Contents Index

Frankenstein and the Unnameable

George E. Haggerty

Chapter 2 of Gothic Fiction/Gothic Form (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1989), 37-63

{[37]} For years after Mary Shelley first sent her "hideous progeny" into the world, she watched its fortunes with a parent's concern. When her novel proved the basis of a successful play, she was fascinated. In a letter to Leigh Hunt, she expresses that fascination in terms of particular interest:
Frankenstein had prodigious success as a drama & was about to be repeated for the 23rd night at the English opera house. The play bill amused me extremely, for in the list of dramatis personae came, --------by Mr T. Cooke: this nameless mode of naming the un[n]ameable is rather good. (LMWS 1:378)
By so emphasizing the unnameability of her -- of Victor Frankenstein's -- creation, Shelley defies those critics who have so neatly and precisely found names to describe the novel's central horror. That does not stop me from adding my own names to the list, nor does it limit the power that readers have traditionally found in this exploration of the boundaries of experience. Shelley has so constructed her novel as to make the horror available to each reader in his or her own terms. She accomplishes this not by means of coy and euphemistic language but by careful observation and precise description. She leads us into a world beyond our own, both seducing us with the familiarity and alarming us with the hideousness of what she finds there.1

Unlike other early Gothicists, Shelley achieves such eerie popularity with Frankenstein because she is able to devise a form that can embody her affective intentions. Other Gothic novelists struggle with the exigencies of novelistic form, whereas Shelley liberates Gothicism from the demands of realism, subverts the nature of novelistic authority, and {38} releases the power inherent in her tale.2 How she does that is my subject here. "The experience of reading," Jauss has suggested, "can liberate one from adaptations, prejudices, and predicaments of a lived praxis in that it compels one to a new perception of things," and it "anticipates unrealized possibility, broadens the limited space of social behavior for new desires, claims, and goals, and thereby opens paths of future experience" (41). Frankenstein accomplishes all of this by challenging the limits of narrative form.

Shelley was certainly aware of the problems inherent to Gothic fiction and of the conflict between Gothic and realistic modes. As the Journal indicates, she assiduously read both Radcliffe and Lewis shortly before composing Frankenstein (The Monk and The Italian in 1814; Tales of Wonder and The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1815), as well as Godwin's Caleb Williams (1816), Brockden Brown's Wieland (1815) and Arthur Mervyn (1817), Maturin's Bertram (1816), and a vast array of other novels from Richardson and Fielding to Edgeworth and Scott. Lewis in fact visited the Shelleys at Montalégre in August 1816. Percy Shelley says that they "talk of Ghosts" and that Lewis "tells us many mysteries of his trade." Percy goes on to wonder whether the "persons who profess to discredit these visitations really discredit them, or, if they do in the daylight, are not admonished by the approach of loneliness and midnight to think more respectably of the world of shadows" (MSJ 57). Mary Shelley clearly did have respect for the world of shadows, and while it is true that it took her lover's encouragement to get her to expand her idea for a ghost story into a novel, she claims full responsibility for the uncanny vision that has become central to our modern mythology: Frankenstein.

She does so publicly in the Introduction to the revised 1831 edition of the novel, which functions like a Gothic tale itself, a "crystalline . . . record," as James calls "The Turn of the Screw," "of so many intense anomolies and obscurities" (A[merican] N[otes] 173). Far from ending speculation as to the nature of the work, Shelley's Introduction heightens the affective possibilities of the text by dramatizing the harrowing precincts of her own subjectivity. Percy had spoken in their journal of the "approach of loneliness and midnight," and that is what she recreates for us here.

"I shall . . . give," Shelley tells us, "a general answer to the question, so very frequently asked me -- 'How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?'"(5). Surely these remarks are meant to be provocative and almost sensational. Shelley reminds us, in this innocent-seeming sentence, of her sex, her youth, the shock of her authorship, and the titillating nature of her tale. This self-indictment is neither ingenuous nor defensive; instead it is her own {39} Gothic technique. For by so introducing her account, she insists that we apprehend the novel in personal terms and that we focus on these very private details of authorship. Explanatory Gothic prefaces are common -- I have considered Walpole's similar self-dramatization -- but none so deftly works to force the reader to ask the questions that the author wants so mockingly to answer. She engages our interest in a personal tale, just as, throughout the novel, characters engage one another in longer but similarly structured confessional passages3 This "life story," largely fabricated, is addressed to the reader to gain a sympathetic response. "Hear my tale," the nameless creature says to Frankenstein; and here the author says the same to us.

The Introduction is therefore the first of the series of frames that, according to Newman, signals "the presence of some enigma" within the novel (144). Shelley tantalizes us with the possibility of an inner truth, and critics traditionally respond by naming that truth and giving it explanatory power. But the closer we approach the truth of this novel, the more subtly it recedes into unnameability. The novel itself, in other words, is structured so as to encourage interpretation at the same time that it eludes it. Here Shelley relates her own case history -- a relatively happy childhood, a desire to be creative, solitude and reflection, the illicit excitement of knowledge (in her case of Gothic fiction and galvanism), confrontation with the unknown -- and challenges us to interpret it in relation to her tale.

Kristeva suggests that the kind of psychological horror she describes in Proust or Celine arises from the opposition between I and Other, between Inside and Outside. She says further that "owing to the ambiguous opposition I/Other, Inside/Outside -- an opposition that is vigorous but pervious, violent but uncertain -- there are contents, 'normally' unconscious in neurotics, that become explicit if not conscious in 'borderline' patients' speeches and behavior" (7). Shelley heightens such "contents" as a way of making her Gothic novel successful.

This technique becomes clearer as Shelley describes her own moment of imaginative intensity:

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw -- with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, -- I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling, beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous {40} phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. . . . [The artist] sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. (9)

I have quoted this passage at length because its effect is cumulative. It is not enough to say that this passage is like a passage from a Gothic novel -- like, for instance, an intense moment of private confrontation on the part of one of the internal narrators of Lewis or Maturin -- for this is itself a Gothic passage, which transforms the material of idle speculation into the powerful and persuasive haunting of Mary Shelley. The author has, moreover, given us terms for interpreting the Gothic novel as a version of her own subjective horror and for understanding subjectivity as a Gothic confrontation. Under the control of her imagination, she becomes passive and increasingly appalled at the content of her own vision. "I saw" becomes the formula here, and throughout the novel, for attesting to the substance of privacy and giving it public reality, that is, making "inside" "outside" and confusing the distinction between subject and object, metaphor and metonymy. Shelley is "possessed," afraid: She sees a monster and understands its private implications. It is at the creator's bed; it is at her bed. It stares with watery, speculative eyes; she opens hers and stares into the darkness. This monster and this creator, she seems to be emphasizing, are her own. Her own abject midnight solitude has placed her in the middle of the Gothic novel she has herself written.4

By inviting us to share in this vision, she places us there as well. For who is there to listen to this tale, who is there to be seduced by its horror, but the reader? We are led first into easy familiarity, the tone of the opening is almost conspiratorial, then into the author's private experience, then her bedchamber, her very bed, and then into her dreams. We are meant to understand the horror of this vision and to share with her, as spectator, to be sure, but also as friend. Why else this informal tone, this disarming address? The novelist is alone with her vision, and she tempts us to make it our own.

