Contents Index

Teaching the Monster to Read: Mary Shelley, Education and Frankenstein

Anne McWhir

In The Educational Legacy of Romanticism, ed. John Willinksy (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 73-92.

If the time should ever come when what is now called science, . . . familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.
(Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802)
[T]o be mistaught is worse than to be untaught; and no perverseness equals that which is supported by system, no errors are so difficult to root out as those which the understanding has pledged its credit to uphold.
(Wordsworth, "Essay Supplementary to the Preface," 1815)
In the late eighteenth century, Samuel Stanhope Smith reports, a native Indian student at the College of New Jersey was made almost white by his education (107-08). Smith intends to demonstrate that racial difference is merely superficial; but, of course, for him white is normative, and education means submission to paternalistic Anglo-American values. About the same time in England, the double effect of chap-books by such writers as Hannah More, which both "perpetuat[ed] literacy" in the 1790s and also "advocat[ed] quiet obedience" illustrates a similar point about the controlling effects of education (Olivia Smith 90). These versions of a familiar story may help us to understand Frankenstein's monster, who suffers because, unlike Samuel Stanhope Smith's native student, he cannot pass for white: he is trapped in the abyss between the ideology his education teaches and his own experience of a rejecting world. Educated to reiterate lessons of submission, dependence, and assimilation, the monster in Frankenstein replicates the transformation of repression into oppression. In the process he may teach us something not only about the political context of Mary Shelley's novel, but also about our own situation as teachers and as students.

{74} Without regarding ourselves as Indians or colonizers, monsters or monster-makers, most of us -- both as students and as teachers -- have experienced in the classroom the problem of a doubtful authority. Our intellectual parents have taught us to read, designed our curricula, and even written the books that shaped the way we think. But if we are to be made intellectually and politically conscious, we eventually need to choose our own books and read them for ourselves, going on to teach lessons that do not merely replicate the lessons we were taught, and thus becoming more than parodies or caricatures of our own teachers. Denying that our teachers have formed us altogether, we must resist in turn the temptation to impose our own image on our students. But Victor Frankenstein's monster, deformed as much by the texts that teach him as by his "creator," constructs his own sense of self only to discover that he has no right to exist. Through the books he reads, he discovers, or perhaps constructs, his intellectual parents -- only to realize that their lessons have formed him for a world that will not accept him. In a sense he is twice made -- first through Frankenstein's macabre piecing together of fragments from the grave, then through the textual construction of his own sense of self. His attempt to discover and to make sense of the father is thus both biological and literary. But, I will argue, he is more trapped by the textual values he assimilates (ideology, mythology, symbolism) than he ever was by biology. Either he reads the wrong books or, more probably, Mary Shelley (as author and teacher) denies him the ability to read them critically.

In 1815 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin -- not yet Mary Shelley -- was living with Percy Bysshe Shelley in England, estranged from her father after her elopement the previous year.1 A girl of eighteen, she had already, in March, given birth to a baby which had died. Here, and not only at Villa Diodati the next year, we can find the genesis of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley's reading list for 1815 -- for she kept such lists for herself and Shelley from 1814 until 1820 -- includes three of the books the monster reads: Goethe's Werther, Milton's Paradise Lost and Plutarch's Lives.2 It also contains, among a wide variety of others, works by Rousseau and Holbach's System of Nature. These books are also present in Frankenstein, though not explicitly, for Rousseau, Holbach, Godwin and numerous others are as important in the formation of the creature as Plutarch and Milton. The general relationship of Rousseau to Frankenstein is quite obvious: indeed, Frankenstein's confession begins like a revision of Rousseau's -- "I am by birth a Genevese" -- and goes on to develop an idealized version of Rousseau's guilty confusion {75} between the mother and the lover.3 In Frankenstein, Safie, the Arab girl who marries Felix De Lacey, is perhaps a corrective revision of Sophie in Emile, with whose education Mary Wollstonecraft took issue in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (77-92; Scott 174). Even more obviously, Frankenstein's monster is a parodic version of Rousseau's child of nature, whose education in the ways of society can either make or break him.

But, as Frankenstein learns to his horror, the creature is more than the sum of his parts, literary or biological. The text of Frankenstein is also more than the sum of its parts: put together out of fragments of reading and a wide variety of ideas and influences, it perplexes the reader with its intertextual complexity. Reading Frankenstein, the reader is both like the monster, who is also a reader, and unlike the monster, who is deconstructed by being read. The monster in Frankenstein is badly educated, deformed by his social and literary experience. But who is this educable -- and educative -- monster? What can we learn from reading him as a literary patchwork, sewn together out of fragments not only of corpses but of texts, even as he constructs himself out of similar, but not always identical, fragments? The question is unanswerable without compiling one's own list of fragments, for Mary Shelley's creative process is no more recoverable than Frankenstein's. I can merely attempt to piece together part of an intellectual and literary context, hoping that it may help to explain the limitations of the monster's education.

