Contents Index

"Words Cannot Express": Frankenstein's Tripping on the Tongue

James R. Kincaid

Novel: A Forum on Fiction, 24 (1990), 26-47

{[26]} In Universal Pictures' 1931 Frankenstein, the creature, probably because he is outfitted with a brain that is sadly abnormal, degenerate, and without the usual assignment of furrows, can manage only rather pointless bestial (or motorcycle) noises. Meanwhile, his creator is gabbling on with a kind of manic Cary Grant aplomb, spilling even the secret of his resuscitating science (a ray in the spectrum beyond ultra-violet) and letting us know that, however questionable his control over his little boy, he is never at a loss for words, and good ones too. That's quite a switch from Mary Shelley's version. There, the self-educated creature has developed into some kind of Demosthenes/Joseph Goebbels whose dangerous fluency very nearly has the power to neutralize or obliterate the evidence of the senses and trap one within its eloquence. At least that's his creator's view of the matter, a view we may suspect a little, given that Victor is no master of the media himself. Sour grapes is a possibility that may urge itself on us as we listen with some annoyance to Victor's mumblings, his stock phrases, his wild and inclusive adjectives, and especially his verbal equivalents of quitting the game altogether: "words cannot express," "I cannot describe" [Letter 2.5], "inexpressible pleasures," "unspeakable rages." He's the editor, after all, and has an authority over the words that might even seem unfair; so when we find him throwing in the towel with something like "No word, no expression could body forth. . ." [1.1.4], we may be tempted to sneer, "Sure they could! Don't blame the language for your own inadequacy! Just ask your creature. He'll find the right words, and plenty of them!"

All this is pretty strange, this matching of the glib against the dumb, this apparent contest which is not really between words but between that which can be in words and that which cannot be in words or which reaches beyond words or which distrusts words or which doesn't know which words would suit or which knows and prefers not to use them or which wants us to supply the words or which wants us not to hear but to look or which wants us to read something other than words or which sanctions silence as sacred or which points to but does not name the forbidden -- or something. The following is a meditation on the book's inarticulateness, if that's what it is, which it probably isn't. I want to propose a series of plain answers to plain questions, a series of answers wholly plausible and wholly incompatible. That's the goal, at least. The point is to say something sly and perhaps profitable about our customary modes of constructing explanations, about how innocently we center such explanations, and about the happy ease with which such centers may be shifted, juggled, made to disappear. I don't want to say that the book is about The Silent or The Inarticulate, those just being ways of centering something smart-alecky. I have no idea what the book is about, though I do have an idea that such a formula- {27} tion misplaces the emphasis. I don't even know that there's a contest. Perhaps it's just play, inconsequential play of the greatest importance. I'll claim for this essay only the "play" part of that paradox, leaving "importance" for another time.

Let Me Reveal My Tale: Victor's Revelations

"Hear me; let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!" [Letter 4.6] says Victor to a bold explorer who has gone searching for love among the icebergs. Walton, in no position to be choosy, finds his affection for his guest growing every day, and is happy to settle in and listen to Victor's tale without much regard to the cup. After all, Walton says, this is a man whose very countenance bespeaks "benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equalled" [Letter 4.3], along with a bit of "wildness, and even madness," to be sure, but never mind that. Just hear this man speak, Walton says, and we will love him as he does: "when he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, yet they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence" (Letter 4).*

Walton looking on in speechless adoration, then, Victor launches forth: "I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic. My ancestors. . ." (1). One must indeed be enchanted by amour to find such stuff unparalleled in the annals of eloquence. But perhaps Victor is just taking some warm-up pitches, and we are probably willing to shuffle irritably beside Walton as Victor slogs through an extremely tedious tale about an exalted family where everyone doted on everyone else but especially on Victor, about a childhood so wearisomely happy as to be marked apparently by no events at all, other than the folks going out and buying the boy a little girl, about his undisciplined reading, and about his school-days, which were certainly not Tom Brown's. Even in this section, we may not find Victor all that expressive. He mentions, for instance, that the January-May marriage of his parents resulted in a grandfatherly sort of behavior from father to mother "which gave inexpressible grace to his behaviour to her" (1). If we cared anything about the matter, we might wonder why such grace would be inexpressible; but we don't. Similarly, we are unlikely to want to hear much about his feelings for his toy "more than sister"; and not much is what we get: "No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to me" (1). The smutty metaphor, "body forth," suggests a kind of pornography most of us would like to avoid. At least, we are glad to have dodged the many words and expressions that would bring the body forth quite adequately. Mostly, we want Victor to get on with it.

The payoff for listening to all that about Albertus Magnus is, of course, the creature, which is what we've all been waiting for. Finally Victor concocts him and says, "How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe" (5)? That question, we are glad to find, is not explored, Victor's emotions interesting us a great deal less than the twitching body before him. Of that he asks, "[How can I] de- {28} lineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?" [1.4.1]. To say that the creature "became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived" (5) just won't do, partly because Dante, we know, would have done just fine and partly because we may be feeling cheated, suspecting that Victor sheers off into the ineffable just at the point when we are counting on his unparalleled eloquence to help us out.

Victor tends to lose his dictionary every time things get interesting. Apparently not trusting his ability to cull his words with the choicest art, he lets Justine go hang, though he isn't happy about it: "No one can conceive the anguish I suffered" (7); "I cannot pretend to describe what I then felt . . . words cannot convey an idea of the heart-sickening despair that I then endured" (8). He admits some responsibility for these "deeds of mischief beyond description," but even that confession does not make the words flow with the rapidity and clarity Walton had promised us: "I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe" (9). He confronts the creature a bit later with the accusation that his ungrateful progeny has made him "wretched beyond expression" (10), leaving it a matter of doubt whether the creature might not bear responsibility for the tongue-tying as well as the wretchedness. Whatever the cause, things do not improve. Victor reacts to the creature's long monologue by being unable to "describe," being at a loss, "even in my own heart," to find an "expression" for his sensations (17). He does pretty well with trees and rocks from time to time, but repeated shocks throw Victor back into the land of the wordless: on seeing Henry's corpse, "How can I describe my sensations on beholding it" (21); on Elizabeth's, "a sensation of horror not to be described" (23).

Grief, horror, happiness, love (or whatever it is he feels for Elizabeth), remorse, guilt, and even anger -- "My rage is unspeakable" (23) -- are beyond the reach of this teller of the tale. What's more, his incapacity seems to infect others on contact. Walton, who had heretofore done quite well with words, listens to Victor and is stricken dumb: "All that I should express would be inadequate and feeble" (24). Victor's death does not restore Walton's tongue; leaving the corpse for a moment in order to write to his sister about how he cannot muster words for writing, he reenters to find draped over the body "a form which I cannot find words to describe" (24).

So Victor, seeking a triumph over nature, over Walton, and over us through words, has failed; just as he has failed utterly in his debate with his creature. That had been his hope, to use his unparalleled eloquence against his untutored offspring and bring him under control. On first sighting his son, hate and anger "at first deprived me of utterance" [2.2.3], but not for long: "I recovered only to overwhelm him with words", namely, "Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust!" (10). Perhaps that is unparalleled eloquence to Walton, but it does not seem really to overwhelm the creature, who misses not a beat in booming out with tragic Romantic fluency, balancing the sonorous and inclusive "all"s with a control suggesting an emotion recollected in tranquility: "All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable be- {29} yond all living things!" Victor's sputterings cannot hope to hold up against this.

