Contents Index

Frankenstein and the Physiognomy of Desire

John M. Hill

American Imago, 32 (Winter) 1975, 335-358

{335} Beginning with the commonplace that Frankenstein is a family romance, I will argue that its essential theme is promethean sin -- a theme uniting an incredible complex of psycho-biographical motives. I will trace a few strands of what I take as the dominant motive, not because the rest proves incidental, but because an adequate treatment of psychological material in Frankenstein requires book- length scope. The dominant incestuous root for Promethean sin seems to take hold in uncompromising psychic wishes for exclusive love, and in possession of the mother -- the source of first love. Commentators have noted odd familial relations in Mary Shelley's novel, but they usually avoid its psychological density or mistake the motives involved.1 In this study, I hope to expose some of that material, begin exploring Mary Shelley's deep motives, and acknowledge her wisdom in these matters. Principally, I will draw on general Freudian suggestions and allow the novel to fulfill or qualify the cogency of such awareness in its narrative progress. To astonishing extent, Mary Shelley {336} half knows much of what her fiction is about. In this, she knows more than her obsessive character, Victor Frankenstein, even as he approximates self-recognition. And the novel tells us more than even Mary can countenance.

Paradoxically, Frankenstein has yet to receive close scrutiny in any of its psychological aspects by those most attracted to that material.2 Even readily explicable psychological terrain is unexplored if not unnoted territory. Various formulas of incest wish or obsession with paternity have been offered, but they eventually prove unsatisfactory when faced with the novel's many developments. We need a contextual orientation in meeting this novel, especially if we attempt any of its depths, even as we recognize that the complex unconscious it harbors cannot be fully plumbed. As with Frankenstein, the attentive reader also encounters his creature "among the precipices of an inaccessible mountain."3 To attempt the unconscious and force an unmasking of its strange nature is "to overtake the winds or confine a mountain stream with a straw" (p. 75). We finally cannot altogether parse the deep language of the unconscious, even as Victor Frankenstein wants a language to express his hell. But we remain priviledged: as readers we see the obliquities of desire Mary Shelley spins out; and we can begin tracing a few of them into designs of half-knowledge, if only we allow the novel to speak what it will. Then, perhaps, we may transcend formula, engage something of the evil spirits and new deities encountered by Mary Shelley in this her most profound descent "into the {337} remotest caverns of mind."4 Knowledge of what our desires will sometimes bespeak, awareness of subconscious struggles for exclusive love, and recognition of what Mary would require for health of mind and heart should come of such engagement.


One evening after talk of ghosts, reanimation and galvanism, Mary Shelley finds herself possessed by an uncanny imagination. She recalls being "guided" beyond the usual bounds of reverie or day-dream, having received as gifts a series of images. With "acute mental vision" she sees "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together": a half-animated, hideous corpse or" cradle of life" (xi). This account, from her 1831 preface, is known to all students of the novel. What we have not seen, perhaps because of its familiarity, is the purport of Mary's explanation. She attempts to indicate how much the central event in her fiction is a personal nightmare, a woman's dream.5. She has {338} created a fiction out of nightmare. Indeed, the terrible figures of dream are subjected to aesthetic controls, elaboration, palliating disguise and finally purgation. In the process, if we know how to look, much of what those figures signify is revealed. Their story is spoken, as with dream, in the oddities of expression cast in relief against conscious awareness. Through such speaking Mary achieves a critical distance from the promethean material of both her nightmare and her fiction.

The unhallowed self projected in dream is displaced through fiction from the waking self. There Mary would tame what consciousness finds repugnant even as the artist pursues structures for the expression of same. By looking at the progress of this in the novel we discover interconnected domains: especially that of the psychic life which inhabits us in relation to the waking world of civilized affections we inhabit in turn. Frankenstein, alone throughout the novel, negates every important tie of that waking world in the pursuit of his desires. Everything he pursues is destructive of community, cooperation and the great public affections of civilization. He even destroys the very family within which all his sublime pleasures are nourished. In doing so he destroys the sublimations of ideal family bonds and confronts us with the absolutism of secret desire. The problem posed here is momentous: how do we, at what cost, reconcile our most intense wishes with moderated life among men in open community? Mary answers by dramatizing obsessive regression in Frankenstein's life. She reveals the cost of failure to curb wishes of the unconscious. Implicitly, we must live a comparative moderation of our desires if we want sanity. To avoid self-destruction, we must accept less than we would should our unconscious gain motive access to the powers of waking mind. The entire focus on Frankenstein, then, is critical if sympathetic, negative and revealing. And interestingly much is done in the fiction in modes familiar to psychoanalysis: through dream and recollection of childhood.

Turning first to dream, essentially to dream within dream, we gain enduring clues as to the significance of Frankenstein's creature. Having awakened his creature, Frankenstein flees, {339} his two-year pursuit yielding an experience of revulsion. But instead of a sleep of forgetfulness, which he consciously desires, he dreams of a blooming Elizabeth met with in the streets of Ingolstadt. She is his dear foster-sister, whom he has not seen for two years. He embraces her, kisses her, and instantly her lips assume "the hue of death": "her features appeared to change, and I thought I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms." Then awake, in horror he beholds "the wretch -- the miserable monster whom I have created" (pp. 56-57). Is this the monster of incest? Yes, and more: "The wretch" is the embodied life of Frankenstein's desire to possess the mother, which has as its waking focus an intense possession of Elizabeth, the substitute mother, one's own peer, whom Victor long ago considered his exclusive possession and whose existence, he later feels, is bound up in his (p. 87). That he should dream of meeting, embracing and kissing Elizabeth after fleeing from his quickened creature suggests a double consciousness: waking thoughts flee the desires his creature manifests -- as signified by its physiognomy -- and which Frankenstein has brought forth from the charnel house of his unconscious. But the real wish gains partial beauty in dreams, yet under horrific censorship. Upon awakening, Frankenstein sees his creature, the now independent life he has brought forth. But all he sees is physiognomy invested with his desire -- a physical correlation for his deep wishes projected, under censorship through consciousness, onto the other.