{41} It is no accident that critics have taken Frankenstein so personally: The author seems intent on personalizing the Gothic experience. She plays up the circumstance -- her lover, their important friends, the romantic setting, the haunting itself, Percy's encouragement -- not just because they are central to the nature of her creativity, but also because such details lend an air of authenticity to the report and place her at the center of an intriguing tale. She uses a metaphor of motherhood to clinch this self-dramatization, not primarily on account of the horror that such a relationship implies, but because this sexualizes the experience and places her at the crux of the intimate act of creativity.5 She thereby transforms her complicated feelings about motherhood and female oppression into her most effective source of Gothic power. She focuses the interest of the text in her own private experience, and that is where critics have been wandering ever since:

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, 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. (10)
Ah, but we do! What could Shelley have done to have encouraged more intense fascination with her private life? We crave more knowledge, and her rhetorical suggestion is that we shall know more if we read into these "several pages," where the truth resides. She encourages her readers to search for this truth in the tale and in her own experience -- perhaps she would even find the degree to which she has been analyzed in the Frankenstein literature gratifying. For that is what she seems to invite here. In a sense, she offers herself as a substitute for the truth that she knows we shall not find in the novel. But she also knows that fiction can only reveal the private reality of the reader her- or himself. She makes this impassioned plea for her "progeny" and commits this veiled act of self -exposure as a way of leading us into the search for our own unnameable horror. Shelley has created a picturesque life to attract and a private haunting to appall us, engaging us in a dialogue that the novel can only intensify, for it is a dialogue with ourselves.

In discussing dialogue in narrative, Sternberg suggests that a text that contains both speakers and listeners "doubles the imaging itself {42} by splitting a single communicative act into message sent ('said') and message received ('heard')" (300). The implications for any fictional text are interesting, but for Frankenstein, in which hearers and listeners themselves double and redouble -- at one point we are listening to Shelley telling the story of Walton telling the story of Victor telling the story of the creature telling the story of hearing the story of the De Lacey family -- they are staggering. If, as Sternberg tells us, "hearing entails doubling" (301), Frankenstein geometrically multiplies the possibilities of meaning. That process is begun in the Introduction, between author and reader. We listen to the author's rendition of her private experience and then create a version of that experience to suit ourselves. This is where the narrative of seduction begins.6

Those who disapproved of the novel when it appeared did so in terms that suggest a fear of narrative violation. The following criticism, for instance, appeared in The Quarterly Review (January 1818):

Our taste and our judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it may be executed the worse it is -- it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deploreably vitiated. (quoted in Spark 140)
The reviewer seems to understand the technique of the work very well, and although he is wrong to think that there is no lesson in Frankenstein, his fear of its effect is fully justified. The danger, for this reviewer, is the fictional nature of the "narrative content"; he seems to expect a neatly packaged "moral" and to equate meaning in fiction with an explanation that can serve a useful public function. This rage for explanation, for searching out the hidden meaning, is not limited to the early critics of Frankenstein. New modes of interpretation are in some ways no better. As Sontag says, "The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs 'behind' the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one" (6).

Whether or not Shelley was affected by such early reviews, her 1831 Introduction plays down the question of meaning or "moral," except in her Radcliffean mention of the "human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world," and emphasizes instead the atmosphere of the night in question, the intensity of her private experience, and its importance as a source of recollection for her. {43} In doing so, she teaches us to read Frankenstein in an intensely subjective and personal way.7

It has been argued that within Frankenstein, narrative "serves both as a way of seducing a listener, and as a means of displacing and sublimating desire that cannot be satisfied directly" (Newman 143-44). This is the nature of Gothic narrative in general, not just within a work like Frankenstein, but between work and reader as well. Newman says that "once a narrative has been uttered, it exists as a verbal structure with its own integrity, and can, like myth, think itself in the minds of men (and women). Being infinitely repeatable in new contexts, it has achieved autonomy; it now functions as a text" (147). But each time this narrative is repeated, it invites a new participation, and that participation becomes complicity, because in the natural doubling process, the reader becomes the ultimate alter ego on whom the burden of interpretive responsibility finally falls. By engaging her readers in such a procedure, Shelley seems to insure that on some level they will believe what she says. They have to: They are already involved. In this sense, Frankenstein is "like myth."

A tale is not a myth, of course, but Shelley seems to understand how one could be. The textual implications of mythmaking could not have been far from the author's consciousness while she was working on Frankenstein. As she herself described, she was ensconced in a cosy hideaway with two of the greatest poets of her generation. Both were involved in mythmaking projects of their own. Percy Shelley of course took such matters very seriously. In his poetry, the narrator often creates a "thou" as a way of transforming self-consciousness into an outer-directed consciousness that can challenge and expand the limits of privacy.8

Mary Shelley attempts to transform the nature of Gothic narrative by turning the lyric, mythmaking voice of her husband into a narrative structure that uses an "I-Thou" configuration to "think itself in the minds of men (and women)." It is worth recalling Buber's description of a situation in which moments of "I-Thou" intensity obtrude into the everyday world of "I-It": "strange lyric and dramatic episodes, seductive and magical, but tearing us away to dangerous extremes, loosening the well-tried context, leaving more questions than satisfaction behind them, shattering security."9 Buber seems to have in mind profound and unsettling literary effects as the basis of his idea of myth, and just such a confusion of the personal and the literary is what Shelley describes in her Introduction. In addition to quoting this passage from Buber in attempting to describe the effect of the form of the short story, May discusses Deikman's analysis of experience and draws the {44} following conclusions: a "bias for the active, everyday encounter with the external world and our consequent scorn for the receptive mode of a more mystic, taking -- in quality reflects our bias for the I-It world of the everyday and the novel that embodies it rather than for the I-Thou world of the uncanny moment" (334). The latter he associates with the form I call the tale. May associates this mode of thought with Cassirer's "mythical" thinking: "instead of extensive distribution, intensive compression. This focusing of all forces on a single point is the prerequisite for all mythical thinking and mythical formulation" (Cassirer, Language and Myth 33; quoted in May 334-35). This "mythical thinking" may be recognized as Romantic, but note how similar Frankenstein is to the kind of uncanny intensity that is described here. Consider, moreover, the degree to which Shelley's self-presentation centers on the kind of receptivity to the uncanny moment that May outlines.

