Contents Index

Fire and Ice in Frankenstein

Andrew Griffin

In The Endurance of "Frankenstein": Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: Univ. of California Press, 1979).

{49} As heat and cold are among our most primitive bodily sensations, so fire and ice form a part of the primitive language of the mind. In The Psychoanalysis of Fire Gaston Bachelard even suggests that thought itself arose in reveries before the fire, taking as its first object fire itself, "the first phenomenon."1 Fire has served man for centuries (doubtless for many millennia) not just to warm his house and cook his food but to explain his world as well, and in particular those aspects of his world that live and change. To the prescientific and poetic mind that Bachelard analyzes, fire is life and change, "the ultra-living element," and as such has been confidently located in the sky, deep in the earth, in everything that moves, grows, alters its shape, reproduces itself. Fire is thus "one of the principles of universal explanation," both good and bad. "It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell."2 But nowhere is it more confidently located, or more necessary to thought and discourse, than in the very seat of life, the inner world of human feeling. For all the intimate sensations we experience directly and daily -- intestinal, libidinal, but most of all emotional -- there seems to exist no language but metaphor and no metaphor so apt as this of vital fire or fiery life, glowing or smoldering, flaring up or blazing out, as we love and hate.

Ice has yet to find its phenomenologist. The Eskimo language may have more than forty words for ice, but to most of us ice seems, in contrast to fire, essentially fixed and dead. It is precisely in contrast to fire, however -- in its essential fixity and uniformity -- that ice finds its imaginative meaning. For unlike water (which, {50} though it puts fire out, rather resembles fire in its fluidity and formlessness and is, like fire, often used to represent the "life" of the feelings) ice opposes or negates fire, cooling what is hot, solidifying what is fluid, arresting motion, silencing sound. Ice opposes and suppresses life and change; it is repression and death. In the inner world of the emotions, it blights and kills what was warm and blooming, seals up and freezes over even the most volcanic passions. Its killing numbness may, of course, be welcome, bringing relief from all feelings except (in Keats's phrase about the solaces of December) "the feel of not to feel it."

To the Victorian imagination, anxious for clear alternatives in a confusing world, the polarities of fire and ice often proved irresistible. When Jane Eyre opens by placing its small heroine between warm red and cold white realms, we understand at once that her problem will be to avoid both the blaze of strong feeling and the frozen stillness of no feeling at all. She will seek instead a moderate and human warmth, a controlled burning, symbolized throughout the novel (and the period) by that most Victorian of symbols, the domestic hearth.

To the Romantic imagination, however, there is little comfort and less interest in hard edges and hard choices -- and little to be said for the hearth. In the Romantic universe extremes meet, contraries are reconciled and even fused. Frankenstein begins with Walton's dream of a tropical paradise at the North Pole, and his Romantic vision in turn introduces Frankenstein's dream of the vital fire or "spark" interpenetrating and animating matter otherwise cold and dead. Both visions recall Coleridge's enthusiasm for the reconciliation of elements opposed or different in kind, whether in nature or in art: external with internal, intellectual with emotional, conscious with unconscious, matter with spirit, "the FREE LIFE and the confining FORM," not to mention fire and ice.3

But Mary Shelley, though intellectually a Romantic, seems almost a Victorian at heart. Her novel never questions the reality and the power of Romantic reconciliations -- Frankenstein's quest is {51} successful, nor are we sure that Walton's would have failed. But it does expose the disregard for simple human needs that seems inseparably a part of all Romantic exploration. Frankenstein's Prometheanism is more and more clearly revealed as obsessive and inhuman, the cause of much suffering and many deaths. More profoundly, Frankenstein betrays the conviction that a knowledge of the principles of life gives us no cause to rejoice: that the elements mixed in man make for disharmony, monstrosity, and tragedy. Frankenstein's creation is a monster, after all, sublime only in his Dantean ugliness. The Monster's narrative reveals a conservative distrust of Romantic extremes, a Victorian longing for security, society, and self-command, symbolized (as in Jane Eyre) by the domestic hearth. Only when he loses all hope of companionship does he run, as it were, to extremes: first to fire; next, in bitterness of heart, to cold and ice; finally, in a condition of almost philosophical despair, to a "Romantic" synthesis of both in his dramatic suicide-by-fire at the North Pole.

On this cruel and significant irony the novel closes. The Monster's last act realizes Walton's visionary goal, but in such a way as to parody and protest against the contradictions in existence. With mixed feelings, Walton sails for home, away from the world of Romantic poetry, toward the native regions of the Victorian novel, a temperate zone where one can tell hot from cold and where, for better or for worse, human relations flourish.


This is not to say that the Victorian universe is necessarily a simpler or a tamer place than the Romantic, or that it offers less scope for daring and significant action. Jane Eyre is, in her own way and her own world, as adventurous and as imaginative as Walton or Frankenstein, and as ready as they to commit herself to the unknown. Coldly dismissed from the Reed family fireside in her story's opening chapter, Jane takes refuge in an imagined cold deeper than this cruel rejection, a dim vision of "death-white realms" derived from Bewick's History of British Birds, especially those pages
which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; of "the solitary rocks and promontories" by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway {52} studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape. . . . Nor could I pass unnoticed the suggestion of the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with "the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space, -- that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigors of extreme cold."4
Here is an epic roll-call of the coldest and loneliest places on earth, in all their frigid glamor. But here is also, still more powerfully, both a concentration and a vast expansion of the idea of the Far North, the idea of ice itself. Bewick's vision of the ice-cap extends and perfects itself in every dimension, including that of time: accumulated through "centuries of winters," thickly overspreading "the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone," deepening into a "reservoir of frost," soaring into "Alpine heights above heights," the whole massively "concentrated" on the axis of the pole.