Rousseau -- whom Mary Shelley reads but to whom she does not give her creature access -- claims (notoriously) that misery and degradation are not natural but are ills contracted through socialization. In the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, for example, he describes natural man "satisfying his hunger under an oak, quenching his thirst at the first stream, finding his bed at the foot of the same tree that furnished his meal; and therewith his needs are satisfied" (105). For Rousseau, reason is a means of achieving happiness only for those who have long ago left the primeval state of nature for civilization. The implications of Rousseau's myth of natural man for a reading of Frankenstein are clear in the Discourse on Inequality: "Nothing . . . would have been so miserable as savage man dazzled by enlightenment, tormented by passions, and reasoning about a state different from his own" (127).

The monster in Frankenstein is, in part, natural man dazzled by enlightenment, tormented by loneliness and desire, reasoning about a social state in which he can never find a place. Because of his ugliness, {76} he cannot hope to be treated like Victor the wild boy of Aveyron, who wandered out of the forest in 1799 and was brought to Paris to be educated.4 He is no Emile, raised from the cradle as a citizen of the world. He is an educable child of nature denied perfectibility within a social context and thus doomed to perversity: a literate Caliban. He is given no Rousseau to read -- and he comes to believe in the anti-Rousseau position that man is weak without society. Godwin's golden age follows the abolition of government rather than preceding its institution; but Godwin's lesson, like Rousseau's, might have reconciled the creature to his condition: "He is the most perfect man, to whom society is not a necessary of life, but a luxury, innocent and enviable, in which he joyfully indulges" (Godwin 302).

But others, including Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who undertook to educate the wild boy, regarded society as essential to human happiness, and even to survival. Although the monster is explicitly not "one of the feeblest and least intelligent of animals" (Itard v), he achieves less than Godwinian perfection because he assumes that his self-sufficiency must be a sign of inferiority. For him, the De Laceys are the model of perfection. But they are the worst possible model, we discover, because they teach the creature certain values they themselves cannot rise to when tested. Describing himself as "more agile than [man]," able to "subsist upon coarser diet," and able to withstand extreme temperatures, the creature concludes that he is "not even of the same nature as man," "a monster, a blot upon the earth" (115-16), rather than realizing that he is simply different from the De Laceys in ways that might have made him their equal or even their superior, rather than their inferior. He believes that he needs to be accepted by the De Laceys and, since he cannot be, he demands our sympathy even when he is most criminal.

But Rousseau might have regarded the De Laceys not as the monster's connection with a beneficent, if flawed, social world, but as the unwitting means of his corruption. The blind De Lacey -- unknowingly and ironically -- succeeds in educating the monster only for misery and hatred. Education can make a monster into a human being by socializing him; but it may offer only a false enlightenment, worse than blindness, degrading natural man into a monster by raising desires and aspirations that nature cannot and society will not satisfy. Obviously, Frankenstein's creature can be educated as a human being only if society is willing to accept him as such (even if such acceptance goes no further than giving him a monstrous companion). Otherwise, he can be educated only to {77} know the full extent of his exclusion, denied social identity by the very society he longs to join.5

One difficulty in reading Frankenstein is the familiar problem of nature and nurture: is the monster intrinsically evil, perhaps because of the circumstances of his creation, or is he made evil by bad treatment, as he himself claims in his conversations with Frankenstein? I consider him to be amoral in the beginning, radically natural in a sense that Mary Shelley might have understood from her reading of Holbach's System of Nature. Holbach, like other radical free-thinkers of his day (including Volney, whose Ruins of Empires the monster does read), regards Nature as all that can be known: whatever may lie behind or beyond her -- causes, universal necessity -- is unknown and unknowable. To all intents and purposes, then, Nature is parthenogenic, a female principle whose laws govern man's being and who sends him out into the world "naked and destitute" (Holbach 11). According to Nature's laws, "matter acts by its own peculiar energy, and needs not any exterior impulse to set it in motion":