The sequence of images, one fading into another, the third grinning at him in waking sight, defines the objects of desire and the actuated desire itself. That Frankenstein would embrace the mother in Elizabeth, the dead mother, gives us a parameter for his motives in creating life: he is possessed by the subconscious need to repossess, that is, recover the mother. Indeed, he would recreate her for himself. This last desire is the more primitive of the two: its roots antedate the mother's literal death and manifest themselves in a childhood urgency to penetrate the secrets of heaven and earth. The key in all of this is a desire to be loved, but loved alone, exclusively, and therein to virtually possess the source of love. Such possession would inherently prevent any possibility of the loss of love {340} or denial of love by the object of love. Such a motive may suit the child who feels motherless or denied, perhaps like the motherless child in Mary Shelley.6 Through Frankenstein she may live out her desires for the mother she never had, even as she gains detachment from them in an authorial otherness productive of wisdom. I think we can see enough in her life that would call for the recovery of love and the objects of love, crucially denied by death. Not only is her own mother a creature of fantasy and image, dead before Mary is three weeks old, but her baby girl has died in the year preceding the writing of Frankenstein. That death gave rise to a hopeless dream in which Mary revives a merely cold baby by the fireside.7 She adjusts to this loss, much as to more troubling deaths a few years later. But in Frankenstein I think the sex of the second monster is not gratuitous. It is the female which Victor's creation, the creature of desire drawn from nightmare, demands for itself. Here, however, something fails Victor and perhaps Mary as well. The second creature, if realized into waking life, would bring wish and reality into shockingly close correspondence, even for fictional dream. So the fantasy, coming too close to consciousness, is prevented or aborted. Along the way much is revealed about the psyche Mary has invested in her central character.

Several times after William's death, especially when Frankenstein sees his creature in the space of a lightning flash, he nearly acknowledges its psychological relation to himself. He has already half-betrayed himself to an unwitting Clerval, his devoted friend (this during a fit of demonic possession {341} [p. 60]). And now he considers the creature "nearly" his own vampire "spirit cut loose from the grave and forced to destroy all that was dear to me" (p. 74). A little later he recalls wandering "like an evil spirit, for I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible, and more, much more (I persuaded myself) was yet behind" (p. 86). The language reflects Frankenstein's bare hold on a delusion of difference between himself and his creature ("nearly," "I persuaded myself"). It also reveals depths: the vampire spirit is "forced" by something deeper. "More was yet behind," as if no melodrama of gothic possession can quite fathom what has happened. Perhaps we can begin a relevant descent -- beneath the gothic horror of vampires and evil spirits -- by tracing the obliquities of desire revealed in Frankenstein's childhood, at first blindly by himself. One element has already been anticipated: the need for exclusive love. Recovery of the dead purposes a recovery of the mother; recovery of the mother means absolute possession and therein total love in return. It is this which provokes oddity in Frankenstein's recollections of familial love, especially his professions of complete happiness in the face of contradictory memories.


Frankenstein begins his story with an account of his mother's father. He might have begun anywhere in early childhood, even at the point of first enthusiasm for knowledge. Indeed, he tells Walton -- a kindred figure redeemed by connections to family, community and humane feeling -- that the narrative of childhood is an attempt to relate those events which led "to my aftertale of misery, for when I would account to myself for the birth of that passion which afterwards ruled my destiny I find it arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources" (p. 38). We then move to Frankenstein's thirteenth year and, presumably, his idea of "sources" -- his predilection for natural philosophy. It seems he does not know what to mention prior to self-conscious pursuit of nature's secrets, and so he begins with a vision of mother before she became a wife, indeed, while still a poverty- stricken orphan at her dead father's bedside. If we {342} grant this .beginning as fortuitous we have still to explain the various leaps, shifts, disjunctions and repetitions which follow in Frankenstein's narrative. Perhaps by noting them we can articulate those "ignoble and almost forgotten sources" brilliantly intuited by a novelist whose ego includes several oblique cries for itself.

The mother, Caroline, is the daughter of the father's friend and peer, Beaufort, a recluse in his broken fortune. In marrying Caroline, then, the father essentially marries a faithful daughter. It is as if Mary herself -- who treats father-daughter incest in Mathilda -- calls out in much of her fiction, 'Father, don't marry her, marry me' -- this to Godwin, her beloved father (who, incidently, has severe financial problems during Mary's adolescence). The her in question is Godwin's second wife, Mary's stepmother from the age of four onward. An image of Mrs. Godwin will appear later in the novel as the character Justine's unaccountably cruel mother.8 Caroline, poor and orphaned, is repeated in Elizabeth (the foster-child Victor Frankenstein later embraces in his dream). The one reincarnates the other. For that matter, Elizabeth virtually rings celestial in her angelic being. Both bespeak a double image: the idealized daughter and the angelic mother. As daughter-image, they bespeak Mary the "abandoned" child, sent to Scotland at the request of a harried and jealous mother-in-law.9 Such literal "abandonment," however, doubtless follows upon years of psychological resentment and feelings of {343} displacement as Mrs. Godwin takes her place in the father's house, bringing with her two favored children from a previous marriage. Mary would have life with father -- which she had for part of her early childhood -- and eliminate the odious Mrs. Godwin (along with those.children). But the melodrama in Frankenstein immediately reaches deeper than a girl's vengeful daydreams in love with her father. Caroline repeated in Elizabeth is chosen by the mother not the father and "given" to Victor Frankenstein -- who thinks of her as his "more than sister." Befriended by the mother, she is possessed by the son.10 The mother also befriends Justine, the third image of Mary and perhaps the closest to a disguised biographical sketch.11 Justine in turns loves Caroline, not her actual mother, but a true mother. And she so closely imitates the mother in manner and behavior that Elizabeth twice mentions it in a letter to Frankenstein. When we look closely we see everything revolving around the mother -- including the father's protective attentions. The relations depicted in the melodrama are characterized by filial devotion. But underneath that melodrama, providing much of its odd emotional intensity, lies a sexual infatuation which Helene Deutsch understands as presupposing "a strong persistence of the mother tie."12 Sexual infatuation would here become homosexual did it not reach to such deep levels that in Frankenstein's creature's profession of love for the sleeping Justine we have a primitive sexual wish which has no particular male or female orientation. {344}

