Contents Index

The Being and Becoming of Frankenstein

Rand Miller

SubStance, 60 (1989)

{60} AS WITH ROMANTIC POETRY, the power of Frankenstein lies in its ability to create a process of frame displacement. Opening itself to further acts of self-conscious reflection and requiring active, sympathetic, and critical reader participation, Frankenstein refers to another absent text, one which will at least tentatively answer its questions by elaborating on its epistemological and ontological data. This reading provides just such a text and is thus the product of an intertextualization between the content of the earlier, somewhat unsystematic process philosophy of the Shelleys as incorporated in Frankenstein and a consistent, twentieth-century, process-based scientific formalism. Here I utilize Prigoginian scientific formalism to heighten the distinction between two very different types of science within the novel. Frankenstein can then be seen as a confrontation between the two differing scientific theories or languages. Each scientific theory has its corresponding literary pattern, yet in an asymmetric fashion both literary patterns subvert only one of the scientific theories, while the evolutionary theory partly anticipated by the Shelleys supports the novel's overall physical-experiential world.

The Prigoginian and Shelleyean Contexts

The theories in question deal with two aspects of existence, "being" and "becoming." "Being" is permanence, as translated into the state of a particular system (specifically, the ability to dampen fluctuations), while "becoming" is associated with the laws that describe the evolution of such states. While "becoming" corresponds to the world of evolution and entropy, "being" also corresponds to the stable, but totally inert world of classical Newtonian dynamics.1 The "being-becoming" problem, also a basic difficulty of Western epistemology and ontology, was first identified as central to Frankenstein by Schug.2 In light of the novel's preoccupation with "being" and "becoming" one cannot neglect the possibility of a dif- {61} ferent science, both "masculine" and "feminine," in which rationality is no longer certitude and in which probability is no longer ignorance. Knowledge then becomes not necessarily domination and control, but rather a creative dialogue with nature carried out according to an essential dream, passion, or conceptualization and in which we receive information at a price. Responsibility can no longer be synonymous with the security of absolute control because the new forms of order which emerge through evolution are, in part, the result of spontaneous activity displayed by a nature outside of complete experimental control. Man can explore and manipulate nature only within certain basic limits; but this is not a lesson in resignation.

All references are to Reiger's edition of the 1818 Frankenstein which, unlike the 1831 version, most clearly reflects Mary and Percy Shelley's collective use of science.3 Although Mary made no substantive, formal philosophical-scientific statements, Frankenstein is the product of both Mary and Percy Shelley and the period of visible discord between them does, in fact, postdate the composition period of Frankenstein.4 Two central facts, one established by independent observation and the other defining an impossibility, provide orientation for a formal scientific interpretation. First, the creature undeniably exists as a living entity; and second, Victor Frankenstein could not have created such an entity using either classical Newtonian dynamics and chemical "affinities" or the rudimentary science and magic-alchemy of Agrippa, Paracelsus, or Albertus Magnus.

Newtonian Dynamics

The Newtonian heritage is admittedly ambivalent and produced both dualistic and monistic interpretations. Just as a Newtonian dynamics substantially devoid of empirical content became the exclusive basis for late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century academic instruction in science (and provided the foundation for a professional consensus even more devoid of self-criticism), Newton's separate optical work gave impetus to open-ended experimentation and to a union of theoretical and practical concepts. Although there were few true alternatives to classical dynamics in the period from 1785 to 1818, as early as 1747 some of the greatest scientists of the time, such as Euler and d'Alembert, suggested that Newton was wrong and that a more complex mathematics would have to be applied to the force of attraction. Diderot, whose complete works Percy Shelley ordered, and whose sensationalist works form an empirical source {62} for Frankenstein, protested against Newton's universal reduction to the laws of motion. In his rejection of spiritualist dualism, Diderot emphasized that matter must possess sensitivity. As evidenced by Stahl, the inventor of the first consistent chemical systematics, protests against the reduction of biology and human freedom to classical dynamics were, from the 1740s onward, not uncommon. Even Sir Humphry Davy, whose works provide a scientific source for Frankenstein, called into question the Newtonian idea of balanced chemical "likes" and "dislikes."5

