Mary gave up her "excessive and romantic" attachment to Godwin when she eloped with Shelley, Mathilda discovers, to her horror, that her father's love for her is incestuous. After she repels him, he leaves her a letter in which he acknowledges that he had hoped to find in her a substitute for his beloved dead wife. She dreams that she pursues him to a high rock, and her dream (like Frankenstein's) is prophetic: she finds her father's corpse in a cottage on a cliff. Guilt-stricken, she withdraws from society until she meets Woodville, himself a guilty mourner.
This melodramatic fable obviously displays in a different fashion the passive and aggressive impulses I have examined in Frankenstein. Mathilda's passive withdrawal clearly stems from parricidal wishes which the narrative conveys and yet never fully dares to acknowledge. Just as the Monster protests that it has not willed its crimes, so is Mathilda absolved from wishing her father's death—an event she dutifully tries to prevent. Why, then, should she feel such inordinate guilt over the death of the incestuous lecher who can love her only after she has become a fully developed woman? Though far less artistic than Frankenstein, the story must be read as a pendant to the novel, as still another self-exploration and confrontation with acknowledged hatred and wishful self-destruction; moreover, by dispensing with the protective masks of male protagonists, the story places Mary Shelley's marital difficulties at her father's doorstep.
How could Mary Shelley have had the temerity to send the manuscript of Mathilda to Godwin? She asked Maria Gisborne to take the manuscript to London, show it to her father, and obtain his advice about publishing it. When Maria demanded its return, Godwin held on; he told her that he did "not approve of the father's letter" in the story and that he found the entire subject "disgusting and detestable."31 Had Mary Shelley finally succeeded in unsettling the revered "Author" of Political Justice? Was he finally forced to recognize what was so much more elliptically presented through Victor's rejection of the disgusting and detestable Monster? Godwin made sure that Mathilda would never be published. But when his daughter sent him Valperga to help him defray new debts and expenses, he gladly saw this new novel to press. Begun in 1820, yet not published until February of 1823, well after Shelley's death, Valperga had again anticipated an actual disaster, as Mary recognized: "it seems to me that in what I have written hitherto I have done nothing but prophecy [sic] what has [? arrived] to. Mathilda foretells even many small circumstances most truly—and the whole of it is a monument of what now is."32
What "now" was in 1823, however, was the death of Shelley and not the death of the father, who calmly wrote his daughter early that year that he had "taken great liberties with [Valperga], and I am afraid your amour propre will be proportionately shocked."33 He need not have worried. The wife who had deferred to Percy's "far more cultivated mind" while composing Frankenstein did not resent her father's editorial tampering with Valperga. Yet the old conflicts could not be exorcised, and they would continue to surface in her fictions—particularly in her short stories.
In "Transformation" (1831), perhaps her best short story, a monster—this time a deformed Satanic dwarf—must be killed before an "imperious, haughty, tameless" young man, who has shown sadistic traits and whose thirst for revenge against his beloved's father leads him to exchange bodies with the monster, can win his Elizabeth-like bride: by mutilating himself on his enemy's huge sword while feebly plunging in his tiny dagger, Guido the rebel can regain his manly shape, marry the kind Juliet, and be henceforth known as "Guido il Cortese." If "Transformation" is a fantasy in which the aggression and monsterhood induced by two fathers—Guido's "generous and noble, but capricious and tyrannical" father and Juliet's "cold-hearted, cold-blooded father"—can be overcome, "The Mortal Immortal" (1834) reverses the emphasis. In this story, which George Eliot must have read before writing her own horror tale "The Lifted Veil" (1859), the alchemist's apprentice Winzy (another ironic name suggestive of the Pyrrhic victories of "Victor" and "Lavenza") becomes responsible for the death of Cornelius Agrippa (the youthful Frankenstein's own mentor) when he drinks the elixir of life the old master had prepared for himself; he thus not only becomes a parricide of sorts who is forced to see his "revered master" expire before his eyes, but also a passive victim of his own longevity as he watches the gradual deterioration of his beloved Bertha into a "mincing, simpering, jealous old" hag. Nursing her until her death "as a mother might a child," Winzy, like the Monster, seeks some place where he might end his life-in-death.34
It is the tale called "The Mourner" (1830), however, which most pronouncedly allegorizes the self-division first manifested in Frankenstein. The story's narrative interest is itself split between a grief-stricken Mathilda-figure called Ellen (her real name turns out to be Clarice) and the Guido-like narrator Neville, a young man whose impetuosity is checked by Ellen much in the way that Walton is restrained by the feminine fosterage of his sister. Neville's rebellious feelings toward education and parental authority are carefully contrasted to Ellen-Clarice's feelings about her own dead father and tutor. At Eton Neville has only met "a capricious, unrelenting, cruel bondage, far beyond the measured despotism of Jamaica" (p. 87); his outrage and sense of "impotence" reach their apex when he is abused by a tutor. He rebels and, like the Monster, gives in to a "desire of vengeance." After the departure of the De Laceys, the Monster is "unable to injure any thing human" and turns its "fury towards inanimate objects" (Frankenstein, p. 134); Neville too wants to leave a "substantial proof of my resentment," and, like Proust's Marcel who destroys the hat of Charlus, he tears his tutor's belongings to pieces, "stamped on them, crushed them with more than childish strength," finally dashing a "time-piece, on which my tyrant infinitely prided himself (Stories and Tales, p. 88). Neville flees to Ellen's cottage, sure that his violent outburst has forever alienated him from his father, but she persuades him that he will be forgiven.
Ellen-Clarice may be able to reclaim Horace Neville from exile and monsterhood, but she cannot overcome her own self-loathing as a female monster; her alienation can be conquered only through a withdrawal into death. Like so many of Mary Shelley's fictional orphans, Ellen-Clarice is the daughter of a widower who, after the "deadly blight" of his wife's death, leaves his surviving "infant daughter" to be reared by others (p. 96). He returns when Clarice is ten and devotes himself to her education. Their relationship, totally unlike that between Mathilda and her returning father, is ideal and she quickly becomes "proficient under his tutoring": "They rode—walked—read together. When a father is all that a father may be, the sentiments of filial piety, entire dependence, and perfect confidence being united, the love of the daughter is one of the deepest and strongest, as it is the purest passion of which our natures are capable" (p. 96). This wishful harmony between parent and child is disrupted by an incident that links Clarice's passivity to Neville's aggression much as Justine-Elizabeth are linked to the Monster. During a raging storm, Clarice's father deposits her in a lifeboat in which there is room for but one more passenger. He dies, fighting the waves and battling "with the death that at last became the victor" (p. 100) and leaves Clarice haunted by the idea of "self-destruction." Neville's attempts to dispel her "intense melancholy" ("what do I not owe to you? I am your boy, your pupil") are fruitless. Unable to bear her guilt, sure that no young man would ever want "to wed the parri—," she wills her death (p. 106), joins her "father in the abode of spirits" (p. 105), and leaves Neville to tell her story to his own bride.
Mary Shelley's deep ambivalence about William Godwin informs most of her works of fiction. While thesis-novels such as The Last Man (1826) show the impress of her father's philosophical tutorship by incorporating some of his ideas on institutions and government, Frankenstein and tales like those discussed above reveal the impact of a very different legacy.35 The philosopher who had so strongly inveighed against "coercion" of any sort, who had written that all "individuals" ought to be left "to the progress of their own minds,"36 clearly failed to apply his precepts during the early development of his daughter. His effect on her was as inhibiting as that which James Mill, another rationalist prescriber of felicity, was to have on the emotional life of his son.
When Godwin died in April 1836 at the age of eighty, Mary Shelley was at work on her last piece of fiction, Falkner (1837), a novel about remorse and redemption. The fact that she wrote no more novels or stories in the fifteen years after his death can be attributed to a variety of reasons, among them, no doubt, her greater financial independence. Still, the fact remains intriguing. Intriguing, too, is her decision to postpone the edition of Godwin's manuscripts and the composition of his biography. Like George Eliot's Casaubon, Godwin had left her a message adjuring her not to allow his papers "to be consigned to oblivion." Yet, very much like the Dorothea Brooke who no longer could think that the "really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished it,"37 Mary Shelley now stoutly resisted the hold of the dead hand. She had once wanted "little William" to be recognized by her father. Now she could adduce her maternal solicitude for another boy as a foil to "the sense of duty towards my father," whose "passion for posthumous fame," so like Victor Frankenstein's eagerness to receive the blessings of future generations, she no longer professed to share: "With regard to my Father's life," she wrote Trelawny, "I certainly could not answer it to my conscience to give it up—I shall therefore do it—but I must wait. This year I have to fight my poor Percy's battle—to try to get him sent to College without further dilapidation of his ruined prospects."38 To see Percy Florence reinstated in the graces of Sir Timothy Shelley, that other forbidding father, had become more important than to make amends for guilty thoughts and feelings. Aggressive at last in a sanctioned way, she had become a militant mother rather than a daughter penitent for not being a son. Godwin had squelched the publication of Mathilda in 1820; when Mary Shelley died in 1851, the promised biography consisted of only a few manuscript pages, largely about Godwin's relation to Mary Wollstonecraft. "Little William" had been revenged at last.
1Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, ed. James Rieger (Indianapolis and New York, 1974), chap. 7, p. 127. All future references in the text are to this edition of the 1818 version of the novel.
2Mary Wollstonecraft, "Duty to Parents," A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (New York, 1833), chap. 11, p. 167.
3 Quoted in C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries (London, 1876), II:214; the letter was written to an "unknown correspondent" who had inquired about Godwin's theories of education.
4Ibid., I:7; see also Ford K. Brown, The Life of William Godwin (London and Toronto, 1926), p. 3.
5See Godwin and Mary: Letters of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Ralph M. Wardle (Lawrence, Kansas, 1966), pp. 80, 82, 88, 92, 102; the passage used as the second epigraph to this essay ("William is alive") occurs on p. 94.
6Richard Church, Mary Shelley (London, 1928), pp. 54-55.
7Muriel Spark, Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Southend-on-Sea, Essex, 1951), p. 138.
8 Quoted in Edna Nixon, Mary Wollstonecraft: Her Life and Times (London, 1971), p. 248.
9Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman, Oklahoma, 1947), p. 205; the entry occurs on 21 October 1838.
10A Child's Parent Dies: Studies in Childhood Bereavement (New Haven and London, 1974), p. 176; see also pp. 194-95.
11For a fuller account of Mary's early life with Percy see Peter Dale Scott's discussion on pp. 178-183, below.
12Journal, p. 39; 6 March 1815.
13Ibid., p. 41; 19 March 1815.
14Mary Shelley's journal for May 1815-July 1816 is lost; since it would have contained entries about the first six months of her "little William's" life, it is possible that she herself destroyed it after the boy's death in 1819.
15Why had Mary Shelley called for Hogg immediately after the death of her first child? In her letter to Shelley of 27 July 1815 she pleads that he "attend to" and "comply with" her feeling that they "ought not to be absent any longer": "We have been now a long time separeted [sic]" (The Letters of Mary Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones [Norman, Oklahoma, 1944], I:16-17).
16Journal, p. 15; 16 September 1814. As a male child, the younger William Godwin was permitted to go away to school: from 1811 to 1814 he went to the Charterhouse, from 1814 to 1818 to a school in Greenwich run by the younger Dr. Burney. Described as "wayward and restless" as a youth, he became a successful journalist and wrote a novel called Transfusion. He died of cholera at the age of twenty-nine, leaving a wife but no children (Mary's Percy Florence thus was William Godwin's only grandchild). In 1818, Godwin described his son as "the only person with whom I have been any way concerned in the course of education, who is distinguished from all others by the circumstance of always returning a just answer to the questions I proposed to him"; this habit of mind apparently seemed more important to Godwin than the boy's "very affectionate disposition" (Paul, William Godwin, II: 258). After his son's death, Godwin published the novel he had left behind and added, in Paul's words, a "gravely self-restrained Memoir" (II:321).
17Juliet Mitchell points out that in the conditions established by "patriarchal human history," the growing girl learns "that her subjugation to the law of the father entails her becoming the representative of 'nature'" ("A Woman's Place," Psychoanalysis and Feminism [New York, 1974], p. 405).
18Frankenstein describes himself as "passive" in the arrangements of his return to Geneva immediately after he has agreed to the Monster's dictates; when, "trembling with passion, [he tears] to pieces the thing on which I was engaged," the Monster soon forces him into passivity again (pp. 145, 164). By the time the two reach Walton's ship, the presumed aggressor, Victor, is clearly the victim of the Monster he thinks he is pursuing.
19"Inhibited Femininity," Feminine Psychology (New York, 1967), p. 79; see also, in the same volume, "The Flight from Womanhood": "the desire to be a man is generally admitted comparatively willingly and . . . once it is accepted, it is clung to tenaciously, the reason being the desire to avoid the realization of libidinal wishes and fantasies in connection with the father" (p. 66).
20The contrast between the two figures, in fact, resembles that between "Man of Science" and poet developed by Wordsworth in his 1800 "Preface": the scientist "seeks truth" in "solitude," while the creative poet carries "everywhere with him relationship and love."
21Tales and Stories by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Richard Garnett (London, 1891), p. 19.
22Mary Shelley seems to have had difficulties choosing the right adjective to describe the mother who is infected by Elizabeth; "amiable" was originally "admirable," but in the 1831 edition the novelist had apparently become less hesitant about identifying Caroline with her own mother: "this amiable woman" now becomes "this best of women."