Victor's impotence with words creates the possibility of a good many explanatory centers that are not without their allure. We can connect his remoteness from words to his activities, his unholy or inhuman presumption that removes him from the natural communion, signalled in language, among humans or between humans and nature or God. We can construct any number of general moral fables in this way, or we may turn the argument toward semiotics, toward gender (Victor's maleness), or, more particularly, toward his social and political positioning or his psyche, various sorts of incestuous possibilities waving to us happily from that shore. I am hardly able to keep myself from following the line that as Victor advances toward the truth, toward the real, he must necessarily abandon language, which is powerless in the face of the referent. It's probably just as well for all of us that I do not want here to follow any line but to suggest something about the infinite number of lines we may spot (or draw) and the way they have of erasing themselves before our eyes.

Exonerating Victor: "These Ineffectual Words"

The first thing that should erase itself is this construction we have called "Victor." Most of us these days will probably be quick to abandon a character-centered explanation of any kind, especially when, as I hinted above, we have the much more enticing territory of language itself. It is, we will say, language itself that is dumb, not Victor. That's a formulation that's more fun even than incest; and we can certainly lay claim to some plausibility (and hope for an audience) by announcing that it is language itself that is foregrounded and the perforations and endless gaps in its fabric which should attract our attention.

First of all and most simply, we have been lying a little: these reachings toward the ineffable or admissions of illiteracy are not confined to Victor but are spread around pretty much everywhere. The creature, Elizabeth, Victor's father, and Walton all use similar formulae. Walton's very first letter, written long before Victor has blighted him, tells Margaret how excited he is at the prospect of departing on his voyage by telling how he cannot tell her how excited he is: "I cannot describe to you"; "It is impossible to communicate to you" (Letter 1). Waiving as inadmissible, crude, and certainly unpublishable the possibility that Mary Shelley simply didn't have very many words at her disposal and was thus stymied, we hasten to the failure of language itself and find the most promising focus not in Walton but in the moving voice of the creature.

An argument based on creature-speak and the silence at the heart of language or on the connections between words and power might well be rich, rounded, and persuasive.1 Power is irresistible these days, and we do find the creature hoping that he can find in words the tool to connect himself first to knowledge, then to virtue, and then to love (with the cottagers). He learns to {30} read and speak in the hope that the force of his words will blind all the cottagers, not just the old man, "enab[ling] them to overlook the deformity of my figure" (15). But word-power is ill-equipped to do battle with sight; and his trust in an inferior power and his control of it are turned against him. Victor sternly warns Walton: "He is eloquent and persuasive, and once his words had power over my heart; but trust him not. . . . Hear him not" [3.7.9], and Walton, sure enough, obediently tries to deafen himself: "I called to mind what Frankenstein had said of his powers of eloquence and persuasion" (24). We have a clue here in these references to sight we will pick up later, but there's enough here on power and words to keep us busy for a standard-length essay.

A more purely deconstructive, less political bent would return us to the fascinating section where the creature describes his life-before-language and the effects of mastering it (or letting it master him). Particularly juicy here is the fact that the creature admits to a failure with words only after he has them, not before. Before he has initiated himself into "the science of words and letters" [2.3.8], indeed even "before I learned to distinguish between the operation of my senses" (11), the creature speaks an artless, representational prose that sounds like Robinson Crusoe's: "I found that the berries were spoiled by this operation, and the nuts and roots much improved" (11). Even quite dramatic events are described plainly, as if words could connect with things: "The whole village was roused; some fled, some attacked me, until grievously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons, I escaped to the open country" (11). The contrast with Victor's hyperbolic, on-the-stretch, periodically fumbling prose is quite marked: "I lost sight of her, and in about a quarter of an hour she returned bearing the pail" (11). For Victor, with all his epiphanies and eternities, there are no quarter-hours so carefully noted, and certainly no pails.

But, just as soon as the creature begins to acquire language, silence descends: "I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books" [2.7.2]. And when he breaks the silence he sounds distressingly like Victor, using the same kind of pumped-up, off-the-scale language: "They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings, that sometimes raised me to ecstasy, but more frequently sunk me into the lowest dejection" (15). What has happened to the roots and berries and pails? We do not want to hear the creature whining, "Who can describe their horror and consternation?" (15). We get more than enough of that from Victor.

There is luxurious material here, no doubt, so rich that we will overlook, on one hand, the reverberating power of the creature's direct words, "I shall be with you on your wedding night" [3.3.4] and, on the other, the clarity of his writing later on: "You will find near this place, if you follow not too tardily, a dead hare; eat and be refreshed" (24). These things will likely not block us from such pleasantness as connecting speech and muteness, language and illiteracy, power and impotence. Mary Shelley's Preface provides an interesting ironic locus here in its promise to "speak to the mysterious fears of our nature" [Introduction 7], to speak, that is, to what cannot be recalled or named because "mysterious" or beyond language, to use a foregrounded inadequacy of language to evoke a forbidden semiotics. The motive force of her tale, she says, was not in any referent, in anything Dr. Darwin "really did" but "of what was spoken of." "I speak . . . of what was spo- {31} ken of" [Introduction 9], she says, thus distancing her own language system wonderfully from any contact with the "really" and dramatizing either its self-supporting, ineffectual artificiality or its mysterious ability to speak to and of the unspeakable, the mysterious fears of our nature.

All of this is extraordinarily attractive, since it can be so easily tied to metacriticism, to a deconstruction of the cautionary reading of the novel. Victor's don't-mess-with-mother-nature sermon, his attempt to persuade Walton and us not to aspire to be greater than our nature will allow, is necessarily delivered in a language that promotes what it seeks to censure, that reveals what it attempts to hide, that speaks the unspeakable. From this point of view, it is rather unfortunate that Victor is seized with a blatant and egregious death-bed ambivalence: "yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed" (24). Why did he say that? His explicitness may tempt us back to psychology and away from language itself, where the real prizes are to be found. The point is not Victor's waverings but the impossibility of prohibitions not being sanctions. We must not trespass, but we must; we must respect the limits of our nature, but we would be fools to do so. How do we know? Language tells us so.

Just Do As I Say

But language determines the book and whatever we say about it, so it's hard to escape some debt to it, some kind of centering. In fact, what we have considered and dismissed thus far will reappear, our dismissals being gentle and not to be taken very seriously. In this case, we might note that all the heady talk about gaps, silences, and vacancies can proceed with authority only within some framework of expectation where continuity, sound, and substance are anticipated or even taken for granted. Less abstractly, we note that the novel often moves us not away from but toward speech and substance. The strange, the unnameable, here in the form of the first sighting of the monstrous creature, excites Walton to writing: "So strange an accident has happened to us that I cannot forbear recording it" (Letter 4). Instead of moving us to consider the recoil of language before the strange, here we are propelled toward their coordination. Walton goes on to register the strangeness quite exactly: "a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs" to the north "at the distance of half a mile" with a figure "apparently of gigantic stature" on it [Letter 4.1]. The sight "excited our unqualified wonder" [Letter 4.2], but that wonder, significantly, produces in them not stupefied silence but an itch to close the gap, to track down the strange. The same closing of gaps, the foregrounding of the power of naming, could be traced in M. Waldman's connection of scientific discovery, even Victor's landmark discovery, with the power "to give new names" to traditional "facts" (3).