In the notes to Queen Mab (1812), Percy Shelley displayed an early misunderstanding of Newtonian dynamics inherited from the French materialists such as d'Holbach. Through Locke's misunderstanding of Newton, Newton falsely came to be associated with active matter and the removal of God from the universe. Percy accepted the idea of active matter and by 1812 rejected the application of dualistic-mechanistic teleology to more complex situations, as evidenced by a passage in Queen Mab which protests the idea of a human automaton prostrate before a godlike monarch-controller. In A Refutation of Deism (1814), Shelley still embraced the laws of attraction and repulsion or desire and aversion as sufficient to account for every physical or moral phenomenon. But as shown by "Speculations on Metaphysics" (1815-19) and in contrast to Diderot's materialistic naturalism, Percy came to believe in a partially metaphysical universe in which mind would remain ontologically dependent upon the differentiation of time into past, present, and future. Shelley questioned d'Holbach's assumption that knowledge itself could determine the ends for which it is used. By 1813, Percy had accepted an anti-Newtonian wave theory of light and had also suggested the possibility of complimentary scientific theories.6 In "On Life" (1819), he defined limits to the concept of motion, and contended that life could not be explained by reference to it. Shelley's definition of time brings in "the variable relationship made possible by the fracturing of unity into diversity."7 The Shelleyean embedded self evolves by the active process of shaping or ordering this diverse experience, and while the Shelleys may have missed Newton's link with godlike omniscience and mechanical teleology, their process-oriented pantemporalism partially anticipates the developments of Peirce, Whitehead, and Prigogine. Unaware of the full implications of their ideas, the Shelleys stop short of a fully systematic theory incorporating such pantemporalism and retain an aesthetic fascination for the idealism of Newtonian theory, an idealism used as a defensive strategy to enable the self to hide from knowledge that would confine it to a purely temporal landscape.


Entropy and Its Cosmological Context

Victor and the creature can, nonetheless, be seen as representatives of a constructive and destructive entropy as it defines the limits of classical dynamics. This entropy, as expressed in irreversible process, contains both the "constructive" term of exchange between an embedded system and its environment (for example, thermal diffusion) and the "destructive" term of heat flow, which corresponds to the overall, unidirectional flow of time. Irreversible time becomes an unavoidable physical assumption, creating differences and leveling out or destroying these same differences. Irreversibility and far-from-equilibrium conditions set a necessary but insufficient context for life; order evolves not out of the heat death or the "universal stillness" (132) of thermal equilibrium chaos, but out of thermal or turbulent nonequilibrium chaos in which broken symmetry of multiple time and space scales are present, an order represented by the whirlwinds and waterspouts (153) of Frankenstein.

Fluctuations and instabilities, which can only be described statistically, are closely linked to irreversibility.8 Under thermodynamic evolution, variations in longer-range correlations that define finite information states or "order" may become infinite at bifurcation points. These are points around which a system hesitates among a set of possible futures and where a new organization may emerge. Bifurcation points and points surrounded by overall turbulence enable "choices" during the evolutionary process. The law of large numbers may be violated at a bifurcation point since fluctuations can drive the average to a new value whenever the steady state is unstable and thus enable a shift from one type of probability description to another. This suggests that the origin of life cannot be the outcome of a unique or "improbable" event, but is rather the result of evolution through a regime of instabilities, the outcome of wide-scale symmetry-breaking processes.

While sufficiently large fluctuations may also destroy bifurcations and thus lead to nonequilibrium chaos, the fire of evolutionary creation and destruction has a forked, bifurcating tongue (135), not unlike the dividing, winding streams or paths in the Valley of Chamonix as described by the Shelleys. The energy flow that crosses a biological system is like the flow of a river, smooth, but occasionally tumbling, a process that liberates part of the flow's energy, a process of cascading bifurcation. Such a system may become highly sensitive at a bifurcation point to internal or external fluctuating conditions and specific, individual events may be amplified so that an effect is out of proportion to its cause, as when the creature states that {64} his rage could grow beyond Victor to include thousands (96) or that he could return benevolence two hundred fold (141); and just as the mate's malignancy could be a thousand times greater than that of the creature (163). Such amplified events greatly influence the overall, evolutionary direction as, for example, when Victor's "memorable day" decides his future destiny (43) or when the creature reaches a decisive moment or bifurcation point that afterwards seems to forever deprive him of happiness (131).