23In a way, it is Mel Brooks, in his script for the comic Young Frankenstein, who has been the most acute reader of the novel when he reunites the Monster, not with Victor, but with Elizabeth; Brooks also recognizes the novel's fluid interchanges when he has young Frahnkensteeeeen become endowed with the Monster's brain.
24It may not be necessary to remind the reader that in both males and females the longing for death is associated with the longing for a reunion with the mother; in women, however, this death-wish seems to be free of the fears which lead men to paint a destructive femme fatale who brings death rather than life into the world.
25Middlemarch, ed. Gordon S. Haight (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), p. 297.
26 29 June 1819, Letters, I:74.
27 Quoted in Spark, Child of Light, p. 62.
28Mathilda, ed. Elizabeth Nitchie (Chapel Hill, 1959), p. 90. The Bodleian notebook simplifies the implausibility of a dead narrator by having Mathilda write out her story just before her death. The fullest account of the bibliographical and biographical history of the manuscript is to be found in the third appendix of Elizabeth Nitchie's Mary Shelley: Author of "Frankenstein" (New Brunswick, N.J., 1953), pp. 211-17.
29 Nitchie, Mary Shelley, p. 212.
30Mathilda, p. 10.
31 Quoted in Nitchie, Mary Shelley, p. 214n.
32Mary Shelley to Maria Gisborne, 2-6 May 1823, Letters, I:224; by a coincidence, a stern portrait of Godwin faces the pages from which this passage is taken.
33February 1823, quoted in Paul, William Godwin, II:277.
34Tales and Stories, p. 161; future references to stories in this collection will be given in the text.
35A study of the ways in which Frankenstein and some of the other novels enlist, yet also subvert, Godwinian ideology is beyond the scope of this essay. Such an investigation, however, I am convinced, would yield fruitful results. It would show, for instance, that the Monster I have called a Wordsworthian child of Nature is also a Godwinian child whose freedom from social institutions paradoxically proves as injurious as Justine's degradation at the hands of the legal system, which Godwin pronounced to be "an institution of the most pernicious tendency" (An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, edited and abridged by Raymond A. Preston [New York, 1926], II:210). It would also show that in her rebellious moods Mary Shelley sided with the idea of Godwin's former disciple, T. R. Malthus, against her father, who, by 1818, was preparing his reply to the Essay on Population.
36An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, II:27.
37Middlemarch, p. 8.
38To Edward John Trelawny, 27 January 1837, Letters, II:119.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7837
SOURCE: "Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family," in The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, edited by George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, University of California Press, 1979, pp. 123-42.
[In the essay that follows, Ellis reads Frankenstein alongside the paradigms of the bourgeois family—its idealized structure, its separation of public and private, and its division of social roles according to gender difference.]
Nature has wisely attached affections to duties, to sweeten toil, and to give that vigour to the exertions of reason which only the heart can give. But, the affection which is put on merely because it is the appropriate insignia of a certain character, when its duties are not fulfilled, is one of the empty compliments which vice and folly are obliged to pay to virtue and the real nature of things.
—Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
The 1818 Preface to Frankenstein tells us that the author's "chief concern" in writing the novel had been limited to "avoiding the enervating effects of the novels of the present day and to the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue." Perhaps Percy Shelley's statement was simply one of those ritual declarations of moral intent that we find in prefaces written before the novel became a respectable genre. But if Shelley meant to be descriptive, he was certainly reading Frankenstein selectively. It is true that each of the novel's three interconnected narratives is told by a man to whom domestic affection is not merely amiable but positively sacred. Yet each narrator also has been denied the experience he reveres so highly, and cannot, because of this denial, transmit it to a future generation.
The three narratives are thematically linked through the joint predicament of those who have and those who have not the highly desirable experience of domestic affection. The recurrence of this theme suggests that Mary Shelley was at least as much concerned with the limitations of that affection as she was with demonstrating its amiableness. She is explicit, moreover, about the source of these limitations. It is not domestic affection but the context in which it manifests itself that brings death into the world of her novel. And that context is what we have come to describe as the bourgeois family.
In her analysis of domestic affection Mary Shelley carefully sifts the degree to which members of the various families in the novel accede to the separation of male and female spheres of activity characteristic of the bourgeois family. Historically, this separation of spheres had an economic base as factory production replaced cottage industry and as wealth increasingly represented by capital eroded old ties of economic interdependency, not only between landlords and tenants but also between husbands and wives.1 Female wage laborers were rarely paid even subsistence wages; middle-class wives, on the other hand, welcomed their separation from paid work, now done exclusively by their husbands, as a sign of bourgeois status. Pursuits once restricted to the aristocracy were thus opened to a much larger class of women. Accordingly, considerable attention was paid, by many a writer, to the "nature" of the female sex, the education best suited to its cultivation, and the duties arising from its new relationship to the masculine world of production. An important contributor to this debate was Mary Wollstonecraft, who saw domestic affection undermined by an exaggerated separation between female charm and social usefulness. The success with which she transmitted this view can be seen in both the narrative method and the content of her daughter's first novel.
The structure of Frankenstein, with its three concentric narratives, imposes upon the linear unfolding of the plot the very sort of order that Mary Shelley is commenting on in the novel as a whole: one that separates "outer" and "inner," the masculine sphere of discovery and the feminine sphere of domesticity. Moreover, the sequence in which the reader encounters the three narrators gives the plot line a circular as well as a linear shape. It begins and ends with Walton, writing to his English sister from the outer periphery of the civilized world, the boundary between the known and the unknown. From there we move inward to the circle of civilization, to the rural outskirts of Geneva, birthplace of the Protestant ethic, the spirit of capitalism. Then, in the physical center of the novel, accessible only if one traverses many snowy mountains, we come upon the limited Paradise Regained of the De Lacey family. Here males and females learn together, role distinctions are minimal, and domestic bliss is eventually recovered, largely through the initiative of Safie, a young woman who comes from a world outside the sphere of Western Protestantism. Yet we are not allowed to end with this fiction of the isolated triumph of domestic virtues. Elizabeth Bennett can remove herself to Pemberley away from her family's pride and prejudice; but we follow the dispossessed Monster back into the outer world, witness his destruction of the remnants of Victor's harmonious family circle, and finally behold Walton's defeated attempt to discover in the land of ice and snow a Paradise beyond the domestic and the familiar.
The circularity of Frankenstein underscores Mary Shelley's critique of the insufficiency of a family structure in which the relation between the sexes is as uneven as the relationship between parents and children. The two "outside" narrators, Walton and Frankenstein, are both benevolent men whose exile from the domestic hearth drives them deeper and deeper into isolation. Neither, however, can see that his deprivation might have been avoided through a better understanding of the limits of the institution into which he was born. Even the De Lacey family, where these limits are meaningfully transcended, is basically innocent of what Mary Wollstonecraft, in the title of chapter 9 of her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, had called "the pernicious effects which arise from the unnatural distinctions established in society." The "rational fellowship"2 of this family nucleus has been enforced by necessity. De Lacey's blindness, combined with the primitive conditions in which his family must create a refuge from the world's injustice, simply makes rigid roles impractical, if not impossible to maintain. Safie has asserted her independence from her Turkish father in the belief that she will be able, in a Christian country, "to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet."3 She has no idea, in other words, that what she has done would be unthinkable to Elizabeth Lavenza and her virtuous nineteenth-century middle-class counterparts. She and Felix learn from Volney's Ruins of Empires "of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood" (p. 120). But they do not read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, where Mary Wollstonecraft connects the "pernicious effects" of these divisions with the tyranny of husbands over wives and parents over children in the middle-class home.4
This leaves only the Monster to articulate the experience of being denied the domestic affections of a child, sibling, husband, and parent. In his campaign of revenge, the Monster goes to the root of his father's character deformation, when he wipes out those who played a part, however unwitting, in fostering, justifying, or replicating it. If we view his violent acts as components of a horror story, the novel can be read either as a warning against uncontrolled technology and the ambition that brings it into being, or as a fantasy of the return of the repressed, a drama of man at war with alienated parts of himself, variously identified.5 But an additional meaning emerges if we also take the violence in the novel to constitute a language of protest, the effect of which is to expose the "wrongs" done to women and children, friends and fiances, in the name of domestic affection. It is a language none of the characters can fully decode because they lack the perspective on bourgeois domesticity that Mary Shelley had learned, principally from her mother's writings, and which she assumed, perhaps naively, in her readers.
To grasp the subversiveness of Shelley's critique of the family we need to look more closely at her depiction of the various domestic groupings in the novel. Each of the families in the outer two narratives illustrates a differently flawed model of socialization, ranging from the "feminine fosterage" of Walton's sister and the "silken cord" employed by Victor's parents, to the wrongheaded class pride of Caroline Beaufort's father and the overt tyranny of Mme. Moritz. None of these arrangements provides the younger generation with adequate defences against powerful forces in the outside world, forces that can neither be controlled nor escaped through the exercise of domestic affection.
Mary Shelley makes clear that Robert Walton's career has been nourished and shaped by conflicting cultural artifacts. From his uncle's travel books he learned that his culture confers its highest praise on those who endure great personal hardships to bring "inestimable benefits" to all mankind. This knowledge, he tells us, "increased the regret which I had felt, as a child, on learning that my father's dying injunction had forbidden my uncle to allow me to embark on a seafaring life." The fact that he was told this before he began to read suggests that his contact with his father, if any, had taken place very early in his life. There is no mention of a mother, only of the sister whose influence upon him he so persistently acknowledges:
A youth passed in solitude, my best years spent under your gentle and feminine fosterage, has so refined the groundwork of my character that I cannot overcome an intense distaste for the usual brutality exercised on board ship. [P. 20]
Walton's brief account of his "best years" parallels in two particulars the more lengthily elaborated early life of Victor. The parental injunction (which he transmits without any explanation) has the same effect on him that Alphonse Frankenstein's cursory dismissal of the work of Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa has on the youthful Victor. The other similarity is between the brother-sister relationship he values so highly and the ersatz sibling bond between Victor and Elizabeth. Lacking a Clerval among his friends, the orphaned Walton regards his sister as his better, because more refined, self. He is markedly uncomfortable in the presence of men who have not been similarly "fostered" by women like his sister. His lieutenant's "endowments," he notes, are "unsoftened by cultivation." In telling his sister the "anecdote" of the sailor's generosity in bestowing his "prize-money" on a rival suitor of the "young Russian lady" who spurned him, Walton suggests that such disinterestedness is nonetheless tainted: "'What a noble fellow!' you will exclaim. He is so; but then he has passed all his life on board a vessel, and has scarcely an idea beyond the ship and the crew."
Walton's stance prevents him from acknowledging that his lieutenant possesses a natural generosity that is instinctive (not unlike that of the Monster). The sailor, he notes, had amassed sufficient wealth to buy himself the hand of the woman he loved. But on discovering that her heart belonged to another, he relinquished his entire fortune to an impoverished rival—thus enabling the lovers to conform to the prevailing social definition of marriage as an economic transaction. The realization that domestic affection may be simply a commodity to be purchased on the marketplace has apparently left the lieutenant highly disenchanted.
Walton, too, possesses sufficient wealth to have made him the target of some real-life Mr. Harlowes and Mrs. Bennetts. "My life might have been passed in ease and luxury," he tells his sister, "but I preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in my path" (p. 17). His quest for glory alienates him from the crew whose physical work is necessary to the success of his venture. Although, unlike nineteenth-century factory owners, Walton does not plan to enrich himself at the expense of his seafaring "hands," he is as baffled by their lack of commitment to his "glorious expedition" as factory owners were by their workers' unwillingness to subordinate their needs to the higher cause of industrial expansion. Determined to find for himself and all mankind a substitute for the domestic affections, Walton nonetheless cannot exorcise the effects of his sister's "gentle and feminine fosterage." The drastic separation of home and workplace enforced on the Arctic explorer cannot be maintained. Walton must behold the "untimely extinction" of the "glorious spirit" that had driven him into the land of ice: "My tears flow; my mind is over-shadowed by a cloud of disappointment. But I journey towards England, and may there find consolation."
In Walton we see a benevolent man made incapable of happiness by the very forces that make him an exemplary, self-denying bourgeois male. Since Victor is caught in the same double bind, it is not surprising that similar forces shape his early life, especially those that separate domestic life from work. The Frankensteins have been, Victor recounts, counsellors and syndics for many generations, distinguished members of the bourgeoisie of Calvinist Geneva, and respected servants of the state as public office holders. Victor's father "had passed his younger days perpetually occupied by the affairs of his country . . . nor was it till the decline of life that he became the husband and father of a family." Although eager to bestow "on the state sons who might carry his virtues and his name down to posterity," Alphonse Frankenstein retired from public life entirely in order to pursue this self-perpetuation. The very first paragraph of Victor's narrative thus presents the same dichotomy between public service and domestic affection already exemplified in an extreme form by Walton's career—a dichotomy, moreover, which will widen for Victor himself as his narrative progresses.
After describing his father's retreat from public life, Victor supplies a second example of such a removal, though not into felicity. Beaufort, Alphonse Frankenstein's friend, was a merchant who, "from a flourishing state, fell, through numerous mischances, into poverty" (p. 31). Fortunately for him, his motherless daughter follows him into exile, where she descends voluntarily into the working class to support them so that her father may be spared a humiliation his male pride could not have endured. Caroline Beaufort's self-sacrifice says a good deal about her conception of domestic affection. De Lacey in the Monster's narrative is blind, and thus actually disabled from sharing the burden of maintaining the family economy. But we are told nothing from which to conclude that Beaufort was unable to work. In the face of misfortune he is passive, a characteristic of other males in the novel, and condones, by that passivity, the exploitation of his daughter.
