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Mary Shelley's Divine Tragedy

Essays in Literature 4 (1977), 182-97

Joseph H. Gardner


[{182}] When, in 1962, Mary Graham Lund announced that the two central themes of Frankenstein are "loneliness and intellectual curiosity," she established what has become the standard critical response to the novel.1 Almost all readers have, moreover, seen these two themes as intimately linked in a cause and effect relationship: intellectual curiosity leads to isolation, guilt and self-destruction.2 Yet despite its status as near consensus, such a reading presents at least three distinct problems. First, none of the novel's commentators ever addresses himself adequately to the question of how and why curiosity inevitably leads to loneliness and horror; rather they simply assume that social bliss grows out of willful ignorance. Second, the question becomes particularly important when one remembers that, paradoxically, both Walton and Frankenstein embark upon their respective quests for knowledge out of benevolent motives. Only one commentator has adequately noted the fact that Frankenstein's tragedy results from good intentions; however, even he can offer no explanation but simply labels it a "profound mystery."3 Moreover, if both Walton and Frankenstein are engaged in quests for knowledge, it is only the latter whose search results in the destruction of all human and social bonds: Walton feels himself alone from the very beginning. Finally, the standard reading slights one third of the novel's trio of major characters, the creature himself. That he is lonely cannot be denied, but his loneliness does not result from intellectual curiosity in the same manner as that of either Walton or Frankenstein. While in the course of his existence the creature acquires much knowledge, his intellectual activities hardly parallel those of an explorer or a scientist.

The present essay addresses itself to the question of how and why, in Mary Shelley's vision, intellectual curiosity leads to loneliness and despair. I concur in the standard reading by seeing all three major characters as engaged in two quests, the quest for knowledge on the one hand and the quest for sympathy and love on the other. What I shall attempt to demonstrate is that, given the theories of knowledge and sympathy embodied in the novel, these, two quests are inevitably and tragically antithetical. Mrs. Shelley's epistemology is explicitly empiricist, firmly based on a distinction between subject and object, the Me and the Not Me. Knowledge begins in the {183} recognition that, to quote Tennyson, "I am not what I see / And other than the things I touch." Sympathy, on the other hand, is presented in the novel as depending upon an obliteration of the subject/object dichotomy. It is the ability to see, imaginatively, the Not Me as Me. Hence knowledge obliterates sympathy, and sympathy is frustrated by knowledge. To recognize this necessary -- yet tragic -- antipathy not only helps clarify the pattern of the novel's action but also allows us to extend our speculations over the novel's other, and, I hope to show, related theme, Mary Shelley's "Miltonic" concern with the justice of God's creation of man, a concern stated explicitly in the novel itself and implicitly in its author's "Introduction."


For Walton and the creature, the quest for sympathy takes the form of an active search. For Frankenstein it is more indirect: his concern is not with seeking a friend so much as it is with protecting and preserving the love he had known in the family circle of his childhood. Sympathy, as presented in the novel, depends upon the obliteration of subject/object distinctions; it is the discovery of the self in the other, the Me in the Not Me and vice-versa. In his first letters from Russia Walton recognizes that the frost and snow surrounding him are emblematic of his inner state: "I have no friend."4 Walton looks for one who could "participate" in his joys and "sustain" him in dejection (p. 19). While fully aware that the odds for his ever finding such a friend in the frozen Arctic wastes are slight, Walton concludes in his letter a parable of the nature and meaning of the sympathy he seeks. Having himself an "intense distaste" for the usual brutality exercised by ship's officers over their crews, Walton is delighted to have found a ship's master who resembles himself in being "remarkable . . . for his gentleness and the mildness of his discipline" (p. 20). The master, it turns out, has, earlier in his career, not only released his former fiancée from her wedding contract but also deeded his own lands and fortune over to his rival, even going so far as to intercede with his beloved's father on the rival's behalf.

In its broadest outlines, the story of the ship's master clearly reinforces the accepted "moral" of the novel as a whole. The master is full of benevolence; he is also, we are explicitly told, "wholly uneducated" (p. 21). But the implications of the story extend beyond the obvious. Not only does the master show extreme sympathy for his rival, he also expresses his sympathy by seeing himself in his rival's place and by quite literally putting his rival in his. His overthrowing of the division between meum and teum symbolizes his obliteration of the distinction between self and other.5

Walton searches for a man "whose eyes would reply to mine" [Letter 2.2]. When he encounters Frankenstein on the frozen deep he quickly begins to love him "as a brother"; Frankenstein's seeming to return his sympathy leads him to use "the language of [his] heart to give utterance to the burning ardour of [his] soul": "I spoke of my desire of finding a friend, of my thirst for a more intimate sympathy with a fellow mind than had ever fallen to my lot, and expressed my conviction that a man could boast of little happiness who did not enjoy this blessing" (pp. 27-28). Frankenstein agrees, and it is the {184} sympathy that he feels for Walton, his ability to see his earlier self in the aspiring explorer, that prompts him to tell him his own story as a kind of cautionary tale.