We might also note that the words-cannot-express or the I-cannot-describe formulae are often fakes, leading us not to consider language's inadequacy but its ability to do just what it says it cannot. Victor's father says there is no way he can relate the family's misfortune and then proceeds to do so -- "William is dead!" (7); Clerval says, "I can offer you no consolation" and then says "a few {32} words of consolation" (7); Victor himself says the creature's "deeds of mischief" are "beyond description" and then describes them [2.1.1]; he says he cannot tell us what the creature looks like, a task beyond Dante himself, and then does just that: "His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles. . ." (5).

Such considerations are not likely to stand in the way of reflections on inadequacy or impotence or absence. We have more interesting things to say to one another about these matters than about talk and substance. Still, they might be enough to damage any confident centerings and perhaps scare us away for a time from pure considerations of language. But we'll be back.

Those Mysterious Fears of Our Nature

Say we take the phrase from the Preface, "speaking to those mysterious fears of our nature" [Introduction 7], and attend to the last part of the phrase and not the first, to horror rather than speech.2 After all, isn't silence terrifying, suggesting that the inability to name marks an inability to control. Speechless, we are at the mercy of that which cannot be reduced to speech; we come face to face with the monster that does not argue, simply tears and rends. Generic studies of an historical kind suggest themselves here, the centrality of the unnameable to terror fiction; psychological or psychoanalytic studies are possible, Freud's uncanny being just one formulation of that which explodes the illusion of rational and linguistic power; studies of horror films are a natural, perhaps connecting the gaps between words not to silence but to the substitution of music, a sound which we cannot ward off and which dramatizes the uselessness of words in the face of mystery.

The last example suggests the weakness of this centering: silence has no privileged connection to horror. "I'm gonna getcha!" or "I shall be with you on your wedding night" or creepy music do just as well.

You Had To Have Been There

It's not silence itself that is terrifying, common sense tells us, but the experience; the raw, visceral horror can invade only in and through the event. There's no use talking about it, you had to have been there. In a novel, which can only talk about it, some rhetoric must be produced which creates the illusion of the experience itself, we might say, and the most obvious form for that rhetoric is the disavowal of the power of words. "Even in my own heart," Victor says, "I could give no expression to my sensations" (17). At the heart of the matter, we find not words but the displacement of words so as to make way for terror or the dramatized inability of words to dislodge a terrifying resident. The contest is often fought out openly. Here is Elizabeth in one of those recurrent moments when words cannot console: "Ah! While we love, while we are true to each other, here in this land of peace and beauty, your native country, we may reap every tranquil blessing -- what can disturb our peace?" [2.1.3]. Perhaps like Arnold's {33} girlfriend at Dover Beach, Victor will have none of this ah-love-let-us-be-true-to-one-another, even when it is coupled with Wordsworthian appeals to tranquil blessings from nature. He raises the issue for us quite clearly: "And could not such words from her whom I fondly prized before every other gift of fortune suffice to chase away the fiend that lurked in my heart?" By this point in the novel, we know that words can never win out over experience: "Even as she spoke I drew near to her, as if in terror" (9). Something much worse than a bunch of ignorant armies is out there in the night, and no hush-a-bye words are going to help us.

Even with milder experiences, like grief, we sometimes find a variation on the words-cannot-express formula that seems to promote the supremacy of experience. Here it's not that he cannot describe but that he "need not describe" the feelings of those who live through the death of a parent, in this case his mother: "Why should I describe a sorrow which all have felt, and must feel?" (3). Indeed, since we've all been there or soon will be, it's a waste of words; experience will show us more plainly than language ever can. Despite the fact that the experience is itself an unhappy one, there's an easy inclusiveness and authorial modesty about such turns. It's nearly populist, this conception of an all-inclusive experience, even when it's put in a snobbish way: "None but they who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science" (4). This way of disarming words by pointing to the experience looks at first like exclusion itself, the creation of one of those revolting Mensa groups. Really, though, these "enticements" are made common to any who study science; it is all the same, this scientific thrill, and it embraces any who come near.

Such an argument, as it becomes political, seems to be leading us toward an anti-intellectual populism, an exaltation of common experience over the elitist authority wrapped in words. I wonder if we want to pursue a line which would work very well with Huckleberry Finn, perhaps, but which here seems to be leading straight toward the dullest of all readings of the novel: a condemnation of the hubristic over-reacher Victor. We seem to have come to an impasse in experience, probably because we trusted in the first place to that most wretched of guides, common-sense.

Sublime Is As Sublime Does

But we may have an out, an opening for explanation through a more refined view of experience that avoids the merging, populist, anti-intellectual politics we found by pursuing experience in the raw. The sublime, after all, is not a levelling phenomenon; however much it may move us away from petty self-centered concerns, it does not drive one toward the masses but towards clouds, and mountain peaks, and such like. It reaches beyond words, we will argue, into transcendent realms of expansive, soul-swelling ecstasy, realms compounded of the awe-inspiring, the terrible, and the magnificent.

Walton's first letter indicates that he has been propelled toward the Arctic by a yen for the sublime: "I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven" [Letter 1.3]. Now, enthusiasm is not the same as sublimity, you'll be {34} saying; but let's not quibble. All we are claiming is that Walton is out for sublimity. When he finds it, presumably he will stop writing letters, having reached consummate muteness. That he doesn't stop writing even for a minute simply means that he never completes his quest, never finds the great galvanic sublimity at the pole. It is a novel about the failure to find sublimity, you see.

That argument is guttering out on us, but it's hard to give up easily on the nice idea that the unspeakable is hooked somehow to the sublime. Not wanting to get sucked into a hapless debate with historical scholars who really know what words like enthusiasm and sublime mean, we can wisely look in the novel for the sublime, for the very word. Not surprisingly, we find it a favorite with Victor, the novel's equivalent of William Jennings Bryan in his love for vasty-towering words. Victor uses the term a total of four times, by our count, each time in reference to the Alps. A particular valley is "rendered sublime by the mighty Alps," and this particular valley "is more wonderful and sublime, but not so beautiful and picturesque" as some other valley (9). Hopping over the traps embedded in these comparisons, we locate Victor saying in the next chapter that the mountain scenes were "sublime and magnificent" and that they "filled me with a sublime ecstasy" (10). That's perfect. Just enough evidence to work with and the right sorts of details: the elevation produced by the sublime is not exciting to him, i.e., it does not cause him to babble; instead he finds himself "subdued and tranquilized," "the awful and majestic . . . solemnizing my mind and causing me to forget the passing cares of life" (10). That's highly suggestive, very good stuff. Forgetting the passing cares of life, about which he would be tempted to talk, he stands solemnly silent, tranquilized, his mind a million miles away or at least elevated several feet.

Later on, when he is in England, Victor takes a little tour "to view again mountains and streams and all the wondrous works" of Nature (19). In fact, he seems to spend something like four months, not counting another six lolling around London -- don't hold us to those calculations -- on this sight-seeing, all the time aware in a foggy sort of way that the creature may be getting impatient for his promised mate and exercising himself by murdering a few back home. But Victor needs the sublime, we will say, needs to prepare himself for the unspeakably disgusting act before him by some extended bathing in the unspeakably majestic.