It is in this nobly submissive attitude that Victor's father finds his future bride, weeping by the coffin of her dead father. This, it would seem, was her finest hour, the shadow of her future idealization and just the kind of scene sentimental nineteenth-century painters loved. Victor's father rescues her from the painful fate of working-class womanhood, bringing her back, after a two-year courtship, by the only route that women can return, that is, through marriage. Yet Beaufort's response to economic reversal, and the success of one friend in finding him, act as a comment on the relationship between class and friendship that one exceptional act does not negate. All of Beaufort's other friends have apparently conformed to the usual pattern of bourgeois behavior when one of their number drops over the economic edge. Given the economic turbulence that marked capitalist development in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the experience of being "ruined" was even more common in life than in novels. Yet in the fiction of the same period it is rare to find the victims of that upheaval sustained by friendship made in better days. Class solidarity was not large enough, it would seem, to encompass misfortune.
Of course Beaufort's personality has not helped the situation. He was, says Victor, "of a proud and unbending disposition, and could not bear to live in poverty and oblivion in the same country where he had formerly been distinguished for his rank and magnificence" (p. 31). Still, his self-removal into oblivion, which his fellow merchants would have imposed had he remained where he was, implies that he is not unique but rather disposed to view a loss of money in much the same way the others do, that is to say, as a fall from grace. Like Robert Walton, Beaufort has internalized an ideology which, though painful to him and his daughter, advances the interests of his class as a whole by purging it of its failures. Domestic affection may be heavily taxed, but it is the one source of self-esteem left to him once he and his neighbors have collaborated in his emotional "ruin."
At the center of this ideology is the belief that material prosperity and social recognition are conferred on superior merit, and thus the lines that divide the bourgeoisie from the rest of humanity reflect worth, not birth. Nevertheless, this view, while often expressed in the public sphere without shame,6 was difficult to reconcile with other Christian teachings. One popular fictional device that obfuscates this ideological contradiction is that of the "noble peasant" and his various fairy tale counterparts, male and female. Caroline Beaufort's devotion to her father is the glass slipper that gives her entrée to her new role as child bride. For her, this role involves revisitations to the fallen world of poverty from which she had been so fortuitously rescued. Her son explains:
This, to my mother, was more than a duty; it was a necessity, a passion—remembering what she had suffered and how she had been relieved—for her to act in turn the guardian angel to the afflicted. [P. 34]
Like her husband, Caroline rejects the harsher side of an ideology that views poverty as a problem to be solved only through hard work on the part of those afflicted. Motherless herself, she attempts to alleviate social injustice by becoming a "good mother" to those for whom no Prince Charming is likely to appear. Yet when she finds one who clearly does not belong where fate has placed her, Caroline's response is to single out this exception and give her more than periodic bounty. In fact, she gives Elizabeth everything she had: a bourgeois father, a mother who dies young, a Prince Charming, and a view of the female role as one of constant, self-sacrificing devotion to others.7 What is more, she remains dependent, as Elizabeth will be, on male energy and male provision. When Victor tells us that "My father directed our studies, and my mother partook of our enjoyments," he unwittingly suggests much about Caroline's reduced sphere of action.
To say that domestic affection, extended into the public sphere, is an inadequate remedy for the ills of an industrial society would be to fly in the face of an idea that gained immense popularity in the Victorian era, both in England and in the United States. But to say that Elizabeth's early death, like her adopted mother's, was a logical outgrowth of the female ideal she sought to embody, is a radical statement indeed. Mary Shelley may well have thought she was going too far in this direction when she revised her account of Caroline's death from the following:
Elizabeth had caught the scarlet fever; but her illness was not severe, and she quickly recovered. During her confinement, many arguments had been urged to persuade my mother to refrain from attending upon her. She had, at first, yielded to our entreaties; but when she heard that her favorite was recovering, she could no longer debar herself from her society, and entered her chamber long before the danger of infection was past. On the third day my mother sickened. . . .8
In 1831 Mary revised this ironic passage. It is precisely because Elizabeth "was in the greatest danger" that Caroline now
had, at first, yielded to our entreaties; but when she heard that the life of her favorite was menaced, she could no longer control her anxiety. She attended her sick-bed—her watchful attentions triumphed over the malignity of the distemper—Elizabeth was saved but the consequence of this imprudence were fatal to her preserver. On the third day my mother sickened. . . . [Pp. 42-43]
In the revision Caroline's death is tragic, but not gratuitous. Her motherly touch would seem to have been crucial, whereas in the first version it kills her without benefiting anyone else.
The revised Caroline becomes a heroine in death, but her daughter's self-effacing behavior throughout the novel is singularly ineffectual in actual crisis situations. Her most dramatic public act is her attempt to save Justine, yet all she seems able to do is to display her own goodness, her willingness to trust the accused, to have given her the miniature of her mother, had Justine but asked for it. Yet feminine sweetness does not win court cases. It may captivate male hearts, and even elicit "a murmur of approbation" from those in the courtroom. But making a convincing argument before a male judge and jury requires skills that Elizabeth hardly possesses.
Elizabeth seems unaware of her ineffectuality. She hopes that Victor "perhaps will find some means to justify my poor guiltless Justine." Still, like Alphonse Frankenstein, who believes in Justine's guilt, Elizabeth is uninterested in pursuing the truth: that the "evidence" that convicts Justine has been planted. The description of Justine's apprehension makes this oversight seem truly incredible. Ernest, Victor's younger brother, tells the story:
He related that, the morning on which the murder of poor William had been discovered, Justine had been taken ill, and confined to her bed for several days. During this interval, one of the servants, happening to examine the apparel she had worn the night of the murder, had discovered in her pocket the picture of my mother, which had been judged to be the temptation of the murderer. The servant instantly showed it to one of the others, who, without saying a word to any of the family, went to a magistrate; and, upon their deposition, Justine was apprehended. [P. 79]
This act on the part of two servants is certainly one that might reasonably arouse suspicion on the part of their employers, but the Frankensteins appear to view their inability to suspect anyone as one of their greatest virtues. Furthermore, for a murderer to keep such a damning piece of evidence on her person is at least questionable, yet none of the bereaved family even thinks of raising the issue in Justine's defence. Instead, believing in the power of domestic affection unaided by deductive reasoning, they follow the lead of the elder Frankenstein, who urges his family to "rely on the justice of our laws, and the activity with which I shall prevent the slightest show of partiality."
Elizabeth's passivity, however, goes beyond a suspension of the need to find little William's true murderer. On hearing of the boy's death, she immediately blames herself for having given him the miniature to wear. And if this is her response, when no finger is pointing at her, how much less able to defend herself is Justine, whose very confusion is interpreted as a sign of her guilt. Both Justine and Elizabeth have learned well the lessons of submissiveness and devotion to others that Caroline Beaufort epitomized for them. Their model behavior similarly lowers their resistance to the forces that kill them.
Of the education Justine received in the Frankenstein household we know only that it was "superior to that which [her mistress] intended at first," and that Justine thought this second mother of hers to be "the model of all excellence, and endeavoured to imitate her phraseology and manners" (p. 65). We know a lot more about Elizabeth's education, particularly from the second edition of the novel, where Mary Shelley expanded two sentences that appear in her husband's handwriting in the original manuscript. In the original,
I delighted [says Victor] in investigating the facts relative to the actual world; she busied herself in following the aerial creations of the poets. The world was to me a secret, which I desired to discover; to her it was a vacancy, which she sought to people with imaginations of her own.9
Here we see the crucial difference in the respective educations of the two figures: Victor translates his interest in science into a career aspiration, while Elizabeth translates her interest into a substitute for experience, a way of filling a void created by her lack of contact with the outside world.
In her 1831 revision, Shelley lays even greater stress on the domestic harmony that formed the context of the early education of Elizabeth, Victor, and their friend Clerval. She develops the division of the realm of masculine knowledge between Victor and Clerval, connecting (in Clerval's case especially) their studies and their future aspirations:
It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my enquiries were directed toward the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.
Meanwhile, Clerval occupied himself, so to speak, with the moral relations of things. The busy stage of life, the virtues of heroes, and the actions of men, were his theme, and his hope and his dream was to become one of those whose names are recorded in story, as the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species. [P. 37]
Elizabeth's literary studies, on the other hand, have been dropped rather than developed. She is now shown to spend her entire time shining "like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home." To whom, one may ask, is this shrine dedicated? Both editions remark that Elizabeth and Victor "were strangers to any species of disunion or dispute." But in the first they learn Latin and English together so that they "might read the writings in those languages," while in the second her participation in the studies of the other two is quite different:
She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract: I might have become sullen in my study, rough through the ardour of my nature, but that she was there to subdue me to a semblance of her own gentleness. And Clerval—could aught ill entrench on the noble spirit of Clerval?—yet he might not have been so perfectly humane, so thoughtful in his generosity—so full of kindness and tenderness amidst his passion for adventurous exploit, had not she unfolded to him the real loveliness of beneficence, and made the doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition. [P. 38]
What Mary Shelley spells out, in these additions, is Elizabeth's role in maintaining the atmosphere of continual sunshine in which Victor claims he spent his best years.
One might argue that Elizabeth was not harmed by having her mind filled with these exclusive demands, that she was in fact happy with the "trifling occupations" that took up all her time after Victor and Clerval left their common schoolroom, occupations whose reward was "seeing nothing but happy, kind faces around me" (p. 64). Or one might say that she was being excessively modest, that keeping others happy generally and softening the "sometimes violent" temper and "vehement passions" (p. 37) of two male students in particular, is no trifling occupation. Thomas Gisborne, whose extensive treatment of The Duties of the Female Sex was first published in 1797, was one of the many debaters on the nature of women who held this latter view. He posited three general categories of female duties, "each of which," he insisted, "is of extreme and never-ceasing concern to the welfare of mankind." The second of these sets of duties entails "forming and improving the general manners, dispositions, and conduct of the other sex, by society and example." Female excellence, he observed, was best displayed in "the sphere of domestic life," where it manifests itself
in sprightliness and vivacity, in quickness of perception, fertility of invention, in powers adapted to unbend the brow of the learned, to refresh the over-laboured faculties of the wise, and to diffuse throughout the family circle the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness.10
But Mary Wollstonecraft, debating from the other side, had very different views on the kind of education Elizabeth receives in the second version of Frankenstein. For her "the only way to make [women] properly attentive to their domestic duties" was to "open" political and moral subjects to them. "An active mind," she asserts, "embraces the whole circle of its duties and finds time enough for all."11 Victor praises his adopted sibling for her charms and graces, for which "everyone loved" her. But her education has no content, and she does not live long enough for Victor to test Wollstonecraft's assertion that "unless the understanding be cultivated, superficial and monotonous is every grace." What is not evident to Victor is certainly evident to the reader, however. Elizabeth is not a real force in the novel: she is too superficial and monotonous.
The division into roles that takes place in the Frankenstein schoolroom corresponds roughly to the divisions described in Plato's Republic. There the citizens learn in earliest childhood a "myth of the metals" which divides them into groups according to whether intellect, courage, or neither predominates in their makeup. The purpose of the indoctrination is to eliminate friction in the kingdom. But in Frankenstein the division has the opposite effect: Victor, divided from his courageous, moral self as well as from his ability to subdue his own vehement passions, sets in motion a chain of events that will destroy those parts of a potentially whole human psyche that he has already partly lost through his conflict-free upbringing.
There is in Victor much that could not find expression without disrupting the tranquility of his happy home. On leaving that home he indulges at first "in the most melancholy reflections." But, he continues,
as I proceeded my spirits and hopes rose. I ardently desired the acquisition of knowledge. I had often, when at home, thought it hard to remain during my youth cooped up in one place, and had longed to enter the world, and take my station among other human beings. [P. 45]
Unfortunately for him, these other human beings turn out all to be male, their sisters and daughters being busied with "trifling occupations" within the safety of the domestic circle. Only males, in the world of the novel's second narrator, are seen acting upon their longings to acquire knowledge, to leave a home that coops them up, and to take their places in the world.
Thus Victor discovers a flaw in the wall that keeps his hearth untouched by evil from the outside: you cannot take its protective magic with you when you leave. For Elizabeth's power "to soften and attract" does him little good if he must leave it behind when he goes "to take [his] station among other human beings." He may be devoted to preserving her innocence, grounded in passivity, and revere her for her self-denying dedication to the happiness of others. But since these qualities cut her off from any active engagement in his life, and thus deprive him of a real companion, her supposed perfection only intensifies his isolation. Unable to detect any flaws in his mother's and Elizabeth's unreproaching dependency, he creates in the Monster a dependent child who does reproach him for his neglect. Furthermore, by making this child ugly he can justify his neglect by appealing to a prejudice shared by all the characters in the novel: resentment toward (and cruelty to) an ugly helpless creature is perfectly appropriate human behavior. Indignation is aroused in the novel only by cruelty to beautiful children like Elizabeth and William. Thus Victor can vent on his Monster all the negative emotion that would otherwise have no socially acceptable object and remain unaware of the transference he has made from his child bride to his "child."