Embedded in Frankenstein's narrative is the creature's tale, the story of an explicit search for sympathy. The creature's first experiences are of physical sensation: darkness and light, heat and cold, solidity and space. But his first steps toward self-consciousness are the emotional experiences of loneliness and fear. Certain sensations, however, give him pleasure. The rising moon fills him with delight and wonder, and even before he can distinguish their source, bird songs warm his heart. His response is to feel sympathy, a sense of unity with the birds. Barely able to distinguish the winged forms that intercept the light from his eyes, he tries to duplicate their singing. Failing that, his response continues to be sympathetic; he attempts to give voice to his own sensation in his own mode (pp. 103-04). Later, when he becomes aware of language, he views it first and foremost as a means of communicating sympathy. By eavesdropping on the DeLaceys, he learns that "these people possessed a method of communicating their experiences and feelings to one another by articulate sounds" [2.4.3]. He perceives that "the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers." Language is for him a "godlike science" which he endeavors to learn as quickly as possible in order to exploit its potential for evoking sympathy and helping him escape his inarticulate loneliness (p. 112).

From his watching the rising of the moon up through his encounters with the DeLaceys, the creature consistently approaches experience sympathetically. With equal consistency sympathy is shown to be an empathetic sense of unity between the self and the other, the Me and the Not Me. As the creature watches the cottagers, he enters almost literally into their lives: "when they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced, I sympathized in their joys" (p. 112). Most moving to him are expressions of sympathy between the DeLaceys themselves, as they strike a corresponding chord in his own inchoate longings. His potential for sympathy fed by his empathetic participation in the cottagers' lives, the creature feels his internal sense of unity expand to include ever larger and larger areas of experience. Nature itself becomes full of Wordsworthian "presences" in harmony and unity with the creature's soul. Even literature evokes a sympathetic response: as the creature listens to Felix reading from Volney's Ruins, he weeps over the "hapless fate" of the Amerindians (p. 119).

The creature's hopes of having his feelings of sympathy with the DeLaceys reciprocated are, of course, delusory and doomed. As his knowledge increases, his self-consciousness grows. Educated into "the strange system of human society" by listening to Felix's lectures to Sophie, the creature finds his sense of unity undercut by a growing awareness of his own otherness: "Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?" (p. 120). The question is answered by the "horror and consternation," the brutal violence with which Felix attacks him when he has revealed himself to old DeLacey (p. 135). Recognizing that he is "alone, miserably alone" (p. 100) and that his hopes for unity with mankind {185} are doomed by his fatal otherness, the creature comes to see his only chance for sympathy and happiness to lie in the creation of another being like himself, a female antitype sharing his own form and nature. The creature has, in other words, consciously learned that sympathy and love can exist only when the gap between the Me and the Not Me has been obliterated.

In its unrelenting exposition of the failure of sympathy, the creature's narrative is a long history of suffering that ends in tragedy. He himself is fully aware of the tragic inevitability of his fate, and it is he who explicitly states the novel's tragic theme. His attempts to evoke kindness and sympathy from mankind are necessarily doomed: "the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union" (p. 145).


In recounting his growth in self-awareness and self-consciousness, the creature remarks that "sorrow only increased with knowledge" (p. 120). Walton and Frankenstein could make the same observation, for they too are involved in the quest for knowledge, a quest which is, in Mrs. Shelley's tragic vision, necessarily antithetical to and destructive of the quest for sympathy. Walton's and Frankenstein's quests for knowledge are active and creative, but while the creature's search for knowledge is largely passive and by default, it is his narrative that provides the key to the novel's epistemology. That the creature is indeed created radically underscores the theory of knowledge assumed by the book. By the very nature of the case it can be nothing but empiricist. Manufactured, as it were ex nihili, with no genetic or racial heritage whatsoever, the creature, at the moment of his coming into life and consciousness, can be nothing but a tabula rasa whose mind must be formed by experience.6 "It is with considerable difficulty," he says, "that I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses" (p. 102). The creature's statement implies more than an awareness of the limitations of memory; indeed the creature's memory is paradoxically exact. If the mind is formed by experience, he who has experienced nothing, will have no mind; everything, including the perceiving consciousness, will be "confused and indistinct" [2.3.1]. Moreover, the creature is describing the exact moment of his coming into consciousness, and consciousness is, in Mrs. Shelley's system, above all self-consciousness, the perceiving self's awareness of itself as other than the objects it perceives. The creature's first awareness is a sense of unity, but everything is, again, "confused and indistinct." Unity paradoxically means nothingness; all things are no things. The first step in the creature's search for knowledge is the formation of the ability to make distinctions, first to distinguish between the senses, then between the objects of the senses, and, finally, to achieve the ultimate knowledge, the distinction between self and other.7