To summarize these relationships: the bad mother wants replacing; the good daughter would be mother, wife and daughter to the father. This requires identification with the beloved mother. But that identification is a double fantasy: based on psychic wish and total loss of such a mother from one's life; which in turn touches a psychic cavern (to use a Romantic metaphor) within Mary's unconscious. She enters and finds herself in the presence of infantile desire to possess the mother, exclusively. That desire gains embodiment in a nightmare of recalling the dead to life, of creating life from death. In relation to that nightmare, the desire to take the mother's place with the father, and evict the bad mother, is real enough (even half-conscious) but only a disguise mechanism. It represents the complete introversion of the desired, but idealized mother into the self. Thus the account of the Beauforts does not so much prepare us for the father's character, as Frankenstein claims: it establishes the good mother's centrality -- to a version of which in Justine the creature of desire suddenly professes its desperate love. Taking all the mother figures together we have the following: Caroline is the daughter as mother; Elizabeth is the mother as babe, rendered one's peer, therein to be treasured and possessed; Justine is the mother's daughter, the seeker for the idealized mother in rejection of the actual mother, and the mother imitated.

But we anticipate too much. Frankenstein recalls, "I, their eldest child, was born at Naples" (p. 33). Moreover, "I remained for several years their only child," born to a "fair exotic" of a sheltered mother. The emphasis on "I" is not telling in itself; but when compounded with assertions of priority of place and exclusive status despite the parents' wish for a daughter, it becomes notable. "For a long time I was their only care" (p. 33); "I continued their single offspring" (p. 33); "I was their plaything and their idol, and something better -- their child" (p. 33); "they fulfilled their duty towards me" -- these suggest more than neutral memory. They may recall Mary's own early childhood with Godwin, before he remarried. In a significant sense she was the only "child": Godwin's and Mary Wollstonecraft's only offspring {345} (her mother had another child, by a former lover). Moreover, Frankenstein does not require such emphases to tell the story he understands -- only Mary does. She locates one "forgotten source" in early childhood, in the child's sense of exclusive adoration by its parents, without competitors. But even here all is not complete bliss, as Frankenstein would imagine. He forever betrays himself -- the role Mary gives Victor's memory, while she remains uncognizant of deep implications in his betrayals even as she anticipates their eventual ripening into full-scale obsession.

Frankenstein emphasizes himself, alone, exclusively loved by his parents. He notes their parental fund of love; he remembers that they loved each other, yet "seemed to draw inexhaustible stores of affection . . . to bestow . . . upon me" (p. 33). Much lies behind that seemed. Mary intuits the child's attentive suspicion. In part she no doubt fulfills a wish that Godwin and his second wife had together bestowed "inexhaustible stores of affection" upon her (which Mrs. Godwin apparently did not); in part she demands absolute love, that is, the primitive child in her does; in part she may touch subtle resentments toward her dead mother for abandoning her, for remaining Godwin's beloved -- he kept a portrait of her in his study which did not come down when he remarried. But attentive suspicion controls all of these factors: the child wonders what the parents keep to themselves ("Much as they were attached to each other"), when love will diminish or be withdrawn. We already know that the father shelters the mother, actively protects her as a gardener would from "every rougher wind" (p. 33), and for whom? Certainly for himself, which is part of his benign character. The child, however, may interpret or suspect otherwise. Sensing a parental attachment exclusive of him, he may see the father negatively, as a threatening guardian of the desirable mother. In the novel none of this becomes overt. Indeed, the primitive child accepts less than he perhaps would, but only as long as he remains the exclusive child and center of parental attention. Frankenstein remarks that parental duties were fulfilled toward him, as if such were his due, as if feelings of neglect or incipient injustice would otherwise break the surface of {346} familial harmony. "I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control, I was guided by a silken cord that all seemed but one train of enjoyment to me" (p. 33).

Noting such lessons if nothing troubled one's consciousness of things would be odd. Of course, those lessons anticipate their failure in Mary's planning of the narrative, as well as in Frankenstein's. But they suggest more than convenient background or preparation for tragedy. Later Frankenstein will speak of a superlatively happy childhood with his ideal parents. But he will also speak of gratitude assisting "the development of filial love" (p. 37). "Assist" would not be necessary if all was more than happy, if no ambivalence is felt toward parents who keep some "attachment" between themselves undivulged to the child. Perhaps the singularly loved child nevertheless feels abandoned in some way, and his intense desire to know from what he has been excluded leads to a desire to know the secrets of nature. Such a deflection from his real aim could derive from the strength of the parents' mutual attachment and any paternal threat sensed or imagined by the child. In this we would expect hostility toward the father, especially as the pursuit o[ those secrets gains force. The apparent lack of a strong ambivalence toward the father in Frankenstein, then, could prove dismaying. Mary's deep concern for the mother- child relation, along with her conscious need for love between daughter and father, may account for this. Yet the primitive child in the daughter would compete for the mother, imagining herself the beloved child. Perhaps Victor Frankenstein's sex reflects a disguise borne of identification with the father in a partial attempt to take his place. At least it disguises Mary's desires by projecting them onto an eventually obsessed son.