The evolution of nonlinear, far-from-equilibrium chemical systems consists of two stages. First, there is the region existing between instabilities, which is deterministic in the sense that chemical kinetics determines what happens to the system. The second stage is the system's behavior near an instability, which is a stochastic or "chance" phenomenon because the system's evolution is decided according to the fluctuation which drives the system to a new metastable state. Instability introduces an arrow of time, a temporal asymmetry in which there are qualitative distinctions among past, present, and future. We do not live in a time-reversible world; temporal reversibility, the assumption of a directionless time with an equal propensity for initial and final states and without a distinct past, present, or future, results in violation of "hard-core" common sense notions and culminates in self-contradiction or contradiction by empirical facts. Attempts to exclude time or "becoming" from science result in false idealizations; unlike the classical idea of a simple, timeless, elementary level, all entities retain an intrinsic complexity.

Consistent with Percy Shelley's contention that relativity and symmetry-breaks are essential to existence, time precedes all of existence and unstable matter appears as an entropy-carrying "contamination" of spacetime, cosmological entropy being the price paid for the creation of matter. The result is that only those conditions evolving towards equilibrium in the future become capable of incorporation into a system's state; equilibrium towards the past is excluded. While the present may bring elements from the past or while past or present elements may be carried into the nearby future, one cannot leap into the distant past or future because barriers provide separation. The cosmos retains an overall positive entropy but as a result of a nonequilibrium transition from an open to a closed universe, displays a nonequilibrium residue.

Temporal symmetry-breaking, first represented by Einstein's special theory of relativity, requires a "bouquet" of times for different weighted observers located in different coordinate systems. Relativity introduces qualitatively different scales of behavior and redefines simultaneity only in {65} terms of a given reference frame and not in terms of the absolute simultaneity of events. Temporal symmetry-breaking is often tied to spatial symmetry-breaking, defined as spatial inequality formed through a favored direction, as exemplified by Frankenstein's expedition, travelogue, and pursuit or by the creation of a chemically heterogeneous environment, as in embryological morphogenesis. Chemical reactions occur at different rates, while fluctuations help to organize chemical mediums by concentrating chemical substances or by providing choices at bifurcation points. Space may also be "timed," as when Frankenstein's travelogue leads to a repeated and inextricable historical association betweenTillbury Fort and the Spanish Armada (155) as well as between Oxford and seventeenth-century figures such as Charles I, Lucius Cary, George Goring, and John Hampden (157-8).

Two Worlds = Two Languages

The narrowest scientific theory in Frankenstein is that of classical dynamics and chemical "affinity," the only complete scientific worldview widely agreed upon and taught in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thus Victor's instruction at the Jesuit University of Ingolstadt was very likely in the theory of such chemical "affinities," "the more rational theory of chemistry" (33), the ultimate form of pure, deductive logic used to create laws immune to revision in which all facts are arranged in "connected classifications" (43). This would then reveal a basic, universal simplicity capable of exhausting nature's possibilities and, under some materialist or vitalist interpretations, justify attributing an intrinsic animation, motion, or "life force" to nature which would eventually be expressed in the same form as gravitational attraction and repulsion: repulsion supposedly being produced by heat, which in turn expands and dissolves bodies. In classical dynamics, all physical forces -- gravitational, electrical, chemical, and magnetic -- are assumed to be fundamentally the same and hence expressible in terms of the same universal law. Any pair of material bodies can be linked by a single deterministic force of attraction which can in turn be applied to any scale of phenomena.

Classical dynamics rests on the concepts of the trajectory and of totally "dead" or inert matter closed to outside influence. Characterized by determinism, symmetry, and reversibility (and by equilibrium conditions produced by a balance and mutual annihilation between the forces of attraction and repulsion), the state of trajectory is defined as a point and {66} given by simultaneous definition of coordinates and momenta. As in a logical argument in which the conclusion is deduced from a set of initial assumptions, the laws of classical dynamics merely make explicit what is already contained in the set of arbitrary initial conditions that accompany the law. The trajectory becomes a kind of arbitrarily universal tautology in which one state is the same as all others and can predict all others. Thus in its false claim to absolute universality, Newtonian theory denies duration to the present, equates life only with motion, and holds volume constant. Conservation of volume and information are closely related and no change of order is permitted. But the trajectories of unstable dynamic systems display a basic divergence property which enables definition of only fragmented regions or separate sets of trajectories in space. Approximately half of the representations of classical dynamics consists of limiting cases, of isolated systems in equilibrium free from an arrow of time, such as clockwork pendulums, two-body planetary motions, and falling bodies. The other half constitutes an idealization only realized as an irreversible evolution. A type of phenomenological coexistence remains, yet change and irreversibility entirely dominate ontology.