His sense of sympathetic unity with the birds and their singing has been mentioned earlier; of particular interest here is the subsequent episode in {186} which he discovers a still smouldering fire abandoned by some wandering beggars. The episode provides in miniature an outline of Mrs. Shelley's empiricist theories of the way in which the mind forms itself and grows into knowledge as it progresses from sensation to the formulation of simple and then, later, complex ideas. The creature begins by experiencing the warmth of the fire; he examines the materials of which it is composed, and, by observation and experimentation, ends in understanding the complex and abstract principles of its causality. But before he reaches the point of being able to understand the fire and use it, the creature incidentally acquires additional and crucial knowledge about it. When he first happens upon it, he is "overcome with delight" at the sensation of warmth the fire gives him: "In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain" (p. 104). The creature's first experience of the fire is purely subjective, the sensation of warmth it creates within him. The response of the unformed mind is, therefore, sympathetic; the warmth the creature experiences appears as an extension of and as in unity with its cause. The Me and the Not Me seem one. But when the creature sticks his hand into the embers, he immediately learns their objective otherness from himself. Hence the scene provides not only a miniature of the empiricist theory of knowledge but also a paradigm and foretaste of all the creature's subsequent experience. His encounter with the fire is his first dramatic lesson in the fact that -- to quote Tennyson again -- "I am not what I see / And other than the things I touch." In all his subsequent encounters with the Not Me, the creature is similarly "burned." The pattern, moreover, is consistent through the novel. The creature is forever reaching out sympathetically toward the Not Me, only to recoil in pain, frustration and rage at its empirical otherness.

Recognizing Mrs. Shelley's sense of the tragic inevitability of the antithesis between sympathy and knowledge requires, in turn, the reexamination of many of the novel's most celebrated passages and episodes, those in which the creature's painful encounters with mankind lead him to swear "eternal hatred and vengeance" to all the race (p. 141).8 Before recounting his experiences to Frankenstein, the creature tells him, "I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous" (p. 100). His narrative over, the creature returns to the same theme: "I am malicious because I am miserable" (p. 145). More is involved here than the mere assertion of Godwinian doctrine. For one thing, the creature himself is, at this point, fully conscious of both the nature and the tragic inexorability of his fate. After suggesting that should man live with him "in the interchange of kindness" [2.9.1] he would "bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude," the creature goes on to say, "But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union." Equally noteworthy is the fact that the creature continues in the same breath to outline the specific form his maliciousness will take: "if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear" [2.9.2]. If the human senses create "insurmountable barriers" to love, then the creature will make evil his good by the substitution of fear for sympathy, fear being the result of the recognition of otherness. Significantly the creature makes Frankenstein the direct focus of all the rage and desire for revenge his experiences have led him to feel toward all mankind. Given Mrs. {187} Shelley's pervading vision, that rage is more than simply perverted natural goodness. In its directly destructive form, it is the paradoxical expression of the creature's desire for sympathy and unity, his desire to reunite, through absorption, the Not Me with Me. By destroying Frankenstein, he may possess him.

The creature's rage and despair, his thirst for revenge, often bear overtones of an inverted, even perverse sexuality. It is, perhaps, inevitable that this should be so, the sexual act having traditionally served as the supreme symbol of unity between the Me and the Not Me, the obliteration of the separateness of self in ecstatic union with the other. The most intense pain accruing to the creature's growth in knowledge results from his awareness that sexual union is a fulfillment from which he is forever disbarred. In murdering little William, he attempts to bring about a closer unity with his creator by making them both alike in their isolation and loneliness. "I too can create desolation," he cries in exultation over William's corpse, but his attitude is softened by his gazing at the miniature of Frankenstein's mother he finds on his victim's breast. "I gazed with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips; but presently my rage returned; I remembered that I was forever deprived of the delights that such creatures could bestow . . ." (p. 143). Such is his state of mind when he encounters Justine sleeping in a nearby barn. "Here," he thinks, "is one of those whose joy-imparting smiles are bestowed on all but me"; and he addresses her with intensely morbid irony: "Awake, fairest, thy lover is near. . . ." When Justine stirs, the creature is overcome by fear of the rejection his loathsome otherness is bound to induce. His mind makes a sudden twist, a recoil of baffled desire into hatred and despair that he himself recognizes as madness: "not I, but she, shall suffer; the murder I have committed because I am forever robbed of all that she could give me, she shall atone. The crime had its source in her; be hers the punishment!" (pp. 143-44). Contemporary slang expresses it best: since the creature cannot have her, he will get her. To punish and destroy is to possess, and Justine's murder becomes her rape.

Immediately following his account of the encounter with Justine, the creature makes his demand that Frankenstein make another creature to be his companion. That the new creature is to be "of the same species and have the same defects" as himself reflects the creature's awareness of the barrier the senses erect against sympathy and love (p. 144). But the creature asks not simply for a "companion" but specifically for a mate, a female anti-type to himself. When Frankenstein destroys the unfinished female, the creature begins again systematically to exterminate all those Frankenstein holds dear, culminating his program with the murder of Elizabeth on her wedding-night. Again the psychology that lies behind the creature's actions ties together two closely related motives, both of them designed to make the union between the Me and the Not Me symbolically possible. On the one hand the creature would make Frankenstein like himself in his loneliness and desolation, while on the other he would possess him by destroying him. As will be discussed in more detail later, Frankenstein has always seen Elizabeth as a part of himself, his "possession" and "more than sister" [1.1.4]. To marry her would be to re-unite a part of Me-in-the-Not-Me with the Me. But the creature is also, paradoxically, {188} part of Frankenstein, the objective embodiment of his own imaginative dreams. In murdering Elizabeth, the creature both possesses her, gaining her for a mate while reducing Frankenstein to his own mateless misery, and, at the same time symbolically takes her place as the Me-in-the-Not-Me with which Frankenstein can be re-united. Hence the narrative pattern shifts immediately from the creature's pursuit of Frankenstein to Frankenstein's pursuit of the creature. In neither pursuit can either win. Were Frankenstein to destroy the creature, his own isolation and separateness would be complete; he would himself cease to exist. In destroying Frankenstein, the creature sees his own goals reduced to dust and ashes. Only one possibility remains. In Mrs. Shelley's tragic vision the self can be sympathetically joined to the other only in death. If the senses create insurmountable barriers to union, then union can be achieved only when the senses are obliterated. "He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish. . . . Light, feeling, and sense will pass away; and in this condition must I find my happiness," says the creature in his farewell remarks to Walton, as he announces his own impending suicide and explains its meaning (p. 222).