From Victor's remarks about spending his youth "cooped up in one place," we may surmise that his feelings of resentment, for which the Monster becomes an uncontrollable "objective correlative," had their first stirrings while the would-be scientist-hero was still blissfully lodged in the womb of domesticity. But resentment in Paradise, for Victor no less than for Satan himself, leads to an expulsion that intensifies the resentment. Outside the home, there is nothing to prevent that feeling from growing until it reaches literally murderous proportions. Had Victor not been so furtive about his desire to astound the world, he might have allowed himself time to make a creature his own size, one who mirrored the whole of him, not just the part of himself he cannot bring home. But to do that he would have had to be a whole person outside the home and a whole person within it.
Repeatedly throughout the novel Shelley gives us examples of the ways in which the insulated bourgeois family creates and perpetuates divided selves in the name of domestic affection by walling that affection in and keeping "disunion and dispute" out. We have noticed already that those whose role is to embody domestic affection cannot go out into the world. "Insiders" cannot leave, or do so at their peril. At the same time Shelley dramatizes, through the experiences of Victor's creature, that "outsiders" cannot enter; they are condemned to perpetual exile and deprivation, forbidden even from trying to create a domestic circle of their own. This point is emphasized by the fate of Justine, who succeeds in imitating to perfection the similarly rescued Caroline Beaufort, but who is abandoned at the first suggestion of rebellion. By having Justine abandoned first by her own jealous mother, Shelley is making her most devastating indictment of bourgeois socialization: another family cannot, as Milton put it, "rectify the wrongs of our first parents."
The Frankenstein family fails Justine because its response to her at a time of crisis was passivity. Yet here the distinction between "outsiders" and "insiders" breaks down: the Frankensteins respond to one another, when crises come, in the same way, adjuring one another to repress their anger and grief for the sake of maintaining tranquility.
Their repressed emotions, especially anger, are acted out by others. We can see this in the behavior of the jurors at Justine's trial: they are ruled by the spirit of vengeance that the family members themselves refuse to admit into their consciousness. Of course the Monster is the example par excellence of this process of projection, and his victims come from within the family circle as well as outside it. Their only crime is that they participated (voluntarily) in the process of self-division that left Victor incapable of being a loving father, passive in the face of crises, and content to let other people complete him.
The one murder that does not seem to fit into this scheme is that of "little William." What we know of him comes only from Elizabeth, who notes his beauty and his precocious interest in domestic affection in its traditional form:
When he smiles, two little dimples appear on each cheek, which are rose with health. He has already had one or two little wives, but Louisa Biron is his favorite, a pretty little girl of five years of age. [P. 66]
Ernest Frankenstein is drawn to a life of adventure and a career in the foreign service, though he does not have, Elizabeth reports, Victor's powers of application. Thus William, preparing to be just like his "papa," is the one on whom Victor can indirectly visit, through the agency of the Monster, a resentment against a childhood spent in domestic role-playing.
The hothouse atmosphere in which Victor and later William play with their "pretty little" child brides stands in contrast to the mutually supportive, matter-of-fact life of Felix and Agatha De Lacey. Nor is this the only point on which the De Laceys contrast with the other families in the novel. They are the only family that perpetuates itself into the next generation, largely because no one in it is striving for the kind of personal immortality that propels Victor and Walton out of their respective domestic Edens. De Lacey père, like Beaufort and Frankenstein the elder, was once a prosperous member of the bourgeoisie. He was exiled and stripped of his fortune and place in the social order because his son, motivated by benevolence, impulsively aided in the escape of a Turk who was a victim of French racism and political injustice. But his idealistic impulse precipitates events in "the world" that are beyond his control, events that bring down ruin on his whole family.
The De Laceys exhibit a great deal less rigidity, however, when coping with misfortune than either of the two Genevese families who are called upon to deal with ruin or bereavement. Not that they are entirely happy. Although the father encourages "his children, as sometimes I found that he called them, to cast off their melancholy" (p. 112), his blindness prevents him from seeing that there is often not enough food for himself and them too. But if the land nurtures them meagerly even with the help of the Monster, it is at least a resource for meeting real needs. The relationship of the De Laceys to nature significantly differs from that of Victor, for whom nature can only provide occasions for the repeated display of a histrionic sensibility.
Furthermore, the social exile of the De Laceys is involuntary; they did not choose it, nor do they blame Felix and exile him as a punishment for the fate they must all share. Victor's family is incapable of such action. Returning home after his first encounter with the Monster as a speaking creature, he notes:
My haggard and wild appearance awoke intense alarm; but I answered no question, scarcely did I speak. I felt as if I were placed under a ban—as if I had no right to claim their sympathies—as if never more might I enjoy companionship with them. [P. 149]
One might almost think this was the Monster speaking of his relationship with the De Lacey family. Victor's refusal, or inability, to be an accepting father to his creature, and to give him a companion who would share his sorrows as well as his joys, is a repetition of his own father's refusal to accept or give to him. His exile, as he portrays it in this passage and elsewhere, is largely self-imposed. He "answered no question," but questions were asked. Nevertheless, everything we have seen about the Frankenstein family's mode of dealing with the disturbing reality outside their circle indicates that Victor is right to keep quiet, that his revelations might provoke a response even more damaging than alarm: they might pretend he had never spoken.12
The deficiencies of Victor's family, dramatized in his inability to bring the Monster home (openly, that is), to deal with evil in the outside world, or to own the repressed impulses that others are acting out for him, stem ultimately from the concept of domestic affection on which the continuing tranquility of the family depends. The root of this evil lies in the separation of male and female spheres for purposes of maintaining the purity of the family and the sanctity of the home. The effect of domestic affection on both Victor and Walton is "an invincible repugnance to new countenances" that leads them toward the solitary pursuit of glory, which paradoxically disqualifies them for domestic affection. Once touched by the outside world, they cannot reenter the domestic circle without destroying its purity. Victor's rejection of the Monster also makes it impossible for him to embrace Elizabeth without destroying the purity that is her major attraction in his eyes.
Scholarly interest in the bourgeois family, the target of Mary Shelley's critique of domestic affection, has received a good deal of impetus in the last ten years from the feminist movement's attempts to name and trace the origins of what Betty Friedan has called "the problem that has no name."13 Shelley seems to suggest that, if the family is to be a viable institution for the transmission of domestic affection from one generation to the next, it must redefine that precious commodity in such a way that it can extend to "outsiders" and become hardy enough to survive in the world outside the home. It is not surprising that a woman should be making this point. Eradicating the artificial gulf between the work of the world and the work of the home is of greater concern to women than men since they experience in almost every aspect of their lives the resultant "unnatural distinctions established in society" against which Mary Wollstonecraft protested almost two hundred years ago. If we can imagine a novel in which a woman scientist creates a monster who returns to destroy her family, the relevance to women of the problem that Mary Shelley has imagined becomes more immediately apparent.
The one character who clearly exemplifies such a redefined notion of domestic affection is Safie, the daughter of a Christian Arab woman who, "born in freedom, spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced" upon her marriage to the Turk. Safie's father had rescued his wife from slavery, just as Victor's father had rescued Caroline Beaufort from poverty. But instead of translating her gratitude into lifelong subservience and sporadic charity, this woman taught her daughter "to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet" (p. 124). Safie's lucid perception of the Tightness of her mother's views was doubtless only confirmed by her father's selfish duplicity in encouraging her union with Felix when it served his purposes while at the same time he "loathed the idea that his daughter should be united to a Christian."
Although Safie is, like Mary Shelley, motherless when she must put her early training to the test, she applies her mother's teachings in a way that is intended to contrast, I believe, with the behavior of the passive Elizabeth, equally influenced by her adopted mother's teachings and example. Safie discovers that her mind is
sickened at the prospect of again returning to Asia, and being immured within the walls of a harem, allowed only to occupy herself with infantile amusements, ill suited to the temper of her soul, now accustomed to grand ideas and the noble emulation of virtue. [P. 124]
In consequence, she not only refuses to wait for the possibility that her lover will miraculously find her, but actively seeks Felix out, traveling through Europe with only an attendant for protection. Had Elizabeth been encouraged "to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit," she might have followed Victor to Ingolstadt and perhaps even have insisted that he provide the Monster a companion for his wanderings. As it is, Victor cannot conceive of involving Elizabeth in his work on any level; both are petrified in fatally polarized worlds.
In her essay, Ellen Moers observes that Frankenstein "is a birth myth, and one that was lodged in the novelist's imagination . . . by the fact that she was herself a mother" (p. 79). But women are daughters before they are mothers, and daughters of fathers as well as mothers, as U. C. Knoepflmacher points out. The kind of family that Shelley is describing shapes us still: its most distinctive feature is that of the dominant yet absent father, working outside the home to support a dependent (or underpaid), subservient wife and children, all roles circularly functioning to reinforce his dominance. Frankenstein is indeed a birth myth, but one in which the parent who "brought death into the world, and all our woe" is not a woman but a man who has pushed the masculine prerogative past the limits of nature, creating life not through the female body but in a laboratory.
Victor's father seems to be the exception that proves the rule. He is an absent father for Victor not because he leaves home every day but because he does not. He is so uninvolved in matters that do not pertain directly to the domestic tranquility that he does not act to guide Victor's interest in science—an interest he shared with his son in the first version of the novel but not the second. Likewise, Victor is alienated from his "child" not by his work but by his desire to flee to the shelter of domesticity, which gives a further twist to the already novel image of a man giving birth and then escaping his parental responsibility. The price paid for the schisms that are encouraged behind the pleasant façade of "domestic affection" may be higher than even Mary Shelley could imagine. The modern world can create worse monsters.
1See Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1968), p. 12 and passim.
2Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston (New York, 1975), p. 150.
3Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph (New York, 1971), p. 124; future references to this edition will be given in the text.
4A Vindication, chaps. 9-11, pp. 140-57.
5 See George Levine on pp. 15-16, above.
6 See, in this connection, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, English Poor Law History (Hamden, Conn., 1963); Ivy Pinchbeck and Margaret Hewett, Children in English Society (London, 1969), vol. I; J. J. Tobias, Urban Crime in Victorian England (New York, 1972).
7 In his discussion, U. C. Knoepflmacher draws numerous parallels between Mary Shelley and her characters. The links between Mary and both Caroline Beaufort and Elizabeth Lavenza are reenforced in other ways: Mary's mother also died young, leaving her orphaned daughter with a father who "passed his younger days perpetually occupied in the affairs of his country; a variety of circumstances had prevented his marrying early, nor was it until the decline of life that he became a husband and father of a family." If both Caroline and Elizabeth are retrieved by Alphonse Frankenstein, a Prince Charming also rescued Mary (or so she at first thought) from the family with which she could not be happily accommodated.
8Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, ed. James Rieger (New York, 1974), p. 37.
9Ibid., p. 30.
10Thomas Gisborne, An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (London, 1798), pp. 20-21.
11A Vindication, p. 169.
12Examples of this mode of paternal interaction, and of the schizophrenia it elicits, may be found in R. D. Laing and A. Esterson, Sanity, Madness, and the Family (Middlesex, England, 1970).
13Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York, 1965). For an overview of recent scholarship on the family, see Christopher Lasch, "The Family and History," New York Review of Books, November 13, 1975, pp. 33-38. For a feminist view of this material see Barbara J. Harris, "Recent Work on the History of the Family: A Review Article," in Feminist Studies, vol. 3, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1976): 159-72.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11335
SOURCE: "Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve," in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 1979, pp. 213-47.
[In the following excerpt, Gilbert and Gubar view Frankenstein not so much in terms of Shelley's relationship to her own father as in her relationship to literary patriarchy in general, figured in John Milton's Paradise Lost. Noting that Shelley read Milton's poem before writing her novel, the critics assert that Shelley adopted the misogyny of Paradise Lost into her own "pained ambivalence toward mothers."]
Many critics have noticed that Frankenstein (1818) is one of the key Romantic "readings" of Paradise Lost.14 Significantly, however, as a woman's reading it is most especially the story of hell: hell as a dark parody of heaven, hell's creations as monstrous imitations of heaven's creations, and hellish femaleness as a grotesque parody of heavenly maleness. But of course the divagations of the parody merely return to and reinforce the fearful reality of the original. For by parodying Paradise Lost in what may have begun as a secret, barely conscious attempt to subvert Milton, Shelley ended up telling, too, the central story of Paradise Lost, the tale of "what misery th' inabstinence of Eve / Shall bring on men."
Mary Shelley herself claims to have been continually asked "how I . . . came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea" as that of Frankenstein, but it is really not surprising that she should have formulated her anxieties about femaleness in such highly literary terms. For of course the nineteen-year-old girl who wrote Frankenstein was no ordinary nineteen-year-old but one of England's most notable literary heiresses. Indeed, as "the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity," and the wife of a third, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was the daughter and later the wife of some of Milton's keenest critics, so that Harold Bloom's useful conceit about the family romance of English literature is simply an accurate description of the reality of her life.15
In acknowledgement of this web of literary/familial relationships, critics have traditionally studied Frankenstein as an interesting example of Romantic myth-making, a work ancillary to such established Promethean masterpieces as Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and Byron's Manfred. ("Like almost everything else about [Mary's] life," one such critic remarks, Frankenstein "is an instance of genius observed and admired but not shared."16) Recently, however, a number of writers have noticed the connection between Mary Shelley's "waking dream" of monster-manufacture and her own experience of awakening sexuality, in particular the "horror story of Maternity" which accompanied her precipitous entrance into what Ellen Moers calls "teen-age motherhood."17 Clearly they are articulating an increasingly uneasy sense that, despite its male protagonist and its underpinning of "masculine" philosophy, Frankenstein is somehow a "woman's book," if only because its author was caught up in such a maelstrom of sexuality at the time she wrote the novel.