The novel does not fully resolve this problem, but neither is it completely mute. Twice Frankenstein implicitly blames his benign father, especially with reference to pursuit of alchemical writings, and nowhere is he especially a male child, a boy among boys. The first of these points is more important because it justifies the child's sense of things: he sees himself as inexplicably impassioned, something the father neglects; the child then thinks of himself as abandoned to {347} struggle as he will by a blameworthy father. A somewhat similar response comes from the creature as it prepares to frame Justine, blaming her as the source of its crime, its murder of William. But a closer connection exists in Walton's account of his desire to undertake voyages of exploration, which the father explicitly forbade. In this case the father is not blameworthy; he is openly hostile.

Now the silken cord of restraint and seeming enjoyment noted above becomes sensible: it marks a substratum of resentment, of feelings of exclusion and near abandonment tolerated only as long as one is the only "child" (the sole child of the parents). The discovery of Elizabeth in a peasant's home threatens this compromise; she, however, is dealt with by an additional adjustment, becoming a mother-peer-possession in Frankenstein's imagination. She is a fantasy sister, "my more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only" (p. 34). This is a displacement of attitudes borne of later developments to early childhood. And it marks Frankenstein's close relationship to the fantasy sister. He never either desires or identifies with a male peer: even his boyhood friend, Clerval, is mainly important as a nurse later in the fiction. Long after the mother's death, and upon inquiry from his father, Frankenstein confesses to loving no one else alive more than Elizabeth. (I think "alive" is telling in virtue of his nightmare: of those alive he both loves and identifies most with Elizabeth; but his love here is only next best to his desire for the beloved mother she reincarnates). In this sense Elizabeth becomes a means of circumventing the father-mother attachment and thereby gaining sole possession of the mother. A potential threat is transformed by extraordinary possessiveness into a consolation. Yet even as consolation Elizabeth reminds the subconscious of the true object: the fantasy mother who would deny her child nothing, and whose image exists only in the dissolving spectres of nightmare.

Victor has Elizabeth, but his desires grow nevertheless. Perhaps each consolation only feeds the depths of desire it would mitigate. Suddenly we are told that Elizabeth "busied herself with following the ariel creations of the poets" and contemplated "the magnificent appearances of things," while {348} Frankenstein remembers being "deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge" (p. 36). Elizabeth's interests are shadows of Frankenstein's benignly pursued, perhaps reflecting Mary's preoccupations as an adolescent girl in Scotland.13 Frankenstein may represent thirsts Mary would never acknowledge as part of her past or present, but which doubtless underlie her interest in the appearances of things.14 Frankenstein is a figure out of Mary's nightmare; but his biography is a secondary invention from which Mary distances herself, and through which she deals with the desires he embodies. He ascribes his thirst for knowledge to his "ardour" -- a curious ascription of one emotion to another. Yet nothing in the novel is more suggestive for Frankenstein than his "ardour," and the word therefore holds portents for us. It differentiates him from kindred spirits, and its repeated use in obsessive contexts recalls its ancient connotation: a fierce and evil desire, while to consciousness it retains the modern sense of a noble passion. In Frankenstein's case the aura of the word is uncanny, never innocent. He is possessed by his ardour, which leads him to thirst for knowledge beneath the appearances of things, and to apply himself thereto with strange intensity. Elizabeth is satisfied with ariel shapes and magnificent appearances -- not so with Frankenstein. Clerval pursues the moral relations of things and seeks his place in a high arena among similarly minded men -- not so with Frankenstein, despite occasional remarks to the contrary. He dislikes crowds, prefers a secluded, even reclusive life, chooses a few dear friends, but remains a separate reclusive barely tempered by Elizabeth's benign presence. And what does he pursue beneath the appearances of {349} things? He distrusts seemings, perhaps especially that first seeming, his parents' "inexhaustible stores of affection," and later the seeming pleasures of a silken cord of lessons. What is denied him? Why does he feel sullen? Neither Frankenstein nor Mary clearly knows the point of those recollections. But the novel whispers their purport. "The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine" (p. 36). Causes, laws in themselves are not objects of rapture: only as they are uncovered, as they are part of the hidden and the secret. What, the child asks without knowing it, do my parents keep from me in their attachment to themselves? What in their attachment to each other? What are their secrets? How can I recover the mother who kept no distance between herself and me, who was not the father's wife? Elizabeth, the orphaned peer, the "wife" without a husband, the "mother" without a father, becomes the waking embodiment of such a mother -- the saintly "shrine dedicated lamp" to the possessing self in Frankenstein. Victor, moreover, is her husbandman, not the father. We may now see the alchemical pursuit of the secrets of heaven and earth as an obsession with secrets possessed by the parents, a desire to break their accord of exclusion, thereby repossessing the mother and her sole attentions. This is Victor's ardour, his heated, alchemical passion. The full birth of such desire into waking day is Frankenstein's creature, who eventually demands a sexual partner, who whispers to a sleeping Justine: "'Awake, fairest, thy lover is near -- he who would give his life but to obtain one look of affection . . . awake'" (p. 137). How much would Mary have given to break the accord between her father and Mrs. Godwin? How much more would she have given to obtain affection from her ideal mother, the beautiful Mary Wollstonecraft?

Despite Frankenstein's remembrance of an idyllic childhood, the material of that childhood forms a queerly connected whole of contradictory feelings and confounded recollections. Immediately prior to a recollection of happiness, Frankenstein hints at the reclusive child he was, suggests a dark temper, later a violent temper. Were it not for Elizabeth he would have become sullen and rough in his ardour. Mary works intuitively with her character, and such work has led to a truism of {350} Frankenstein criticism which holds that Frankenstein lacks self- knowledge and any sense of responsibility toward his creature. The signs of inner disturbance are not recognized for what they are by the narrating "patient." But then how can anyone other than a morally piggish critic expect a figure such as Frankenstein to be given full recognition and take full responsibility for the demons of his unconscious? Even his creature, much aware of the acts it commits, cannot fathom the depths of passion which urge vengeance. The creature feels mastered, much as Frankenstein's imagined vampire spirit is forced by something deeper. We should, then, take Frankenstein's vagaries to heart: they indicate delusion, ignorance and helplessness as much in his life as in that of the creature's.