As noted earlier, the creature's memory of the "original era" of his being is paradoxically exact. Only on one point does it significantly fail him: Frankenstein's presence at his "birth" and his own subsequent appearance at Frankenstein's bedside. For Mrs. Shelley, for Frankenstein himself, and for seven generations of readers, these two initial encounters between the scientist and his "monster" have constituted the novel's supreme moments of horror.

In her "Introduction" to the "Standard Novels Edition" Mrs. Shelley recounts the celebrated tale of the inmates of Casa Diodati reading a French translation of a collection of German gothic tales and deciding to pass the time by trying their own hands at the genre. "I busied myself," she says, "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" (p. 262). Invita Minerva. Her attempts to think of a story proved fruitless until the germ of the novel came to her from listening to Shelley and Byron discuss galvanism and the possibility of embuing inert matter with life. Later, lying abed unable to sleep, her "unbidden" imagination presented her with "images that arose in [her] mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie":

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 endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. . . . 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.

{189} 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 . . .

Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others. . . . (pp. 9-10).

I will return to some elements in this passage later; what I wish to emphasize here is the extraordinary vividness of the vision and the intensity of the emotion it generated. Writing fifteen years after the fact, Mrs. Shelley not only remembers the details of the vision itself and of the conversation which triggered it, but also re-experiences (and effectively communicates) the terror she felt. She even recalls the precise look of the room in which she felt it, right down to her eerie awareness of the "glassy lake and white high Alps" beyond the closed shutters. Unquestionably some deep psychic nerve has been touched, evoking some deep, primal fear. Moreover, she immediately senses the possibility of something inevitable and universal in her horror. History has proved her premonition correct, and after one hundred and fifty-three years the book still speaks to "the mysterious fears of our nature" [Introduction 7]. Why? and to what "mysterious fears"? No one can deny that both the story's hold on the modern imagination and the centrality of its primary image as an archetype in and of the modern consciousness result from its symbolizing our deep seated ambiguity toward science and technology; and the significance of the popular tendency to confuse the scientist with his "monster" has been widely observed. But these are the fears of our culture, while Mrs. Shelley correctly saw her vision as speaking to the "mysterious fears of our nature." Why and how?

The answer lies in the extraordinary emphasis the passage places upon eyes and seeing, an emphasis which functions to underscore the fear aroused by the creature's odious and horrifying otherness. If all knowledge originates in sensory experience, then it is our eyes which teach us most. If all knowledge is the recognition of otherness, it is to the eyes that the terror of otherness is most apparent. Notice not only our universal tendency to express terror and fear in visual symbols, but also the particular ease with which the essential horror of otherness in Mrs. Shelley's tale is evoked by its translation into the direct visual media of drama and the film.

The creature does not remember his initial encounters with his creator because at the moments they occurred he had not yet acquired knowledge of the barrier of otherness that both separates him from his master and dooms his search for sympathy to inevitable failure. Conversely, Frankenstein's memory of that "dreary night of November" [1.4.1] is remarkably intense and follows closely upon Mrs. Shelley's initial vision, including a parallel emphasis on eyes and seeing. The moment when he sees "the dull yellow eye of the creature open" brings with it the tragic fulfillment of Frankenstein's quest for knowledge: his immediate and inescapable recognition of the creature's abhorrent otherness. For Frankenstein the horror of the recognition strikes even deeper than that felt by the author or the reader. He had begun his experiments in the desire to expand the bounds of scientific knowledge and to penetrate to the very heart of the unknown. Moreover, as noted earlier, he {190} is further motivated by the highest human and social benevolence. But Frankenstein not only desires to acquire knowledge and benefit mankind; he also seeks sympathy: "A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" (p. 54). Underlying the obvious irony of this passage is Frankenstein's attempt to merge the quest for knowledge with the quest for sympathy. Later when he gazes into the dull, watery eyes of the creature, his sudden knowledge of the being's otherness destroys any possibility of love between them. Frankenstein's shock of recognition of the creature's otherness is, moreover, doubly strong precisely because he is his own creation, his own imaginative construct suddenly embodied in concrete otherness. The imagination is a part of the Me and its constructs projections of the self. When they are given concrete form and embodiment, however, they take on an independent existence of their own, become part of the Not Me and the other. Frankenstein's "dream" had been of a creature of superlative beauty and excellent nature. Embodied in concrete otherness, the creature elicits only "horror and disgust" (p. 57). But if the act of creation is a process of separation, the creation of otherness, it does have its origins in the self. Frankenstein's horror, then, as he gazes into the eyes of his creation, also contains the additional burden of self-knowledge, the recognition of the self-as-other. Self-knowledge becomes self-alienation, and the novel's doppelganger theme, so often noted by its commentators, is set in motion. The creature however, at this early stage in the formation of his mind, knows nothing of this. For him self-knowledge (and hence self-loathing) will not occur until he sees himself reflected in a pool of water, a sight that convinces him that "I was in reality the monster that I am" and fills him with "the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification" (p. 114). When he descends to Frankenstein's bedroom and their eyes again meet, his actions express the unformed mind's sense of unity and sympathy; a grin wrinkles his cheeks, and he stretches out his hand in an attempt to establish physically the oneness he feels with his maker. To Frankenstein the gesture represents the threat of otherness, and he flees in fear and loathing, initiating that pattern of flight and pursuit in which pursuer and pursued change roles and directions so often as to become interchangeable, a pattern rightly seen as the attempt of the self to find and reunite itself. For Mrs. Shelley, the attempt is tragically doomed to failure; even the self can only know itself as other.