If filings of iron, sulphur and water be mixed together, these bodies thus capacitated to act on each other, are heated by degrees, and ultimately produce a violent combustion. If flour be wetted with water, and the mixture closed up, it will be found, after some little lapse of time, by the aid of a microscope, to have produced organized beings that enjoy life, of which the water and the flour were believed incapable: it is thus that inanimate matter can pass into life, or animate matter, which is in itself only an assemblage of motion. Reasoning from analogy, the production of a man, independent of the ordinary means, would not be more marvellous than that of an insect with flour and water. Fermentation and putrefaction evidently produce living animals. We have here the principle; and with proper materials, principles can always be brought into action. (20)
The creature in Frankenstein is, if one accepts Holbach's argument, a child of nature -- not an artificial man or even the monster his "creator" thinks he is. In his origin he is neither good nor evil, though he is capable of becoming either. From such a point of view, moreover, Frankenstein is not a god-like creator at all: he is simply a man who understands and employs a principle of nature. Holbach's insects produced with flour and water are not created by the man who puts the materials in a jar. They grow according to natural principles, and the word "creation" is thus inappropriate to the scientist's activity. Nature herself produces life, a statement suggesting two conclusions. First, the monster is no monster; {78} in Holbach's words, "there can be neither monsters nor prodigies, wonders nor miracles in nature: those which are designated as monsters are certain combinations with which the eyes of man are not familiarized, but which are not less the necessary effects of the natural causes" (35).6 It is Victor Frankenstein, insisting on his own creative power, who calls his creature a "monster" -- "the miserable monster whom I had created" (53). Second, the creature (for want of a better word) learns a mythology or ideology that must destroy him when accepted as truth: convinced that happiness is possible only in society and only through a loving relationship with his creator-God, convinced of his need for romantic love, the creature is destroyed by his discovery of civilized human wants and desires. The question of identity is a matter of ideology, and, unfortunately, the monster either reads the wrong books or learns to read them badly.

Natural man is an ideological construct, as Rousseau admits.7 Artificial in his radical naturalness, the philosopher's natural man cannot be liberated from the text: he is read. To teach him to read is either to destroy him by making him aware of his alienation, or to undertake to accept him as a member of civil society, a subject whose rights can be asserted. Significantly, Mary Shelley's creature reads neither Rousseau nor Holbach, Godwin nor Wollstonecraft. Rousseau might have taught him a positive way of looking at his role as natural man -- but, of course, by then it would have been too late: natural man is not a reader. But Rousseau, like Godwin, is present in Frankenstein not as a text the creature reads, but as a component of the creature himself, as Milton, Plutarch, Volney and Goethe also are: if the creature is Mary Shelley's version of herself in relation to Godwin as suggested by Knoepflmacher, of her own stillborn child or dead baby as proposed by Moers, if he is Milton's Adam, or the dream/nightmare of contemporary science, he is also Mary Shelley's comment on Rousseau's natural man. Thus, if Frankenstein the self-deluded creator puts together his creature out of fragments salvaged from the grave, Mary Shelley forms her "hideous progeny" out of fragments of her reading as well as her experience.8 His deformity is partly that of parody; if, as the creature thinks, language is a compensation for deformity, that is because language seems to offer secure contexts and constructs.

But the deformity persists, tripping up any reader who approaches Frankenstein expecting the vindication of an ideological position. Is the text radical, conservative, feminist, patriarchal? Godwinian in its critique of Rousseau, anti-Godwinian in its rejection of perfectibility? If the {79} text/creature analogy stands, is Frankenstein a surrogate for the writer or for the writer's father? Does Mary Shelley stand with Frankenstein or in opposition to him? Instead of trying to answer such questions as these directly, I will attempt to show what effect the creature's education has in his formation or deformation and how the creature's role as reader intersects with his other role as textual construct. The strain between the pastoral and apocalyptic in the monster's account of his education -- now a vegetarian of the Golden Age, now an outcast demon -- emphasizes the incompatibility of the different views of self he is given by his reading.9 While he reads Plutarch and Goethe and Milton, while he listens to Felix reading Volney to Safie, we continue to put the pieces of a still unfinished creature together and come up with an uncritical reader, a confused curriculum, and an inconsistent reading.