If Shelley makes the assertion of mythicality and challenges us to accept it, she also uses the rationale of the tale form to evoke the mythic possibilities of her subject. The situation in Frankenstein, however, is not as transcendent as my use of Buber's theological perspective makes it sound. It seems to me that Kristeva describes the narrative situation here, and in other Gothic works, with singular elegance:

For, when narrated identity is unbearable, when the boundary between subject and object is shaken, and when even the limit between inside and outside becomes uncertain, the narrative is what is challenged first. If it continues nevertheless, its makeup changes; its linearity is shattered, it proceeds by flashes, enigmas, short cuts, incompletion, tangles, and cuts. At a later stage, the unbearable identity of the narrator and of the surroundings that are supposed to sustain him can no longer be narrated but cries out or is descried with maximal stylistic intensity (language of violence, of obscenity, or of a rhetoric that relates the text to poetry). The narrative yields to a crying-out theme that, when it tends to coincide with the incandescent states of a boundary-subjectivity that I have called abjection, is the crying-out theme of suffering-horror. (141)
What better way to explain the endless fragmentation of Gothic texts and the constant focus on boundaries between inside and outside in a novel such as Frankenstein? The "flashes, enigmas, short cuts, incompletion, tangles, and cuts" that we experience in Gothic works are the direct result of this breakdown of the distinction between subject and object. The "I-Thou" technique of Frankenstein is another way of react- {45} ing to this breakdown, in Shelley's case an attempt to transform it from private suffering-horror, private abjection, by means of a poetic transformation of enigma into belief.
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? --
This epigraph to Frankenstein, from Paradise Lost (10:743-45), takes us straight to the heart of the matter. Besides opening a whole range of allegorical possibilities here, which include most centrally God's relation to Adam, "I-Thou" is established as a basic mode of discourse, while the aggression and pathos of this plea remind the reader of both the nature of abjection and the horror of self-contempt. Within the novel, this theme is continually repeated, directly or indirectly. This need to address the Creator, to create a bond with the Other, is an attempt to mythologize the misery of one's own solitude. If Adam is to be the archetype of this need to confront the Other, to bring into relation with himself the Other as "Thou," Shelley begins a similarly mythologizing experience in her Introduction and thereby expands the expressive possibilities of her narrative. Shelley uses the "I-Thou" form of the talelike personal revelation as a way of liberating her material from the confines of realistic novelism, on the one hand, and sensational Gothicism on the other. The result is a work that breaks down distinctions between subjective and objective experience and that reverberates with the interpretive possibilities of mythopoesis.

The novel itself opens with the one word with which all the various potentialities of Frankenstein are finally realized, "you":

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday; and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare, and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking. (15)
This letter is addressed To Mrs. Saville, England, but in fact the narrative begins with a resounding and aggressive use of the second-person pronoun; and nowhere in the first paragraph, which I have quoted in its entirety, is there any suggestion that the writer is speaking to anyone but ourselves. His sister is mentioned in an odd third-person construction that falls short of direct address, and we find ourselves, as it were, accused of the "evil forebodings" that we may in fact already {46} feel. If we do not already feel them, surely this opening is meant to encourage us to. The novel, then, begins with a note of reassurance and a hint of danger, calming yet titillating as it seduces us into narrative complicity. "Mrs. Saville," it seems to me, is a necessary fiction, which Shelley uses as a means of engaging us more directly in her Gothic tale.

Veeder makes much of Margaret Saville, "because gender qualifies for judgment in Frankenstein" (82), and goes so far as ingeniously to suggest that "Margaret as the embodiment of Mary [Shelley]'s values cannot empathize with Promethean drives" and that she symbolizes "that native community which is the union of male with female and the ideal of Agape" (83). Should such themes be at work in Frankenstein, and Veeder's case is convincing, the reader can certainly not be aware of them at the opening of the novel. Indeed, it seems to me that it is our own relation to the speaker that is on the line here:

I am already far north of London; and as I walk in the streets of Petersburgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves, and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling? (15)
Rarely is fiction so direct in its determination to engage the reader in the sensations of the speaker. Again the first-person narrative is an account of personal response ("Inspirited by this wind of promise, my day dreams become more fervent and vivid" [15]), as well as imaginative fantasy ("I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the scene of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight" [15]). As Walton moves from the physical to the emotional and the imaginative, we are invited to participate, and for all that we might say about these aspirations in retrospect, surely this direct mode of confrontation with the speaker is meant to capture our own imaginations. Walton's quest becomes our own quest here, as his subjective report is doubled in our response to it.10 By challenging us to assent to Walton's precarious schemes, by tapping our own desire for purpose and meaning, to say nothing about excitement, Shelley ensures our own involvement in the development of her tale and our private horror at its reverberations.

"Do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose?" Walton asks his sister. And in an ejaculation that is riddled with self-doubt, he exposes the embarrassing truth that this question is not rhetorical: "Oh, that some encouraging voice would answer in the affirmative" (17). This need for affirmation very quickly becomes focused in a single {47} desire: "You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend" (19).

Veeder considers the homosexual overtones of such assertions but decides that "for Robert [Walton], Victor [Frankenstein], and Percy [Shelley], the primary significance of the male bond is narcissistic. . . . Male love is thus one stage closer to the self-embrace which is the true goal of Prometheans and the chief reason . . . for Frankenstein's creation of the monster" (88).11 But if Walton has been desperate for an understanding friend "who could sympathise" (19), he finds one in Veeder and in other readers and critics who have found him engaging enough to attempt to explain his function here (see Veeder, especially 81-89). And, more importantly, he finds that friend in each and every reader who answers his plea for affirmation with silent assent. For even if we distance ourselves from Walton with critical mockery, we listen to his tale and think about his predicament. The narcissism that he displays in his plea for understanding is, however biographically interesting for the author, another attempt to engage our interest and support for this adventure. Walton promises in return a report from the Coleridgean "land of mist and snow" (21); what more enticement do we need?

Walton, moreover, establishes his qualifications for such an enterprise: "A belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects, . . . hurries me out of the common pathways of men, even to the wild sea and unvisited regions I am about to explore" (21-22). The power of Walton's belief not only qualifies him singularly for the encounter he is about to undergo; but also it reminds us where we are and what is expected of us. Belief is in fact what Walton's letters are all about, and the language of belief animates his reports and teaches us how to enter this world of the unknown.

By participating in Walton's quest, we are prepared for the central focus of the novel; and by attending to his use of language here, we learn something about the epistemology of horror in Frankenstein. Walton's syntactical pomposity, his hyperbole, vivid description, imaginative figuration, rhetorical questioning, ejaculation, exclamation -- all these modes of expression suggest the "flashes, enigmas, short cuts, incompletion, tangles, and cuts" that Kristeva describes as the "crying-out" narrative theme of the horror of abjection (141).

Frankenstein answers Walton's desire for a friend. "For my own part," Walton says, "I begin to love him as a brother; and his constant and deep grief fills me with sympathy and compassion" (27). There is much that is suggestive about this immediate sympathy between Walton and Frankenstein, but to emphasize the mere fact of homosexual- {48} ity would be to miss its larger significance. For Walton must become a passive receptacle for Frankenstein's grief, more a symbolic sexual object than a literal one. In doing so, he fulfills his own responsive role and establishes an "I-Thou" receptivity that answers his belief with a mystifying and transforming, that is, with a mythic, experience.