Between the creature's vivification and its appearance at Frankenstein's bedside, Frankenstein falls into a fitful sleep. However wildly improbable the action may be, it allows Mrs. Shelley to expand and reinforce her theme by one of the most remarkable passages in the novel:

. . . I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the graveworms crawling in the folds of the flannel. (p. 58)
{191} The most obvious function of the dream is to foreshadow the subsequent action of the plot, as Frankenstein's act of creation does lead directly and literally to Elizabeth's death. But clearly more is involved. Throughout the novel Elizabeth is presented as the ultimate goal in Frankenstein's search for sympathy. To Frankenstein himself she represents purity, beauty, love -- everything that is good, everything that the scientist would grasp to his soul. In his imaginative dream of constructing a being of great beauty and a "happy and excellent" [1.3.6] nature, Frankenstein is, as one commentator notes, attempting "to give form to the essence that is Elizabeth." But the creature turns out to be the essence of ugliness, and Elizabeth is doomed: "In striving to grasp Elizabeth, Frankenstein destroys her."9 This is perceptive commentary, but it is, I think, possible to build upon it and go beyond it in exploring the implications of the curious relationship between the scientist and his beloved. Frankenstein habitually refers to Elizabeth as his "cousin" and even as his "more than sister." Commentators generally have attributed this to "romantic" fascination with incest and let it go at that, leaving unexamined the significance of these overtones of incest to the novel itself. If sympathy depends upon seeing the Me in the Not Me or even the Not Me as Me, incest becomes the ultimate form of love since the Me and the Not Me are, as it were, most closely related, the nearest to being one. One notes that Frankenstein reinforces his sense of unity with Elizabeth by considering her almost as his most private personal possession. It is as if Elizabeth represents some integral, yet separate part of the self that Frankenstein would regain through total possession in marriage. In his dream, Frankenstein approaches Elizabeth with a kiss, but it is literally the kiss of death, and Elizabeth is transformed into the rotting corpse of Frankenstein's mother. The transformation both intensifies the incest theme while coating it with a grotesquely morbid irony which functions to underscore the inevitable conflict between sympathy and knowledge. In embodying his dream of beauty and excellence in the creature, Frankenstein has gained the knowledge of the creature's horrifying otherness, a knowledge that contains the self-alienating recognition of a part of himself as other. Accordingly his dream of beauty and goodness in Elizabeth as well as his dream of possessing her as part of himself is transformed into his knowledge of the horrible otherness of his dead parent. Earlier in his narrative, Frankenstein had characterized his mother's death as "an omen . . . of my future misery" (p. 42), his first radical exposure to the loss of sympathy imposed by the knowledge of otherness. Frankenstein describes his mother as one "whose very existence appeared a part of our own" but who has been suddenly "rent away" [1.2.2]. That which was considered a part of the Me has proved, empirically, that it is Not Me. Death is the supreme assertion of otherness -- an otherness so other that, paradoxically, it cannot be known: Frankenstein speaks of the "void" that death presents to the soul (p. 43). Having learned that death is the ultimate "reality" and the "most irreparable evil" (p. 43), Frankenstein travels to Ingolstadt where he devotes himself to unraveling the very secret of life itself. Hence on one of the novel's many levels, his efforts are to be seen as an attempt to repair the "irreparable evil" and regain the sympathy lost through his mother's death. But the attempt leads to the creation of the monster's {192} loathsome otherness and to the deaths of all the other members of Frankenstein's circle whose existences had seemed a part of his own. So in his dream his dead parent and his doomed fiancée become paradoxically, but appropriately, one.

Frankenstein's experiences on that dreary night in November are duplicated in Walton's voyage of discovery. In his first letter to his sister, Walton outlines his "daydreams" of finding an earthly paradise in the polar region which "ever presents itself to [his] imagination as the region of beauty and delight" (p. 15). In his brief career as a poet Walton had lived in what he calls "a Paradise of my own creation" [Letter 1.3], his own internal world of daydream and imagination. His vision of a polar paradise is similarly imaginative and inward, a part of the Me by which he defines himself and on which he predicates his actions. His journey accordingly becomes the attempt to find that part of himself externally in objective reality and unite himself with it. The attempt is doomed to failure. Objective reality is by definition "objective," other. To attempt to find the land of his subjective visions, to know it empirically, is to destroy the vision. Once experienced, the marvelous is no longer marvelous; the polar regions, once attained, no longer delight but only isolate and destroy. Commentators have noted but never bothered to explain the irony in Walton's statement that while he is journeying to "the land of mist and snow" he will kill no albatross (p. 21). In its broadest outlines, Coleridge's "Rime" is based on the concept of unity, the celebrated notion that we are all "One Life." The mariner's crime is a failure of sympathy; in denying the bird its life, he denies his own and is doomed to be the captive of Life-in-Death. Conversely his redemption occurs when, by a spontaneous gushing forth of sympathy, he is able to participate imaginatively in the watersnakes' joy in existence and re-establish a sense of unity with them and all creation. This, for Coleridge, is true knowledge, but Mrs. Shelley's epistemology makes such unity impossible.