Although the creature murders William and frames Justine, it cannot conceive of itself as other than good, as other than benign.15 Similarly, Frankenstein remembers a childhood of bliss, of knowledge gained, nature explored and Elizabeth possessed as a dear companion. Essentially he remembers his desires as good in themselves and good in their satisfactions. He overlooks untoward remembrances much as his creature dismisses murderous acts -- those momentary aberrations born of painful frustration. Neither has full knowledge of himself or of the other. But each expresses a truth: the deep wishes of our unconscious are oriented toward unalloyed goods. In consequence they can only be good wishes. Indeed, how can psychic desire conceive of itself as other than good since its object is good?

Granting this as underlying the novel's Godwinian idealism in the conception of the creature as a natural man, what do we make of the murders? The creature justifies itself and even assumes full responsibility for deeds of vengeance, which it also finds searing of heart. Yet it cannot altogether answer for itself, especially as it too feels mastered, or ascribes {351} the source of murder to the object of desire. And perhaps we can do little better than the creature in our rationalizations as we hazard the depths of this doctrinally influenced fiction. But I think the attempt is worthwhile, and has already yielded something of the novel's psychodynamic.

William, the first victim, sees the creature as an ogre who would devour him. He rejects the creature's friendly advances and calls on his father's name in defense. The creature thinks Victor is meant -- "'you belong to him'" -- and takes its revenge. Bitter failure nourishes destruction: "'I too can create desolation; my enemy is not invulnerable'" (p. 137). The desolate, abandoned and vilified soul turns murderous. This, an overt melodrama, expresses the latent thought of sullen impulses. But beneath latent thought is deep wish, which brings the wretch to create desolation. Rejected in love, in family and companionship, the creature is an outsider, the impulsive child who feels excluded from the parents' mutual attachment -- especially from the father's possession of the mother (the creature has already been denied love from humans, especially from a beautiful woman, whose affection it would have secured by befriending a blind old man -- her father). His response is to eliminate whomever would call in kinship on the simultaneously beloved and hated father. William, in the extreme moment, is perceived as unbearably priviledged -- exactly what one would want for oneself. Moreover, he is the mother surrogate's darling, something Frankenstein knows before the independent creature meets William (perhaps this reflects Mary's ambivalence toward William, the only off-spring of Godwin and Mrs. Godwin. The sweet William is also Mary's babe, her second child with Shelley. Godwin's William, of course, can be seen as unbearably priviledged, loved by the foster mother). In calling upon the child's double adversary -- he who withholds love and keeps the mother (in relation to his creature Frankenstein does both) -- the creature responds appropriately on all levels of identification. Afflicted as Frankenstein is, his desire would be revenged on such a father and kill if not devour the rival, especially a rival in love, a boy who was Caroline's "youngest darling" as well as Justine's (the motif of oral hostility may {352} reflect archaic sources of desire).16 Significantly, Frankenstein receives an important letter from Elizabeth, in which William is dotingly mentioned, after miserable failure in the outcome of his too successful creation.17

Justine is a complete innocent. The creature frames her for a rejection not made, but which it reasonably expects. Convicted by circumstantial evidence -- much as the creature thinks only appearances convict it -- Justine's case mocks the father's law and, by implication, the hated bad father who would deny one access to love.18 The surrogate mother is {353} sacrificed out of maliciousness, then, toward the father (who urged faith in the justice of Geneva's laws), as if to say: 'here, you take her, kill her as I know you will whereas I would love her.' The creature is William's ogre; such a father is the creature's, whom it disdains in consciousness. Yet we need further entry into this melodrama. Justine is a version of Mary, which requires more explanation of her significance than we have just given.

As an innocent, Justine pleads her case (before the father as judge, with Frankenstein in complicity by virtue of his silence) and would identify with her true or fantasy mother. Thus she would reject her evil, but actual mother (a version of Godwin's second wife) yet be murdered in turn -- suggesting considerable hostility toward an imitation of the good mother, and therein the denied mother herself. Initially, however, to love Justine is to love the self: an element of compensatory narcissism emerges. The creature would love Justine, whom it finds less attractive than the miniature of the mother. Yet to love the self which imitates the mother is not sufficient -- this we know in virtue of all our desires. Moreover, we know that our conscience, our waking thought, would articulate those desires in horrific terms. Therefore we betray the mother-identified self we would love and deliver it up a victim to the father's law. Simultaneously we demonstrate the paradoxical impotence of that law and eliminate another rival for love of the mother -- self-love. Elimination of that obstacle leaves Clerval and Elizabeth, and of course the hated fantasy father who, as the most important antagonist, is most deeply repressed and dealt with last. He is repressed into the disguise of ailing benignity, but finally allotted a broken-hearted death.19 His death sets Frankenstein free of the family. Only Ernest remains, apparently of no significance, as Victor madly pursues his passion.

{354} The third victim, Clerval, has the misfortune of prospering concurrently with Frankenstein's decline. Moreover he would draw Frankenstein away from the intimate family to a public family of man. In Clerval, Frankenstein sees something of his former self. That alone might arouse envy or hostility in the ever constant desirer. More disturbing, however, is Clerval's influence: he would draw Frankenstein away from his narrow obsessions, nurse him to Clervalian health in the public world of moral relations. This would mean the repudiation of Frankenstein's basic desires. No wonder, then, that in a rage of loss and desolation Frankenstein's creature strangles the dear friend, the close companion of his childhood. Clerval would become another silken cord of guidance; indeed, he would become what he never was in Victor's childhood -- a subliming influence. That place was and is still filled by Elizabeth. Clerval comes too close to Frankenstein's inner struggle and is killed in a moment of rage following bitter frustration. The creature has just been rebuffed in its desire for the female, for love and possession. In response it fulfills Frankenstein's forebodings with respect to Clerval. Pity the true friend who would wean his friend from an obsession the former has no awareness of. Only Elizabeth remains, the center of childhood solace.