This is not the language of geography but of romance and fantasy. To Jane, sadly enough, the Arctic Zone is a romance, "as interesting as the tales Bessie sometimes narrated on winter evenings" beside the nursery-hearth, "passages of love and adventure."

With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy; happy at least in my way. I feared nothing but interruption. . . . [p. 5]
It is disturbing to find in a child of ten what Wallace Stevens calls "a mind of winter," more at home in "forlorn regions of dreary space" than in Gateshead. In the beginning Jane is both pathetic and perverse; her tastes are morbid, her fantasies suicidal. But she is not allowed to linger long in the indulgence of neurotic pleasures. Reaction must follow, a reaction away from ice and toward fire. The interruption Jane has dreaded arrives in the person of Master John Reed, whose petty tyrannies strike an unexpected spark from the passive little girl; she rebels, strikes back, and is imprisoned, "an infantile Guy Fawkes" (p. 24). Soon afterwards she turns her newfound heat of feeling on John Reed's frigid mother, vanquishing her too.

The short-term results of her rebellion are mixed; victory over {53} Mrs. Reed in particular brings a "fierce pleasure" but, on its heels, a black desolation.

A ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring, would have been a meet emblem of my mind when I accused and menaced Mrs. Reed: the same ridge, black and blasted after the flames are dead, would have represented as meetly my subsequent condition. . . . [p. 37]
In the long term, however, the results are positive: Jane's explosion brings about her release from Gateshead. And before she leaves, she makes some progress toward controlling (not repressing) her fire, exploring her emotions and turning them to some use. On the day of her fateful interview with Brocklehurst, she goes to the window and gazes out on the wintry landscape. It is mid-January and the countryside lies "still and petrified under the influence of a hard frost." But Jane no longer seeks the anesthesia of cold.

I fell to breathing on the frost-flowers with which the window was fretted, and thus clearing a space in the glass through which I might look out on the grounds. . . .

From this window were visible the porter's lodge and the carriage road, and just as I had dissolved so much of the silver-white foliage veiling the panes, as left room to look out, I saw the gates thrown open and a carriage roll through. [pp. 28-29]

This delicate melting of the frost-flowers is a human use of human warmth, opening a loophole on the world. It also seems to bring on, as if by sympathetic magic, a dissolving of more meaningful barriers, as the gates of Gateshead open to admit the carriage bearing Jane's future. Before she goes downstairs to meet Brocklehurst, Jane opens the window on which she had been breathing to share her breakfast with "a hungry little robin" -- aligning herself with all warm-blooded creatures who would come in out of the cold.

The Gateshead chapters show Jane moving unsteadily but with increasing control toward the proper use of fire -- simultaneously, and significantly, abandoning not only her ice-fantasies but also fantasy itself. She does remain in danger from both extremes throughout her later career, being (in her own view) a creature of extremes, now frozen in "absolute submission," now "bursting . . . with volcanic vehemence" (p. 436). Thornfield exposes her to the mingled dangers and attractions of fire: Rochester's sexual heat {54} ("He rose and came towards me, and I saw his face all kindled, and his full falcon-eye flashing" [p. 295]) and Bertha Mason's pyromania. Moor House holds for Jane the cold magnetism of her handsome cousin St. John Rivers, with his marble profile, gemlike eye, and icy kiss. To Rochester and to Bertha, Jane opposes all the cold that is in her nature, skillfully cooling the ardor of the former and throwing cold water on the bedroom fire set by the latter. And to St. John Rivers' ice Jane opposes, of course, her warm feelings, never to be wholly numbed again: "I am cold," says St. John, "no fervour infects me," to which Jane stoutly replies, "Whereas I am hot, and fire dissolves ice" (p. 417). Throughout the novel Jane steers a wavering course between extremes, the domestic hearth her lodestar as well as her goal: a hearth of her own, for warmth and for cooking, symbolic too of safe or socially approved (married) sexuality.

Frankenstein begins much as Jane Eyre does, with a drive (literal, in this case) into the polar regions. Walton's narrative, framing the novel, is entirely Arctic; Victor's and the Monster's stories are set much of the time amid the peaks and glaciers of Frankenstein's native Switzerland, sometimes in the almost equally desolate landscape of northern Scotland, and -- finally -- in the Arctic again, where the lines of all three narratives converge. "The land of mist and snow," as Walton calls it, consciously quoting Coleridge, is thus before our eyes from the beginning and, intermittently but with powerful effect, until the end. For Walton, it is the object of an enthusiastic quest; for Victor, sometimes an end in itself and always, in some form, the background of his "unhallowed" work. Only for the Monster are the mountains and glaciers an unmixed evil, a place of exile.

But for Walton, unlike young Jane Eyre, the pure idea of ice and snow holds no attractions; he dreams instead of an impossible conjunction of hot and cold, a paradise at the heart of the polar snows. It is on this Romantic vision, not on the cold fact of the ice-floes proper, that the novel really opens. "I try in vain to be persuaded," he writes his sister, "that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation":

it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is forever visible, its broad disc {55} just skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There -- for with your leave, sister, I will put some trust in preceeding navigators -- there frost and snow are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe.5
Walton clearly realizes the surface improbability of his conviction. He writes self-consciously ("for with your leave, my sister") and even somewhat self-critically of his expedition: "there is a love for the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects, which hurries me out of the common pathways of men. . . ." (p. 231). He is fully conscious of his own ambivalence, sometimes carried forward by boyish enthusiasm, sometimes checked by serious misgivings:

It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart. . . . There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand. [pp. 15, 231]
But the same contradictions that trouble his mind have captured his imagination and lead him on; he is Romantic, where Jane is Victorian. She feels the tug of either extreme, in opposite directions; he knows that contraries combine somehow, somewhere, and so he travels north in search of the warm seas and relaxed living of the south.