Accordingly, she will take no sides in the modern debate between the two cultures. If Frankenstein devotes himself to science and "the physical secrets of the world," his friend Clerval turns to the study of literature and "the moral relations of things" (pp. 37-38). But neither can escape the tragic implications of the dichotomy between sympathy and knowledge. Frankenstein describes Clerval as "a being formed in the 'very poetry of nature'" [3.1.7]. Clerval himself speaks of the "spirit" of nature being in "harmony" with man, and his love of nature goes beyond even his highly developed "human sympathies." Indeed, Frankenstein can adequately characterize his friend only by quoting Wordsworth. Yet for all his sense of sympathetic "presences" in nature, Clerval, too, falls victim to the creature's otherness. Frankenstein's reflections on his friend's death are of particular significance. After sketching Clerval's character, Frankenstein ponders, "And where does he now exist?" The mind that formed the essence of Clerval's "gentle and lovely being" is gone forever and with it the vision of the world it created. In other words, Clerval's sense of the harmony between man and the spirit of nature is all in his head. His imagination may form a world, but, as Frankenstein acknowledges, it is a world "whose existence depended on the life of its creator" (pp. 156-57). It is also, therefore, a world outside the {193} realm of knowledge in which the sense of sympathy and harmony with nature collapses before nature's empirical otherness.

Nature in the novel is neither sympathetic nor hostile; it is merely indifferent. At various points in the action almost all the characters, from Clerval to the creature himself, experience a sympathetic response to nature, but in every case, their feelings of harmony and unity with the natural world turn out to be delusion. Indeed, the reader is hardly a third of the way through the novel before he begins to realize that whenever a character expresses joy or even comfort in the presence of nature, something terrible is going to happen on the next page. The Romantic sense of harmony between man and nature stemmed from the attempt to establish the mind as not a mere seismograph for the passive registering of sensation, but as an active co-partner in the process of knowledge. To do so required the cutting away of Cartesian predications of the duality of subject and object in order to arrive at a concept of "reason" that would enable it to transcend the empirical "understanding" and touch directly upon a reality which is the analogue or counterpart of the mind itself. Hence a Coleridge can see the human imagination as an active participant in the creative processes of nature; the Me and the Not Me are ultimately one. But for Mrs. Shelley, the Not Me, natural as well as human (and humanoid), is precisely Not Me -- other, different and indifferent.


In narrative structure Frankenstein resembles a series of Chinese boxes. Walton's letters contain Frankenstein's autobiography, which in turn encloses the creature's narrative. The very existence of the novel itself similarly suggests boxes within boxes. It is a creation within a creation that recounts a creation. Each creative act parallels and comments on all the others. Mary Shelley creates Frankenstein, and Frankenstein makes a creature who in turn, is much given to reflecting on the relationship between his own creation and that of his creator. These reflections take place inside the world of the novel where the creature's creator is Frankenstein and Frankenstein's creator is God. But their ultimate referent lies in the world outside the novel, in which Frankenstein's creator is Mary Shelley, and her creator is God. They point to the nature and meaning of the acts by which both Frankenstein and his creator, Mary Shelley, came into being. Viewed from this perspective, Frankenstein is not simply about the tragic and inevitable conflict between sympathy and knowledge. It is also about the creative process itself and, ultimately, man's relationship to God.10

As the creature reads the copy of Paradise Lost he has fortuitously found, he is quick to recognize the applicability of "Adam's supplication to his Creator" to himself (p. 131):

Did I request thee, Maker, from my Clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
[Paradise Lost 10.743-5]
Since the created does not will its own existence, the moral responsibility for {194} that existence rests entirely upon the creator who does. Frankenstein himself comes to this recognition. As he listens to the creature's narrative, he, "for the first time," comes to understand "what the duties of a creator towards his creature were": "I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness" (p. 102). To Harold Bloom, this is the true "moral" of the novel. Frankenstein's tragedy stems, he says, "not from Promethean excess, but from his own moral failure, his failure to love."11 But in the novel itself, such love is seen to be a tragic impossibility, impossible, ironically, precisely because of the very nature of the creative act itself.