Due to the highly unstable behavior of most dynamic systems, the simultaneous measurement of the Newtonian coordinates and momenta requires an omniscient, godlike being possessing infinite information and moving and communicating at an infinite velocity, a being not subject to empirically-derived constants such as light velocity and hence possessing the same knowledge and power required by Newton's long-term belief in alchemy and the transmutation of metals. Such a being's theorization would be exactly coextensive with its external world. However, Newtonian man remained trapped within a curious, intermediate "Promethean" status, seemingly having access to God's viewpoint and knowing "all the minutiae of causation" (47), yet debased by being made of inert matter and also elevated by retaining a "soul" within the machine.

Victor expresses concern over the problem of reversibility when he states that he tries to prepare for "a multitude of reverses" (48) and when he agonizes over the possibility that the reverse might happen (151) If reversible trajectories were to actually form a true universal description of natural phenomena, then the same organism could progress from death to life as well as life to death. Victor initially notes the possibility of reversibility (47), but then concludes that for biological systems it is an impossibility (49), perhaps because through instability the notion of a single trajectory becomes physically and mathematically undefinable. After two years, the University of Ingolstadt is "no longer conducive to [his] im- {67} provements" (46) and knowledge of "all the minutiae of causation," as given by the idea of reversibility from life to death and death to life, becomes an immersion in darkness (47). He must necessarily formulate an entirely new approach, and being unable to "reverse" the deaths of those close to him, he turns to the creation of a new type of organism. The overthrow of the Newtonian dream is "so complete" (54).

The Subversion of Newtonian Language

The literary pattern corresponding to classical Newtonian dynamics is defined as any language use in which there can never be a preferred or "directed" interpretation. Contingency fully conceals any referents; everything is given, but everything is possible as meanings form along antithetical or paradoxical axes. The Newtonian pattern operates through symmetry and reversibility, and when present leads to a complete destruction of meanings and the ability to interpret. Yet symmetry and reversibility are limited by the fact that while the meaning of one statement may be exactly reversed by that of another (for example, Victor's perception of result and not method [47] as opposed to method and not result [48]), the novel does not repeat the letters of a word or the words of sentence in reverse, nor are reversals and exact repetitions frequent.

Past critical analysis has been deceived by a type of apparent repetition in which the text seems to reproduce what it already contains, and by what appears to be exact symmetry and reversibility. Discrete word meanings and a static syntax seem to be fully revealed by a shift to a new context in which the same word meaning and syntax seem to be repeated, thus creating an integrable calculus or fixed vocabulary-syntax apparently shared by all characters in the novel -- a calculus independent of all originating circumstances and applicable to all such circumstances without exception. Victor and the creature repeat similar phrases, sentences, and ideas, and certain noun pairs are repeated in reverse. For example, Victor states that he "bore a hell within" himself (84), and the creature declares that he "bore a hell within" himself as well (132). "Death and ignominy" (80) is reversed as "ignominy and death" (82), just as "kindness and affection" (103) is reversed as "affection and kindness" (106). But repetition is used against itself; the verb "endeavour" (14, 23) repeats with enormous frequency, but acquires a sense of futility as well as a sense of courageous achievement. The nouns "wretch" (71, 72), "animal" (30, 73), "creature" (20, 22) and "insect" (29, 94) are frequently repeated, but have no single {68} referents and can apply to entirely different entities. The specific states of the creature remain forever unknown because the noun "deformity" (71, 109, 115) and the adjective "distorted" (205, 216, 220) that describe him can signify asymmetry, progressive decay, or simply ugliness. The nouns "chamber," "cell," and "asylum" (50, 54, 102, 196) help create an overall impression of Victor's progressive mental instability, which climaxes in the collapse at the graveyard (200) and in his self-contradiction on Walton's ship (215). But through their opposite ranges of meaning from sanity and safety to insanity and entrapment, the nouns make impossible a more exact determination of Victor's mental state at any point in time.