And thus we have a novel that somehow connects terror and over-arching magnificence to silence by way of sublimity. And we can quit with that. In fact, we had better quit fast, since it would be just as easy to argue that the sublime incites not silence, but talk and plenty of it. People out on the grand tour, looking for the sublime and finding it, were always equipped with pencil and pad. More to the point, Victor's own idea of being tranquilized is, apparently, not our own: he certainly is not silent when he is in the Alps; and his rambles through Oxford, Derbyshire, the Lakes, and Edinburgh spur him to write a kind of compact tourist guide. In the presence of the sublime, Victor's tongue is loosened so much he doesn't even speak about being speechless. The creature's most impassioned and compelling words are uttered in the presence of these elevating and, we had thought, tranquilizing scenes.

{35} This idea is a shambles. It seems to be leading, in addition to nowhere, to history, politics, or psychology; and we don't want to travel to those places yet. We somehow got side-tracked from language, which is the field we're used to playing on, one to which we'll now try to return.

If You Can't Give Me All, Give Me Nothing

We fly immediately to the direct negation of substance and, we hope, the disavowal of any efficacy in language, perhaps the indirect or paradoxical disavowal of speech in the act of speaking. All this might be located in the gamey word "nothing," a fierce and nihilistic signal waving to us repeatedly from the text. We recognize as characteristic the pounding negations, the emptyings-out that open chapter 9: "Nothing is more painful to the human mind than . . . a weight of despair and remorse . . . which nothing could remove . . . a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe" [2.1.1]. The substantives here -- mind, pain, remorse, tortures -- are evacuated or simply swept away by the prominent force of denial: nothing, nothing, no. It is not that these are pretty bad miseries and hard to describe; this is the black, empty maw of the abyss, without substance and without words.

Similarly, when the creature tries to describe himself and his feelings, he does so by making prominent, in fact overwhelming, not what he has but what he has been denied: "If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion" (17). The lack, the emptiness is made flagrant; all is blackness: "to me," he says, "every country must be equally horrible" (16), since everywhere he will find the same denial, the same wordless rage, the same ironic pointlessness of his carefully-acquired eloquence. Black silence is all.

There are several ways to go with this. One is toward the opposition between all and nothing. The creature is especially fond of all, using it, however, with much the same force as nothing: "All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things" (10). The inclusive (or sublime) comforts of all are denied here, the solid and affirmative syntax acting not to locate the creature's misery in human life but to place it beyond that field and beyond language. Later, after being bashed by the cottagers he was trying to befriend, the creature uses the same ironic formula: "All, save I, were at rest, or in enjoyment" (17).

This odd all-nothing equivalence might lead us toward investigating oppositional habits of mind, binary structures that force the characters, at least the male characters, into constructing their worlds and lives into alternatives that are so extreme they meet, crash together, end in disaster. As the creature learns language, we might note, he loses his natural grasp of a graduated scale, where nuts and roots taste better roasted than raw, and moves to Victor's absolutist realm, where nuts and berries will be either ambrosial or disgusting beyond all food ever tasted, and, of course, beyond all description. Victor's inability to think in any other terms could be said to lie at the core of his dilemma, and that is the dilemma both of language and of the plot of this novel: why, in seeking for the secret of life, does he turn to death? Perhaps because, in his {36} stretched-out oppositional world, they are not really different: "To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death" (4), Victor blandly announces, as if he were saying, "To have some milk, we must first locate a cow." Why study life through death? Pushing a relational language system to its extreme, Victor recognizes, like Levi-Strauss, stark oppositions and then, unlike Levi-Strauss, crushes them into a mad oneness: he examines "all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life" (4). Here Victor's purified language system wins out even over experimental science. One wonders how he located in his microscope those minute creatures changing from death back into life?

But, for all its allure, this attack on binaries has a dated feel to it that makes it boring. Not so boring, however, as the center old common sense would force on us: that this all-or-nothing business is just a strained way of asserting uniqueness or something special, a tendency of melodrama. No need to look to the countless examples in the speech of Walton, Victor, or the creature, none of whom are satisfied with being the most miserable, wretched, or so forth but strain for being the thing itself (like the movie ads: Stallone is Rambo) or, even better, something beyond that, something we have never before conceived. And it's not just the characters who are treated this way; such cheap straining after effect extends even to the weather and to grapes: "never did the fields bestow a more plentiful harvest or the vines yield a more luxuriant vintage" (4). It's a crass, braying way of telling us we're hearing something new, experiencing something we haven't before, reading something we should tell all our friends to buy. But this is a crude argument, better left to the lower orders of reviewers, those who talk about rhetoric as "manipulation" and who are on better terms with common sense than are we.

We can, after all, occupy ourselves by destroying our own initial argument, the one about all and nothing both acting to obliterate substance and language, simply by suggesting that these terms also act to speak of what is not to be spoken of, to name what is not there. Sometimes a kind of double negative emphasizes the substance: "Among the lessons Felix had bestowed upon Safie, geography had not been omitted" (16). Sometimes the emphasis is on the ominously unnamed but clear substance: "no incident occurred from which my rage and misery could not extract its food" (16). Even here, however, while we are likely drawn to considering the incidents which did occur aplenty to nourish the creature's rage and misery, the possibility of something else is held open, something that did not occur: welcome incidents which would have fed positive faculties.

It is this capacity of negation to body forth what is not present which deconstructs any neat formulations, such as those with which we began, about negation and silence. Walton begins the novel by announcing what has not happened, thus erasing it and also bringing it into prominence. "You will rejoice to hear that no disaster. . ." [Letter 1.1]. He goes on to deny (and thus affirm) the possibility that his mission is suicidal: "I have no ambition to lose my life. . ." [Letter 1.5] and to enumerate the frozen wonders he has not seen, the "eternal light," "the wondrous power which attracts the needle" [Letter 1.2], and so forth. In his next letter, he continues {37} to bring forth absences to center stage by denying them: "I have no friend" [Letter 2.2]; "Yet do not suppose . . . that I am wavering in my resolution"; "I shall do nothing rashly" [Letter 2.5]. The last is particularly interesting, as it denies the rashness that marks his enterprise but, at the same time, announces the ironic truth: he ends up doing nothing and doing it rashly.

Comparisons Are Odious

Having abandoned the possibility of securely connecting negation with silence, we might turn briefly to a relational scheme and look at comparative structures in the novel. We will not, I think, want to look very long. The apparently comparative tends almost always really to be absolutist: "No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine" (24). That's the creature, but Victor speaks that way too, entering into unseemly comparisons with the about-to-be-slaughtered Justine -- "the torture of the accused did not equal mine" (8) -- and often providing us with mock comparisons that turn into the same old self-exaltation: "More miserable than man ever was before" (21). A comparative base is used simply to exalt the other term into the unknown.

The clash between Victor and his creature does turn into a bizarre misery contest, it is true. In such a contest, the can-you-top-this prize goes to him whose unspeakable misery is more unspeakable than his opponent's. Oddly, it is necessary to give voice to this ineffableness in order to advance in the tournament. Once dead, Victor can no longer compete with his creature, who crows over his creator's corpse: "Blasted as thou wert, my agony was still superior to thine" (24). So, comparisons turn to absolutes which are turned back into weapons in a contest that reaches a null point of silence. All of this is possibly interesting, but it isn't leading us into any games we didn't play out and toss aside in the last section.