Walton's presentation of Frankenstein's own narration recalls the moment of vision that Shelley recounted in her Introduction:

Even now, as I commence my task, his full-toned voice swells in my ears; his lustrous eyes dwell on me with all their melancholy sweetness; I see his thin hand raised in animation, while the lineaments of his face are irradiated by the soul within. Strange and harrowing must be his story. (31)
Walton's evocative style is his way of recreating this moment for his sister, and for us. But the terms are so clearly sexualized that they would be confusing if we did not understand that Walton's enthralled receptivity is the only possible response to Frankenstein's commanding authority. This is not sexuality in a merely physical sense, however; it is rather the sexuality of narrative, the intercourse of fictional belief. Walton must be fully receptive to the "strange and harrowing" story that Frankenstein has to tell; he has to subject his own subjectivity to the power of this Other in an "I-Thou" act of union, which allows him to transcend the limits of his own personality. Critics dismiss Walton as a pale version of Frankenstein, but who else could elicit this tale from the embittered creator and who else could teach us so precisely how to read it?

Walton's receptivity is rooted in his ability to accept what is strange and wonderful, his belief in the marvelous. Frankenstein has prepared Walton by challenging this ability: "Were we among the tamer scenes of nature, I might fear to encounter your unbelief, perhaps your ridicule; but many things will appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions, which would provoke the laughter of those unacquainted with the ever-varied powers of nature" (30). Surely our own receptivity, our own power of belief is being challenged here as well.

This "frame," then, introduces us into the world of Frankenstein and makes its ontological assumptions accessible to us. Newman speaks of "framing's double logic, the tendency of the frame simultaneously to establish boundaries and to announce, even to invite, their violation" (154). Walton seems to offer his own passivity as a way of breaking down the boundaries between subject and object and suffusing them with the glow of imaginative transfiguration. Just as Shelley was recep- {49} tive to her midnight vision and we have been receptive to the authority of that very personal tale, Walton opens up the possibility of Gothic fiction by agreeing to listen.12

If "the short story breaks up the familiar life- world of the everyday, defamiliarizes our assumption that reality is simply the conceptual construct we take it to be" (May 333) -- if it dramatizes through such defamiliarization and doubt the state of mind that Kristeva calls abjection -- then surely such a technique is at work in the opening pages of Frankenstein. Walton's letter begins to confuse our sense of inside and outside here, as the image of sexual receptivity graphically suggests, and to employ a language that can answer that new sense of reality, alive to the possibility of the subject/object collapse. Shelley accomplishes this by means of her own special version of "I-Thou," in which belief works to undermine all our assumptions about reality and perception.

Frankenstein's tale begins with a description of his happy but obsessive youth:

It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my enquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world. (37)
In his "fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature"(39), Frankenstein attempts to break down the rigid borders of selfhood and to convert the subject/object dichotomy of his world into a visionary "I-Thou." In speaking of the subject/object division as formative, Kristeva asks, "How can one prevent its misfires from leading either to the secret confinement of archaic narcissism, or to the indifferent scattering of objects that are experienced as false" (46). Clearly Victor Frankenstein is in danger of that first confinement, trapped in a subject/object paralysis that renders him remote from experience and unable to defy the conventional limits of privacy. This "secret confinement" suggests a narrative limitation as well, for as long as subject and object are opposed, Gothic fiction remains remote and unsatisfying.

Frankenstein the novel, however, dissolves this subject/object barrier, and in doing so, defies the conventional limits of the novel form and opens a new range of narrative possibilities. For Horace Walpole, "the great resources of fancy" had been "dammed up" by the forces of the conventional. Mary Shelley here shows how to break down those barriers and release the expressive potential of Gothic fiction. Unlike Wal- {50} pole, whose dream remains remote and unrealized, Shelley has managed to create a tale to harrow up our souls.

Frankenstein's moment of discovery helps to demonstrate how subtly she accomplishes this:

Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings. I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain. I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me -- a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised, that among so many men of genius who had directed their enquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.

Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. . . . I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter. (51-52)

Knowledge for Frankenstein is that "elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned" (Kristeva 1), a "journey, during the night, the end of which keeps receding" (8), and this eerie description embodies the culmination as well as the corruption of his quest. Because we are on this journey with Frankenstein, we attend to his process of discovery very carefully. It is as dazzling as it is horrifying, but exhilaration is at every stage undercut by the narrative procedure. Frankenstein's obsession with the boundary between life and death, his minute analysis of the sources of his abjection, suggests a hatred of nature -- his own nature as well as Nature -- and an inability to bring his knowledge into relation with himself.

This passage is often compared to that famous moment of narcissistic poeticizing in Percy Shelley's "Alastor." But the tone of the poet's confession in "Alastor" is strikingly different from that in Frankenstein:

Mother of this unfathomable world!
Favour my solemn song, for I have loved {51}
Thee ever, and thee only: I have watched
Thy shadow, and the darkness of thy steps,
And my heart ever gazes on the depth
Of thy deep mysteries. I have made my bed
In charnels and on coffins, where black death
Keeps record of the trophies won from thee,
Hoping to still these obstinate questionings
Of thee and thine, by forcing some lone ghost
Thy messenger, to render up the tale
Of what we are. (lines 18-29)
In this passage, we see the basis of the mythopoesis with which Shelley will be able to break through the boundaries of his narcissism. The poet addresses Nature directly, transforming personification into a personal encounter. As Bloom says in his discussion of "To Night," Shelley is "not personifying the phenomenon of night; that is, he is not animating what is for him not animate" (Shelley's Mythmaking 6). The "I-Thou" configuration creates the means of meeting the challenge of abjection and confronting the unknown. Even if the poet does not succeed, his act of love toward Nature promises him the possibility of future success. Scientific knowledge is secondary to personal knowledge, and the poet remains in mystery but outside himself.

Victor Frankenstein's investigations are more ghoulish and more successful, but they have nothing to do with poetry. (Indeed, he will have been responsible for the death of poetry, in the figure of Clerval, before his quest is completed.) Oddly passive in his pursuits -- "led to examine" and "forced to spend" -- his language suggests more a private compulsion than a personal receptivity. Because his interest is scientific rather than poetic, his relation to the world could be called "I-It." His sense of the subject/object split is rigid and isolating. Rather than seducing Nature, as the poet does, Frankenstein uses the material of his compulsive investigation to "[pursue] nature to her hiding-places" (54) and to violate her privacy. It is not an act of love; it is rape. In "examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation," [1.3.3] Frankenstein achieves knowledge but he sacrifices the "delicacy of the human feelings" and becomes inhuman in his discovery.

If we attend to Frankenstein, it seems to me, we feel slightly polluted by this violation of the bounds of nature. It is unsettling. Oddly, in the moment of the most brilliant illumination, Frankenstein questions his unique position and the nature of his triumph. He even reminds us of the possibility of madness, as if we would question the bold direct assertion with which the passage ends. The lightning flash of illumination bursts into this thunderous assertion of power. We understand this {52} struggle to overcome the boundaries of isolation, and we understand what it means to see our desires turn to corruption. Therefore we can believe in Frankenstein and even make the terms of his horror our own.