The next victim pitches Frankenstein into near insanity. His father's death makes madness virtual: "I lost sensation, and chains and darkness were the only objects that pressed upon me" (pp. 188-189). If we pity Clerval, what do we feel for Elizabeth? The murdered bride is victim of a tempest of sexual desire and anxiety. For Victor the wedding night is "dreadful, very dreadful" (p. 185). Elizabeth falls victim to incestuous desire for the mother she reincarnates. Frankenstein even thinks of her as his consolation prize for the task of creating the female creature.

Creating the female to satisfy the first creature is a giving way to those "sympathies" which result in children. This is the most trying of all in that it arouses every sexual anxiety, desire and hope. We have moved from the creature's adoration of Justine to its sexual demand for a female mate, and beyond to Frankenstein's sexual anticipation of love for Elizabeth. {355} If he was hypersensitive, guilt-ridden, unholy and profane before -- when creating the first creature -- what must he feel now as he contemplates the second one, the essential fulfillment of his nightmare desires? He feels as if he has struck a demon's bargain, and when "enfranchised" from his "miserable slavery," would claim Elizabeth and "forget the past" in union with his more than sister. Yet the prospects ahead become his only reality. All else seems a lifeless dream. Far from forgetting the past he is mastered by its desires. Distance and isolation displace recognition of what he does -- attempt the recreation of the mother who could never deny her creator-son. This is, I think, the basic significance of recovering and thereby recreating the mother -- the archetypal female -- to love. However, Frankenstein fails. He cannot steel himself to this "detested" toil. He knows too much despite his lack of all but fevered insight. Indeed, he sees the very creature whose presence he had suspected for some time, complete with its ghostly grin, just as he emerges from a crisis of guilt. Recoil from that physiognomy brings Frankenstein to destroy the creature "on whose future existence" the wretch depended for happiness (p. 159).

What has happened? The ultimate object has been relinquished as unrealizable, but desire still lives, although receiving its most bitter wound. In Mary Shelley's allegory of psychic caverns, evil demons fly loose with a howl. Clerval is the first victim; Elizabeth the next. In strangling her the creature essentially says to Frankenstein: 'if I cannot love and possess, neither can you who would have your wife and deny me, to whom you owe everything.' This is id having its vengeance upon the ego. In the midst of this we find the last childhood compromise removed. Elizabeth's death frees Frankenstein from his childhood agreements. But such freedom is not happiness or health. Frankenstein pitches into a final process of self-disintegration, in which he pursues his own obsessions to the death. As it were, one obsession seeks the death of another. Elizabeth, the nearest to mother alive, is killed in an overdetermination of desires. Anxiety, jealousy, frustration, revenge -- all sexual -- join the still virulent wish for the "real" mother no actual or surrogate or compromise {356} mother can satisfy. The result is a nightmare pursuit, after the father's contingent death, of self after self in an ice- bound but fragmented psyche. Frankenstein never heals, never recovers. He is restored long enough by Walton -- to whom the entire central narrative is told -- to tell his story of disintegration. As for Mary, in Elizabeth's death she seems to sacrifice an image of herself as composite daughter, wife and mother to the creature's rage and Frankenstein's obsession. In doing so she removes herself from any obvious role in the final course of the narrative. Her position in subconscious desire of the father is left behind -- although a ghost of it may remain in the relationship between Walton and his beloved sister, to whom he returns -- and her deeper orientation toward the idealized mother drops out of fictional view. Now we will face only the main conclusion to Frankenstein's obsession: from which Mary has largely distanced herself.

Throughout the novel, Walton serves as a potential Frankenstein who remains redeemed. By heeding his crew members (who defied Frankenstein's desire to push on into the icecap in search of the creature) Walton eschews Frankenstein's fate without ever bringing the deep lessons of Frankenstein's narrative to consciousness. But perhaps the latent listener in Walton has heard enough of Frankenstein's unconscious, has penetrated the dream Frankenstein recalls. Whatever the case, Walton consents to return from his own pursuits, to eschew his voyage of fantastic discovery to the north pole (thereby saving his life and his crew from the severe cold, starvation and crushing ice which would have been their fate) and return to his dear sister. Walton finally chooses human connection as against psychic glory. His is the wise choice, Mary would have us believe, one for which he has been fit all along. Despite his similarities to Frankenstein, Walton has never either lost connection with other humanity or developed an uncanny obsession. Perhaps the two figures manifest concomitant aspects of the same spiral: Frankenstein spins regressively into madness; Walton grows into a moderate sanity. He is not fully purged of his promethean desires -- perhaps we never are (which underlines the tragedy inherent in Mary's criticism of Romantic quests) -- but he somehow {357} turns away from a regressive pursuit into madness and reasserts human connection. Apparently Mary finds that civilized affections, however much they appear as the shadows of dangerous loves (Walton's compensation is the love of his "dear sister "), can sustain us this side of despondency.