Yet the creature in Frankenstein is competent as natural man from the moment of his animation. Or perhaps he is an amusing distortion of natural man. He gets dressed -- thus demonstrating remarkable fine-motor control and a natural modesty unknown to infants, wild men, and Rousseau's man in a state of nature -- and he goes outside, walking without help or example. He can even choose his own food, and when he sees the moon he feels awe resembling Volney's description of primitive religious feeling.10

Perhaps the moon is a kind of primeval female presence for the creature, who lacks a mother but who is the hideous progeny of a woman writer and, in Holbach's sense, the child of female Nature. Reading Volney -- no supporter of Rousseau, but a skeptic like Holbach -- should have suggested to the creature such a way of understanding his own origin, for Volney's Genius makes man a child of nature and puts these words into the mouth of the mother:

Feeble work of my hands, I owe thee nothing, and I give thee life; the world wherein I placed thee was not made for thee, yet I give thee the use of it; thou wilt find in it a mixture of good and evil; it is for thee to distinguish them; for thee to guide thy footsteps in a path containing thorns as well as roses. Be the arbiter of thine own fate; I put thy destiny into thine own hands! (21)
These challenging words may recall in another context Mary Wollstonecraft's assertion of the moral advantages of independence: "it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason" (21). Against this, the creature's words to Frankenstein, "Make me happy, and I will again be virtuous" (95), strike a note of whining dependence, for the creature cannot take responsibility for his own actions or destiny, choosing Milton's patriarchal myth of {80} creation instead.11 Mary Shelley makes her creature competent -- prodigiously competent; but the patriarchal message of his education and the political and social context in which he receives it sap this native power and strength. He is made dependent and horrific, but, except in his taskmaster's eye, he does not come into the world so. Translating this into feminist terms, he suffers the fate of an educated young woman persuaded that beauty and submission are all she has to offer and equally convinced that she is too ugly ever to take up this only possible role. She, like the creature, misunderstands the problem, which is not lack of beauty, but acceptance of an oppressive ideology.

The creature thus has something in common with other anomalous, marginalized creatures of controversial human status: black people, wild men, idiots, orangutans, women (who, according to Mary Wollstonecraft's ironic account of Safie's father's religion, do not possess souls; Rights of Woman 19).12 Political analysis must depend on some judgment of the creature's status, especially in the context of a novel written by the child of the authors of Political Justice and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In one place, Godwin seems to imply that virtue and educability have nothing to do with physical configuration: "Those moral causes that awaken the mind, that inspire sensibility, imagination and perseverance, are distributed without distinction to the tall or the dwarfish, the graceful or the deformed, the lynx-eyed or the blind" (1.4.33-34). Yet in another place, writing of perfectibility, he remarks, "every perfection or excellence that human beings are competent to conceive, human beings, unless in cases that are palpably and unequivocally excluded by the structure of their frame, are competent to attain" (1.5.59, emphasis added). It is tempting to regard the creature in Frankenstein as a handicapped person in today's terms, marginalized because of "the structure of [his] frame"; yet his deficiency, if we can call it that, is clearly not an intellectual one. The creature's dilemma is that he can be educated as "civil man" but that he cannot be accepted as such by society -- or even by himself once he has learned certain social attitudes.13 The social skills he acquires, including knowledge of language, can lead only to consciousness of exclusion. He is therefore the victim of a compelling ethnocentrism, a revulsion based on recognition of something sufficiently like one's self to be disturbing. Significantly, the creature does not shrink from his own image until after he has accepted the "perfect forms of [his] cottagers" (109) as normative.

The monster moves from his creator's "work-shop of filthy creation" (50) to begin his life in nature, but, if we can accept Walton's account of {81} Frankenstein's confession, his relationship to nature is anomalous. He has been assembled by an obsessive, solitary, male scientist out of debris from the grave and knowledge wrested from Nature's secret recesses. Thus, while he is as natural as any other living thing in the conformity of his being to Holbachian natural principles, he is the child of rape, snatched without birth from the tomb/womb of Nature and rejected by his father. Seeking unconsciously to return to maternal Nature, he sleeps in the forest and feeds himself on berries, enlightened and comforted by the moon and frightening himself with his own inarticulate cries. His salvation lies in flight from the father, in his growing familiarity with his place in nature.

But he also has the capacity to learn as the rest of us learn, or as mankind might have learned in the slow progress or fall from a state of nature to one of civilization: he distinguishes objects from one another, learns the nature and use of fire, and discovers the pleasures of shelter and society. In Rousseau's terms, he discovers wants that, in the perplexity of his first awakening, he had never dreamed of. Learning from his observations of the De Laceys, he comes to attach names to objects, he models his speech and behavior on human examples, and at last he learns to read. In doing all these things he learns that he is both like a human being and unlike a human being. He has neither father nor mother to teach him who he is, and so the particular books that the De Laceys -- and Mary Shelley -- make available to him are crucial in forming his sense of identity.