The noun "object" acquires a meaning opposite to that of a nonliving thing: namely, specific reference to the creature (50, 71, 128, 162). If all meanings were to become completely reversed or indecisively reversible, an incoherent stasis would result. But when meanings entirely lose stability only at certain critical points and when such an instability acquires an internal or external limitation, meaning can evolve and apparent contradiction can be resolved. For example, in the use of the noun "object," a consistent link between life and nonlife is implied. Even statements of determinism are vulnerable to a level of variation in vocabulary or sentence structure. For example, Victor's "voluntary thought [is] swallowed up and lost" (198) and he is compelled by "the mechanical impulse of some power of which [he is] unconscious" (202). As Murray notes,9 Percy brought dictional, grammatical, and syntactical variation to some of Mary's efforts, suggesting that the governing syntax itself may, under appropriate conditions, have the capacity to evolve.

Overall symmetry is indicated by the novel's division into three volumes and by similar phrases placed at the beginning, middle, and end: "lost among the distant inequalities of the ice" (18), "lost him among the undulations of the sea of ice" (144), and "lost in darkness and distance" (221). The impression that Victor and the creature are "doppelgangers" is created by similar but not identical descriptive phrases. Victor refers to himself as a "restless spectre" (167) and to the creature as his "own spirit let loose from the grave" (72). The creature states that he has a "double weight" (101), while Walton refers to Victor as a man of "double existence" (23). But such descriptions indicate that existence is the result of two "spirits" or conflicting, but possibly complimentary forces, which can and do become unbalanced, creating the activity of Victor's restlessness and nervousness (162), just as Mont Blanc and the Jura serve as the unbalanced white or hot and dark or cold poles of a thermodynamic system of useful and dissipated energy (190). Hence while Walton may parallel Victor in {69} certain respects, his life does not predict that of Victor because Walton fails in his intended goal of discovery. Even the proposed mate could be different than the creature (163), just as the descriptive phrases do not demonstrate that all the characters of the novel are reducible to a single personality. Reduction of the diversity of all languages to a single governing vocabulary-syntax remains an impossibility, even though partial translations exist. Elizabeth, for instance, has her own imaginations (30), and Safie speaks her own language (112). Each language describes a part, not the whole of reality, and there is always an element of choice made in the way in which we speak about something, in the choice of questions being asked, and in the use of observational methods and measurement devices.

The World of "Becoming"

In accordance with "being" and "becoming," Frankenstein can be seen as a fusion of classical dynamics with entropy, as the characters of the novel fluctuate between the poles of permanence and change, rest and activity. Yet primacy is given to "becoming" by the subsuming process of fluctuation between the poles and by the fact that individual organisms or species have only a finite duration. Retaining determinism but associating it with conditions of stability, the theory of "becoming" sees empirical constants and laws themselves as the outcome of temporal evolution since "nought may endure but mutability" (93). Victor's life does end in indecision and self-contradiction (215), but his psychological instability progressively increases and invades the novel's outer world as the reader is forced to recognize this world's fundamental instability. A universal instability and metastability foreign to the absolute stability of classical science point to a basic principle of process thermodynamics applicable to nature and the world of the novel: instability leads to irreversibility as continuing nonequilibrium conditions trigger further instabilities, which in turn maintain a continuous energy dissipation.