If Mary offers an antidote to Frankenstein's fate, it is neither an obvious nor an easy one. She glimpses the intractability of personal desire in contradistinction to the humane tractability of participatory community -- if only with one other person. Perhaps this is part of her insistence on what we might call hippocratic love: manifested in those devoted attentions certain characters show to others -- Caroline to her father, then later Elizabeth, then Justine to Caroline, and Elizabeth to the doubly stricken family after Justine's death. Often the women would nurse their men and the redeemed men -- Clerval and Walton -- are nurses to Frankenstein. In psychic allegory, one reading of a nurse's solicitous love for the patient answers to the child's demand for singular attention and therein possession of the mother in her devotion. In this even Walton and Clerval become versions of the desired mother for Frankenstein.20 But they are more for Mary Shelley: they hold the promise of redemption from psychic tyranny in a turn outward from the self toward others, toward the wide world of men and women in communities of achievement. Perhaps, as we recover from Frankenstein's catastrophe, this is not enough. Of course we would have more. Why or how are we to settle for less than our desires demand? Mary's answer, I think, is that we have little choice: if we continue to pursue what we have lost -- our mothers, our babies, our archaic loves and hates -- we shall never grow up, indeed, we shall grow mad. This, however, is held in the face of another recognition: that Walton as a solution is only a framework, an idealized ending which by the very force of idealization reveals the strange attraction of promethean desires. Walton too would defy his denying father, consign his crew to death, and even abandon {358} his sister -- with whom he has an incestuous relationship sublimated into epistolary tenderness. And though he relents, against Frankenstein's wishes (his double), those desires have not been either plumbed to the fullest or happily resolved: only banished from the healthy ego in anything like their original form. That banishment is good if we would not murder the Clerval in us; but those desires still haunt us in their distant exile. The creature Frankenstein pursued does not die at novel's end: it disappears into the darkness.

1. Avoidance is characteristic of criticism devoted to the novel. See George Levine, "Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism," Novel 7 (1973), 14-30 for an awareness of the family patterns; Christopher Small, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth (University of Pittsburg, 1973) for the suggestion that Victor's dream emerges, "so to speak from her [Mary's] mother's grave" (p. 191); and William Walling, Mary Shelley (New York: Twayne, 1972) for an awareness of connections between biography and Mary's fiction generally. The only concerted effort at a psychoanalytic reading is Morton Kaplan's "Fantasy of Paternity and the Doppelgänger: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," in The Unspoken Motive: A Guide to Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism (New York: The Free Press, 1973), pp. 119-145. Despite sensitive commentary on the Doppelgänger effect in the novel, Kaplan deals poorly with the fiction as expressing obsessions with paternity through Frankenstein. He must resort to Freudian formulae much too often in the face of a too dense and sometimes disparate text. No doubt fantasies of paternity, especially fantasies of body creation, along with other material accompany the dominant strand I will attempt to explicate in some of its complexity. But other material cannot be explicated in its own right without a conditioned understanding of some of the centers around which a good deal of sometimes contradictory motive material clusters.

2. This is true for Kaplan as well as other critics. The tendency is to interpret psychological material by formula, by fiat. Levine provides a general case in point: "where did his decision to create the monster come from? Mere chance. Evil is a deadly and fascinating mystery originating in men's minds as an inexplicable but inescapable aspect of human goodness" (18). Lowry Nelson, "Night Thoughts on the Gothic Novel," Yale Review, 52 (1963), 236-257, attributes it all to "some inner perversity" by way of explaining the desire "to be loved alone or an urge toward narcissism." He ends with the safety of "fascination with the gratuitous pursuit of one's evil nature" (247).

3. All citations are from Mary Shelley, Frankenstein Or, The Modern Prometheus (New York: Signet, New American Library, 1965) with an Afterword by Harold Bloom. Page references will be given in the text (p. 74) in parentheses. The present citation is indicative of the novel's inverted landscapes: heights suggest depths, walls suggest spaces, mountains suggest immaterial force.

4. A phrase taken from Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947), entry for February 25, 1822, p. 236. Frankenstein may not be Mary's first attempt at such depths: her first novel undertaken after eloping with Shelley was called Hate. And by her own account in the 1831 preface to Frankenstein, she indulged in day-dreams during adolescence which interested her far more than self-conscious introspection -- this while in Scotland: "I could people the hours with creations far more interesting to me at that age, than my own sensations."

5. Of course, Mary does not write because of her nightmare: it forms the central inspiration for a competitive project she had already undertaken -- writing a horror story in competition against Shelley, Byron and Polidori. Her critique of the promethean spirit reflects a subconscious reply to much of Shelleyan excess, idealism and dissatisfaction. Perhaps Mary -- who in 1814 thought of herself as bereaved without Shelley's love -- competes in Frankenstein against Shelley's ideologies of love and impassioned human nature, as well as his genius itself. But the dream and therefore the central event of the novel remains her own nightmare. To fully engage it, we need to know much more than we do about female creation and birth fantasies, as well as female psychology generally. The level of desire I attempt to plot goes deeper than superficial masculine or feminine patterns. It touches, I think, on the primitive child not yet fully engaged in oedipal conflict, possessed still of considerable oral hostility and body destruction anxieties: the latter two surfacing in the making of the creature from dismembered bodily parts and in William's attribution of horrific orality to the creature. Mary's nightmare seems sparked mainly by notions of reanimating the dead. I think it purposes a recovery not only of archaic wishes but the objects of those wishes especially. Perhaps the motif of oral hostility reflects a primitive desire to ingest the love object, rage at being denied, and a projection of the entire complex onto the bad parent -- the ogre who would devour one.

6. Mary often expressed intense dislike for Mrs. Godwin, who seemed to favor her own two children from a previous marriage, never became a mother to Mary, and of course usurped the father's attentions. (Mary also blames Mrs. Godwin for either precipitating or aggravating her father's financial troubles as well as his often cruel treatment of herself and Shelley). A portrait of Mary's mother, however, always hung in Godwin's library and Mary, in adolescence, used to study by her mother's grave -- a quiet place away from domestic strife in the Godwin household. It is there by her mother's grave that she first receives Shelley's professions of love and listens to his tales about his ogre of a father and his troubles with Harriet.

7. See Mary's Journal, entry for March 19, 1815, p. 41. Also note her dream of the dead coming to life, mentioned in a letter dated March 5, 1817. The novel is completed by this time, but clearly much of its central psychological material has not been fully worked through.