Falling back once again, though not entirely daunted, from the idea of language in itself, we look, with very little hope, toward gender.3 Difficulties pile up fast, especially in distinguishing the genders on the basis of speech. It is true that Justine and Elizabeth seem more articulate than Victor, but nearly anybody would. Besides, they aren't around very long. Worse, the chief males in the story, Victor, Walton, and Clerval, are all specifically feminized in some way. Clerval is attracted to soft Oriental literature, so "different from the manly and heroical poetry of Greece and Rome!" (6); Walton says he has spent his "best years" under his sister's "gentle and feminine fosterage," thus having {38} his "groundwork" "so refined" that macho brutality produces in him an "intense distaste" [Letter 2.4]. Victor's childhood has been similarly gentled-up by his angelic mother and the "silken cord" by which he was guided so softly (1). "My mother," he says, "had much desired to have a daughter, but I continued their single offspring" (1). Ah ha!

Curiously, the creature, who seems to most readers the most lovely and androgynous of the lot, despite his tendency to violence, is pretty resolutely and conventionally masculine. He makes some passes toward pedophilia, perhaps, but generally he is active, athletic, self-sufficient, and doggedly heterosexual. He would have been just the boy for Woody Hayes; he wants to be all that he can be, wondering if he should identify with the Satan or Adam portrayed inParadise Lost but never once considering Eve or the angels.

If we push at all this, we are going to end up with some perverse reading of the gentle and connecting masculine at war with the brutal and alienating feminine -- and that's no good. We'll just drop it.

I Have That Within Which Passeth Show

Turning to something completely different, how about the possibility that words are prohibited, and prohibited, just to go whole hog, by the most powerful censor of them all, the incest prohibition?4 Let's recall the dream Victor has just after creating the monster: an erotic vision of Elizabeth, embraced and kissed, yielding to the corpse of his dead mother being held in his arms, and then, immediately on awakening, the grinning face of the creature thrust in between the curtains surrounding his bed (5). Let's recall also his oft-expressed resentment of his father, a resentment usually allowed only a mild form but once bursting through in a wild accusation that lays the blame for everything on dad: had he given more than a "cursory glance" to Victor's reading and taken the trouble to explain things to him, all might have been well (2). Then, let's look at a longish passage in one of those most unwelcome lectures Victor receives from father-intruder.5
"Do you think, Victor . . . that I do not suffer also? No one could love a child more than I loved your brother" -- tears came into his eyes as he spoke -- "but is it not a duty to the survivors that we should refrain from augmenting their unhappiness. . . ? It is also a duty owed to yourself, for excessive sorrow prevents improvement or enjoyment, or even the discharge of daily usefulness, without which no man is fit for society." (9)
Note that the first sentence raises directly and uncomfortably the Oedipal rivalry in terms of Victor's constant theme: I am the winner in the suffering con- {39} test. The second deflects his father's love away from Victor onto a rival, though not the one he is worried about, as it happens. We'll get to that. The third sentence is phrased rhetorically -- is it not? -- but then turns into stern and severe hectoring in the fourth -- it is! Let's say that this passage and others like it sting Victor in a thousand ways. Let's say that Victor is inescapably attached to his mother, especially now that she's dead, and that he harbors murderous thoughts about his father. He certainly doesn't want to hear about his father's "love," since that can only be the love for the impossible prize Victor too is after, never mind about the disposable brother. And he does not want to be lectured, treated as a child, insignificant and not in the race for the mother's affections and favors. Victor's response to these exhortations is, significantly, silence. The good advice, he says, "was totally inapplicable to my case" [2.1.1], so he says nothing. There is that within him which passeth show, but he is forbidden to utter it.

Now, old Frankenstein's closing comments on bucking up, doing your duty, getting back into the social round may remind us of Claudius' attempts to have Hamlet see it his way and let bygones be bygones. I hope they do, since it's the Hamlet parallel I wish to suggest. How's this? Victor's Oedipal rages are out of control, especially since his mother's death. His brother's death is a mere trifle or, to put it more exactly, a deflection of Victor's true impulse, an impulse revealed in his erotic dream, where another deflection or screen, Elizabeth, gives way for the true, albeit necrophilic, image of longing, his mother.

The creature pops in, not coincidentally, right at this point as a kind of continuation of and answer to the dream, a psychic double, who declares often enough that he is a "type" of Victor (15), a claim apparently verified in Victor's recurrent ravings about being the killer himself. The double's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to murder the father and revenge Victor for the violation of the mother. Elizabeth, like Ophelia, is both a screen for and a sacrifice to this stark incestuous drama.

Victor tries both to carry out this homicidal play and to avoid it: he creates the creature but he runs away. The father, however, playing with some versatility the part of Old Hamlet as well as Claudius, keeps popping in and intruding himself, particularly when he presses awkwardly for the "immediate solemnization of the marriage" between Victor and Elizabeth (18). By so attempting to sort out his son's erotic affairs, i.e., blocking him from the mother, i.e., castrating him, Victor's father evokes what he deserves, silence. How can Victor speak what he feels? And what does he feel? "To me," he says, "the idea of an immediate union with my Elizabeth was one of horror and dismay" (18). No doubt it is, and the father should learn to leave well enough alone.

But he keeps after Victor with his shears, and the son always reacts with anything but pleasure. When he is in prison, in fact, we get more straight-from-the-psyche hysteria: "Oh! Take him away! I cannot see him; for God's sake, do not let him enter!" (21). Of course there are rational, surface explanations for all these things; but we are not conducting this inquiry on the surface, thanks very much. The line is that Victor, unable to face or articulate his impossible desires, acts on them indirectly through his double, piling up corpses until fi- {40} nally the father is dead (23). Just before the death, Victor has tried to arrange in his mind a convenient transfer of affections, a neat sorting out of couples, saying that his father "doted on" Elizabeth "with all that affection which a man feels." Such a solution -- you take the girl, pa, and leave ma to me -- is impracticable on several grounds, so he finally kills off the father and then, after a short delirium, has nothing to do but die, not in silence, to be sure, but in a rage of guilt that expresses itself in feeble self-justification: "During these last days, I have been occupied in examining my past conduct, nor do I find it blamable" (24).

Well, there we are, with the most neatly-tied package yet.6 The reason it's so neatly tied has to do, of course, with the neatly-tied premises it is using, not to mention the very neat work done on Hamlet already by Ernest Jones. Perhaps we aren't bothered that Victor doesn't just die, but hurries off to harangue the magistrate, equips himself for the trip, takes a shot at trying to ennoble Walton's crew, and so forth. But not many readers are going to see the father-son focus as central or sufficiently inclusive; and we have an even better reason for leaving this psychoanalytic formalism: most of what we've been saying does not foreground silence. And we're determined to do that.

Just Look At That, Will You?