Victor's truly "comprehensive" chemistry (45) thus leads to a pattern corresponding to evolution, entropy, and the theory of dissipative structures in which nonequilibrium conditions "awaken" the activity of matter, conditions that matter itself helped to create. Dissipative structures such as hurricanes, whirlwinds, or waterspouts (96, 135, 153) are open physical or chemical systems that utilize external matter and energy to boost their level of organization through exchange with the environment; dissipated energy is exported to the outer surroundings. Chemistry and the activity of {70} Promethean fire inescapably lead beyond trajectories to instabilities and irreversible processes. For example, Victor must have violated Waldman's advice not to "derange their [the machines'] mechanism" (43). This violation suggests the wealth of diverse, complex behaviors displayed by a Newtonian pendulum subject to instability (hyperbolic points). In an important modification of Aristotle, Percy Shelley was able to associate time with the continual, nonuniform diversities in the course of motion -- diversities which stain or fragment eternity's "white radiance." Victor thus describes his pursuit as "unlawful" (51) and the creature as the result of a "lawless device" (76), perhaps implying a study "not befitting the human mind" (51), but also one in which both a violation of the law of large numbers and probabilistic-stochastic theory are recognized. Although Victor's creative act is performed in a solitary chamber, the association of the interrupted edge of lightning with creation suggests an essential openness to nature and to the unexpected. Lightning is a form of electrical energy produced under turbulent storm conditions that, as Lucretius suggested in De Rerum Natura, may stimulate a vortex that breaks determinism and temporal-spatial symmetry; as in Percy's Hellas (1822), the lightning and hurricanes of the storm represent a physical form of freedom, just as the cloud represents a macroscopic state highly sensitive to microscopic fluctuation where small causes produce large effects. Both Lucretius and Clausius, who coined the term entropy, thought of man as a whirlwind in turbulent nature, fixed at the center of change and eternity. Percy Shelley repeatedly studied Lucretius10 and in 1816, the time of Frankenstein's origin and composition, compared the swirling Mer de Glace to a living organism, an organism that combines watery subsurface change and circulation with frozen stability, a combination of mutability and temporal duration (204, 212) also reflected in the Arctic regions to which Victor and the creature pursue one another and where both may have perished. Although a bias towards depiction of destructive processes may be present in Frankenstein, the whirlwind-vortex images of the novel are consistent with Percy Shelley's evolving poetic symbolism in which whirlwinds represent the necessity or dominance of nature's power or the intersection of physical, historical, and psychological events and are used at points of bifurcation, crisis, or conjunction to refer to both destruction and creation. For example, Victor's creative enthusiasm is likened to a hurricane (49) or linked by association to a consuming blast of wind (145), while the creature's destructive rage is a whirlwind (96, 135). Under the far-from-equilibrium conditions required for life, regimes of order and chaos closely follow one another because dissipation and concentration, and creation {71} and destruction, are closely linked. The same processes which near equilibrium lead to destruction of order may, far-from-equilibrium, lead to creation of order.

The pattern of evolution and entropy within Frankenstein is also revealed by the impossibility of establishing an absolute chronology for all of the events within the novel by reference to an eighteenth-century calendar. Time seems to pass in units of two within an overall framework of six years, a periodic cycle in which no distinction obtains among past, present, and future. Walton's voyage lasts six years, Victor is away from Geneva about six years, lives for about six years after the act of creation, and the creature would have lived for about six years had he committed self-immolation. But exceptions occur: for example, "three months before" (39), and events which must be considered within their respective reference frames. Unlike the godlike Newtonian observer, Victor and the creature face observational limits. Victor is aided by only one seemingly ineffectual light (48, 162), and the creature can observe the DeLaceys only via a small chink "through which the eye could just penetrate" (103). These finite windows identify them as weighted beings inside, not outside the given universe, just as the reader must create knowledge within the given situation. Victor may, like God, claim to first arrive in England in October and December of the same year (154, 156) and thus to be both inside and outside of England at the same time. Yet both time and space undergo foreshortening as Victor begins his global chase of the creature (199): both the microscopic and the macroscopic or global involve spatial-temporal symmetry-breaks. Temporal asymmetry is further increased by placing early nineteenth-century works within letters and narrations dated so as to belong to the eighteenth century (69, 93, 153). But the asymmetry occurs between two internally consistent time frames: 1798 (references to Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Lamb) and 1816 (references to Hunt, Shelley, and Byron), and thus does not constitute complete knowledge of the future, only an asymmetric "bouquet" of times.

The creature violates total determinism by observing that the same cause can produce opposite effects (99), directly implying bifurcation, choice, or probability; as with the paths of Chamonix, living entities remain organized not by transcending purposes alien to their elementary processes, but by the amplification of a microscopic fluctuation occurring at a certain point in time, which results in the following of one such path and not another. Victor states that his request to Walton for vengeance could be the result of opposite causes (215), implying conflicting or complimentary explanations of the same phenomenon. But as with bifurcations, the reader {72} is forced into postulation of a direct relation between probability and determinism, just as Prometheus Unbound (1820) suggests a kind of evolutionary struggle between liberty and despotism and as The Triumph of Life (1822) declares that "power and will in opposition rule our mortal day."11 Determinism obtains under conditions of comparative stability or metastability, just as probability obtains under conditions of instability. Victor declares:

But through the whole period during which I was the slave [implies determinism] of my creature, I allowed myself [implies probability] to be governed [implies determinism by the impulses of the moment [implies an instant can alter the course of a deterministic past] (151)
while the creature asserts:
I was the slave [implies determinisml not the master of an impulse [echoes the idea that an instant can change a deterministic past] which I detested, yet could not disobey [implies determinism]. Urged thus far [by 'an insatiable passion,' i.e., by the free choice implied in an essential conceptualization], I had no choice [implies determinism] but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen [implies probability] (218)