In making their case for the work as female fantasy, though, critics like Moers have tended to evade the problems posed by what we must define as Frankenstein's literariness. Yet, despite the weaknesses in those traditional readings of the novel that overlook its intensely sexual materials, it is still undeniably true that Mary Shelley's "ghost story," growing from a Keatsian (or Coleridgean) waking dream, is a Romantic novel about—among other things—Romanticism, as well as a book about books and perhaps, too, about the writers of books. Any theorist of the novel's femaleness and of its significance as, in Moers's phrase, a "birth myth" must therefore confront this self-conscious literariness. For as was only natural in "the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity," Mary Shelley explained her sexuality to herself in the context of her reading and its powerfully felt implications.
For this orphaned literary heiress, highly charged connections between femaleness and literariness must have been established early, and established specifically in relation to the controversial figure of her dead mother. As we shall see, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin read her mother's writings over and over again as she was growing up. Perhaps more important, she undoubtedly read most of the reviews of her mother's Posthumous Works, reviews in which Mary Wollstonecraft was attacked as a "philosophical wanton" and a monster, while her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was called "A scripture, archly fram'd for propagating w[hore]s."18 But in any case, to the "philosophical wanton's" daughter, all reading about (or of) her mother's work must have been painful, given her knowledge that that passionate feminist writer had died in giving life to her, to bestow upon Wollstonecraft's death from complications of childbirth the melodramatic cast it probably had for the girl herself. That Mary Shelley was conscious, moreover, of a strangely intimate relationship between her feelings toward her dead mother, her romance with a living poet, and her own sense of vocation as a reader and writer is made perfectly clear by her habit of "taking her books to Mary Wollstonecraft's grave in St. Paneras' Churchyard, there," as Muriel Spark puts it, "to pursue her studies in an atmosphere of communion with a mind greater than the second Mrs. Godwin's [and] to meet Shelley in secret."19
Her mother's grave: the setting seems an unusually grim, even ghoulish locale for reading, writing, or lovemaking. Yet, to a girl with Mary Shelley's background, literary activities, like sexual ones, must have been primarily extensions of the elaborate, gothic psychodrama of her family history. If her famous diary is largely a compendium of her reading lists and Shelley's that fact does not, therefore, suggest unusual reticence on her part. Rather, it emphasizes the point that for Mary, even more than for most writers, reading a book was often an emotional as well as an intellectual event of considerable magnitude. Especially because she never knew her mother, and because her father seemed so definitively to reject her after her youthful elopement, her principal mode of self-definition—certainly in the early years of her life with Shelley, when she was writing Frankenstein—was through reading, and to a lesser extent through writing.
Endlessly studying her mother's works and her father's, Mary Shelley may be said to have "read" her family and to have been related to her reading, for books appear to have functioned as her surrogate parents, pages and words standing in for flesh and blood. That much of her reading was undertaken in Shelley's company, moreover, may also help explain some of this obsessiveness, for Mary's literary inheritance was obviously involved in her very literary romance and marriage. In the years just before she wrote Frankenstein, for instance, and those when she was engaged in composing the novel (1816-17), she studied her parent's writings, alone or together with Shelley, like a scholarly detective seeking clues to the significance of some cryptic text.20
To be sure, this investigation of the mysteries of literary genealogy was done in a larger context. In these same years, Mary Shelley recorded innumerable readings of contemporary gothic novels, as well as a program of study in English, French, and German literature that would do credit to a modern graduate student. But especially, in 1815, 1816, and 1817, she read the works of Milton: Paradise Lost (twice), Paradise Regained, Comus, Areopagetica, Lycidas. And what makes the extent of this reading particularly impressive is the fact that in these years, her seventeenth to her twenty-first, Mary Shelley was almost continuously pregnant, "confined," or nursing. At the same time, it is precisely the coincidence of all these disparate activities—her family studies, her initiation into adult sexuality, and her literary self-education—that makes her vision of Paradise Lost so significant. For her developing sense of herself as a literary creature and/or creator seems to have been inseparable from her emerging self-definition as daughter, mistress, wife, and mother. Thus she cast her birth myth—her myth of origins—in precisely those cosmogenic terms to which her parents, her husband, and indeed her whole literary culture continually alluded: the terms of Paradise Lost, which (as she indicates even on the title page of her novel), she saw as preceding, paralleling, and commenting upon the Greek cosmogeny of the Prometheus play her husband had just translated. It is as a female fantasy of sex and reading, then, a gothic psychodrama reflecting Mary Shelley's own sense of what we might call bibliogenesis, that Frankenstein is a version of the misogynistic story implicit in Paradise Lost.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of Frankenstein's title page, with its allusive subtitle ("The Modern Prometheus") and carefully pointed Miltonic epigraph ("Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?"). But our first really serious clue to the highly literary nature of this history of a creature born outside history is its author's use of an unusually evidentiary technique for conveying the stories of her monster and his maker. Like a literary jigsaw puzzle, a collection of apparently random documents from whose juxtaposition the scholar-detective must infer a meaning, Frankenstein consists of three "concentric circles" of narration (Walton's letters, Victor Franken-stein's recital to Walton, and the monster's speech to Frankenstein), within which are embedded pockets of digression containing other miniature narratives (Frankenstein's mother's story, Elizabeth Lavenza's and Justine's stories, Felix's and Agatha's story, Safie's story), etc.21 As we have noted, reading and assembling documentary evidence, examining it, analyzing it and researching it comprised for Shelley a crucial if voyeuristic method of exploring origins, explaining identity, understanding sexuality. Even more obviously, it was a way of researching and analyzing an emotionally unintelligible text, like Paradise Lost. In a sense, then, even before Paradise Lost as a central item on the monster's reading list becomes a literal event in Frankenstein, the novel's literary structure prepares us to confront Milton's patriarchal epic, both as a sort of research problem and as the framework for a complex system of allusions.
The book's dramatic situations are equally resonant. Like Mary Shelley, who was a puzzled but studious Miltonist, this novel's key characters—Walton, Frankenstein, and the monster—are obsessed with problem-solving. "I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited," exclaims the young explorer, Walton, as he embarks like a child "on an expedition of discovery up his native river" (2, letter 1). "While my companions contemplated . . . the magnificent appearance of things," declares Frankenstein, the scientist of sexual ontology, "I delighted in investigating their causes" (22, chap. 2). "Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come?" (113-15, chap. 15) the monster reports wondering, describing endless speculations cast in Miltonic terms. All three, like Shelley herself, appear to be trying to understand their presence in a fallen world, and trying at the same time to define the nature of the lost paradise that must have existed before the fall. But unlike Adam, all three characters seem to have fallen not merely from Eden but from the earth, fallen directly into hell, like Sin, Satan, and—by implication—Eve. Thus their questionings are in some sense female, for they belong in that line of literary women's questionings of the fall into gender which goes back at least to Anne Finch's plaintive "How are we fal'n?" and forward to Sylvia Plath's horrified "I have fallen very far!"22
From the first, however, Frankenstein answers such neo-Miltonic questions mainly through explicit or implicit allusions to Milton, retelling the story of the fall not so much to protest against it as to clarify its meaning. The parallels between those two Promethean overreachers Walton and Frankenstein, for instance, have always been clear to readers. But that both characters can, therefore, be described (the way Walton describes Frankenstein) as "fallen angels" is not as frequently remarked. Yet Frankenstein himself is perceptive enough to ask Walton "Do you share my madness?" at just the moment when the young explorer remarks Satanically that "One man's life or death were but a small price to pay . . . for the dominion I [wish to] acquire" (13, letter 4). Plainly one fallen angel can recognize another. Alienated from his crew and chronically friendless, Walton tells his sister that he longs for a friend "on the wide ocean," and what he discovers in Victor Frankenstein is the fellowship of hell.
In fact, like the many other secondary narratives Mary Shelley offers in her novel, Walton's story is itself an alternative version of the myth of origins presented in Paradise Lost. Writing his ambitious letters home from St. Petersburgh [sic], Archangel, and points north, Walton moves like Satan away from the sanctity and sanity represented by his sister, his crew, and the allegorical names of the places he leaves. Like Satan, too, he seems at least in part to be exploring the frozen frontiers of hell in order to attempt a return to heaven, for the "country of eternal light" he envisions at the Pole (1, letter 1) has much in common with Milton's celestial "Fountain of Light" (PL 3. 375).23 Again, like Satan's (and Eve's) aspirations, his ambition has violated a patriarchal decree: his father's "dying injunction" had forbidden him "to embark on a seafaring life." Moreover, even the icy hell where Walton encounters Frankenstein and the monster is Miltonic, for all three of these diabolical wanderers must learn, like the fallen angels of Paradise Lost, that "Beyond this flood a frozen Continent / Lies dark and wild . . . / Thither by harpy-footed Furies hal'd, / At certain revolutions all the damn'd / Are brought . . . From Beds of raging Fire to starve in Ice" (PL 2. 587-600).
Finally, another of Walton's revelations illuminates not only the likeness of his ambitions to Satan's but also the similarity of his anxieties to those of his female author. Speaking of his childhood, he reminds his sister that, because poetry had "lifted [my soul] to heaven," he had become a poet and "for one year lived in a paradise of my own creation." Then he adds ominously that "You are well-acquainted with my failure and how heavily I bore the disappointment" (2-3, letter 1). But of course, as she confesses in her introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, too, had spent her childhood in "waking dreams" of literature; later, both she and her poet-husband hoped she would prove herself "worthy of [her] parentage and enroll [herself] on the page of fame" (xii). In a sense, then, given the Miltonic context in which Walton's story of poetic failure is set, it seems possible that one of the anxious fantasies his narrative helps Mary Shelley covertly examine is the fearful tale of a female fall from a lost paradise of art, speech, and autonomy into a hell of sexuality, silence, and filthy materiality, "A Universe of death, which God by curse / Created evil, for evil only good, / Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds, / Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things" (PL 2. 622-25).
Walton and his new friend Victor Frankenstein have considerably more in common than a Byronic (or Monk Lewis-ish) Satanism. For one thing, both are orphans, as Frankenstein's monster is and as it turns out all the major and almost all the minor characters in Frankenstein are, from Caroline Beaufort and Elizabeth Lavenza to Justine, Felix, Agatha, and Safie. Victor Frankenstein has not always been an orphan, though, and Shelley devotes much space to an account of his family history. Family histories, in fact, especially those of orphans, appear to fascinate her, and wherever she can include one in the narrative she does so with an obsessiveness suggesting that through the disastrous tale of the child who becomes "an orphan and a beggar" she is once more recounting the story of the fall, the expulsion from paradise, and the confrontation of hell. For Milton's Adam and Eve, after all, began as motherless orphans reared (like Shelley herself) by a stern but kindly father-god, and ended as beggars rejected by God (as she was by Godwin when she eloped).
Thus Caroline Beaufort's father dies leaving her "an orphan and a beggar," and Elizabeth Lavenza also becomes "an orphan and a beggar"—the phrase is repeated (18, 20, chap. 1)—with the disappearance of her father into an Austrian dungeon. And though both girls are rescued by Alphonse Frankenstein, Victor's father, the early alienation from the patriarchal chain-of-being signalled by their orphanhood prefigures the hellish fate in store for them and their family. Later, motherless Safie and fatherless Justine enact similarly ominous anxiety fantasies about the fall of woman into orphanhood and beggary.
Beyond their orphanhood, however, a universal sense of guilt links such diverse figures as Justine, Felix, and Elizabeth, just as it will eventually link Victor, Walton, and the monster. Justine, for instance, irrationally confesses to the murder of little William, though she knows perfectly well she is innocent. Even more irrationally, Elizabeth is reported by Alphonse Frankenstein to have exclaimed "Oh, God! I have murdered my darling child!" after her first sight of the corpse of little William (57, chap. 7). Victor, too, long before he knows that the monster is actually his brother's killer, decides that his "creature" has killed William and that therefore he, the creator, is the "true murderer": "the mere presence of the idea," he notes, is "an irresistable proof of the fact" (60, chap. 7). Complicity in the murder of the child William is, it seems, another crucial component of the Original Sin shared by prominent members of the Frankenstein family.
At the same time, the likenesses among all these characters—the common alienation, the shared guilt, the orphanhood and beggary—imply relationships of redundance between them like the solipsistic relationships among artfully placed mirrors. What reinforces our sense of this hellish solipsism is the barely disguised incest at the heart of a number of the marriages and romances the novel describes. Most notably, Victor Frankenstein is slated to marry his "more than sister" Elizabeth Lavenza, whom he confesses to having always considered "a possession of my own" (21, chap. 1). But the mysterious Mrs. Saville, to whom Walton's letters are addressed, is apparently in some sense his more than sister, just as Caroline Beaufort was clearly a "more than" wife, in fact a daughter, to her father's friend Alphonse Frankenstein. Even relationless Justine appears to have a metaphorically incestuous relationship with the Frankensteins, since as their servant she becomes their possession and more than sister, while the female monster Victor half-constructs in Scotland will be a more than sister as well as a mate to the monster, since both have the same parent/creator.