There is no clear political or social conclusion to be drawn from the creature's reading, for all of it (except Volney's The Ruins of Empires, which is quite explicitly radical) may be and has been given more than one interpretation, and Volney explicitly treats the problem of a multiplicity of ideas and beliefs. The presence of Paradise Lost in the monster's reading list and in the novel as a whole is an obvious example of this point, for there is more than one reading of Milton even in Frankenstein itself, as the creature identifies himself now with Adam, now with "the fallen angel, whom [Frankenstein drives] from joy for no misdeed" (95), and as he regards his "creator" now as divine, now as demonic. The monster cannot at the same time be both innocent, virtuous, vegetarian, natural man and be a demonic outcast.14 Yet he considers himself to be both, and is destroyed by the same perplexities that confuse the reader.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Mary Wollstonecraft attacks Milton for insisting on Eve's subservience to Adam. This attack provides {82} an obvious precedent for a subversive treatment of Milton in Frankenstein. And the very presence of an epigraph from Paradise Lost --

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? (10.743-745)
-- next to Mary Shelley's dedication of her novel to Godwin indicates that she was aware of the ambivalence of devotion and reproach in the relation of children to fathers or creatures to Creator: Adam's complaining stance is balanced by Mary Shelley's own dutiful acknowledgement of the respect she owes to her father.15 I see subversion in the effects of the creature's initial, conservative reading of Milton's text. In spite of the influence of Volney, which might have made him scorn Milton's religion and his domestic authoritarianism, in spite of what most critics see as the salutary example of the De Lacey family, with their sexual equality and radical political ideas, the monster reads Paradise Lost as an interpretation of his own condition:
It moved every feeling of wonder and awe, that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. . . . [Adam] had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition. . . . (125)
Amazingly, having drawn these analogies between his own condition and that of Milton's characters, the creature continues to believe everything he reads -- even though his texts clash with one another continually. Constructing his sense of self and his theory of origin, the creature reads rewritings of the book of Genesis and collaborates in a conservative reading of an authorized version.16

Other scholars have shown how the word "monster" is used by both parties during the revolutionary period in a way that recalls Blake's play with the words "angel" and "devil" and his reading of Paradise Lost in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.17 Radical philosophers like Mary Wollstonecraft make the monster a despot, an "artificial monster" made so "by the station in which he was born" (A Vindication of the Rights of Men 73). The conservative, on the other hand, makes the monster a mob and idealizes the ruler, as Burke idealizes Louis XVI and Marie {83} Antoinette in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (90-92).18 These two versions of the story of power are incompatible with each other.

But the monster in Frankenstein reads books that have incompatible views of the nature of power, and he claims to accept them all as true histories. His fascination with the content of Paradise Lost reinforces his tendency to treat text as revelation. Accepting Paradise Lost as a true history, he will obviously accept Frankenstein's journal entry -- his creator's revelation of the creative act -- as a parody or perhaps an antitype of Milton's account of creation. "You, doubtless, recollect these papers," he tells Frankenstein, "Here they are. Every thing is related in them which bears reference to my accursed origin" (126).19 Believing in revelation, he is assured of his own powerlessness.

He might, however, have adopted some alternative to Milton's myth of origin. Volney writes vividly about the races of mankind: "A race of men now rejected from society for their sable skin and frizzled hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature, those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe" (17). It never seems to occur to the creature to take pride in his difference, regarding it as a source of strength; but Frankenstein was banned in South Africa in 1955, a fact that underlines the racial implications of the conversation between the creature and De Lacey, with its repetition of forms of the word "prejudice" and its emphasis on De Lacey's physical blindness (O'Flinn 196). Other plausible analogues to the creature are found in texts that haunt the fringes of the narrative -- other versions of Genesis in a variety of eighteenth-century works on race, society, and the nature of man.20

But the creature believes the convenient account of his own creation he finds in a pocket of his clothes (125-26). This text (inaccessible to all other readers) at the heart of interlocking texts becomes a kind of conservative backlash against any of the liberating or radicalizing effects of the creature's education -- as revelation repeatedly is for conservative thinkers of the revolutionary period. For Samuel Horsley, for example, "the Christian is possessed of a written rule of conduct, delivered from on high." Horsley's answer to all challenges of authority is God's word, which refutes the possibility of a natural state except as a miserable fall from a divinely ordained social order:

The Providence of God was careful to give a beginning to the Human Race in that particular way, which might for ever bar the existence of the whole, or of any large portion as of mankind, in that state which hath been called the State of Nature. Mankind, from the beginning never existed otherwise, than in Society, and under Government. (143)
For the monster who has learned to read, Frankenstein's journal entry with its account of his origin becomes all-too-scriptural, proof of his weak and dependent status. On the face of it, this is just clumsy plotting. But documentary evidence and the claims of the written word are important subjects in the novel, and the author's relation to her authorities is as important as the authority she imposes on the creature. Mary Shelley identifies with her hideous progeny at the same time as she collaborates in the misconstruction of his identity.