And there is a way to keep to psychoanalysis while considering silence, namely by way of Lacan's strong misreading of Freud. The connections between vision, language, authorship, reading and conceptions of the self have been outlined and explored so often, we can be relieved of that duty here. Let's just say that if normal reading, like normal seeing, necessitates complex and dynamic shifts between the subject and object position, then an abnormal book like this one might very well flirt with perversion, with voyeurism specifically, both in its characters and its readers. Voyeurism we might locate as the attempt to hold steadily to the subject position, an attempt based on a terrible fear of becoming an object, that is, of being looked at. It is, in one way, an aggressive maneuver, seeking to hold the object in its view; but the fear on which such aggression rests is that of a very weak ego or self. I need to look so as not to be looked at. I must control the Gaze, lest the Gaze control and engulf me.

The voyeur, whom I see we are calling "I," will never speak, of course, since the last thing we want is anyone spotting us. The voyeur is silent; the ideal object is blind. Voyeurism, then, has certain obvious affinities with some kinds of reading and with many kinds of criticism (not ours, of course), where a sadistic attempt to maintain absolute power over the looking can be exercised. Authorship as well, though in more complex ways, may be figured as an attempt to look out at us, to control the Gaze. The promise of Victor to "reveal" {41} his story is, at least in part, a cozening of Walton and us, a blinding of us so that the looking remains all in the writer's control. Even in his weakened condition, he has edited Walton's manuscript; and it is he, of course, who has control of the creature's narrative, or so he thinks. But he is greatly threatened, by the creature and by us. As readers, we seem to be safe from the eyes of anyone, free to be silent; but any sort of active reading will involve us frighteningly in a complex and mirrored field of vision and words where we not only see and hear but are seen and must speak.

Let's develop this just briefly. The general voyeuristic strategy is introduced almost immediately, when Walton and his crew sight the creature: "We watched the rapid progress of the traveller with our telescopes until he was lost among the distant inequalities of the ice" (Letter 4). Safe, concealed for the most part by the ship, equipped with magic eyes the object does not have, these sailors are pure subjects, the type for the peeping tom in the bushes and, perhaps, for the reader. But it is, we will find, an ideal type, not to be realized or permitted.

With Victor, we can construct a model of the career of the voyeur. He goes after Nature, one might say, not only to penetrate sadistically but to uncover, unveil.7 Nature is hidden in "recesses," and he wants to "show how she worked in her hiding-places," "to unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation" (2). Thus far, science "had partially unveiled the face of nature"; Victor wants to remove the last veils, to show, to unfold, uncover those hiding-places, to direct a kind of strip-tease of Nature.

And why? Because, we say here, Victor is so shaky in his own foundations that he is hysterical about being pure subject. He identifies himself as the scientist who has done all this, clearly a matter both for Promethean pride and terrible shame. In any case, that's who he is, that's how he constructs himself. But it's a self he cannot locate. Notice how many times he announces that he dates the origin of his problems, i.e., his being, from some point or other. He has so many different origins, so many different constructions of the self, that we begin to feel they are thrown out at random. He is what he is because of his nature, because of his birth or blood, because of his special childhood, because of Elizabeth, because of his father's failure to instruct him, because of fate, because of an accidental brush with Cornelius Agrippa, because of his mother's death, because of the lectures of M. Waldman, because of Justine's execution, "that miserable epoch from which I dated all my woe" (9). The point is not that the disparate items in this list could not be coordinated, by calling most of them turning-points perhaps; the point is that Victor does not do so. He treats each as a discreet mark of origin and thus arranges for himself a being so chaotic it really is hollowed out. No wonder he wants just to look. No wonder he has great trouble speaking.

The creature, from this angle, is battling a world of perverts, trying to establish normal seeing through the interplay of talk. If his efforts to make contact, {42} to live in a world of shifting subjects and objects, the normal world, fail, it is because the world is not normal. No wonder his speech turns to mere eloquence, to slightly sadistic demagoguery. He had hoped that language "might enable me to make them overlook the deformity of my figure" (15). While the formulation here is cast in terms of power, perhaps even coercion -- "enable me to make them" -- it is significant that the creature does not want to blind others but to have them "over-look," look but not be spellbound, look and listen, be both subject and object. But he can locate none of the normal, even in children: "As soon as he [William] beheld my form, he placed his hands before his eyes and uttered a shrill scream; I drew his hands forcibly from his face and said, 'Child, what is the meaning of this? I do not intend to hurt you: listen to me'" (16). He pulls the hands away from the child's eyes and says "forcibly," "look and listen," see and be seen! Be normal, live in the world, love me! It is the creature's tragedy that he is set loose in a country full of monsters.

Victor himself interprets all the creature's attempts at friendship and connection as terrifying invasions, as acts of voyeurism, most dramatically when the creature looks through the curtains of his bed and when he watches through the window as the scientist manufactures and then tears to pieces his mate.

The positioning of readers in all this is fascinating but too intricate to be pursued here. The question is whether we join the voyeurs in denying to the creature love and, finally, life itself; or are willing to risk participating in the positional shifts, risk losing our own selfhood. In a way it doesn't matter, since those most intent on gazing, even Victor, always find the Gaze directed back at them; the voyeur always is put on exhibition: "Although the sun shone upon me, as upon the happy and gay of heart, I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared upon me" (21).

The reading here is more difficult to deconstruct, though its Freudian substructure and all the talk about "selves" and "egos" makes it vulnerable. Glaring at us, though, is the obvious fact that, at least as it is sketched here, the relationship between voyeurism and silence is both too obvious and too inadequately worked out. Rather than decenter it, then, we will set it aside as tangential, though it has provided us with a dangerous clue in "love" we will pick up later.

Too Vulgar For Words

Most modern readers are going to find Victor something of a snob, positioning him, possibly, as that anomaly, an aristocratic radical, but certainly a snob. The first noun in his narrative, after "I," is "birth," and he informs us right off that his family "is one of the most distinguished" of the "republic" [1.1.1]. Though he seems fond of being a member of a "republic," he clearly sees that republic as happily stratified, with himself on the top layer. The child Elizabeth, for instance, is easily distinguished from the other "hardy little vagrants" in "their rude abode" as "fairer than a garden rose among dark-leaved brambles." She is {43} "of a different stock," you see (1). The wife of the turnkey who attends him in prison has a countenance expressive of "all those bad qualities which often characterize that class" (21). Part of his scientific ardor seems class-driven: he is positively appalled that the "most learned philosopher" "knew little more" than "the untaught peasant" (2), and sets out to correct that impropriety. Thus far, he sounds like Dan Quayle at a country-club membership meeting. But Victor's standards are even more scrupulous; he includes part of the middle-class in his sneers, Clerval's father being nothing more than "a narrow-minded trader" (3).

Such feelings, to be fair, do not seem to be confined to Victor. Elizabeth, in a rather startling passage, gives us a full analysis of the effect of "republican institutions" on class division. Compared to the great monarchies surrounding Switzerland, that republic has produced "less distinction between the several classes," and can be particularly proud of the results as regards the manufacture of servants with "simpler and happier manners." "A servant in Geneva," she proudly claims, "does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England" (6). One may not be wrong to wonder whether she isn't proudest of the fact that these republican ideas have produced better servants, "more refined and moral," i.e., less likely to spill the soup or steal the silver, especially when she adds an ugly bit of gossip on how the pretty Miss Mansfield has hooked a most eligible English gentleman, while her ugly sister has been lucky to land the rich banker.

Even the creature, who seems to most of us so resolutely proletariat (along with everything else that is good), is not without his touch of condescending haughtiness: "The girl [in the cottage] was young and of gentle demeanour, unlike what I have since found cottagers and farmhouse servants to be" (11).