Certainly at least some of this incest-obsession in Frankenstein is, as Ellen Moers remarks, the "standard" sensational matter of Romantic novels.24 Some of it, too, even without the conventions of the gothic thriller, would be a natural subject for an impressionable young woman who had just spent several months in the company of the famously incestuous author of Manfred.25 Nevertheless, the streak of incest that darkens Frankenstein probably owes as much to the book's Miltonic framework as it does to Mary Shelley's own life and times. In the Edenic cosiness of their childhood, for instance, Victor and Elizabeth are incestuous as Adam and Eve are, literally incestuous because they have the same creator, and figuratively so because Elizabeth is Victor's pretty plaything, the image of an angelic soul or "epipsyche" created from his own soul just as Eve is created from Adam's rib. Similarly, the incestuous relationships of Satan and Sin, and by implication of Satan and Eve, are mirrored in the incest fantasies of Frankenstein, including the disguised but intensely sexual waking dream in which Victor Frankenstein in effect couples with his monster by applying "the instruments of life" to its body and inducing a shudder of response (42, chap. 5). For Milton, and therefore for Mary Shelley, who was trying to understand Milton, incest was an inescapable metaphor for the solipsistic fever of self-awareness that Matthew Arnold was later to call "the dialogue of the mind with itself."26
If Victor Frankenstein can be likened to both Adam and Satan, however, who or what is he really? Here we are obliged to confront both the moral ambiguity and the symbolic slipperiness which are at the heart of all the characterizations in Frankenstein. In fact, it is probably these continual and complex reallocations of meaning, among characters whose histories echo and re-echo each other, that have been so bewildering to critics. Like figures in a dream, all the people in Frankenstein have different bodies and somehow, horribly, the same face, or worse—the same two faces. For this reason, as Muriel Spark notes, even the book's subtitle "The Modern Prometheus" is ambiguous, "for though at first Frankenstein is himself the Prometheus, the vital fire-endowing protagonist, the Monster, as soon as he is created, takes on [a different aspect of] the role."27 Moreover, if we postulate that Mary Shelley is more concerned with Milton than she is with Aeschylus, the intertwining of meanings grows even more confusing, as the monster himself several times points out to Frankenstein, noting "I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel," (84, chap. 10), then adding elsewhere that "God, in pity, made man beautiful . . . after His own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours. . . . Satan had his companions . . . but I am solitary and abhorred" (115, chap. 15). In other words, not only do Frankenstein and his monster both in one way or another enact the story of Prometheus, each is at one time or another like God (Victor as creator, the monster as his creator's "Master"), like Adam (Victor an innocent child, the monster as primordial "creature"), and like Satan (Victor as tormented overreacher, the monster as vengeful fiend).
What is the reason for this continual duplication and reduplication of roles? Most obviously, perhaps, the dreamlike shifting of fantasy figures from part to part, costume to costume, tells us that we are in fact dealing with the psychodrama or waking dream that Shelley herself suspected she had written. Beyond this, however, we would argue that the fluidity of the narrative's symbolic scheme reinforces in another way the crucial significance of the Miltonic skeleton around which Mary Shelley's hideous progeny took shape. For it becomes increasingly clear as one reads Frankenstein with Paradise Lost in mind that because the novel's author is such an inveterate student of literature, families, and sexuality, and because she is using her novel as a tool to help her make sense of her reading, Frankenstein is ultimately a mock Paradise Lost in which both Victor and his monster, together with a number of secondary characters, play all the neo-biblical parts over and over again—all except, it seems at first, the part of Eve. Not just the striking omission of any obvious Eve-figure from this "woman's book" about Milton, but also the barely concealed sexual components of the story as well as our earlier analysis of Milton's bogey should tell us, however, that for Mary Shelley the part of Eve is all the parts.
On the surface, Victor seems at first more Adamic than Satanic or Eve-like. His Edenic childhood is an interlude of prelapsarian innocence in which, like Adam, he is sheltered by his benevolent father as a sensitive plant might be "sheltered by the gardener, from every rougher wind" (19-20, chap. 1). When cherubic Elizabeth Lavenza joins the family, she seems as "heaven-sent" as Milton's Eve, as much Victor's "possession" as Adam's rib is Adam's. Moreover, though he is evidently forbidden almost nothing ("My parents [were not] tyrants . . . but the agents and creators of many delights"), Victor hints to Walton that his deific father, like Adam's and Walton's, did on one occasion arbitrarily forbid him to pursue his interest in arcane knowledge. Indeed, like Eve and Satan, Victor blames his own fall at least in part on his father's apparent arbitrariness. "If . . . my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded. . . . It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin" (24-25, chap. 2). And soon after asserting this he even associates an incident in which a tree is struck by Jovian thunder bolts with his feelings about his forbidden studies.
As his researches into the "secrets of nature" become more feverish, however, and as his ambition "to explore unknown powers" grows more intense, Victor begins to metamorphose from Adam to Satan, becoming "as Gods" in his capacity of "bestowing animation upon lifeless matter," laboring like a guilty artist to complete his false creation. Finally, in his conversations with Walton he echoes Milton's fallen angel, and Marlowe's, in his frequently reiterated confession that "I bore a hell within me which nothing could extinguish" (72, chap. 8). Indeed, as the "true murderer" of innocence, here cast in the form of the child William, Victor perceives himself as a diabolical creator whose mind has involuntarily "let loose" a monstrous and "filthy demon" in much the same way that Milton's Satan's swelled head produced Sin, the disgusting monster he "let loose" upon the world. Watching a "noble war in the sky" that seems almost like an intentional reminder that we are participating in a critical rearrangement of most of the elements of Paradise Lost, he explains that "I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind . . . nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave and forced to destroy all that was dear to me" (61, chap. 7).
Even while it is the final sign and seal of Victor's transformation from Adam to Satan, however, it is perhaps the Sin-ful murder of the child William that is our first overt clue to the real nature of the bewilderingly disguised set of identity shifts and parallels Mary Shelley incorporated into Frankenstein. For as we saw earlier, not just Victor and the monster but also Elizabeth and Justine insist upon responsibility for the monster's misdeed. Feeling "as if I had been guilty of a crime" (41, chap. 4) even before one had been committed, Victor responds to the news of William's death with the same self-accusations that torment the two orphans. And, significantly, for all three—as well as for the monster and little William himself—one focal point of both crime and guilt is an image of that other beautiful orphan, Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein. Passing from hand to hand, pocket to pocket, the smiling miniature of Victor's "angel mother" seems a token of some secret fellowship in sin, as does Victor's post-creation nightmare of transforming a lovely, living Elizabeth, with a single magical kiss, into "the corpse of my dead mother" enveloped in a shroud made more horrible by "grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel" (42, chap. 5). Though it has been disguised, buried, or miniaturized, femaleness—the gender definition of mothers and daughters, orphans and beggars, monsters and false creators—is at the heart of this apparently masculine book.
Because this is so, it eventually becomes clear that though Victor Frankenstein enacts the roles of Adam and Satan like a child trying on costumes, his single most self-defining act transforms him definitively into Eve. For as both Ellen Moers and Marc Rubenstein have pointed out, after much study of the "cause of generation and life," after locking himself away from ordinary society in the tradition of such agonized mothers as Wollstonecraft's Maria, Eliot's Hetty Sorel, and Hardy's Tess, Victor Frankenstein has a baby.28 His "pregnancy" and childbirth are obviously manifested by the existence of the paradoxically huge being who emerges from his "workshop of filthy creation," but even the descriptive language of his creation myth is suggestive: "incredible labours," "emaciated with confinement," "a passing trance," "oppressed by a slow fever," "nervous to a painful degree," "exercise and amusement would . . . drive away incipient disease," "the instruments of life" (39-41, chap. 4), etc. And, like Eve's fall into guilty knowledge and painful maternity, Victor's entrance into what Blake would call the realm of "generation" is marked by a recognition of the necessary interdependence of those complementary opposites, sex and death: "To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death," he observes (36, chap. 4), and in his isolated workshop of filthy creation—filthy because obscenely sexual29—he collects and arranges materials furnished by "the dissecting room and the slaughterhouse." Pursuing "nature to her hiding places" as Eve does in eating the apple, he learns that "the tremendous secrets of the human frame" are the interlocked secrets of sex and death, although, again like Eve, in his first mad pursuit of knowledge he knows not "eating death." But that his actual orgasmic animation of his monster-child takes place "on a dreary night in November," month of All Souls, short days, and the year's last slide toward death, merely reinforces the Miltonic and Blakean nature of his act of generation.
Even while Victor Frankenstein's self-defining procreation dramatically transforms him into an Eve-figure, however, our recognition of its implications reflects backward upon our sense of Victor-as-Satan and our earlier vision of Victor-as-Adam. Victor as Satan, we now realize, was never really the masculine, Byronic Satan of the first book of Paradise Lost, but always, instead, the curiously female, outcast Satan who gave birth to Sin. In his Eve-like pride ("I was surprised . . . that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret" [37, chap. 4]), this Victor-Satan becomes "dizzy" with his creative powers, so that his monstrous pregnancy, bookishly and solipsistically conceived, reenacts as a terrible bibliogenesis the moment when, in Milton's version, Satan "dizzy swum / In darkness, while [his] head flames thick and fast / Threw forth, till on the left side op'ning wide" and Sin, Death's mother-to-be, appeared like "a Sign / Portentous" (PL 2: 753-61). Because he has conceived—or, rather, misconceived—his monstrous offspring by brooding upon the wrong books, moreover, this Victor-Satan is paradigmatic, like the falsely creative fallen angel, of the female artist, whose anxiety about her own aesthetic activity is expressed, for instance, in Mary Shelley's deferential introductory phrase about her "hideous progeny," with its plain implication that in her alienated attic workshop of filthy creation she has given birth to a deformed book, a literary abortion or miscarriage. "How [did] I, then a young girl, [come] to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea?" is a key (if disingenuous) question she records. But we should not overlook her word play upon dilate, just as we should not ignore the anxious pun on the word author that is so deeply embedded in Frankenstein.
If the adult, Satanic Victor is Eve-like both in his procreation and his anxious creation, even the young, prelapsarian, and Adamic Victor is—to risk a pun—curiously female, that is, Eve-like. Innocent and guided by silken threads like a Blakean lamb in a Godwinian garden, he is consumed by "a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature," a longing which—expressed in his explorations of "vaults and charnel-houses," his guilty observations of "the unhallowed damps of the grave," and his passion to understand "the structure of the human frame"—recalls the criminal female curiosity that led Psyche to lose love by gazing upon its secret face, Eve to insist upon consuming "intellectual food," and Prometheus's sister-in-law Pandora to open the forbidden box of fleshly ills. But if Victor-Adam is also Victor-Eve, what is the real significance of the episode in which, away at school and cut off from his family, he locks himself into his workshop of filthy creation and gives birth by intellectual parturition to a giant monster? Isn't it precisely at this point in the novel that he discovers he is not Adam but Eve, not Satan but Sin, not male but female? If so, it seems likely that what this crucial section of Frankenstein really enacts is the story of Eve's discovery not that she must fall but that, having been created female, she is fallen, femaleness and fallenness being essentially synonymous. For what Victor Frankenstein most importantly learns, we must remember, is that he is the "author" of the monster—for him alone is "reserved . . . so astonishing a secret"—and thus it is he who is "the true murderer," he who unleashes Sin and Death upon the world, he who dreams the primal kiss that incestuously kills both "sister" and "mother." Doomed and filthy, is he not, then, Eve instead of Adam? In fact, may not the story of the fall be, for women, the story of the discovery that one is not innocent and Adam (as one had supposed) but Eve, and fallen? Perhaps this is what Freud's cruel but metaphorically accurate concept of penis-envy really means: the girl-child's surprised discovery that she is female, hence fallen, inadequate. Certainly the almost grotesquely anxious self-analysis implicit in Victor Frankenstein's (and Mary Shelley's) multiform relationships to Eve, Adam, God, and Satan suggest as much.
The discovery that one is fallen is in a sense a discovery that one is a monster, a murderer, a being gnawed by "the never-dying worm" (72, chap. 8) and therefore capable of any horror, including but not limited to sex, death, and filthy literary creation. More, the discovery that one is fallen—self-divided, murderous, material—is the discovery that one has released a "vampire" upon the world, "forced to destroy all that [is] dear" (61, chap. 7). For this reason—because Frankenstein is a story of woman's fall told by, as it were, an apparently docile daughter to a censorious "father"—the monster's narrative is embedded at the heart of the novel like the secret of the fall itself. Indeed, just as Frankenstein's workshop, with its maddening, riddling answers to cosmic questions is a hidden but commanding attic womb/room where the young artist-scientist murders to dissect and to recreate, so the murderous monster's single, carefuly guarded narrative commands and controls Mary Shelley's novel. Delivered at the top of Mont Blanc—like the North Pole one of the Shelley family's metaphors for the indifferently powerful source of creation and destruction—it is the story of deformed Geraldine in "Christabel," the story of the dead-alive crew in "The Ancient Mariner," the story of Eve in Paradise Lost, and of her degraded double Sin—all secondary or female characters to whom male authors have imperiously denied any chance of self-explanation.30 At the same time the monster's narrative is a philosophical meditation on what it means to be born without a "soul" or a history, as well as an exploration of what it feels like to be a "filthy mass that move[s] and talk[s]," a thing, an other, a creature of the second sex. In fact, though it tends to be ignored by critics (and film-makers), whose emphasis has always fallen upon Frankenstein himself as the archetypal mad scientist, the drastic shift in point of view that the nameless monster's monologue represents probably constitutes Frankenstein's most striking technical tour de force, just as the monster's bitter self-revelations are Mary Shelley's most impressive and original achievement.31
Like Victor Frankenstein, his author and superficially better self, the monster enacts in turn the roles of Adam and Satan, and even eventually hints at a sort of digression into the role of God. Like Adam, he recalls a time of primordial innocence, his days and nights in "the forest near Ingolstadt," where he ate berries, learned about heat and cold, and perceived "the boundaries of the radiant roof of light which canopied me" (88, chap. 11). Almost too quickly, however, he metamorphoses into an outcast and Satanic figure, hiding in a shepherd's hut which seems to him "as exquisite .. . a retreat as Pandemonium . . . after . . . the lake of fire" (90, chap. 11). Later, when he secretly sets up housekeeping behind the De Laceys' pigpen, his wistful observations of the loving though exiled family and their pastoral abode ("Happy, happy earth! Fit habitation for gods . . ." [100, chap. 12]) recall Satan's mingled jealousy and admiration of that "happy rural seat of various view" where Adam and Eve are emparadised by God and Milton (PL 4. 247). Eventually, burning the cottage and murdering William in demonic rage, he seems to become entirely Satanic: "I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me" (121, chap. 16); "Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred . . . to all mankind" (126, chap. 16). At the same time, in his assertion of power over his "author," his mental conception of another creature (a female monster), and his implicit dream of founding a new, vegetarian race somewhere in "the vast wilds of South America," (131, chap. 17), he temporarily enacts the part of a God, a creator, a master, albeit a failed one.