As noted earlier, Frankenstein creates out of the highest motives of human and social benevolence. He also creates as a response to his own loneliness, his sense of loss after his mother's death, and he creates out of his desire for sympathy and love. In her "Introduction" Mrs. Shelley implies that similar motives lie at the heart of literary creation as well. She begins the "Introduction" by recounting the loneliness of a childhood spent on the "blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay." Her response was to write stories in which process "I was not confined to my own identity, and I could people the hours with creations far more interesting to me . . . than my own sensations" (p. 6). Creation not only serves to assuage loneliness, it also provides an escape from the self as one imaginatively flees isolated self-consciousness by projecting one's self into a self-created alternative existence. (One recalls the doppelganger motif within the novel itself by which the creature becomes the projection of parts of Frankenstein's own selfhood.) God creates out of the same motives, the desire to people His loneliness and the desire to win the love and praise of His creatures. Creation is also for Him a process of imaginative self-projection; man is created after His own image.

But the act of creation is, necessarily, an act of separation. If it begins within the self, it ends with the establishment of something outside of and other than the self. The Me can only know even its own creations as the Not Me, and love and sympathy between creator and creature become impossible. "I ought to be thy Adam," says the creature to his maker, "but I am rather the fallen angel whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed" (p. 100). The creature's distinction between Adam and Satan is dramatically appropriate, but mistaken. In Mrs. Shelley's vision of the divine tragedy of Creation, angel and man are caught in the same tragic predicament: the inability of love to withstand the knowledge of otherness. Even Frankenstein himself recognizes that he too is both Adam and Satan. "The apple was already eaten," he says in reference to his awareness of his isolation, his otherness from Elizabeth (p. 189), and "like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence," he too is "chained in an eternal hell" (p. 211). Viewed in the terms predicated by the structure of the novel itself, Satan's revolt becomes not so much the result of pride and envy, the aspiration for omnipotence, as it is the expression of a baffled and frustrated love, the refusal to accept the knowledge of otherness from God. Non serviam. Such a refusal, however, only leads to increased separation, as Satan is driven from heaven and Adam from paradise. (Satan, like the creature, seeks company in his misery.) In his own way Frankenstein duplicates Satan's revolt by attempting to be like God. Bloom remarks that {195} Frankenstein breaks through "the barrier that separates man from God and apparently becomes the giver of life, but all he can actually give is death-in-life."12 For Mrs. Shelley the same is true of God Himself. After his rejection by the DeLaceys, the creature says, "I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me" (p. 136), but all creation bears its own hell, hell being the knowledge of the separateness and inescapable isolation of the self. Bloom notes Kierkegaard's remark that Satan's despair is absolute, because "Satan as pure spirit is pure consciousness, and for Satan . . . every increase in consciousness is an increase in despair."13 In Mary Shelley's vision all men are in Satan's predicament, since consciousness is the knowledge of the self's isolation.

In Paradise Lost it is, of course, Christ who bridges the gap between creator and creation and allows man to become reunited with God. But there is no Christ, or even Christ-figure in Frankenstein. Man simply lives in the wasteland of the isolated consciousness. Frankenstein's mother may die in the hope of being reunited with her family, but for her son her death presents only the "void" created by its radical assertion of "irreparable" otherness (p.43). After his initial encounter with his creation, Frankenstein wanders out into the "dismal and wet" dawn and finds himself standing before the white steeple of the church of Ingolstadt. All it reveals to his "sleepless and aching eyes" is its clock, meaninglessly measuring out eternity (p. 59). Frankenstein's sense of himself as "a blasted tree," a "miserable spectacle of wretched humanity" (p. 160), expresses his creator's vision of the human condition in a world in which love fails and Christ does not appear. Hence the primal horror of her initial vision of "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together." Horrible it must be, "for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world" (p. 9). More is involved than Faustian presumption. Since God's creation is inherently tragic, any attempt to duplicate it only redoubles the divine tragedy, as the creature's experience amply proves.

In the wasteland world the novel depicts, the creature's Satanic response becomes the only one available: "Evil thenceforth became my good" (p. 220). Short of death, the creature cannot close the door upon experience, but every increase in consciousness is a stab of pain. Bearing his own hell within him, the creature declares "ever-lasting war" against "him who had formed me and sent me forth to this insupportable misery" (p. 136). Implicit in the creature's statement is Mrs. Shelley's sense of the analogue between his situation and that of mankind itself. Again we are forced to reassess received opinion about the meaning of the novel. I cite Palmer and Dowse as representative. "The monster," they say, "is man, born to good, but twisted to evil when his benevolent aspirations are thwarted and frustrated." Frankenstein thus dramatizes "the liberal rationalist's belief in man's innate goodness and his ability to improve and control the conditions in which his natural tendency to good can flourish."14 Not quite. Man may be born good, but it is the inevitable processes of knowledge and the formation of self-consciousness that thwart and frustrate him, making evil his only good. The creature may say "I am malicious because I am miserable," but he goes {196} on to say that misery is his, and by implication mankind's, inevitable condition because of the "insurmountable barriers" erected by the "human senses" to sympathy and love (p. 145). Moreover, as noted earlier, to war with the Creator is both to refuse the fact of separation and to attempt to obliterate the otherness of the Not Me by destroying and consuming it. Clearly it is a war which neither side can win.