The creature accepts only those ideas that contribute to his dependent status. Mary Shelley, however, is a better reader than the creature: she adopts such ideas as suit her fiction -- Rousseau's or Volney's child of nature, radical critiques of oppression and despotism, ideas (including those of both her parents) about the importance of education as a social tool. Thus she acknowledges a debt to her parents and admits her intellectual heritage. But her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, insists on a woman's right to a life free from patriarchal oppression; Mary Shelley, as if in reply, shows that her creature is oppressed and dependent in ways similar to those described in A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Mary Wollstonecraft condemns Milton for his treatment of Eve; Mary Shelley shows how the creature's treatment by his creator is also destructively condescending. Mary Wollstonecraft attacks Rousseau's prescription for Sophie's education; Mary Shelley transforms Sophie into Safie, whose mother had taught her well, though -- in her rejection of the creature, her fellow-alien -- perhaps not well enough.

Thus, indirectly and often silently, the mother's teaching is restored to Frankenstein, partly to reinforce the father's word and partly to challenge it. But it is not restored to the creature's experience. Knowing how to read far better than her creature does, Mary Shelley still identifies with his trapped, frustrated condition. If the creature is Mary Shelley's "hideous progeny," as the woman writer identifies in part with the pseudo-creative role of Frankenstein, he is also her other self, the outcast dependent on the father who has rejected him/her. Continually pointing to the suppressed but life-giving mother (Holbach's nature, Mary Shelley herself), and to the educative mother conspicuous by her absence (Mary Wollstonecraft), both creature and text resist definitive interpretation, suggesting more ambivalence than they admit directly.

Provided with texts that might have promoted an independent view of self, the creature is assured of his dependence. Given a curriculum that might have taught him that belief is enslavement, he chooses to worship {85} or to war with his creator. Provided with sufficient information to distrust his father, he collaborates with the father/creator he half creates and, in doing so, distorts the role of the mother. Like Rousseau in the Confessions and like Frankenstein in his relationship with Elizabeth, the creature confuses the mother with the lover. His reading offers him precedents for doing so: Eve may be the mother of the human race, but she is more centrally the lovely, incompletely submissive object of male desire; Lotte (in Werther) is the mother-sister of a brood of children, evidently an ideal of romantic/maternal love for the creature as well as an influence on Mary Shelley's depiction of Elizabeth. When the creature bends over the body of William (139), he is filled with the murderous rage of fruitless desire by a miniature of Frankenstein's mother -- not of Elizabeth, with whom she is confused even by Frankenstein himself.

Mary Shelley knows (perhaps from her own experience) that education goes wrong when the mother is missing or when her relation to the child is distorted. In Frankenstein, the De Laceys have no mother -- and the word "daughter" is also missing from the monster's list of words pertaining to relationships (107-08). The omission is a familiar one: in Emile, Rousseau addresses the "[t]ender, anxious mother" (5) who ought to exert an important role in the education of the child, and then takes over all such responsibility himself; in his The Law of Nature -- in spite of a long footnote to The Ruins of Empires attacking patriarchy (33-34) -- Volney defines paternal love, conjugal love, filial love, and fraternal love, but ignores maternal love completely, as if it is either insignificant or obvious (199-200).

Mary Shelley thus identifies with the creature's search for his origins even while, in her role as author (identifying with Frankenstein as creator and with Milton as teacher), she herself forms and deforms the hideous progeny. The creature in Frankenstein is given little access to the mother through his education. Although his attempt to make contact with his benevolent foster-father, De Lacey, is frustrated, he has learned a myth of fatherhood that leads him to assign to Frankenstein the role of divine creator. His relation to Frankenstein is ambivalent rather as Mary Shelley's relation to Godwin is ambivalent, a mixture of devotion and resentment.