There are hints that silence is to some extent class-bound, that those in the know, through blood, have no need to speak, both knowledge and power being secure and irrational. In addition, those blessed by blood may find speaking inadvisable, the swarm below, doubtless worthy in their way, not having the wherewithal to understand. Victor justifies his silence at Justine's trial and execution on the grounds that his story would simply astonish rather than enlighten "the vulgar" (7). There is also a subversive sense in which those in power rule by silence, by tacit assumption, to such an extent that they have rendered all speech impotent. Justine is, in fact, wonderfully articulate, though she knows that words will have no effect in a world in which hereditary power rules through muteness: "But I do not pretend that my protestations should acquit me" (8). This is much the sad lesson learned by the creature, and it is a lesson in politics as much as anything else.

There's no stopping us once we get onto politics,8 but I think we should remember that silence comes in many forms, some of them quite expressive, and that we read more things than words.

Read My Lips

{44} Maybe lips isn't quite right, but the possibility remains that we should be reading other signs, silence included. There are, after all, times in the novel when silences seem clearly motivated, when they speak. Victor's reticence is often openly defensive; he does not speak of what he "could not endure to think of" (5) and says so. Silence can also express something like aggression, as in Victor's refusal to write to those at home, even when "one word from you . . . is necessary to calm our apprehensions" (6). Connected to this sort of violent silence is the hush his father can always enforce: "I listened to my father in silence and remained for some time incapable of speech" (18). Old Frankenstein is inevitably the great repressor. But silence can also speak as positive feelings: "a thousand conflicting emotions rendered [Elizabeth] mute as she bade me a tearful, silent farewell" (18). Victor claims that he checks his strong desire for the sympathy he would receive in telling Elizabeth of the creature's threat out of love for her (22), and perhaps we believe him.

In addition to silence itself, there are a million other silent signs to read, and the reading of them is often foregrounded. Walton, on first seeing Victor, reads "benevolence and sweetness" in his countenance (Letter 4); Elizabeth is read by all as "bearing a celestial stamp in all her features" (1); "Henry said little, but . . . I read in his kindling eye" (3); Justine's devotion "you could see by her eyes" (6); after the first round of murders, the creature's "countenance bespoke bitter anguish, combined with disdain and malignity" (10); the magistrate Victor tardily tries to enlighten does not need to speak: "lively surprise, unmingled with disbelief, was painted on his countenance" (23). Notice how complex these readings often are, and how much certainty is invested in them.

It is true that a few doubts are expressed about this method of communicating. Elizabeth laments that we can have no assurances "when falsehood can look so like truth," but one paragraph later she is back to the same reading school: "Elizabeth read my anguish in my countenance" (9). The creature is an expert countenance-reader, as he shows when he is spying on the cottagers; but, unlike the others, he is unhappy with the incomplete, sterile, voyeuristic (and aristocratic?) system and wants most from the cottagers their fuller, merging game of words.

Reading countenances, we might add, also seems an odd thing to do in the genre we thought we were in with Frankenstein. Victor finds that M. Krempe has repulsive "manners" and M. Waldman "an air of frankness" (4), but is this a matter of airs and manners we are engaged with? Isn't this a tale of raping nature, and ripping bodies to shreds, and finding the monster right under the bed? Airs and manners, the delicate reading of fragile non-verbal signals, seem more appropriate to a Jane Austen novel than to violence and horror. What are we being sucked into, with all these faces painted with this or that meaning, these expressive countenances? What is happening to us?

You Do The Talking

{45} To simplify the immensely tangling questions about the position of the reader, I'll deal here with only a few possibilities, keeping mainly to the dramatic rhetorical signals that seem to be in the work itself. The work and its various narrators are uncommonly aware of their various readers and are often telling them to listen-up: "remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman" (4). We had better attend.

But it's difficult to find the right seat, the right positioning. Rhetorical signals are so many and so diverse.9 Even in the Preface we are disarmed, especially by the moving passage that relates or begins to relate memories of P. B. Shelley: "Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone; and my companion was one who, in this world, I shall never see more." Since this sometime companion is of interest to us, we settle in to hear more, eager to respond to this quite intimate invitation. But we find ourselves quite suddenly shown the door, booted out in the very next sentence: "But this is for myself; my readers have nothing to do with these associations" [Introduction 12]. Well, pahrrr-dunn meee! Who brought up the associations in the first place? More to the point, why swing us in and out like this?

This odd and by no means regular rhythm of invitation and ejection, of disclosure and denial continues throughout, gliding roughly from Walton's openness to Victor's secrecy, to the creature's eloquent bullying and back again. Walton is indeed not only the most ardent recorder but the most attentive host imaginable. He worries always about what we are thinking, feeling, wondering: "do not suppose" [Letter 2.5], he says to keep us on track; "you will exclaim" or "will you smile?" he adds to jog us into listening, to nudge us in a friendly way, asking us if we need a refill, as it were. He runs the risk of prescribing our response now and then, but it's all done in the spirit of hospitality, of making his home and his understanding our own.

Victor is another matter. We know of course that he is a skilled rhetorician, or that Walton thinks he is. His speech to the sailors, exhorting them to carry on through the ice and polar bears, is so deft it makes Walton and even the crew nearly burst with admiration (24). Never mind that, taking one consideration with another, they choose to ignore him. He's still good at it. But with us, Victor is routinely kicking us out, even without having asked us in. He is very seldom cordial -- "it may be imagined that" -- and much more commonly exercising his apparent right to tell us we cannot possibly comprehend -- "no one can conceive" or "who shall conceive?" [1.3.6]. Not us, it appears. Not if he has anything to do with it. He may even take some delight in frustrating us, working us up, with Walton, to a state of "eagerness and . . . wonder and hope" with his science fiction secrets, knowing we want to hear so badly we could spit, and then coldly dropping us: "that cannot be" (4).

{46} One wonders why he speaks at all, since he is so anxious to withhold. A remote possibility is that, for all the pain it gives him, he is driven to warn Walton and those of us thinking about similar exploits not to do it. That's what he says, very often: "I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale" (Letter 4) or, again, "Learn from me" (4). But what is one to learn? "Happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world"? (4) We know what Victor really thinks of such bumpkins. And what is the moral he imagines we will deduce? "One that may direct you if you succeed in your undertaking and console you in case of failure" [Letter 4.8]. Well, that's all-purpose, but rather vague. Despite all this talk about stern morals, then, what Victor has to tell us is by no means clear, probably even to himself. It is not even clear how much he cares to divulge.

The creature, interestingly, learns language in reference to the effects created by the words -- "the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness" -- and develops an affective rather than a mimetic theory -- "the words they spoke, [did] not hav[e] any apparent connection with visible objects" (12). As we have noted before, his rhetoric is terribly insistent: "How can I move thee?"; "Listen to my tale . . . hear me. . . . Listen to me, Frankenstein. . . ; listen to me" (10). Not surprisingly, such rhetoric, though certainly open, is not at all the unbuttoned, friendly persuasion of Walton; with the creature, we are dared, threatened to listen, to understand, to sympathize.