8. Mary sees herself as essentially innocent in these fictional projections; more, as abandoned in the midst of devotion. Her relation to Mrs. Godwin is that of the step-daughter to her cruel step-mother. See Helene Deutsch. The Psychology of Women, Vol. II (New York: Bantam edition, 1973), pp. 453-475 for an account of daughter step-mother conflict given both psychological strife and cultural expectations conditioned by pervasive fairy-tale models.

9. By this time, Mary is in early adolescence and competitive conflict between herself and Mrs. Godwin is overt. Perhaps we should not overlook the presence of Fanny Imlay either, though Mary is clearly the father's favorite. She is also more like Frankenstein than Elizabeth: "my daughter is the reverse of her [Fanny] in many particulars. She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible. My own daughter is, I believe, very pretty" (quoted by Eileen Bigland, Mary Shelley [New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1959], p. 32). Bigland suggests that Mary occasionally gives way to persecution mania throughout her life -- perhaps related to projected hostility and feelings of abandonment.

10. Posession (sic) by Victor suggests something of the father by sexual identification. But since we mainly understand Victor as desiring the mother, his intensity of possession means to be possessed by that desire. Moreover, he displaces the father here -- as Mary would for love of her idealized mother. As we might also expect, Mary's first childhood friend is a girl, Isabella Baxter, who also comes (so Mary thinks) to reverence Mary's mother.

11. Justine is the third of four children; her mother prefers the first two and takes an irrational dislike to the child. Mary no doubt feels Mrs. Godwin's favoritism toward her own two children as dislike for herself, the third of four legitimate children in a mixed household -- though I suspect Mary in this projection of herself counts the four children as exclusive of William, Godwin's child by his second wife. Fanny Imlay would then be the fourth child. Moreover, Justine's mother seems a representation of Mary's occasional hatred of Mrs. Godwin. The Portrait of the benign family probably draws a superficial reality from Mary's life with the Baxters in Scotland.

12. Deutsch, The Psychology of Woman, Vol. I, p. 124.

13. She apparently wrote romances, poetry and studied the picturesque countryside. Both levels of interest, however, may exist in her daydreams. Such a split may also distinguish Mary from Fanny Imlay as well as Mary Shelley from her husband. We have Godwin's testimony for the one and Mary's implied critique of Shelleyan excess (in the figure of Frankenstein himself) for the other.

14. Her notebook with Percy Shelley testifies to this. She likes to describe what they have seen, but rarely seeks to penetrate deeply. However much she also feels promethean urges, she would separate herself (sometimes stoically) from Shelley's enthusiasms, especially those darting vagaries which never find satisfaction -- even reflected in his mundane life, such as suddenly taking a long walk.

15. We must credit its self-portrait. The creature, although finally an unknown -- see L.J. Swingle, "Frankenstein's Monster and Its Romantic Relatives: Problems of Knowledge in English Romanticism," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 15 (1973), 51-65 -- is meant seriously in its professions of basic good.

16. See the novel, pp. 70, 75 for links between Caroline and William. The question of devouring is significant for the creature. William imputes horrific orality to a dominantly philosophical being. Perhaps this is not far- fetched given the distinctive negative "philosophy" of "Evil thenceforth became my good," which the creature adopts after its "rape" -- murder of Elizabeth. Oral hostility may touch deep body anxiety material such as castration fears, which the creature in part substitutes for. Its creation defies not only emotional loss but may represent a desire to give birth in whole from out of oneself. From one perspective this may look symptomatic of penis envy; from another perspective this may look like a desire to create oneself independently of one's parents -- those who so deeply divide one's emotional life. The motive to repossess the mother through a recreation of archaic desires along with their objects, however, gains the dominant ground for all of this.

17. Just prior to receiving Elizabeth's letter, Victor is deeply agitated by the thought that Clerval is going to allude to "an object on whom I dared not think" (p. 61). The creature as secret is much with Victor in the following days of recuperation.

18. Justine, the outsider, may also in part reflect Fanny Imlay -- Mary Wollstonecraft's illegitimate daughter. Fanny is dutiful, domestic, quiet -- quite unlike Mary Shelley. Mary and Shelley would befriend her in their happiness but were taken by surprise when she committed suicide in October, 1816 (perhaps after discovering her illegitimacy). By then Frankenstein is nearly half finished, but guilt over Fanny's forlorn death may have formed itself into some of the sketch devoted to Justine. Fanny, a potential rival for the father's love, nevertheless is almost mocked by Godwin (but this is unknown to Mary until Godwin writes to her shortly after Fanny's death). Justine's circumstantial victimization may reflect Mary's feelings of guilt; such victimization also expresses something of Mary's own feelings about her life. In the love connection, especially if for a moment we entertain Fanny's expressed admiration of Shelley, we might also note Harriet's death -- a more significant rival -- as a factor in Mary's psychic wars. Shelley long ago bared his disappointment in Harriet when he and Mary regularly met at Mary Wollstonecraft's grave-side. In 1814 Shelley became a composite object of love for mother, father and lover in Mary's worship of him. But I think the deaths in the family in Frankenstein are much more tied to the Godwin household than to Shelley's biography. Harriet is the more significant rival in love in an ordinary romance (Shelley even invites her to join himself and Mary in Geneva) but Fanny or Claire Clairmont may strike more deeply and therefore closer to home in Mary's subconscious.

19. Clerval may in part bespeak Claire (Jane Clairmont) -- the Shelleys' companion on two trips to the continent, mother to a child by Byron, Shelley's walking companion during Mary's confinement in anticipation of her first child, and a locus for conscious jealousy in 1815 on Mary's part. The broken father no doubt reflects something of a degenerate Godwin whom, despite all appearances, Mary could not long despise -- no matter how badly he treats her and Shelley.

20. The nurse motif, however, has its yet darker side. All those nursed eventually die, whether of disease, madness or old age, which suggests considerable hostility toward the object of solicitude -- the good father, mother, or friend.