The romantic hero -- Werther-like lover of Elizabeth, man of virtue and sensibility, Mary Shelley's idealized version of Shelley -- replaces the white-haired old man who rejects the creature and who shakes his faith in the benevolence of fatherhood. Mary Shelley responds ambivalently to her own father's words because Godwin is both the oppressive personal {86} tyrant whom she has left behind and also the radical philosopher, enemy of oppression and tyranny, her own biological parent and Percy Bysshe Shelley's intellectual father. It is tempting to speculate that, in her identification with the creature, she is ambivalent not only to Godwin/De Lacey (father) but also to Shelley himself, the model for the creature's idealizing construction of Frankenstein. Held together by the (inadequate) Miltonic archetype of the father/creator and the (equally inadequate) Romantic archetype of the hero of sensibility, the male figures in Frankenstein construct in spite of themselves a world based on tyranny, not love.

I began this essay with two quotations from Wordsworth, whose role as intellectual parent is more obvious and far more often celebrated than Godwin's in forming the second generation of English Romantic writers.21 Wordsworth imagines (in the 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads) a humanized science, transfigured by the power of poetry -- a power associated with love, as it is by Percy Bysshe Shelley in Prometheus Unbound. Elsewhere, in the Essay Supplementary to the Preface (1815), Wordsworth shows that he understands the general problem of overcoming a conservative but inadequate education: the "mistaught" conspire in perpetuating their own errors because they are formed by such errors. Denied through an ideology of patriarchal power the alternative humanizing power of love, and unable to construct a self adequate to the world of his experience, the creature in Frankenstein is doomed as much by his education as by his origin. In denying his place in nature, in denying his independence as a child of nature, in giving him as teachers no nurse but only figures of authority and power (De Lacey, Frankenstein, Milton), Mary Shelley denies her creature education in the sense of nurture.22 Surrogate self or neglected child, the creature moves us because he can resemble in an extreme and exaggerated way the victim of any social, political or educational system -- which is to say the one most dependent on system. Taught to read, he is taught to know his rights and to recognize that, in the world of things as they are, such rights are illusory. We might think that it would have been better for him had he never learned to read; but in doing so we join the ranks of those who reject him and would wish the unmaking of all misfits. In discovering how inconsistent are the fragments that make him up, and in understanding the incompatibility between benevolent theory and Safie's fainting revulsion when she glimpses him, the reader as teacher and as former student can perhaps share the writer's ambivalence by recognizing her own role as oppressor -- manipulating texts for authoritarian ends -- as {87} well as her own syrnpathy, even identity, with the perplexity of the oppressed and dependent.


1. Shelley and Mary Godwin married on 30 December 1816 following Harriet Shelley's suicide earlier that month (Journal 71).

2. The reading lists are in Mary Shelley's Journal, 1815 (47-49). There is no list for 1819.

3. I am thinking of Rousseau's ambivalence in the Confessions to his relationship with Mme de Warens: "I felt as if I had committed incest" (189); "I had a tender mother, a dear friend; but I needed a mistress. In my imagination I put one in Mamma's place, endowing her with a thousand shapes in order to deceive myself" (210). In Frankenstein not only is the sister/lover (Elizabeth) confused with the mother -- in Frankenstein's macabre dream on the night of the monster's animation -- but both are confused through associations of death with the creature constructed out of fragments from the grave. The following passage from Paine's Common Sense suggests a political context for the horror created by such confusion: "This new world [America] hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled not from the tender embraces of the mother but from the cruelty of the monster. . ." (19).

4. It is interesting that Victor Frankenstein, whether by chance or design, has the wild boy's name.

5. He gets a middle-class education by chance, and it is tempting to think that he would have been better off without it. But Tom Paine's Rights of Man provides food for thought: "A nation under a well regulated government should permit none to remain uninstructed. It is monarchical and aristocratical governments only that require ignorance for their support" (The Complete Writings 428).

6. Diderot's definition of "monstre" might also exclude Frankenstein's creature. According to the Encyclopédie, a monster is an "animal qui naît . . . avec une structure de parties très différentes de celles qui caractérisente l'espèce des animaux dont il sort" an animal "bizarre par la grandeur disproportionnée" (166). Frankenstein's creature is ugly and disgusting but he has all the attributes of a human being and Frankenstein claims "His limbs were in proportion and I had selected his features as beautiful" (52).

7. "It did not even enter the minds of most of our philosophers to doubt that the state of nature had existed, even though it is evident from reading the Holy Scriptures that the first man having received enlightenment and precepts directly from God was not himself in that state" (Discourse on Inequality 102-03).

8. Mary Shelley's Introduction to the Third Edition (1831) in Frankenstein 229.

9. The monster ascribes to the example of the De Laceys his preference for "peaceable lawgivers" (124) in the early Lives of Plutarch over more warlike heroes. But he understands that in different circumstances he could admire the exploits of a bloodier heroism.