Like much else in his journeying, this miraculous synthesis is Coleridgean. For Coleridge, both the poetic imagination and the Divine Hand reveal themselves "in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities."6 It is not the least of Kubla Khan's achievements to have united fire and ice in his pleasure dome ("It was a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice" -- one hemisphere reflecting the other, frozen cave inverting and mirroring sunny dome). "Frost at Midnight" ends with a related vision of antitheses reconciled: summer blends with winter in the speaker's loving prophecy, "tufts of snow" and {56} the "sunthaw" simultaneously affirmed in one harmonious vision of the living year.

But the interfusion of elemental contraries is Shelleyan too. For Percy Bysshe Shelley, life is love and both are fire, "the fire for which all thirst":

         that sustaining love
Which through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim. [Adonais, stanza 54; my italics]
In Prometheus Unbound it is the all-forgiving love of the fire-bringing Titan through which all things are renewed, "love, which is as fire" (III.iii.151) and which survives eons of Jupiter's implacable hatred, symbolized here by the freezing cold of the Caucasian alp to which Prometheus is chained. Prometheus' alp resembles Walton's polar paradise, only without the bliss. His vital fire exists in (tormented) opposition to the enveloping and invading ice:
The crawling glaciers pierce me with the spears
Of their moonfreezing crystals, the bright chains
Eat with their burning cold into my bones. [I.i.31-33]
Meanwhile, though Jupiter showers down his curses "like snow on herbless peaks," mankind still keeps the faith and "burns toward heaven with fierce reproach" an "unextinguished fire" of detestation for tyranny (III.i.5-l2).7 When at last the "retributive hour" arrives and Jupiter falls, Prometheus' vital heat dissolves his icy chains and kindles everything with love, first penetrating Panthea "like vaporous fire," then irradiating Asia, reaching as far as the frozen moon "with warmth of flame." {57} But Shelley is not always this Blakean. He is at least as likely to represent the conjunction of contraries as conflict-free, harmonious -- not melted and transformed by fire but filled with a marvelous light. Even in Prometheus Unbound we find visions of all the elements drawing together in harmony and interpenetrated by an effulgent light.8 "Mont Blanc" displays both kinds of conjunction, the violent and the peaceful, and seems to affirm both at once. Here, however, it is not Love but, more mysteriously and ominously, "Power" that animates and pervades all things, even the mountain world of ice and death:
Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,
Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
Of lightning through the tempest. [Lines 16-19]
It is astonishing how much raw energy this image of the torrent manages to harness. Born in the glaciers, taking the form of rushing water, Shelley's Protean "Power" bursts into our ken as fire and light together: light at its most magnificent and deadly, the lightning bolt, but veiled or muffled by its contrary, the cold and vaporous cloud -- which, however, the lightning heats and illuminates from within. The image is a favorite of Shelley's, doubtless because it brilliantly expresses the dynamic union of opposites which is life itself: life is fire wrapped in a cloud. But the combination need not be so explosive; "Mont Blanc" ends with the same image tamed and full of unearthly peace. The lightning is no longer a flame, no longer thunderous:
         Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow. [Lines 136-39]
The fire of heaven here becomes its own cloud ("like vapour") and "broods" with dovelike innocence -- even, perhaps, creatively, as {58} the divine Spirit broods in Paradise Lost -- over its own opposite, the snow.

Shelley may sometimes have believed that universal peace would follow opposition and conflict, and light supersede fire, as the world turned toward the millennium. But it seems more likely that his attitude toward the elements of which we are compounded was, like his young wife's, as mixed as the compound itself. When Shelley dwelt on revolutionary change, he thought of fire and high wind. When he dreamt of the millennium his mind turned toward the light: Milton's holy Light, almost a fifth element -- unburning fire and impalpable air, the essence or abstraction of radiant energy. When Shelley imagined eternity he saw, as we know, simply a "white radiance."


That radiance behind or within all things calls to mind the "sudden light" that breaks in on Victor Frankenstein at the climax of his own attempt to unriddle nature and master the elemental opposition between death and life. Frankenstein is attracted to Mont Blanc by the same "Power" that Percy Shelley intuits there, alive and at work in what would seem to other eyes only "a scene terrifically desolate," a world of ruin and death. Jane Eyre's mighty "idea" of the ice-world is natura naturata; she welcomes the utter solitude and frozen stillness of a world without force or motion. But Frankenstein's and Shelley's Alps are natura naturans, "this glorious presence-chamber of imperial nature," as Frankenstein puts it, whose every sublime feature declares the immanence of a tremendous energy, "brawling . . . cracking . . . silent working," "accumulated . . . rent and torn" (p. 249). Where Jane seeks from her imagined Arctic a blessed numbness, Victor, like Shelley (and like Walton), feels a rising excitement, a return of feeling as he draws nearer nature's throne. To him, the cold peaks are "mighty {59} friends," and they house friends still more strange, "wandering spirits" to whom he calls out at the height of his mountain ecstasy (p. 93).