Kristeva uncannily describes the time when the abject is a "magnetized pole of covetousness." But, she says, "The clean and proper (in the sense of incorporated and incorporable) becomes filthy, the sought-after turns into the banished, fascination into shame. Then, forgotten time crops up suddenly and condenses into a flash of lightning an operation that, if it were thought out, would involve bringing together the two opposite terms but, on account of that flash, is discharged like thunder. The time of abjection," she says, "is double: a time of oblivion and thunder, of veiled infinity and the moment when revelation bursts forth" (8-9). Frankenstein's knowledge is fatal to his happiness -- he never emerges from the abjection into which he now sinks -- an abyss separating him from the world and condemning him to the isolation of his knowledge.

After Frankenstein has confronted his own hideous creation and fled from its frightening stare, he has a dream that complements Mary Shelley's original Gothic dream:

I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the street of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror. (58)
This dream has been much discussed, and I see no reason to rehearse its harrowing psychological implications. It is worth noting, however, how typically Gothic are these images of incestuous matricide and how deftly Shelley has introduced a putrefying corpse into her narrative.13 Without the squeamishness of Radcliffe or the sensationalism of Lewis (whose scene of incestuous matricide in The Monk is one of the most intense moments of Gothic confrontation in his text), Shelley has depicted Victor Frankenstein embracing the corrupted corpse of his dead mother. Before we look into Shelley's own family experience, we must remember what she was reading (she had just finished The Monk) and {53} what readers she was appealing to. The fact that so many critics have spent so much energy in arguing over the meaning of this scene suggests how fully successful she has been. It works, moreover, because we believe in Victor Frankenstein, and our belief liberates our literary preconceptions and inherent formal snobbery, compelling us to a "new perception of things" (Jauss 41).

The passage continues:

I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed.
The opening rendition of private horror is not so different from Raymond's sleepless horror at the Bleeding Nun in The Monk,14 but as the passage proceeds, it becomes different enough to convince many critics that they are not reading a Gothic work at all. It ceases to follow the rationale of horror and begins to assume a quality of haunting rare in other Gothic novels:
. . . when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch -- the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited; where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life. (58)
Moonlight is used here to create a world between light and darkness and to suffuse the scene with its unsettling glare. Just as the animated corpse seems a figure of death-in-life, so the moonlight is a light that suggests darkness -- later it becomes metaphorically associated with the creature. Here, it "force[s] its way through the window shutters," as a way of suggesting that Frankenstein cannot shut out the light of the knowledge he has discovered; nor can he himself hide from the pursuit of his creation, who here peeps into the bed in which he has sought refuge. A waking dream? The detail of observation -- the eyes, {54} the grin, the hand -- all suggest the grotesque reality of this vision and convince us that Frankenstein has really seen what he describes. More importantly, the emphasis is on response rather than observation. The personal pronoun "I" is the real center of attention, and the creature exists as an object, to be observed, to be feared, and to be rejected. This final portrayal of anxiety suggests that this haunting reaches beyond Gothic convention into the precincts of private horror. If we recognize a special quality to this anxiety, it resides perhaps in the last phrase: "the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life." This phrase dramatizes the horror directly, for "I" stands between the corpse and life and becomes the focus of what is growing desolation.

The corpse represents "fundamental pollution" in our culture, Kristeva says, a "body without soul," that the Bible emphasizes is to be "excluded from God's territory" (109). Frankenstein defies that taboo, but does so at the expense of his own subjectivity, which becomes polluted with the misery he himself creates. The object of his quest becomes an aspect of his subjectivity, and he is lost:

I passed the night wretchedly. Sometimes my pulse beat so quickly and hardly, that I felt the palpitation of every artery; at others, I nearly sank to the ground through languor and extreme weakness. Mingled with this horror, I felt the bitterness of disappointment; dreams that had been my food . . . were now become a hell to me. (58-59)
Frankenstein's private hell, with which the passage closes, is as realistic a haunting as we find in the Gothic novel. He attends to the physical dimensions of his horror, but the bitterness he describes results from the knowledge that it is the power of his own imagination that has been the measure of his undoing.

Shelley achieves novelistic success on her own terms because she has kept her haunting within the subjective focus and has emphasized less the delineation of the "monster" and more the terms of subjective response. Just when we might ourselves become focused on the creature, she insists on dealing with the response of the creator. Therefore the creation itself takes on a psychological dimension that gives the fantasy an otherwise inaccessible legitimacy. We suspend the empirical checks that we employ in novel reading, because Shelley has structured events here with the rationale of a tale. All that matters is that the horror itself is convincing; and, as it is depicted here, it could hardly be more so. Shelley has successfully transformed the novel form to achieve her Gothic ends. If there is an "ontological gap" between {55} the everyday world of the novel and the world of the tale, Shelley has brought the novel form across that gap and transformed it in her mythic narrative.15

Frankenstein constantly reminds us of the possibility that he is mad; again and again he repeats the unbelievability of his tale. Yet no one suggests that the monster is just a private fantasy. We read instead that the creature is an alter ego, not that he does not exist, but that he exists in order to be interpreted. Interpretation, however, already concedes belief. Frankenstein seems to think that no one will give credence to his tale; that anyone whom he approached would consider his tale the raving of a madman. Yet critics are constantly busy explaining in just what ways the creature is "real," for Shelley has conceived her tale so that we are incapable of dismissing it as madness.16

We do not doubt the existence of this creature from beyond the grave, because he makes so much sense. On the other hand, we never stop asking what Shelley means by creating him. He becomes so readily the material of psychoanalytic readings that imaginatively Shelley must have already understood the private implications of the work of her Gothic contemporaries, for only those confusions and inconsistencies that hamper the effectiveness of the Gothic novel are here avoided. Frankenstein baffles critics not because it is incoherent but because its coherence so ingeniously undermines our perspective. We are seduced, and abandoned.

Of course not all critics interpret Frankenstein psychologically. Those who do not, however, only expand the possible interpretations that Shelley's tale encourages. Surely there is every reason to think that Victor Frankenstein's haunting suggests the ruthlessness of patriarchy (Hodges), that Shelley felt that her interest in political despotism makes the novel a "feminist critique of her age" (Scott 193), and that a key concern here is the limitations of the "utilitarian vision of an engineered society" (Spivak 256). But this is the nature of the tale that Shelley has conceived. Its "meaning" is not determined by anything in the narrative, although various interpretations are possible. If most have been psychosexual, that says more about the nature of interpretation than about the meaning of Frankenstein. As Iser says, "Textual repertoires and strategies simply offer a frame within which the reader must construct for himself the aesthetic object. Textual structures and structured acts of comprehension are therefore the two poles in the act of communication, whose success will depend on the degree in which the text establishes itself as a correlative in the reader's consciousness" (Act of Reading 107).