The despair is absolute since all creative acts, even literary, are acts of separation. Consider the curious paragraph coming near the end of the 1831 "Introduction":

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. (p. 10).
While the book is Mrs. Shelley's progeny, the outgrowth of her own selfhood and experiences, it now has an objective existence independent of its creator. It must go its own separate way to become part of the experience of its readers, whose otherness is explicitly recognized. The progeny is hideous, but it is the offspring of happy days. Precisely when her life seemed filled with sympathy and love she conceived her hideous progeny, suggesting that underneath the happiness lay a deep sense of isolation, an awareness of the "insurmountable barriers" that make the union of the Me with the Not Me impossible. In this sense her vision of "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together" is nothing more or nothing less than the analogue of her husband's sudden and equally horrifying vision of his wife, nude to the waist, her nipples transformed into two large, staring eyes.15

But perhaps even more disturbing is the most bizarre and morbid irony in the biographical matrix out of which the novel grew. The analogy between artistic creation and childbirth is built into our language and consciousness; in both a part of the Me is given objective existence as the Not Me. Frankenstein was not Mary Shelley's only "progeny"; her letters from the period in which the novel was being written are filled with loving, even doting references to her own "little Willmouse." Yet when she came to choose the first victim for the creature's loathsome otherness, she made him a young child and named him after her own son. The brutal murder of little William is her most blood-curdling cry of terror and despair, and we are left, in a sense, where her "Introduction" begins, with the question of how so young a woman "came to think of and dilate upon so very hideous an idea" (p. 5).


1. "Mary Godwin Shelley and The Monster," University of Kansas City Review, 28 (1962), 253.

2. See, e.g., M. A. Goldberg, "Moral and Myth in Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein," Keats-Shelley Journal, 8 (1959), 27-38; D. J. Palmer and R. E. Dowse, "'Frankenstein': A Moral Fable," The Listener, 68 (1962) 281-284; Lowery Nelson, Jr., "Night Thoughts on the Gothic Novel," Yale Review, 52 (1963), 236-57; and P. D. Fleck, "Mary Shelley's Notes to Shelley's Poems and Frankenstein, " Studies in Romanticism, 6 (1967), 226-54. Wilfred Cude's "Mary Shelley's Modern Prometheus: A Study in the Ethics of Scientific Creativity," Dalhousie Review, 52 (1972), 212-25, provides a variation on the theme by seeing the novel as exemplifying society's tendency to turn a potentially useful discovery into an instrument of horror and destruction. L. J. Swingle seems to be the only dissenter. In "Frankenstein's Monster and Its Romantic Relatives: Problems of Knowledge in English Romanticism," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 15 (1973), 51-65, Swingle simply throws up his hands at any and all attempts to find an explicit, authorially endorsed moral in the novel.

3. Christopher Small, Ariel Like a Harpy -- Shelley, Mary and Frankenstein (London: Victor Gollancz, 1972), pp. 65-66.

4. Mary W. Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 19. All subsequent references, included parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.

5. While one is always suspicious of attempts to read Mary Shelley's novel simply as an appendage to (or gloss upon) her husband's works, the parallels between the concept of sympathy dramatized in Frankenstein and that expressed in Shelley's "Essay on Love" are too striking not to be mentioned at least in a note.

6. Burton R. Pollin has traced Mrs. Shelley's sources to Locke's Essay on Human Understanding, Condillac's Traité des sensations, and Diderot's Lettre Sur les aveugles: "Philosophical and Literary Sources of Frankenstein, " Comparative Literature, 17 (1965), 97-108. My concern is not with the sources of Mrs. Shelley's epistemology, revealing though they be (especially the Traité des sensations with its central figure of an animated statue). Rather it is with that epistemology itself as directly embodied in the book.

7. After seeing a dramatization of her novel in 1823, Mrs. Shelley expressed concern over the mangling of the plot, but praised T. P. Cooke's impersonation of the creature. Particularly impressive was his representation of a mind in the process of formation; Mrs. Shelley applauded "his seeking as it were for support -- his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard." The Letters of Mary W. Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1944), I, 256.

8. The encounter with young William serves to reinforce the theme of the necessary conflict between knowledge and sympathy. Not knowing that William is Frankenstein's brother, the creature approaches him in the hope that the innocent youth will be untainted by adult prejudice and will not have "imbibed a horror of deformity." William's response shows the issue to be not socially induced fears and prejudices, but the necessary and inevitable functions of the mind to recognize (and fear) otherness: "As soon as he beheld my form, he placed his hands before his eyes and uttered a shrill scream" (p. 142).

9. Fleck, pp. 248-49.

10. In "Frankenstein: Mary Shelley's Black Theodicy," Southern Humanities Review, 3 (1969), 146-53, Milton Mays also discusses the novel's Miltonic concern with the justice of God's ways to man. His argument and mine overlap at certain points, but only at certain points. Mays notes various allusions to Paradise Lost in Frankenstein, then contrasts the novel with the poem, while my attempt will be to remain entirely within the vision embodied in the novel and to consider the Miltonic allusions accordingly. Mays says, e.g., that the creature adopts evil as his good because he is "an outcast from life's feast," whereas Satan is motivated by "pride and ambition" (p. 152). This may be true if one stands outside each of the two discrete works. But viewed solely from within Mrs. Shelley's vision, Satan's motivation and the creature's are one.

11. "Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus," Partisan Review, 32 (1965), 614.

12. Ibid., p. 617.

13. Ibid.

14. J. Palmer and R. J. Dowse, p. 284.

15. Newman Ivey White, Shelley (New York: Knopf, 1940), I, 443-44.