Frankenstein's science is only this sort of geographical investigation in another language, a language not of regions, journeys, and spirits, but of substances, elements, and essences. Whether in the landscape or the laboratory, both he and Walton seek to penetrate ground that seems unredeemably dead, searching for a core of vital warmth unseen before. Frankenstein's genius seems indeed essentially penetrative. It is not enough that his "mighty friends" the Alps console and attend him, he must "penetrate their misty veil and seek them in their cloudy retreats" -- going without a guide, of course (p. 249). Even as a boy, in his alchemical period, what stirs him is what is hidden. "The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine," he tells us. "The hidden laws of nature" were his passion, and only those:

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 inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world. [pp. 236-37]
Victor's language is often vigorously if unconsciously phallic ("here were men who had penetrated deeper and knew more" [p. 238]); the object of his quest is sometimes clearly female ("He had partially unveiled the face of Nature, but her immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery" [p. 238]). To many imaginations, therefore, if not certainly to his own, Victor's goal will present itself as a womb, the warm source and seat of being, which Victor -- adolescent from first to last -- desires rather to know than to possess. So it was, at least, for the alchemists, with their "seminal fire" and "seeds of fire" burning deep within matter, "in the belly" of a substance, "active at the center of each thing."9 According to Bachelard, "This need to penetrate, to go to the interior of things, to the interior of beings," always arises from and sets out to confirm an "intuition of inner heat" on the part of the investigator.10 "The equation of fire and life," he says, "forms the basis of the system of {60} Paracelsus."11 Over this system and others Frankenstein "warmed" his young imagination and fed his "fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature," of maternal nature (p. 238).

To satisfy that longing is, however, dangerous. For not only is fire itself both life-giving and death-dealing, but the compounded fire-in-ice which is a living being is unpredictable and unstable. In a storm at his home near Belrive, Victor, age fifteen, sees an oak tree struck by lightning and destroyed. "Struck," however, is not the word:

As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbands of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed. [p. 35]
Fortunately "a man of great research in natural philosophy" (in the novel's first edition, Victor's father) is at hand to explain the phenomenon, turning Victor's thoughts away from alchemy and towards natural science proper. What Victor actually sees and obviously feels, however, has little to do with "the laws of galvanism and electricity": a stream of fire issues from the oak, its exit shredding the tree. This spectacle confirms Frankenstein's intuition but greatly complicates his ambition; his vision, henceforward, is as ambiguous as Walton's. There has been a revelation of life in a "dazzling light," but there has also been, inseparably, the catastrophic ruin of the "old and beautiful oak," on which Victor dwells with a fascinated horror that would not be out of place in the vaults and charnels of his subsequent research ("blasted stump . . . shattered . . . splintered . . . entirely reduced . . . so utterly destroyed").12 If this were animal instead of vegetable matter -- if it {61} were, for example, the remains of little Stevie in Conrad's The Secret Agent -- we would be sickened. And Victor is sickened even in the midst of his profound excitement, abandoning for a time this whole line of inquiry, with its terrible contradictions, for the bloodless certainties of mathematics. When he returns to the problem of life it is, as he now warns his reader, to a personal destruction as sure and thorough-going as that of the old oak tree: "my utter and terrible destruction" (p. 239).

The movies make of Victor's laboratory a brilliant pyrotechnical display, full of light and energy. In the novel, however, it is a dark cell, a "workshop of filthy creation." All is cold horror: "unhallowed damps," "lifeless clay," "dissecting-room and slaughterhouse" (pp. 49-50). Like her husband, Mary Shelley means to emphasize that the path to the "deep mysteries" of the universal Mother lies through charnels and coffins ("Alastor," lines 18-29). Just as the cold must deepen as Walton draws nearer and nearer to his warm goal, so the corruption of death deepens around Frankenstein as he approaches the secret of life. When he reaches it at last, the "sudden light" that blazes forth "from the midst of this darkness" is something more than intellectual illumination. "Brilliant and wondrous," it bursts from its hiding place, flooding the chamber (pp. 47, 50). When Victor stoops at last over his giant creation, the fundamental metaphor clearly asserts itself: "I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet" (p. 52). In a novel subtitled "The Modern Prometheus," that is clear enough.

What kind of Prometheus is Frankenstein, however? The myth itself, in its different versions, presents the Titan in two primary roles or aspects, one usually emphasized to the exclusion of the other: first, the bold thief of heaven's fire; second, the fire-giver, shaper and benefactor of mankind, in some versions (Prometheus Unbound included) the father of all the arts. Frankenstein is brilliantly successful as the thief of fire and, if not exactly happy in this pursuit, at least excited and ardent. But as the fire-giver he is a disaster and increasingly miserable. As chapter IV begins (with the {62} words Mary Shelley first wrote) Frankenstein has achieved the dream of the fire-theft and is about to enter into the responsibilities of the fire-gift; he infuses the vital element into the cold form at his feet, which begins to stir fitfully. But "at this catastrophe," as Frankenstein puts it, all the horror that has been slowly accumulating through the preceding pages is precipitated, and we see not only what Frankenstein thinks of the creature he has made but also what Mary Shelley thinks of the whole romantic enterprise, and even of life:

Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived. [p. 53]
Here, at the novel's imaginative center, the many issues it confronts are twisted tightly together. From Frankenstein's horrified rejection of his creature both the moral and the psychological dimensions of the tale unfold. From this point forward Frankenstein will be in flight from that to which he is inextricably linked, at once his child and Doppelgänger.

But what inspires this "breathless horror and disgust" in the first place, except the long-sought union of contrary elements, the compound of fire and clay? Victor's self-analysis, as far as it goes, lays heavy emphasis on the creature's physical ugliness, the distance between "the beauty of the dream" and gross reality. He feels no horror, however, until the spark enters the dead flesh and the mysterious combination is achieved, "muscles and joints . . . rendered capable of motion" -- "the filthy mass that moved and talked" (pp. 53, 145). It is the contradiction at the root of Frankenstein's endeavor -- and, for that matter, at the root of all creation -- that produces the disgust. Frankenstein's nightmare on the fatal evening points in the same direction. Its cast of characters irresistibly suggests Oedipal anxieties, already implicit in Frankenstein's ambivalence regarding Mother Nature's secrets; but (as Judith Wilt rightly says in the preceding essay) the dream need not be reduced to these anxieties alone. The action of the dream (Elizabeth dissolving into a corpse within his arms) shows us, as does the Monster, a fearful fusion of opposites: bride and mother, wedding and funeral, {63} present and past, and of course life and death. Frankenstein wakes from his dream feeling horror for the second time that night, only to find the dead-alive thing he has made peering through his bed-curtains; and for the second time that night he flies from it.