The center of the novel, the inner layer of narrative, is of course the {56} creature's own story. Victor Frankenstein calls his creature "my own spirit let loose from the grave" (77), but this is hardly how we apprehend the creature as he tells his tale. His narrative ability rivals that of his maker. He speaks with an "eloquence" that is remarked several times by Frankenstein, as a warning as to where the real power in this work lies.17

Frankenstein meets his creature in the shadow of Mont Blanc, that image of natural power which for Percy Shelley suggests "the secret Strength of things / Which governs thought" ("Mont Blanc," lines 139-40). For Frankenstein, "These sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving" (96). Clouds cover the peaks, but he determines to "penetrate their misty veil, and seek them in their cloudy retreats" (96). Such language recalls his earlier frantic pursuit of nature. But the nature that he has so rudely forced now knows him too well, and it answers in the voice of the shadowy creature himself. "I am thy creature;" he exclaims, "I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy. . . . Hear my tale" (100-101). The disarming intimacy of his address, which gives the "I-Thou" configuration direct expression, suggests that the creature knows the degree to which his own subjectivity is dependent on that of this Other, his creator. But he has from the first been receptive to the fact of that Otherness in a way that Frankenstein has not. His response is natural, as are his demands. These are truly acts of "self-consciousness" in Bakhtin's terms (287), and they suggest the mystical otherness implicit in the Gothic: Buber suggests that anyone who "takes his stand in relation shares in a reality, that is, in a being that neither merely belongs to him nor merely lies outside him" (Buber 63; see Bloom, Shelley's Mythmaking 6). Frankenstein's creature understands that his only hope resides in this man who reviles him. His tale, therefore, represents this hope. It is a tale told to gain "compassion," but it is also told to challenge ("Listen to me; and then, if you can, and if you will, destroy the work of your hands" [2.2.6]) and to threaten ("On you it rests, whether I quit forever the neighbourhood of man, and lead a harmless life, or become the scourge of your fellow-creatures, and the author of your own speedy ruin" [101]). It has a clear enough moral to satisfy the critical strictures of the editor of The Quarterly Review. But placed in the center of Shelley's Gothic structure, it becomes the central version of abjection, isolation, and horror. Its simplicity makes it threatening and profound.

When Frankenstein's creature inhabits his hovel and peers into the domestic secrets of the De Lacey family, he is only mimicking the mo- {57} dus vivendi of his creator. Instead of the secrets of Nature, however, he learns the secrets of human nature: His education is the converse of that of Frankenstein. He speaks of old De Lacey's "benevolent smiles" (110) and the children's "trait of kindness" (111) before he can even understand their speech. And when he does begin to "unravel the mystery of their reference" (112), among the "most familiar objects of discourse" are "the words, fire, milk, bread, and wood," the cottagers' names, and their relations: "The girl was called sister, or Agatha; and the youth Felix, brother, or son" and "the old man had only one [name], which was father" (112). Heat, sustenance, and familial relations: These are what this creature first learns. This is the elemental world which in contrast to Frankenstein's mad pursuits seems to form the center of the novel: kindly, warm, and protected. The creature participates in this world vicariously and grows with its sorrows and its joys. The creature's growing self-awareness, however, represents at the same time a growing knowledge of his own monstrousness: "I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I? The question again recurred, to be answered only with groans." (121).

Gilbert and Gubar suggest that "the monster's narrative is a philosophical meditation on what it means to be born without a 'soul' or a history, as well as an exploration of what it feels like to be . . . a thing, an other, a creature of the second sex" (235). I agree that "the drastic shift in point of view that the nameless monster's monologue represents probably constitutes Frankenstein's most striking technical tour de force" (235), and I see no reason to resist their argument that the horror here is the horror of sexual difference. But if patriarchy fails in this novel, the terms of its failure suggest a human failing and not just a sexual one.

In his brief reading course in Western Civilization, the creature pursues Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. He is introduced to public and private virtue beyond his personal experiences in the hut, and tries to use his reading to learn about himself, to place himself in history and human experience. But this creature comes to understand that he has no relation other than that with his creator. This bond will not admit the consolation of family or the contextualizing breadth of the human community. It is as private and subjective as the Gothic experience itself. The creature, for all his receptivity, becomes as isolated, as abject, as his creator, destined to work out his identity in relation to him and to transform the meaning of solitude. {58}

The creature learns that his unnameability deprives him of the role he seeks within the family. De Lacey, in the moment of crisis, asks the one question that the creature has not learned to answer: "'Great God!' exclaimed the old man, 'who are you?"' (135). Critics have suggested that this De Lacey family represents a lost and lamented ideal in the novel and that Shelley is using it to criticize the isolationist heroics of her poet-husband.18 The creature's peremptory rejection by the kindly and benevolent De Laceys gains him our sympathies because the family carelessly rejects what it cannot name. This scene of rejection is violent and unyielding: "Felix darted forward, and with supernatural force tore me from his father . . . dashed me to the ground, and struck me violently with a stick" (135). Whether sentimental fiction or patriarchal society are at fault here, the scene is brutal and damaging.

Even this "happy" family, then, is in the end ruthless and self-protective. Its members reject what they do not understand, in this case a nameless and hideous creature who has emerged from the world of shadows to provide them with needed firewood and to clear their paths of snow. They take such aid for granted and reject its source. This act of rejection suggests the true limits of the domestic ideal, of the family itself, and even of the ontology of the everyday world. Far from holding up this familial circle as an ideal, Shelley seems to be exposing its own monstrosity.

What the creature comes to understand, then, both through his reading and his own private experience is the meaning in human terms of his difference: rejection and isolation, abjection and horror. Just as the domestic narrative is a closed form that cannot admit the "resources of fancy," so this happy family cannot admit the forces of darkness that give it life. Simple happiness comes to be seen as a limited and niggardly quality, because domestic tranquillity depends on a narrow conception of experience and a limited vision. The narrative in which such happiness is transcribed is ruthless in what it excludes and restrictive in what it offers. The family questions and rejects the possibility of transformation that the creature offers, just as the editor of The Quarterly Review refuses to acknowledge the transformation of fiction that this novel represents.19

The real haunting therefore seems to reside in the seeming domestic receptivity of what is in fact a closed domestic unit. The monster's plea for love and understanding contrasts vividly with the family's false promise of solace and peace. "Happy" Felix is transported by fury; Agatha faints; Safie flees: The family dissolves into a horrifyingly disfigured version of itself and then disappears.

{59} When the creature sets fire to this scene of his innocence and hope, he is dissolving the bonds he never could have had. This ritual burning seems much like a ghoulish rite of passage:

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 all 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 sunk, 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. (138-39)
This is too elaborate a description for the point to be mere rage and destruction. It is the creature's first destructive act, an act of self-realization that is carried out in a frenzy that we now understand. The creature here reverts to the elemental power from which he has sprung. The "insanity in [his] spirits, that burst all bounds of reason and reflection" is a natural power: This is who he is. The moonlit madness and the scream comprise a moment of Gothic intensity that has rarely been remarked.20 The "forked and destroying tongues" of fire suggest that this destructive urge has sprung from the conversational duplicity of the De Lacey family. Their honeyed words are here revealed in all their destructive power. This rage has also sprung from the kind of self-betrayal that the creature's attraction to the form of domesticity represents. This is a moment of transfiguration for the creature himself and for the terms of the narrative. It is a moment of personal liberation that suggests as well an explosion of the limits of narrative convention. Now the creature can say that he stands with "the world before me" (139): He has given up all worldly attachments in favor of his own will. The narrative can now assume the form of his own unconventional power.