As the monster himself points out, however, each of these Miltonic roles is a Procrustean bed into which he simply cannot fit. Where, for instance, Victor Frankenstein's childhood really was Edenic, the monster's anxious infancy is isolated and ignorant, rather than insulated or innocent, so that his groping arrival at self-consciousness—"I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew and could distinguish nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept" (87-88, chap. 11)—is a fiercely subversive parody of Adam's exuberant "all things smil'd, / With fragrance and with joy my heart o'erflowed. / Myself I then perus'd, and Limb by Limb / Survey'd, and sometimes went, and sometimes ran / With supple joints, as lively vigor led" (PL 8. 265-69). Similarly, the monster's attempts at speech ("Sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again" (88, chap. 11) parody and subvert Adam's ("To speak I tri'd, and forthwith spake, / My Tongue obey'd and readily could name / Whate'er I saw" (PL 8. 271-72). And of course the monster's anxiety and confusion ("What was I? The question again recurred to be answered only with groans" [106, chap. 13]) are a dark version of Adam's wondering bliss ("who I was, or where, or from what cause, / [I] Knew not. . . . [But I] feel that I am happier than I know" (PL 8. 270-71, 282).
Similarly, though his uncontrollable rage, his alienation, even his enormous size and superhuman physical strength bring him closer to Satan than he was to Adam, the monster puzzles over discrepancies between his situation and the fallen angel's. Though he is, for example, "in bulk as huge / As whom the Fables name of monstrous size, / Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr'd on Jove," and though, indeed, he is fated to war like Prometheus on Jovean Frankenstein, this demon/monster has fallen from no heaven, exercised no power of choice, and been endowed with no companions in evil. "I found myself similar yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read and to whose conversation I was a listener," he tells Frankenstein, describing his schooldays in the De Lacey pigpen (113, chap. 15). And, interestingly, his remark might well have been made by Mary Shelley herself, that "devout but nearly silent listener" (xiv) to masculine conversations who, like her hideous progeny, "continually studied and exercised [her] mind upon" such "histories" as Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and The Sorrows of Werter [sic] "whilst [her] friends were employed in their ordinary occupations" (112, chap. 15).
In fact, it is his intellectual similarity to his authoress (rather than his "author") which first suggests that Victor Frankenstein's male monster may really be a female in disguise. Certainly the books which educate him—Werter, Plutarch's Lives, and Paradise Lost—are not only books Mary had herself read in 1815, the year before she wrote Frankenstein, but they also typify just the literary categories she thought it necessary to study: the contemporary novel of sensibility, the serious history of Western civilization, and the highly cultivated epic poem. As specific works, moreover, each must have seemed to her to embody lessons a female author (or monster) must learn about a male-dominated society. Werter's story, says the monster—and he seems to be speaking for Mary Shelley—taught him about "gentle and domestic manners," and about "lofty sentiments . . . which had for their object something out of self." It functioned, in other words, as a sort of Romantic conduct book. In addition, it served as an introduction to the virtues of the proto-Byronic "Man of Feeling," for, admiring Werter and never mentioning Lotte, the monster explains to Victor that "I thought Werter himself a more divine being than I had ever . . . imagined," adding, in a line whose female irony about male self-dramatization must surely have been intentional, "I wept [his extinction] without precisely understanding it" (113, chap. 15).
If Werter introduces the monster to female modes of domesticity and self-abnegation, as well as to the unattainable glamour of male heroism, Plutarch's Lives teaches him all the masculine intricacies of that history which his anomalous birth has denied him. Mary Shelley, excluding herself from the household of the second Mrs. Godwin and studying family as well as literary history on her mother's grave, must, again, have found in her own experience an appropriate model for the plight of a monster who, as James Rieger notes, is especially characterized by "his unique knowledge of what it is like to be born free of history."32 In terms of the disguised story the novel tells, however, this monster is not unique at all, but representative, as Shelley may have suspected she herself was. For, as Jane Austen has Catherine Morland suggest in Northanger Abbey, what is woman but man without a history, at least without the sort of history related in Plutarch's Lives? "History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in," Catherine declares ". . . the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome" (NA I, chap. 14).
But of course the third and most crucial book referred to in the miniature Bildungsroman of the monster's narrative is Paradise Lost, an epic myth of origins which is of major importance to him, as it is to Mary Shelley, precisely because, unlike Plutarch, it does provide him with what appears to be a personal history. And again, even the need for such a history draws Shelley's monster closer not only to the realistically ignorant female defined by Jane Austen but also to the archetypal female defined by John Milton. For, like the monster, like Catherine Morland, and like Mary Shelley herself, Eve is characterized by her "unique knowledge of what it is like to be born free of history," even though as the "Mother of Mankind" she is fated to "make" history. It is to Adam, after all, that God and His angels grant explanatory visions of past and future. At such moments of high historical colloquy Eve tends to excuse herself with "lowliness Majestic" (before the fall) or (after the fall) she is magically put to sleep, calmed like a frightened animal "with gentle Dreams . . . and all her spirits compos'd / To meek submission" (PL 12. 595-96).
Nevertheless, one of the most notable facts about the monster's ceaselessly anxious study of Paradise Lost is his failure even to mention Eve. As an insistently male monster, on the surface of his palimpsestic narrative he appears to be absorbed in Milton's epic only because, as Percy Shelley wrote in the preface to Frankenstein that he drafted for his wife, Paradise Lost "most especially" conveys "the truth of the elementary principles of human nature," and conveys that truth in the dynamic tensions developed among its male characters, Adam, Satan, and God (xvii). Yet not only the monster's uniquely ahistorical birth, his literary anxieties, and the sense his readings (like Mary's) foster that he must have been parented, if at all, by books; not only all these facts and traits but also his shuddering sense of deformity, his nauseating size, his namelessness, and his orphaned, motherless isolation link him with Eve and with Eve's double, Sin. Indeed, at several points in his impassioned analysis of Milton's story he seems almost on the verge of saying so, as he examines the disjunctions among Adam, Satan, and himself:
Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guided by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me. . . . Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred. [114-15, chap. 15]
It is Eve, after all, who languishes helpless and alone, while Adam converses with superior beings, and it is Eve in whom the Satanically bitter gall of envy rises, causing her to eat the apple in the hope of adding "what wants / In Female Sex." It is Eve, moreover, to whom deathly isolation is threatened should Adam reject her, an isolation more terrible even than Satan's alienation from heaven. And finally it is Eve whose body, like her mind, is said by Milton to resemble "less / His Image who made both, and less [to express] / The character of that Dominion giv'n / O'er other Creatures . . ." (PL 8. 543-46). In fact, to a sexually anxious reader, Eve's body might, like Sin's, seem "horrid even from [its] very resemblance" to her husband's, a "filthy" or obscene version of the human form divine.33
As we argued earlier, women have seen themselves (because they have been seen) as monstrous, vile, degraded creatures, second-comers, and emblems of filthy materiality, even though they have also been traditionally defined as superior spiritual beings, angels, better halves. "Woman [is] a temple built over a sewer," said the Church father Tertullian, and Milton seems to see Eve as both temple and sewer, echoing that patristic misogyny.34 Mary Shelley's conscious or unconscious awareness of the monster woman implicit in the angel woman is perhaps clearest in the revisionary scene where her monster, as if taking his cue from Eve in Paradise Lost book 4, first catches sight of his own image: "I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers . . . but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool. At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification" (98-99, chap. 12). In one sense, this is a corrective to Milton's blindness about Eve. Having been created second, inferior, a mere rib, how could she possibly, this passage implies, have seemed anything but monstrous to herself? In another sense, however, the scene supplements Milton's description of Eve's introduction to herself, for ironically, though her reflection in "the clear / Smooth Lake" is as beautiful as the monster's is ugly, the self-absorption that Eve's confessed passion for her own image signals is plainly meant by Milton to seem morally ugly, a hint of her potential for spiritual deformity: "There I had fixt / Mine eyes till now, and pin'd with vain desire, / Had not a voice thus warn'd me, What thou seest, / What there thou seest fair Creature is thyself . . ." (PL 4. 465-68).
The figurative monstrosity of female narcissism is a subtle deformity, however, in comparison with the literal monstrosity many women are taught to see as characteristic of their own bodies. Adrienne Rich's twentieth-century description of "a woman in the shape of a monster / A monster in the shape of a woman" is merely the latest in a long line of monstrous female self-definitions that includes the fearful images in Djuna Barnes's Book of Repulsive Women, Denise Levertov's "a white sweating bull of a poet told us / our cunts are ugly" and Sylvia Plath's "old yellow" self of the poem "In Plaster."35 Animal and misshapen, these emblems of self-loathing must have descended at least in part from the distended body of Mary Shelley's darkly parodic Eve/Sin/Monster, whose enormity betokens not only the enormity of Victor Frankenstein's crime and Satan's bulk but also the distentions or deformities of pregnancy and the Swiftian sexual nausea expressed in Lemuel Gulliver's horrified description of a Brobdignagian breast, a passage Mary Shelley no doubt studied along with the rest of Gulliver's Travels when she read the book in 1816, shortly before beginning Frankenstein.36
At the same time, just as surely as Eve's moral deformity is symbolized by the monster's physical malformation, the monster's physical ugliness represents his social illegitimacy, his bastardy, his namelessness. Bitchy and dastardly as Shakespeare's Edmund, whose association with filthy femaleness is established not only by his devotion to the material/maternal goddess Nature but also by his interlocking affairs with those filthy females Goneril and Regan, Mary Shelley's monster has also been "got" in a "dark and vicious place." Indeed, in his vile illegitimacy he seems to incarnate that bestial "unnameable" place. And significantly, he is himself as nameless as a woman is in patriarchal society, as nameless as unmarried, illegitimately pregnant Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin may have felt herself to be at the time she wrote Frankenstein.
"This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good," Mary commented when she learned that it was the custom at early dramatizations of Frankenstein to place a blank line next to the name of the actor who played the part of the monster.37 But her pleased surprise was disingenuous, for the problem of names and their connection with social legitimacy had been forced into her consciousness all her life. As the sister of illegitimate and therefore nameless Fanny Imlay, for instance, she knew what bastardy meant, and she knew it too as the mother of a premature and illegitimate baby girl who died at the age of two weeks without ever having been given a name. Of course, when Fanny dramatically excised her name from her suicide note Mary learned more about the significance even of insignificant names. And as the stepsister of Mary Jane Clairmont, who defined herself as the "creature" of Lord Byron and changed her name for a while with astonishing frequency (from Mary Jane to Jane to Clara to Claire), Mary knew about the importance of names too. Perhaps most of all, though, Mary's sense of the fearful significance of legitimate and illegitimate names must have been formed by her awareness that her own name, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was absolutely identical with the name of the mother who had died in giving birth to her. Since this was so, she may have speculated, perhaps her own monstrosity, her murderous illegitimacy, consisted in her being—like Victor Frankenstein's creation—a reanimation of the dead, a sort of galvanized corpse ironically arisen from what should have been "the cradle of life."
This implicit fantasy of the reanimation of the dead in the monstrous and nameless body of the living returns us, however, to the matter of the monster's Satanic, Sin-ful and Eve-like moral deformity. For of course the crimes that the monster commits once he has accepted the world's definition of him as little more than a namelessly "filthy mass" all reinforce his connection with Milton's unholy trinity of Sin, Eve/Satan, and Death. The child of two authors (Victor Frankenstein and Mary Shelley) whose mothers have been stolen away by death, this motherless monster is after all made from dead bodies, from loathsome parts found around cemeteries, so that it seems only "natural" for him to continue the Blakeian cycle of despair his birth began, by bringing further death into the world. And of course he brings death, in the central actions of the novel: death to the childish innocence of little William (whose name is that of Mary Shelley's father, her half-brother, and her son, so that one can hardly decide to which male relative she may have been alluding); death to the faith and truth of allegorically named Justine; death to the legitimate artistry of the Shelleyan poet Clerval; and death to the ladylike selflessness of angelic Elizabeth. Is he acting, in his vile way, for Mary Shelley, whose elegant femininity seemed, in view of her books, so incongruous to the poet Beddoes and to literary Lord Dillon? "She has no business to be a woman by her books," noted Beddoes. And "your writing and your manners are not in accordance," Dillon told Mary herself. "I should have thought of you—if I had only read you—that you were a sort of . . . Sybil, outpouringly enthusiastic . . . but you are cool, quiet and feminine to the last degree. . . . Explain this to me."38
Could Mary's coolness have been made possible by the heat of her monster's rage, the strain of her decorous silence eased by the demonic abandon of her nameless monster's ritual fire dance around the cottage of his rejecting "Protectors"? Does Mary's cadaverous creature want to bring more death into the world because he has failed—like those other awful females, Eve and Sin—to win the compassion of that blind and curiously Miltonic old man, the Godlike musical patriarch De Lacey? Significantly, he is clinging to the blind man's knees, begging for recognition and help—"Do not you desert me in the hour of trial!"—when Felix, the son of the house, appears like the felicitous hero he is, and, says the monster, "with supernatural force [he] tore me from his father .. . in a transport of fury, he dashed me to the ground and struck me violently with a stick . . . my heart sank within me as with bitter sickness" (119, chap. 15). Despite everything we have been told about the monster's physical vileness, Felix's rage seems excessive in terms of the novel's overt story. But as an action in the covert plot—the tale of the blind rejection of women by misogynistic/Miltonic patriarchy—it is inevitable and appropriate. Even more psychologically appropriate is the fact that having been so definitively rejected by a world of fathers, the monster takes his revenge, first by murdering William, a male child who invokes his father's name ("My papa is a syndic—he is M. Frankenstein—he will punish you") and then by beginning a doomed search for a maternal, female principle in the harsh society that has created him.