This dream, and the revulsion from the Monster that precedes and generates it, seem to me evidence of a disgust on Mary Shelley's part with something deeper than Romantic metaphors and habits of mind: a disgust with organic life or biological being itself (which, indeed, Romantic unities aspired to imitate and, by imitation, honor). Nature's workshop is as filthy as Victor's; not the Monster only but each of us is a filthy mass that moves and talks. In the "Author's Introduction" to Frankenstein, written a dozen years after the novel, Mary Shelley associates with her story's origins several ghost stories read in the same summer; and each of them exhibits the same intimate blending of the vital and the fatal, procreation and destruction. There was the History of the Inconstant Lover "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." And there was "the tale of the sinful founder of his race,"

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. . . . Eternal sorrow sat upon his face as he bent down and kissed the forehead of the boys.
These "blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep," Mary Shelley writes, "from that hour withered like flowers snapped upon the stalk" (p. 224). Both stories show several parallels with Mary Shelley's own; but their central motif is the same as that of Frankenstein's nightmare, the fatal embrace or kiss of death overtaking and transforming "blooming youth." Here, again, is destruction in procreation, and "Eternal Sorrow" at the root of being. Death is the bride, the "founder of his race" is death. These equations are terrible, and so is the punishment for having glimpsed them. The last of the stories is Polidori's "terrible idea about a skull-headed lady [death-in-life again] who was so punished for peeping through a keyhole -- what to see I forget: something very shocking and wrong of course" (p. 225).

Penalties of some sort we might have expected, for all these stories (Frankenstein most of all) point toward, if they do not actually {64} represent, what Freud calls the primal scene: a forbidden looking at the processes by which new life is produced, the "filthy" foundations of human being, made more than usually fearful and forbidding in Mary Shelley's case by the circumstances surrounding her own birth. In Frankenstein's case (and in horror stories generally), it is clear that the taboo violated has as much to do with seeing as with doing, perhaps more. The "Author's Introduction" speaks of the pale student as having looked into "the cradle of life" only to see a "hideous corpse." In the novel it is not, strictly speaking, what Frankenstein has done that makes him shudder but rather what he has seen: "I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open." He responds, not by destroying his creation, but by running away: not, that is, by undoing it but by getting it out of his sight. "Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room" (p. 53).

Looking and not looking play at least as great a part in the novel's inception, too, which Mary Shelley describes as a waking nightmare, an involuntary seeing:

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. . . . He would rush away. . . . 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. [Pp. 227-28; my italics]

Ellen Moers discusses the "birth-myth" underlying the whole novel. But Mary Shelley's original vision, recreated and all but relived here, with its kneeling and lying figures, "uneasy" movements, and "powerful engine" applied to the recumbent form, seems more erotic than maternal. The seed of fire, after all, is being planted, and Mary Shelley -- however innocently or involuntarily -- is present as a voyeur. Victor Frankenstein himself does not see more vividly nor feel more terror of his monster than Mary Shelley in the grip of her overwhelming fantasy; her immediate response, {65} like Victor's, is to deny it, to clear it away from before her eyes. Like Victor, she fails:

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. [p. 228]
The novel is her attempt either finally to exorcise or somehow to integrate the relentless "idea."


Either from Mary Shelley's or from Frankenstein's perspective, Walton looks naive and superficial. His enthusiasm is misplaced. The appropriate response to the kind of union he seeks is horror and revulsion. Frankenstein suggests that the mystery of being should be left strictly alone or, if glimpsed, covered again at once. It may suggest, further, that creation and procreation themselves, even by the usual means, might better be left alone.

But it is the great strength of this novel that, for all its deep-rooted horror of the nature of creation, it does not simply turn away from the condition of creatures (as do many of Shelley's poems) toward death and eternity -- not, at least, without a struggle. If all of Mary Shelley's disgust and desperation is concentrated in Victor Frankenstein's story, all her compassion for our mixed nature and middle state is expressed in the Monster's. And all her hope as well -- for with the Monster's opening words the novel makes a new beginning and turns upwards toward hope and possibility. "Poor, helpless, miserable wretch" that he is, the Monster is still a new life; his narrative brings to this novel a kind of second chance for human nature, of a kind especially attractive to eighteenth-century minds. Without social and familial ties, free of the handicaps as well as the supports of human culture, he will receive his education from Nature and Reason alone. For better or worse, what he essentially is from birth will have liberty to grow and act.

The Monster's self-education begins along Lockean lines; his story in general is that of dawning consciousness, first acquaintanceship {66} with the world. But by far the most important discovery of his mental infancy is that of fire, a discovery he at once improves through experiment. "Overcome with delight at the warmth" of a fire abandoned by wandering beggars, he näively thrusts his hand into it; made cautious by experience, he explores the nature of fire, learning that fire subsists on wood, dries wet things, may be banked and so preserved through the night and fanned into life again in the morning. In addition to such basic science he learns things of immediate practical benefit, observing (in language as stiffly scientific as anything in Victor's narrative) "that the fire gave light as well as heat, and that the discovery of this element was useful to me in my food" (pp. 99-100). It is through fire, then, that the Monster first learns to exercise his considerable powers of observation and inference and, as we now say, to manipulate his environment.