The scene works because Shelley has suspended disbelief in such a way that we hear these ravings as if we were listening to the power of nature itself. This is the unnameable center of the novel, not the domestic tranquillity of the De Laceys. but this chilling scream of self- {60} recognition on the part of Frankenstein's wretched creation. All the potential horror of the tale is brought out directly in this revolutionary scene. The sentimentality fades away at this moment of self-confrontation, and the horrifying truth of private experience shatters conventionality with a new Gothic power. Critics have said that the monster tells a sentimental tale, but what really happens is that he listens to one, and it almost destroys him. Instead of fitting into a happy family community, this creature gives in to the elemental madness that is his real power. This is the real hero of Frankenstein -- a natural force that transforms the circumscribed terms of narration into the open and limitless potential of self-realization. Narrative reaches into the unnameable and redefines the terms of fictional experience.

Once he has accepted the truth of his nature, Frankenstein's creature becomes indestructible and increasingly vindictive. The power of nature is not a tame or friendly power after all. But his destructiveness is not arbitrary:

Unfeeling, heartless creator! You had endowed me with perceptions and passions, and then cast me abroad an object for the scorn and horror of mankind. But on you only had I any claim for pity and redress, and from you I determined to seek that justice which I vainly attempted to gain from any other being that wore the human form. (139)
An "unfeeling, heartless creator" has "cast [the creature] abroad [as] an object." This is what Frankenstein's act of creation embodied -- a ruthless possession of nature that refused to recognize any subjectivity but his own. He still sees his creation as an object and refuses to give it value. It is a cruel God that not only turns his back on his creation but also fails to acknowledge the terms of his existence. Frankenstein attempted to negate the creation by ignoring it and hoping it would go away. That is, instead of confronting the fact of intersubjectivity that his act of creation implied, he ran from it in horror, and now the object has returned to destroy him.

Frankenstein feels that to grant the creature subjective presence would be to accept his own final isolation and despair. That he cannot do. He clings to the solace of family and affection until all those closest to him have been slaughtered by his own creation. He becomes obsessed with an everyday world that the creature has blasted and cursed. The violence of the creature's vision of experience teaches Frankenstein finally what it means to be human. It teaches, that is, the horror implicit in life and the terror of all that lies beyond human {61} understanding, translating a private Gothic experience into publicly horrifying terms. It is Frankenstein's own version of a mystical experience.

The murders that ensue are a sign that violence has been released into the world. It is Frankenstein's violence, in that he created it, but it is also a natural violence that is beyond his power. Veeder suggests that the order of the deaths suggests a "scale of increasing intimacy" (153), and that the creature's ultimate goal is the destruction of the father. Because Victor himself is so quick to feel guilt about these deaths, the intention of the creature is often ignored. He is not driven by the will of Frankenstein; rather, he bases his action on his own emotion. He kills William out of a spirit of "eternal revenge" (142) and frames Justine out of frustration and fear: "The murder I have committed because I am forever robbed of all that she could give me, she shall atone" (144). These murders of a child and a servant/ward -- two members of the family group isolated from the father (Veeder 152) -- suggest an attack on the family itself. In their very distance from the father, these characters represent the protective quality of family and its generosity, those qualities of domestic narrative that the creature has already so vividly exposed as false. Justine's death has the further virtue, from this thematic perspective, of proving the falsity of law, of human judgment, and of the family unit itself. (Alphonse never believes her story.) Unlike Lewis or Maturin who so often introduce social concerns in contradiction to their Gothic obsessions, Shelley makes these social observations central to the Gothic experience she describes: Basic human inhumanity finally determines the Gothic nature of these killings. Indeed, once the creature has placed the incriminating (familial) evidence on Justine, the judicial and religious systems work perfectly: Justine is even forced to confess. No horror the "monster" perpetrates is any worse than this.

Furthermore, Frankenstein's familial relations, his attempt to recover happiness, make him vulnerable to the creature's attacks. To the degree to which he attempts to please his family and his friend, he brings destruction to them and pain to himself. The last deaths, those of Elizabeth and his father, are only his own fault in the sense that he tries to cling to some ideal of domestic happiness. His knowledge and power have placed him beyond the family, and by attempting to return he brings only the pathos of his own destructive self-contempt. These deaths are tormenting in themselves, but for Frankenstein, guilty reflection makes them even more harrowing. His own sense of responsibility and helplessness is what makes his suffering so great and his isolation so complete. "No one was near me who soothed me with the {62} gentle voice of love" (178), Frankenstein says after Clerval's murder. But this adult isolation is a lesson that experience should long before have taught him. His very brand of heroism and genius of course can mean nothing but isolation and death.

The creature mocks all Frankenstein's attempts at grief and especially his attempts to harness nature to his own power:

"By the sacred earth on which I kneel, by the shades that wander near me, by the deep and eternal grief that I feel, I swear; and by thee, O Night, and the spirits that preside over thee, to pursue the daemon, who caused this misery, until he or I shall perish in mortal conflict. . . ."

I was answered through the stillness of the night by a loud and fiendish laugh. (202)

The creature can laugh because Frankenstein attempts to employ myth-making language without really feeling its power. It is too late for him to commune with forces outside himself. His one mastery of that power he refuses to recognize, as the creature knows and his mockery here suggests. That does not mean that Shelley herself mocks any poetic exuberance of this kind. These powerful expressions of belief are only meaningless when used hypocritically. Elsewhere she has shown how uncannily meaningful they can be.

The final chase is a further mockery of the "mortal conflict" that Frankenstein predicts. Frankenstein is kept on the trail of his prey, no longer affecting any role other than that of a proud and contemptuous hunter. But of course he is really the hunted: He only survives through the creature's kindness and his contempt. Frankenstein's obsession has now taken full possession of him, and his horror is played out in this parody of his earlier investigations. Indeed, the form of the novel is repeated in this final chase, the hero in mad pursuit of an elusive communion with the unknown, when in fact a tormenting intimacy is already in place, to his utter frustration. This pursuit is doomed, and Frankenstein is at last left to his isolation, "drifting on a scattered piece of ice" (208). The frame closes -- we are brought back to the beginning of the novel -- as Frankenstein dwindles, weakens, and finally dies There is no success for Frankenstein: He remains trapped in the delusions of his own subjectivity.

We are in danger of feeling isolation and despair ourselves at the novel's close -- none of the lightning flash of creativity here, just an abject and pathetic end. In the final few pages, however, the central narrative and the frame are inverted, as Walton and the creature stand {63} face to face. "Blasted as thou wert," the creature says to the corpse of Frankenstein, "my agony was still superior to thine" (223). This odd reversal of the creation scene suggests that Frankenstein and his creature have at last achieved the consummation of their death-in-life/life-in-death existence. There remains only the creature's own funeral pyre, a self-assertive/self-destructive gesture signifying the power of what he is. Wailing in grief at his loss and addressing the withered corpse, the creature achieves an oddly heroic stature, more admirable, really, than Frankenstein has ever been. The creature speaks in human terms, but the power of his final suffering is surely superhuman, titanic. (Perhaps it is the creature who is Promethean -- brutally tormented for his attempt at doing good.) His suffering earns him the right to be considered human at last, but even Walton realizes that he is more than this. "I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames," the creature finally cries. "My ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds" (223). Thus he realizes his mythic power in nature, which has been reflected in the grandeur of his goodness and his villainy.