10. Volney insists that religious dogma originates in apprehension of "the physical powers of the universe" and that "the idea of God has not been a miraculous revelation of invisible beings but a natural offspring of the human intellect" (113). The creature begins by responding to the powers of the natural world but his education soon teaches him to substitute belief in external authoritative revelation.

11. The connection between happiness and virtue is of course commonplace. But Holbach has it the other way round: "The virtuous man is always happy" (349).

12. The status of orangutans was a matter of debate in the eighteenth century. See Rousseau's notes to the Discourse on Inequality: "Without ceremony our travelers take for beasts, under the names pongos, mandrills, orangutans, the same beings that the ancients, under the names {89} satyrs, fauns, sylvans, took for divinities. Perhaps after more precise research, it will be found that they are neither animals nor gods, but men" (209). According to James Burnet, Lord Monboddo (1.187-88), they were in fact members of the human species. Monboddo argues this on the basis of their educability and their presumed capacity for speech. For a good discussion of the literature on this subject, see Aarsleff.

13. This is another way in which he is different from a "monster," for Diderot shows that such creatures are entitled to legal rights and protections and are thus members of civil society.

14. Such confusion about his own nature and role is apparent in the following passage: "[The hut] presented to me then as exquisite and divine a retreat as Pandemonium appeared to the daemons of hell after their sufferings in the lake of fire. I greedily devoured the remnants of the shepherd's breakfast, which consisted of bread, cheese, milk, and wine; the latter however I did not like" (101).

15. Godwin writes crisply and dryly about the limitations of "parental and filial affection": "I must take care not so to love, or so to obey my love to my parent or child, as to entrench upon an important and paramount public good" ("Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon, Preached at Christ Church, April 15, 1800" Enquiry 323). But this utilitarian attitude, considered together with Godwin's atheism, must be balanced against his description of Milton as "the most advantageous specimen that can be produced of the English nation" (Lives of Edward and John Philips, Nephews and Pupils of Milton, quoted in Marshall 312). Mary Shelley's dedication of Frankenstein to her father reads as follows: "To WILLIAM GODWIN / Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams &c. / These Volumes / Are respectfully inscribed / by / The Author."

16. The creature is of course denied some texts -- such as Emile and the Discourse on Inequality -- that are, as Professor Aubrey Rosenberg points out in this volume, "rewriting[s] of the book of Genesis." But constructing and revising theories and myths of origin -- political, personal, linguistic -- is perhaps the central project of the enlightenment. I simply argue that the creature gives up too soon.

17. Angels are conventional moralizers; energy, passion, and imagination belong in hell with all the interesting people. Milton, in Blake's famous phrase in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, was "of the Devils party without knowing it" (Plate 5). Blake assumes that the energy and power of Paradise Lost are in the scenes of hell, and that the reader's attention is engaged most strongly not by the scenes in heaven, but by Satan. Who is the monster in Paradise Lost? a punishing tyrant-God, or a justified rebel? The same question can obviously apply to Frankenstein and to many other revolutionary and Romantic texts.

18. See also Sterrenburg, which sees a shift in the use of language in Frankenstein from the political to the psychological, and O'Flinn, which makes political issues central again.

19. A less theological, more scientific creature might have regarded these journal entries as a blueprint for constructing his own female counterpart. The fact that this possibility never seems to occur to anyone indicates how unquestioningly reader and characters accept the given patriarchal mythology.

20. In Rousseau's Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, he tells a story about Prometheus to emphasize his point about the ambivalence of knowledge: "'The satyr,' an ancient fable relates, 'wanted to kiss and embrace fire the first time he saw it; but Prometheus cried out to him: Satyr, you will mourn the beard on your chin, for fire burns when one touches it'" (48 n.). This story, the subject of the frontispiece to Rousseau's discourse, suggests one role for the creature in Frankenstein: see his description of his first experience with fire, 99-100. Accounts of first experiences with fire are prominent in many contemporary accounts of savages and their relation to civilized society.

{90} 21. In addition to the more general influence of Wordsworth on the language of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley twice quotes substantially from poems in Lyrical Ballads: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (54) and "Tintern Abbey" (154).

22. Rousseau quotes a useful distinction from Varro (though Rousseau attempts to reunite the different functions): "'Educit obstetrix' says Varro. 'Educat nutrix, instituit paedagogus, docet magister'" (Emile 9-10; emphasis added).

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