In a novel dominated by the fatal results of Victor Frankenstein's esoteric science, this emphasis on his creature's natural bent toward applied science should not be passed over lightly. It is not "the hidden laws of nature" that interest the Monster but her more apparent operations, the mechanics of nature and its human uses. To him the world is not "a secret" to be divined or penetrated, but a place in which to live as comfortably as possible, pursuing pleasure, avoiding pain. As if by instinct he follows the angel Raphael's advice to a too-curious Adam: "Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid. . . . Think only what concerns thee and thy being" (Paradise Lost, VII[VIII].167-74). What concerns the Monster is, before anything else, bodily health and well-being, food and warmth; fire comes to him as a godsend. One thinks of the young Jane Eyre and her clear appreciation of the need to stay alive ("I must keep in good health, and not die" [p. 31]), reaffirmed by the mature woman at the climax of her crisis with Rochester ("I care for myself" [p. 344]).

But fire is much more than the Monster's first tool. For it is through fire that he feels the first stirrings of sympathy and solicitude for something outside himself. His self-portrait before the fire in the forest at night is charming: he sits still, rapt, "watching the operation of the fire"; on a sudden inspiration he busies himself to gather more wet sticks and lay them near the blaze; when he must sleep, "in the greatest fear lest my fire should be extinguished," he first puts it to bed ("I covered it carefully with dry wood and leaves, and placed wet branches upon it; and then, spreading my cloak, I {67} lay on the ground, and sank into sleep" [p. 99]). Waking the next morning, "My first care was to visit the fire." When at last he has to leave the clearing where he found the fire, it is with deep personal regret: "In this emigration I exceedingly lamented the loss of the fire." It is the first of many such emigrations, many laments for personal loss. The fire has become almost his friend and seems almost to reciprocate his care; he tends it, it comforts him.

Fire also forges the first links uniting the Monster to the De Lacey family, in whose lean-to he next comes to rest. The daily example and select library of his unsuspecting hosts teach the Monster first to understand and finally to claim the kinship he spontaneously feels for beings superficially so unlike himself. This sympathy begins, however, in the Monster's recognition that these "lovely creatures" are fire-users like himself. His first sight of the Swiss cottage interior discloses an old man seated "near a small fire." Soon a young man enters carrying "a load of wood"; a girl gathers roots and plants and, putting them in water, takes them also to the fire. The Monster understands these amenities from his own rough experience and seems pleased to recognize, amid the swimming confusion of so much that is new, the familiar business of preparing food (pp. 103-4). Of the first four words he learns, two have to do with fire (fire, wood) and two with food (milk, bread).

In short, the De Laceys introduce the Monster to a further use of fire: fire in its social dimension, housekeeping as in part a social ritual. What could be more natural, or more pathetic, than that he should try to repay his unknowing hosts by taking on himself the chore of gathering wood, or "firing" -- secretly delighting in their wonder at the great piles of fuel he brings to their door and, through this gift, joining them in spirit each night around the fireplace? When at last, risking everything, the Monster dares to enter the cottage in hopes of gaining open and permanent relationship with other beings, he asks only (with as much meaning as feeling) "to remain a few minutes before the fire" (p. 129). He refuses food: "It is warmth and rest that I need." When Felix returns and drives him away, it is literally out into the cold he must go. From this moment he is doomed to the glaciers and ice-floes that symbolize (in Frankenstein as in Jane Eyre) the absence of all fellowship and warm feeling.

Looking back, the Monster asks himself why he did not then and there embrace the ultimate cold of death (as Jane does when similarly {68} rejected, at least in fantasy), "extinguish the spark of existence" (p. 132) and "subside into dead matter" (p. 228). But the balance tips instead toward rage and revenge and, with these violent feelings, toward fire in a new form. He fans the "spark" within into a blaze that consumes house and hovel and all -- his past, present, and future -- in one great conflagration.

This act opens yet a third phase in the Monster's exploration of fire, his discovery of its antisocial dimension. Through the destructive power of fire he consciously allies himself, in bitterness of heart, with the fallen angels of whom he has read in the De Laceys' copy of Paradise Lost, perverting the life-giving and life-sustaining element into an instrument of torture and destruction. Like Satan, the Monster henceforth bears a hell within him (p. 132) and makes evil his good (p. 218).

The passage that describes his carefully orchestrated burning of the beloved cottage is, however, as two-edged and ambiguous as fire itself.

As the night advanced, a fierce wind arose from the woods and quickly dispersed the clouds that had loitered in the heavens; the blast tore along like a mighty avalanche and produced a kind of insanity in my spirits that burst the bounds of reason and reflection. I lighted the dry branch of a tree and danced with fury around the devoted cottage, my eyes still fixed on the western horizon, the edge of which the moon nearly touched. A part of its orb was at length hid, and I waved my brand; it sank, and with a loud scream I fired the straw, and heath, and bushes, which I had collected. The wind fanned the fire, and the cottage was quickly enveloped by the flames, which clung to it and licked it with their forked and destroying tongues. [p. 135]
Howling in frenzy and dancing around the "devoted" hut, the Monster seems possessed by some universal spirit of destruction or plastic Shelleyan "Power"; he acts in concert with the rising wind and setting moon, so that the whole cosmos seems to conspire in his revenge. It was the moon, "a radiant form" (p. 98), that first taught him what pleasure was; it is fitting that he should take its setting as the cue for his dedication to pain. The symbolic burning in itself, however, is an act tragically mixed, in which the Monster seems almost to be loving to death what remains of the De Laceys. In heaping up the "combustibles" with which to fire their hut, he makes, of course, one last grand offering in his yearlong series of {69} love-gifts of fuel. And even as the flames consume the house they seem to embrace it: they "clung to it and licked it with their forked and destroying tongues," a masterpiece of ambivalence, in which satanic longing merges seamlessly into satanic enmity toward mankind.

But the Monster is more than satanic. As he waves the burning branch or "brand" overhead, he is Adam and the avenging angel rolled into one, his own "dreadful face" and his own "fiery arms" barring the way back into his brief Eden.