The novel ends with Walton's very careful report of his confrontation, a new level of challenge and belief. Walton turns back from his quest in part because he realizes what mysteries lie beyond his experience. Frankenstein has evoked that same sense of mystery for the reader, challenging each of us with our own fears of the unknown. As we watch the creature lose himself in "darkness and distance" at the novel's close, we realize that Shelley has brought a creature from her "world of shadows" to haunt us in our own. Her "hideous progeny" challenges our complacency and forces us to question our assumptions about the nature of experience. She has emphasized the personal nature of this tale to carry us into an uncanny world, strange and defamiliarizing. The enigma that is central, the enigma of the creature himself, challenges our sense of the limits of narrative -- our own as well as those of novelistic convention. The author has recounted in subjective and persuasive terms the nature of her own dream, and out of that she has created a monster both pathetic and frightening. She has worked out a narrative form that keeps us from rejecting the fantasy, and we are trapped in our response, both to create the horror for ourselves and to come to terms with it. From the first moment, we are subject to the workings of her imagination. We are ourselves "seduced" by narrative here, and we are left reeling with the "unnameable" power of the tale.


1. Kristeva says, in her Powers of Horror, that "what we designate as 'feminine,' far from being a primeval essence, will be seen as an 'other' without a name, which subjective experience confronts when it does not stop at the appearance of its identity" (58-59). With these words, Kristeva summarizes much of what has been written about this novel from the Freudian and feminist perspectives. By discussing the "two-sided sacred" and the nature of "the signifying process" itself, she offers useful insight into the Frankenstein myth.

2. See Hodges for a discussion of Shelley's ability to "subvert patriarchal narrative conventions" (155); also Levine, "Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism; and Dunn. For Dunn, "Frankenstein structurally dramatizes the failure of human community and implicitly challenges the reductive inclusiveness of more conventional fictional forms" (408).

3. See Macovski on the nature of confessional structures in Wuthering Heights and Foster on confession in fiction as representative of "patterns of power, desire, guilt and obligation" (7).

4. Hodges has written interestingly about this dream sequence: "Through the agency of dream," Hodges tells us, "this [patriarchal] order confronts something it cannot fully account for, something it has excluded or repressed. Such a bringing to the surface of a troubling otherness . . . has been described [by Helene Cixous] as an effect of women's writing. . . . The dream form of Frankenstein, then, might be seen as a transgression of the boundaries of patriarchal order (159).

5. Many critics have discussed the anxiety of motherhood in Frankenstein. See, for instance, Moers, "Female Gothic"; and Johnson, "My Monster/My Self."

6. In discussing the seductive quality of narrative in Frankenstein, I am indebted to Chambers and to Newman. My own reading of Chambers leads me to slightly different conclusions from those of Newman, but her study has also been useful to me throughout. "There is a sense," Chambers tells us, "in which the maintenance of narrative authority implies an act of seduction. . . . This is never more the case," he says, "than when the narrative content is acknowledged to be fictional: . . . the 'point' of the narration can only lie then in its obtaining from the narratee a specific type of attention" (51).

7. Chambers says that certain texts are "actively seductive in their mechanisms for ensuring the appropriate form of reader involvement in the mode of understanding they assume to be crucial" (217) and that this narrative situation leads to a "double perspective" of narrator and narratee (218), which is in turn explained by "the duality of the storytelling situation itself" (219). Although Chambers uses his analysis of stories by Balzac, Flaubert, James, and Joyce to generalize about the nature of fiction, we can appreciate the special appropriateness of an analysis that again emphasizes duplicity and doubling.

8. In his book Shelley's Mythmaking, Bloom begins by distinguishing "I-Thou" and "I-It" poetic experience, using Martin Buber's terms of distinction. Percy Shelley creates an "I-Thou" relationship in his poetry, according to Bloom. Sometimes "the poet enters into a relationship with a natural Thou, the relationship itself constituting the myth"; at other times, as "the Jews formulated the abstract, complex myth of the Will of God";"similarly, from his concrete I-Thou relationships, the poet can dare to make his own abstractions" (8). For Bakhtin, "The most important acts constituting self-consciousness are determined by a relationship toward another consciousness (toward a thou)" (287).

9. Buber, I and Thou 34. See May, especially 333.

10. Iser tells us that "the intended reader, as a sort of fictional inhabitant of the text, can embody not only the concepts and conventions of the contemporary public but also the desire of the author both to link up with these concepts and to work on them -- sometimes just portraying them, sometimes acting upon them" (Act of Reading 33).

11. For a discussion of narcissism in "Alastor," see Weiskel: "The narcissism of Alastor is . . . both incomplete and inverted. . . . Hence the fruitless search for a 'prototype': the narcissistic object cannot be recognized for what it is" (146).

12. I disagree with Newman's contention that the various narrators in Frankenstein "speak with an eloquence more expressive of a shared Romantic ethos than of differences in character" and that "the novel fails to provide significant differences in tone, diction and sentence structure that alone can serve, in a written text, to represent indvidual human voices" (146).

13. Certain critics have taken the Gothic heritage of Frankenstein more seriously than others. See, for instance, Kiely, chapter 8; Moers, "Female Gothic"; and Gilbert and Gubar 213-47.

14. Newman connects the story of Frankenstein's creature and Justine to Ambrosio's difficulties with Rosario/Matilda; see 151-52.

15. Lohafer discusses this "ontological gap" throughout her study, especially 52-57, where she considers "discontinuity" between real and fictive worlds.

16. In Todorov's terms, Frankenstein is simply marvelous. Shelley does not really cause us to doubt whether or not the creature exists. But Frankenstein is a marvelous work that nonetheless earns the right to Todorov's "fantastic" designation because it so perfectly convinces us of its own legitimacy, its rationale.

17. See Newman (155-57) for a discussion of this aspect of the creature's power; also Hodges: "His success at acquiring language is manifest in the eloquence of his narrative" (160).

18. For instance, Veeder talks about the "viability of the domestic ideal" in relation to the De Lacey family (210); Dunn speaks of the "domestic ideals" that this family represents and that become inaccessible to the creature. Dunn decides, however, that "this encounter of the Creature with the De Laceys comes as a hideous parody of sentimental fiction's blissful domestic scenes" (414).

19. Hodges suggests that in Frankenstein Shelley demonstrates "the inadequacy of the paternal narrative by opening it up to what it excludes" (156) and claims that "like Shelley herself, the monster asserts his desire to conform to the expectations of society" and that "what is repressed by society cannot be included on any terms without causing its maddening dislocation, or more positively, without causing its transformation" (161-62).

20. As an exception, see Griffin, "Fire and Ice in Frankenstein" 68-69.