And what do we do? How are we positioned as we move in and out from this creature-center? One negative indication is given by the number of readers inside the novel, and very poor readers they usually are. Clerval, for instance, seems to have only the dimmest notion that Victor is troubled; he at first thinks the delirious and hysterical Victor, thoroughly shocked by being peeked at by the creature, is, in fact, consumed with joy (5). Late in the novel, Victor evokes an audience of "the shades of my murdered friends" to approve his vow to hunt down the monster, which he utters with a "solemnity and an awe which almost assured me that [they] heard and approved" (24). If so, the creature's rude "loud and fiendish laugh" (24) disrupts their collegiality -- and ours.

More detailed are the rhetorical stage directions given with Victor's attempt to win over the magistrate. Victor addresses him with a manner he calls "impressive but calm," and it seems to work, the magistrate's signals of incredulity changing to attention, then to horror, then to "surprise unmingled with disbelief." But it turns out that the magistrate had listened only with "that half kind of belief" appropriate for supernatural stories, whereupon Victor changes postures and adopts some rage-sparkling in his eyes and "a frenzy in my manner," "something," he modestly says, "I doubt not, of that haughty fierceness which the martyrs of old are said to have possessed" (23). But this magistrate of now, however impressed or cowed, clearly isn't convinced and just wants Victor out of there. Another rotten reader.

Given that he is recorder and that he is charged with continuing Victor's vengeance work, Walton seems the most important reader, but it isn't clear where his avowed love for Victor leads him, if anywhere. We leave him si- {47} lent, like Victor, the last words having been given to the creature, who is himself about to enter into silence -- or so he says. Walton is apparently left to trail back ignominiously to England, not because he heeded Victor's warning but because the men did not heed Victor's rhetoric. Further, we note that Walton does not fulfill Victor's deathbed plea, does not "undertake my unfinished work" [Walton 10], that is, he doesn't club down the creature on the spot. While it can be justly observed that he can leave the creature to do that for himself, how can he be sure those lying lips will be consumed in flame? In any case, we have the strangely washed-out, irresolute, inarticulate Walton at the end, the reader/writer who has heard, seen, and told most and who can only watch as the terrible tragedy works itself out. If he reads at all, he reads in silence.

I Love To Hear You Talk

Rather than end on that dismal note, let's turn to a hopelessly unfashionable notion of connection. Call it love or, less boldly, sympathy. Running through virtually all the centerings we have touched on has been a master-metaphor of power, an implicitly skeptical or negative view of language, narrative, character, rhetoric, the psyche, politics, gender. Everywhere we have seen gaps and lapses and empty spaces, tricks, and subversions, and negations. We can find them here too, if we want to.

But what if we attend to Walton's cry in the second letter: "I have no friend"; "I have no one near me" [Letter 2.2]? What if we take seriously his growing love for Victor and even more seriously the creature's demand for alliance? Of course such hopes are shattered, and one might say they are shattered by silence. The creature searches everywhere for connection; even in his reading he looks for similarity, for contact. Maybe if we spoke to him. . . ?

Isn't it possible that our deconstructive fun might decenter itself into a great shadow novel, one where the link between reading and language and connection is actually asserted by being denied, one where revelation -- "Hear me! Let me reveal my tale!" [Letter 4.6] -- leads not to alienating, pathetic voyeurism but to sympathetic participation? After all, readers now necessarily look back through a whole host of Capn' Cuttles and Abel Magwitches and Jims and Queequegs and Rochesters and Heathcliffs, the rough and thorny and the alien and strange who through speech made some sort of connection with their world and with the reader. But maybe it's we who need to make the connection.

I realize that there [are] a good many dangers inherent in recentering this old slush, this old slop and slurp about affinities, this old humanism. We have spent a good deal of collective energy in the last decade showing the demons that lie within all that and the disguises put forward in the name of such things as connecting language and participatory rhetoric. We are so alert to them, in fact, that I wonder what price we are paying for our vigilance.

"Still, thou canst listen to me and grant me thy compassion" (10), says the creature. Yes, surely we can. Let's call it more plainly sympathy that we are granting. Let's say even that it's not a matter of a grant. Let's say it is a matter of nature. Let's even call it love. Come back to the raft, Huck honey, please.


* Citations are to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (New York: Signet, 1965).

1. A discussion of creature-speak and a brilliant treatment of language in the novel is given by Peter Brooks, "'Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts': Language, Nature, and Monstrosity," in The Endurance of "Frankenstein", ed. U. C. Knoepflmacher and George Levine (Berkeley: Univ. of Cal. Press, 1979), pp. 205-20.

2. See James B. Twitchell, "Frankenstein and the Anatomy of Horror," G[eorgi]a R[eview] 37 (1983), 41-78.

3. The powerful feminist discussions of the novel seem to have come in two waves. Ellen Moers' important consideration of the novel as female fantasy, as a female myth of childbirth (Literary Women: The Great Writers [New York: Doubleday, 1976], pp.91-99) connects to the more subtle treatment in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979), pp. 221-47. Later work of significance includes Mary Poovey, "'My Hideous Progeny': Mary Shelley and the Feminization of Romanticism," PMLA 95 (1980), 332-47; Mary Jacobus, "Is There a Woman in This Text?" N[ew] L[iterary] H[istory] 14 (1982), 117-41; William R. Veeder, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Fable of Androgyny (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986); and especially Alan Bewell, "An Issue of Monstrous Desire," Yale Journal of Criticism, 2 (1988), 105-28.

4. For a more complete treatment of the incestuous currents see J. M. Hill, "Frankenstein and the Physiognomy of Desire," A[merican] I[mago] 32 (1975), 335-58.

5. For an exceptionally subtle and witty argument on fathers, see U. C. Knoepflmacher, "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. U. C. Knoepflmacher and George Levine (Berkeley: Univ. of Cal. Press, 1979), pp.88-119.

6. I do not mean to indicate that there is nothing more or nothing better to be said. See Paul Sherwin, "Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe," PMLA 96 (1981), 883-903; Rosemary Jackson, "Narcissism and Beyond: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Frankenstein and Fantasies of the Double," in Aspects of Fantasy: Selected Essays from the Second International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, ed. William Coyle (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986), pp.43-53; and especially the quite remarkable essay by Gerhard Joseph, "Frankenstein's Dream: The Child as Father of the Monster," Hartford Stud in Lit 7 (1975), 97-115.

7. The metaphors of penetration as they cooperate with a conventional cautionary reading of the novel are outlined by Anne K. Mellor, "Frankenstein: A Feminist Critique of Science," in One Culture: Essays in Science and Literature, ed. George Levine (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1987), pp. 287-312.

8. Readings attentive to the class and political issues in the novel include Anca Vlasopolos, "Frankenstein's Hidden Skeletons: The Psycho-Politics of Oppression," S[cience] F[iction] S[tudies] 10 (1983), 125-36; Lee Sterrenburg, "Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein," in The Endurance of "Frankenstein", ed. U. C. Knoepflmacher and George Levine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 143-71; Peter Dale Scott, "Vital Artifice: Mary, Percy, and the Psychopolitical Integrity of Frankenstein," also in The Endurance of Frankenstein, pp. 172-202; and the excellent recent book by Chris Baldick, In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987).

9. On this point see the excellent essay by Beth Newman, "Narratives of Seduction and the Seductions of Narrative: The Frame Structure of Frankenstein," ELH 53 (1986), 141-63.