They looking back, all the Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms. [XII.641-44]
With conscious irony he asks himself two sentences later, "And now, with the world before me, whither should I bend my steps?" The Monster knows, of course, that the world contains for him neither Providence as guide nor any place of rest at all.

It was late in autumn when I quitted the district. . . . Nature decayed around me, and the sun became heatless; rain and snow poured around me; mighty rivers were frozen; the surface of the earth was hard, and chill, and bare, and I found no shelter. [p. 136]
From this point it is but a step (though many chapters intervene) to the last act in the Monster's tragedy, his suicide by fire at the North Pole. I shall quit your vessel on the ice raft which brought me hither," he informs Walton,

and shall seek the northernmost extremity of the globe; I shall collect my funeral pile and consume to ashes this miserable frame, that its remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch who would create such another as I have been. [pp. 210-11]
But to end his sufferings and to frustrate Frankenstein's science, the Monster need not go to the North Pole nor arrange his death by fire. His extraordinary plan is, for all its extreme privacy, dramatic in the extreme and highly symbolic, as much a statement as an act. It is, first, a bitter parody of both Walton's and Frankenstein's dream of the fire in ice, underscoring the sorrow and fatality in that dream. At the end of his life the Monster affirms, or bitterly {70} concedes, the truth in the Romantic vision of being; but his suicide implies that to recognize the truth is to loathe being, as his maker has come to do, and to choose not to be. In his last act, then, he declares (as the hero of any tragedy must somehow declare at the end) his conscious recognition and grim acceptance of the conflict in nature that has brought him to this pass.

But there is more to be said about his suicide, and in fact the Monster says it:

"But soon," he cried with sad and solemn enthusiasm, "I shall die and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell." [p. 221]
Like so much else in the imagery of fire, the fantasy of one's own funeral pyre combines contradictory attractions. On the one hand, it offers complete destruction and nonentity, seen here in the Monster's anticipatory vision of the fading light of the flames, the windblown ashes, the spirit's sleep. On the other hand, it offers (as in the legend of the phoenix) a promise of regenerated or renewed life -- faintly suggested here in the Monster's last clause -- or, failing that, at least one final intense experience of what it is to be alive. As the Monster stands by the ship's cabin-window, soon to be "lost in darkness and distance," the note of triumph and enthusiasm in his voice belies the expressed wish for death and oblivion. He exults in the blaze he will make ("the light of that conflagration") and even in the "agony" he will feel. That agony and that light, indeed, will only make outward and visible the "burning miseries" he now feels inwardly and which are, in fact, his life: soon to be "extinct," but not before the pyre goes out.

As Bachelard elegantly observes, speaking of paradox in pyre-imagery generally:

When the fire devours itself, when the power turns against itself, it seems as if the whole being is made complete at the instant of its final ruin and that the intensity of the destruction is the supreme proof, the clearest proof, of its existence.13
{71} We know well the Monster's desperate need, always frustrated in life, for acceptance from others, even for simple acknowledgment of the fact of his existence. The spectacular character of death by fire, then, has a special appeal for him. Even while it ends his misery the funeral pyre will affirm and liberate to view a spirit systematically denied and abused while confined in clay. The Monster's total destruction, like the memorable shredding of Frankenstein's oak tree, will disclose in one great pulse of blazing light and heat the fire of intense inner being.


Such an end would be unthinkable for the heroes and heroines of Victorian fiction, and not only because (until Hardy) they tend to survive their novels' conclusions. Death by fire is generally reserved for those characters whose lives have been given over to some fiery excess; moderation would have saved them all. Thus Krook, in Bleak House, dies by the spontaneous combustion of the fire-water he has consumed immoderately in life; Miss Havisham, in Great Expectations, perishes in the flames of feeling so long and so successfully repressed that, when unexpectedly rekindled in old age, they cannot be controlled. In Jane Eyre, to return to our starting point, Bertha Mason dies as she has lived, by the fire of passion, taking Thornfield down with her and, very nearly, Rochester too.

These and many others like them are the monsters of Victorian fiction: monsters of excess, grotesque exaggerations of natural human appetites or faculties that have become unnaturally isolated and grossly overdeveloped. Bertha Mason is both "monster" and "goblin," her "pigmy intellect" long since overwhelmed by her "giant propensities" (pp. 332-33); in her red eyes, empurpled skin, and bloated features Jane sees the image of "the foul German spectre -- the Vampyre" (p. 307). Bertha indeed resembles Dracula, a true vampire and hard-core monster, in her monomaniacal intensity and superhuman strength, not to mention her habit of nocturnal prowling and her taste for blood. But it is Mr. Hyde, at the end of the century, who best epitomizes Victorian monstrosity. Where Frankenstein, a Romantic scientist, labors to unite contrary elements and to make a man, Dr. Jekyll labors to dissociate them and to unmake man, to separate and liberate from each other the {72} "polar twins" he finds perpetually at war within human nature. The result is Edward Hyde, a being artificially simple, one-half of human nature masquerading as a whole, a walking appetite.

As such, of course, Dr. Jekyll's monster could not be more different from Frankenstein's, whose nature is only our own writ large and whose self-consciousness and sadness are our own, too. The monsters of Victorian fiction are not sad but, on the contrary, diabolically gleeful, inhumanly confident; they do not recoil from their reflections in horror, as does Frankenstein's Monster (and as Jane Eyre does too, in lesser degree), but study them eagerly; they can never be the heroes, much less the narrators, of novels. Frankenstein's Monster is horrible -- to himself, to his maker, and to us -- because he shows us what we are. The monsters of Victorian fiction, on the contrary, show us what to avoid, what we must on no account allow ourselves to become: as Jane, seeing Bertha's bloodswollen features under her own bridal veil, in her own bedroom mirror, must take warning and take control of the "animal" side of herself that is, in fact, like Bertha. The Monster can at best accept despair with dignity, and die. But Jane survives, not in tortured contradiction but in balance between opposite extremes, having learned to adjust her figurative temperature much as Alice learns to adjust her size in Wonderland: first a nibble of this, then a nibble of that, until one is no longer a monster ("'Serpent!' screamed the pigeon," at Alice's long neck) but only a human being ("'I -- I'm a little girl,' said Alice, rather doubtfully") fit for the business of life.