In this connection, it begins to be plain that Eve's—and the monster's—motherlessness must have had extraordinary cultural and personal significance for Mary Shelley. "We think back through our mothers if we are women," wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own.39 But of course one of the most dramatic emblems of Eve's alienation from the masculine garden in which she finds herself is her motherlessness. Because she is made in the image of a man who is himself made in the image of a male creator, her unprecedented femininity seems merely a defective masculinity, a deformity like the monster's inhuman body.40 In fact, as we saw, the only maternal model in Paradise Lost is the terrifying figure of Sin. (That Eve's punishment for her sin is the doom of agonized maternity—the doom of painfully becoming no longer herself but "Mother of Human Race"—appears therefore to seal the grim parallel.) But all these powerful symbols would be bound to take on personal weight and darkness for Shelley, whose only real "mother" was a tombstone—or a shelf of books—and who, like all orphans, must have feared that she had been deliberately deserted by her dead parent, or that, if she was a monster, then her hidden, underground mother must have been one too.
For all these reasons, then, the monster's attitude toward the possibility (or impossibility) of finding a mother is unusually conflicted and complex. At first, horrified by what he knows of the only "mother" he has ever had—Victor Frankenstein—he regards his parentage with loathing. Characteristically, he learns the specific details of his "conception" and "birth" (as Mary Shelley may have learned of hers) through reading, for Victor has kept a journal which records "that series of disgusting circumstances" leading "to the production of [the monster's] . . . loathsome person."41 Later, however, the ill-fated miniature of Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein, Victor's "angel mother," momentarily "attract[s]" him. In fact, he claims it is because he is "forever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow" that he resolves to implicate Justine in the murder of William. His reproachful explanation is curious, though ("The crime had its source in her; be hers the punishment"), as is the sinister rape fantasy he enacts by the side of the sleeping orphan ("Awake, fairest, thy lover is near—he who would give his life but to obtain one look of affection from thine eyes" [127-28, chap. 16]). Clearly feelings of rage, terror, and sexual nausea, as well as idealizing sentiments, accrete for Mary and the monster around the maternal female image, a fact which explains the later climactic wedding-night murder of apparently innocent Elizabeth. In this fierce, Miltonic world, Frankenstein says, the angel woman and the monster woman alike must die, if they are not dead already. And what is to be feared above all else is the reanimation of the dead, specifically of the maternal dead. Perhaps that is why a significant pun is embedded in the crucial birth scene ("It was on a dreary night of November") that, according to Mary Shelley, rose "unbidden" from her imagination. Looking at the "demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life," Victor remarks that "A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch" (43, chap. 5). For a similarly horrific (and equally punning) statement of sexual nausea, one would have to go back to Donne's "Loves Alchymie" with its urgent, misogynistic imperative: "Hope not for minde in women; at their best / Sweetnesse and wit, they are but / Mummy possest."
Interestingly, the literary group at Villa Diodati received a packet of books containing, among other poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's recently published "Christabel," shortly before Mary had her monster-dream and began her ghost story. More influential than "Loves Alchymie"—a poem Mary may or may not have read—"Christabel'"s vision of femaleness must have been embodied for the author of Frankenstein not only in the witch Geraldine's withered side and consequent self-loathing ("Ah! What a stricken look was hers!") but also in her anxiety about the ghost of Christabel's dead mother ("Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!") and in Christabel's "Woe is me / She died the hour that I was born." But even without Donne's puns or Coleridge's Romanticized male definition of deathly maternity, Mary Shelley would have absorbed a keen sense of the agony of female sexuality, and specifically of the perils of motherhood, not just from Paradise Lost and from her own mother's fearfully exemplary fate but also from Wollstonecraft's almost prophetically anxious writings.
Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1797), which Mary read in 1814 (and possibly in 1815) is about, among other "wrongs," Maria's search for her lost child, her fears that "she" (for the fantasied child is a daughter) may have been murdered by her unscrupulous father, and her attempts to reconcile herself to the child's death. In a suicide scene that Wollstonecraft drafted shortly before her own death, as her daughter must have known, Maria swallows laudanum: "her soul was calm . . . nothing remained but an eager longing . . . to fly . . . from this hell of disappointment. Still her eyes closed not. . . . Her murdered child again appeared to her . . . [But] 'Surely it is better to die with me, than to enter on life without a mother's care!'"42 Plainly, Frankenstein's pained ambivalence toward mothers and mummies is in some sense a response to Maria's agonized reaching—from beyond the grave, it may have seemed—toward a daughter. "Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!" It is no wonder if Coleridge's poem gave Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley bad dreams, no wonder if she saw Milton's "Mother of Human Race" as a sorrowful monster.
Though Frankenstein itself began with a Coleridgean and Miltonic nightmare of filthy creation that reached its nadir in the monster's revelation of filthy femaleness, Mary Shelley, like Victor Frankenstein himself, evidently needed to distance such monstrous secrets. Sinful, motherless Eve and sinned-against, daughterless Maria, both paradigms of woman's helpless alienation in a male society, briefly emerge from the sea of male heroes and villains in which they have almost been lost, but the ice soon closes over their heads again, just as it closes around those two insane figure-skaters, Victor Frankenstein and his hideous offspring. Moving outward from the central "birth myth" to the icy perimeter on which the novel began, we find ourselves caught up once more in Walton's naive polar journey, where Frankenstein and his monster reappear as two embattled grotesques, distant and archetypal figures solipsistically drifting away from each other on separate icebergs. In Walton's scheme of things, they look again like God and Adam, Satanically conceived. But now, with our more nearly complete understanding of the bewildered and bewildering perspective Mary Shelley adopted as "Milton's daughter," we see that they were Eve and Eve all along.
Nevertheless, though Shelley did manage to still the monster's suffering and Frankenstein's and her own by transporting all three from the fires of filthy creation back to the ice and silence of the Pole, she was never entirely to abandon the sublimated rage her monster-self enacted, and never to abandon, either, the metaphysical ambitions Frankenstein incarnated. In The Last Man she introduced, as Spark points out, "a new, inhuman protagonist," PLAGUE (the name is almost always spelled entirely in capitals), who is characterized as female and who sees to it that "disaster is no longer the property of the individual but of the entire human race."43 And of course PLAGUE'S story is the one that Mary claims to have found in the Sibyl's cave, a tale of a literally female monster that was merely foreshadowed by the more subdued narrative of "The Modern Prometheus."
Interestingly, PLAGUE'S story ends with a vision of last things, a vision of judgment and of paradise nihilistically restored that balances Frankenstein's vision of first things. With all of humanity wiped out by the monster PLAGUE, just as the entire Frankenstein family was destroyed by Victor's monster, Lionel Verney, the narrator, goes to Rome, that cradle of patriarchal civilization whose ruins had seemed so majestically emblematic to both Byron and Shelley. But where Mary's husband had written of the great city in a kind of ecstasy, his widow has her disinherited "last man" wander lawlessly about empty Rome until finally he resolves, finding "parts of a manuscript . . . scattered about," that "I also will write a book . . . [but] for whom to read?—to whom dedicated? And then with silly flourish (what so capricious and childish as despair?) I wrote,
TO THE ILLUSTRIOUS DEAD
SHADOWS, ARISE, AND READ YOUR FALL
BEHOLD THE HISTORY OF THE LAST MAN.
His hostile, ironic, literary gesture illuminates not only his own career but his author's. For the annihilation of history may well be the final revenge of the monster who has been denied a true place in history: the moral is one that Mary Shelley's first hideous progeny, like Milton's Eve, seems to have understood from the beginning.
14See, for instance, Harold Bloom, "Afterword," Frankenstein (New York and Toronto: New American Library, 1965), p. 214.
15Author's introduction to Frankenstein (1817; Toronto, New York, London: Bantam Pathfinder Edition, 1967), p. xi. Hereafter page references to this edition will follow quotations, and we will also include chapter references for those using other editions. For a basic discussion of the "family romance" of literature, see Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence.
16Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 161.
17 Moers, Literary Women, pp. 95-97.
18 See Ralph Wardle, Mary Wollstonecraft (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1951), p. 322, for more detailed discussion of these attacks on Wollstonecraft.
19Muriel Spark, Child of Light (Hodleigh, Essex: Tower Bridge Publications, 1951), p. 21.
20 See Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947), esp. pp. 32-33, 47-49, 71-73, and 88-90, for the reading lists themselves. Besides reading Wollstonecraft's Maria, her Vindication of the Rights of Women, and three or four other books, together with Godwin's Political Justice and his Caleb Williams, Mary Shelley also read parodies and criticisms of her parents' works in these years, including a book she calls Anti-Jacobin Poetry, which may well have included that periodical's vicious attack on Wollstonecraft. To read, for her, was not just to read her family, but to read about her family.
21Marc A. Rubenstein suggests that throughout the novel "the act of observation, passive in one sense, becomes covertly and symbolically active in another: the observed scene becomes an enclosing, even womb-like container in which a story is variously developed, preserved, and passed on. Storytelling becomes a vicarious pregnancy." "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism 15, no. 2 (Spring 1976): 173.
22See Anne Finch, "The Introduction," in The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea, pp. 4-6, and Sylvia Plath, "The Moon and the Yew Tree," in Ariel, p. 41.
23Speaking of the hyperborean metaphor in Frankenstein, Rubenstein argues that Walton (and Mary Shelley) seek "the fantasied mother locked within the ice . . . the maternal Paradise beyond the frozen north," and asks us to consider the pun implicit in the later meeting of Frankenstein and his monster on the mer (or Mère) de Glace at Chamonix (Rubenstein "'My Accursed Origin,'" pp. 175-76).
24 See Moers, Literary Women, pp. 99.
25 In that summer of 1816 Byron had in fact just fled England in an attempt to escape the repercussions of his scandalous affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, the real-life "Astarte."
26 Matthew Arnold, "Preface" to Poems, 1853.
27 Spark, Child of Light, p. 134.
28 See Moers, Literary Women, "Female Gothic"; also Rubenstein, "'My Accursed Origin,'" pp. 165-166.
29The OED gives "obscenity" and "moral defilement" among its definitions of "filth."
30The monster's narrative also strikingly echoes Jemima's narrative in Mary Wollstonecraft's posthumously published novel, Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman. See Maria (1798; rpt. New York: Norton, 1975), pp. 52-69.
31Harold Bloom does note that "the monster is . . . Mary Shelley's finest invention, and his narrative . . . forms the highest achievement of the novel." ("Afterword" to Frankenstein, p. 219.)
32James Rieger, "Introduction" to Frankenstein, (the 1818 Text) (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974), p. xxx.
33In Western culture the notion that femaleness is a deformity or obscenity can be traced back at least as far as Aristotle, who asserted that "we should look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature." (The Generation of Animals, trans. A. L. Peck [London: Heinemann, 1943], p. 461.) For a brief but illuminating discussion of his theories see Katharine M. Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate.
34 See de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 156.
35Adrienne Rich, "Planetarium," in Poems: Selected and New (New York: Norton, 1974), pp. 146-48; Djuna Barnes, The Book of Repulsive Women (1915; rpt. Berkeley, Calif., 1976); Denise Levertov, "Hypocrite Women," Taste & See (New York: New Directions, 1965); Sylvia Plath, "In Plaster," Crossing the Water (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 16.
36 See Mary Shelley's Journal, p. 73.
37Elizabeth Nitchie, Mary Shelley (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p. 219.
38 See Spark, Child of Light, pp. 192-93.
39 Woolf, A Room, p. 79.
40In "The Deluge at Norderney," Isak Dinesen tells the story of Calypso, niece of Count Seraphina Von Platen, a philosopher who "disliked and mistrusted everything female" and whose "idea of paradise was . . . a long row of lovely young boys . . . singing his poems to his music." "Annihilated" by her uncle's misogyny, Calypso plans to chop off her own breasts with a "sharp hatchet." See Seven Gothic Tales, pp. 43-51.
41Marc Rubenstein speculates that as a girl Shelley may actually have read (and been affected by) the correspondence that passed between her parents around the time that she was conceived.
42Maria, p. 152.
43 Spark, Child of Light, p. 205.
44The Last Man, p. 339.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support