Disintegration and Irreversibility

Frankenstein creates irreversibility for the reader by a sequential heightening and exaggeration of the expectations which anticipate a stated resolution to the "being-becoming" problem. The reader conceptualizes and reconstructs, but does not manipulate, the temporal sequence. Yet in the future outside the novel, further instability can always change specific future conditions, giving them little resemblance to those of the past. Hence the novel retains its feeling of open-ended, ongoing process, and due to the amplification of microscopic fluctuations, individual creative activity may remain immune to dampening regression and insignificance. All three narrators of Frankenstein recognize their roles as tellers of tales. Science always involves an active conceptualization of nature, but experimentation and experimental results do not unfold according to a set of a priori rules. The fact that no one narrator can encompass all the events that occur within the novel's world reveals an intrinsic constraint that in turn defines the structure of a shared universe. Even though the content of a physical system may be inexhaustible, and even though physical reality may exhaust the capacity of any single, theoretical language, a specific point of observation becomes the start of human scientific knowledge a {73} knowledge which tests the stability of human society and presents the possibilities of both disintegration and advancement.

The literary pattern of Frankenstein corresponding to evolution, entropy, and the theory of dissipative structures thus operates through a context of destabilization and dissipation of meaning, but through limitation leads to a strong directionality of interpretation. The theory of dissipative structures, combined with a limited ambiguity in critical passages of Frankenstein, causes an orientation by breaking certain symmetries, by acting as a selection principle so that impossibilities and sets of dead-end associations are either eliminated or given lesser importance. The overall ethical effect of Frankenstein is to create a balance between sympathy for the characters' confrontations with situations that may be inherently uncontrollable and negative moral judgments on the same characters for their seemingly intentional irresponsibility or malevolence -- a balanced but fully indeterminant and hence non-Newtonian equilibrium of antagonistic attraction and repulsion. But if not for a consistent set of interpretations defined by limited ambiguity within a temporally-oriented narrative sequence, recognition of reversibility and mirror symmetry would be impossible. The subtle interplay of determinism and probability remains dependent upon a specific temporal sequence; when the creature seizes William only to silence him, it appears that his death is unintentional, while only after William's death does the creature claim that he has intentionally created desolation. Likewise, Victor seems to willfully abandon the creature, but only after the abandonment does he experience an apparently involuntary loss of consciousness in his alienation from his own experimental results. Determinism and free will alternate within an irreversible sequence of varying degrees of metastability and instability, a pattern of continuous "being" and "becoming." The text can also be read in only one direction, and irreversibility is the context necessary for all forms of causality and communication, for which the creature makes an overt plea in the form of the great chain of events (143) and which, already "temporalized" by the nineteenth century, constitutes an irreversible, evolutionary sequence.


1. Ilya Prigogine, From Being to Becoming (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1980) and Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos (New York: Bantam, 1984).

2. Charles Schug, The Romantic Genesis of the Modern Novel (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979).

3. James Reiger, ed. Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

4. Anne Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988) and Eugene B. Murray, "Shelley's Contribution to Mary's Frankenstein," Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin 29 (1978): 50-68.

5. Robert Siegfried, ed. The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy, Vol. 6 (New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1972) 307-312.

6. Daniel Stempel, "'A Rude Idealism': Models of Nature and History in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound," Mosaic 21 (1988): 105-121.

7. Earl Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971).

8. Percy's references to "Sims" in his Letter to Maria Gisborne (1820) is probably to Thomas Simpson, who wrote treatises on the laws of chance and the theory of fluctuations. In The Triumph of Life, Shelley displays his probable knowledge of Lucretius's explanation for the origin of free will through a turbulent process that "breaks the bonds of fate." Utilizing the same phrase as Lucretius, the poem states that a maiden and a youth are like two clouds whose lightnings mingle; driven into a valley, the "fiery bond" holding the clouds together "snaps."

9. Ibid., 50-68.

10. Paul Turner, "Shelley and Lucretius," Review of English Studies 10 (1959): 269-282.

11. Donald Reiman and Sharon Powers, eds. Shelley's Poetry and Prose (New York: Norton, 1977) 461.