The denouement of Jane's story helps to reveal the depth of tragedy in the Monster's and brings into relief Mary Shelley's dark view of human existence. As Jane approaches Ferndean where Rochester sits, blind and alone, one cannot help but remember the Monster's half-eager, half-terrified approach to the "devoted" cottage where M. De Lacey sits, also blind, also alone. For Jane as for the Monster, all hope of future happiness depends upon her reception. Like the Monster, Jane delays her revelation, first studying her man from a distance ("To examine him, myself unseen, and alas! to him invisible" [p. 470]) and then, after she enters, withholding her identity until Rochester (like De Lacey) has to cry out "Who is this?"

But Jane, of course, can count on a welcome from her blind consort and, almost as certainly, on a life of happiness at his side. Her delay is half calculating, half playful, a return to the old teasing -- {73} not like the Monster's agony of hesitation while he summons all his strength to face "the moment of decision" (p. 129). As Jane sees at once, the fires of life and passionate feeling, having flared up much too high, have now sunk correspondingly low: "'Can there be life here?' I asked" (p. 470). Rochester's retreat is dank, decayed, and desolate; he is scarred and darkened, his lips "sealed," his "brow of rock"; and as we might have predicted, "a neglected handful of fire burnt low in the grate" (p. 472). But Jane knows what to do:

Now, let me leave you an instant, to make a better fire, and have the hearth swept up. Can you tell when there is a good fire? [p. 476]
Despite appearances, he can indeed; for as he says himself (beginning to warm to Jane again), is he not a kind of Vulcan, "a real blacksmith," used to fire and careless of a singe or two? As Jane puts it in a related metaphor,

His countenance reminded one of a lamp quenched, waiting to be relit. . . . I had wakened the glow: his features beamed. [p. 479]
And now, at long last, so do Jane's. After her near-death from cold and his from fire, both find in the end what Jane calls -- with deep physical satisfaction, but with a strong moral meaning as well -- "a good fire," crackling away merrily within its proper bounds, like the warmth of the "good" marriage they now make. Each warms and illuminates the other:

There was no harassing restraint, no repressing of glee and vivacity with him; for with him I was at perfect ease, because I knew I suited him: all I said or did seemed either to console or revive him. Delightful consciousness! It brought to life and light my whole nature: in his presence I thoroughly lived; and he lived in mine. Blind as he was, smiles played over his face, joy dawned on his forehead: his lineaments softened and warmed. [p. 476]
So naturally and completely do the metaphors of heat and light express the emotional and social realities described in this passage that hearth and marriage, light and joy, heat and feeling, almost become one. Extremes of freezing cold and scorching fire are forgotten. United, Jane and Rochester will dwell in (they appear to radiate) a human warmth, a glowing or flickering light. Nothing could be farther from the Monster's last lonely beaconing across the polar ice, for none to see.


1. Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire (Boston, 1964), p. 7.

2. Ibid., p. 7.

3. These and other polarities recur, of course, throughout Coleridge's thought, which seems (like the imagination itself) to "dissolve, diffuse, dissipate," and especially to distinguish mainly in order "to recreate" its objects in their original unity. For "the FREE LIFE and the confining FORM," see "On the Principles of Genial Criticism," Essay Third, the discussion of Raphael's Galatea.

4. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (New York, 1950), p. 4. All further references to this work appear in the text.

5. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. James Rieger (New York, 1974), pp. 9-10. All further references to this work appear in the text.

6. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross, (Oxford, 1907), II: 12.

7. Jupiter's hatred is always ice and snow, but he does not always hate. When he loves, he too is fiery. At the conception of Demogorgon, Thetis cries out,

     Insufferable might!
God! Spare me! I sustain not the quick flames,
The penetrating presence. . . .


Even his love, however, serves less to quicken and comfort life than to oppress and destroy it. Thetis feels herself dissolving "into a dew," the echo of Hamlet's soliloquy strongly suggesting death; and Demogorgon, of course, will be death to Jupiter.

8. In Asia's hymn to Earth, for example, mountains, sky, and ocean seem to press eagerly into each other's natural regions, while at the same time light plays over and links all the elements into one whole, glancing from the "icy spires," irradiating the drops of ocean spray so that they "dazzle" the eye and "spangle" the wind (Prometheus Unbound, II.iii.28-32). In "Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills," a meditative and anti-apocalyptic poem, it is the changing light of a whole Italian day that, again, draws all things into a unity (including the poem) by "interpenetrating" them all.

9. Bachelard, Psychoanalysis of Fire, pp. 41, 47, 75.

10. Ibid., p. 40.

11. Ibid., p. 73.

12. Later in the novel a lightning bolt again brings Victor Frankenstein this mixed elation and dread, revealing in terms much more personal than before the paradoxical oneness of life-giving and death-dealing in nature. After little William's death, Victor walks alone at night near the scene of the murder and witnesses an electrical storm over the Alps. The sublime display "elevated my spirits," he tells us, and helps to relieve his grief; but a sudden flash shows him the Monster whom he has not seen since the night of his creation, "hideous" and (as Victor instantly intuits) murderous as well. As in the case of the oak tree, a flash of lightning shows us life and death, creation and destruction, inextricably linked, inspiring in the viewer both excitement and despair.

13. Bachelard, Psychoanalysis of Fire, p. 78.