Contents Index

Frankenstein and On the Night of the Seventh Moon

Linda Bayer-Berenbaum

In The Gothic Imagination: Expansion in Gothic Literature and Art (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982), 131-142

{131} On the surface these two novels would seem an unlikely choice for comparison -- over a hundred and fifty years separate their publication dates (Frankenstein appearing in 1818 and On the Night of the Seventh Moon in 1972), and Frankenstein, though replete with the coincidences and improbabilities of Romanticism, approximates a science-fiction account of the creation of a monster while On the Night of the Seventh Moon is a love story about a young girl and a count, which seems factually realistic though sentimental. Dissimilar as they are, these two works share psychological biases, themes, images, and symbols that mark them as close Gothic relatives. Among those propensities already discussed in connection with the other works, we see again the Gothic line, particularly in the characters' complex, intersecting lives converging from different directions, but also in imagery and scenery, elongation in forms and word choice, irregularity in setting and behavior, persistent contrast, narration within narration in Frankenstein, intensity and extremity, an exposition of repressed material, and the descendental insertion of the supernatural within the natural. Notable are the compound {132} images of the heroes or villains, Frankenstein's monster being at once the new Adam and the Devil: "I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel";1 he is called a "daemon" (p. 21) and a "satan" (p. 125), yet he is cited as dwelling near a place named Archangel. A Cain-like murderer who wanders, the monster is a stranger to mankind and a God-like superman of superior intelligence, sensitivity, height, power, and agility. Maximilian in On the Night of the Seventh Moon is likened to a number of mythical figures, and even Hildegard is termed both "some prophet of evil"2 and "a guardian angel" (p. 249). The main characters in both these novels struggle with madness, Helena in On the Night of the Seventh Moon because she can neither dismiss nor verify experiences in her past that seem too vivid to have been imaginary, and the monster in Frankenstein because he can not recover or disregard the six years of his life that separate him from his mysterious origin. Helena is told that a man she loved and married and a child she bore are but dreams that she should forget, and the monster is likewise driven to distraction by the notion that his past is but a dream. Both characters are obsessed by their pasts and by their fear of insanity; both are bold, impulsive, fluctuating, excitable, and unbalanced; each is "the slave, not the master of an impulse" (Shelley, p. 218), "high spirited" (Holt, p. 17), and plagued by an "excess of agitation," an "excess of bodily exertion" (Shelley, pp. 195 and 132). A young beautiful maiden and a grotesque monster are both ruled by wild, unreasoning love and violent longings.

With reference to violence, these two novels give a piercing, nuanced presentation of the sources and degrees of aggression ranging from more benign, life-affirming manifestations to malignant, destructive outbursts.3 Frau Graben in On the Night of the Seventh Moon represents the mildest, most innocuous form of violence, the least drastic {133} and lethal, a type of playful violence that springs from curiosity, as when a cat plays with a mouse, or that energizes competition in athletic games. She amuses herself by caging insects together and watching them fight, often staging little contests for her bewildered friends, who nonetheless find her excitement infectious. Aunt Caroline, a rigid, destructive woman, exhibits a more reactive type of violence, born of frustration and disappointment, that is a defense of life, property, and freedom or a psychological response to the threat of denial or abuse. Caroline envies her brother's education, her sister's husband, her niece's youth, and everyone's health; in the name of her own discouraged potential, she critically attacks others to condemn or destroy their happiness. Duchess Wilhelmina, in a far more extreme expression of defensive violence, is driven to murder for her husband and kingdom, and Count Frederic becomes a sadistic killer out of envy of Maximilian. In Frankenstein the monster becomes violent only when his life and love are thwarted, the drama of his development tracing a progression from reactive violence to revengeful violence to compensatory violence. In revengeful violence the victim magically seeks to undo the wrongs he has suffered, as when the monster retaliates against his beloved peasant family after they reject him or when Frankenstein attacks the monster for his lost love. Although no less dangerous, this aggression is still essentially biophilous ("life-loving" in Fromm's terminology) in that, however ineffective in reality, it seeks to restore life and recover beauty; it is a protest against violation. Compensatory violence is a substitute for creativity, a revenge on life for the negation of productive activity and thus a response to impotence. In the face of reduced self-control, it is a way to manipulate others through humiliation, torture, or enslavement, the victim finally being rendered inanimate in the drive for total domination.

Even bloodthirstiness, the regressive, archaic urge to kill, may spring as much from an affirmation of life as from a love of death in that blood is shed in a cannibalistic attempt to sustain the self, as depicted in the hunt or the ritualistic slaughter of the deer at the athletic events in On the Night of the Seventh Moon. Blood may be sacrificially poured upon the earth in the hope of insuring fertility. Whether or not such violence actually protects or retrieves life, life and death in intent and result are here intertwined.

Not to be confused with these violent eruptions are more pathological, death-oriented obsessions, such as necrophilia, literally the love of death, which involves a fascination with the inorganic, with corpses, feces, and dirt. Frankenstein's study of human decay or his description of the monster in terms of filth and human waste suggests a necrophilic fixation, as does Aunt Matilda's preoccupation with sickness and burials in On the Night of the Seventh Moon. Matilda is attracted to disease, in herself and others, and eventually marries a frail man who has lost one of his kidneys. Helena speculates, "I wonder . . . whether she would have fallen in love with Albert Clees if he had not been deprived of a kidney" (p. 146). Obsessive cleanliness may be symptomatic of necrophilic tendencies in that it is devoted to the sanitary absence of life. Both Matilda and Caroline abhor the vague untidiness that Helena finds "homey," preferring spotless, orderly, metallic regularity, a home that is "shining like a new pin" (p. 40). A related fondness for stones and rocks as symbols of the nonliving also persists in Frankenstein and On the Night of the Seventh Moon, as in so many Gothic novels. A direct attraction to death is evident in Holt's description of the Island of Graves, with its tombs, crypts and coffins, in the figure of the ferryman (the messenger of death who, like Charon, rows people back and forth to {135} the island), in the many murders in Shelley's novel, and in Frankenstein's shocking dreams of kissing Elizabeth while she turns into the corpse of his mother with grave worms crawling in her nightgown.

Necrophiles tend to dwell in the past rather than in the future and both Frankenstein and On the Night of the Seventh Moon deal with the search for past origins, Holt's novel even evoking a reversion to pagan celebrations. Both novels begin with a return to the past: in On the Night of the Seventh Moon Helena looks back on the adventures of her youth, and Frankenstein opens with a letter retelling episodes that have ended. The past is over; it is fixed; it can no longer be changed. Like a rock it is stable, dead.

The necrophile is enamored of force, dividing the world into the powerful and the powerless, the villains and the victims, the killers and the killed -- that is, into the traditional Gothic dichotomy. The necrophile is drawn to darkness, caves, or the depths of the sea, to the frozen white oceans we see in Frankenstein in which even vegetation is absent. The necrophilic attraction may be compounded by narcissism, an all-encompassing love of self and a rejection of all that is not self. The concept of the stranger, the outsider, becomes dominant in the narcissistic framework, as illustrated in the character of Aunt Caroline, who is suspicious of the unfamiliar and denounces all that is foreign. "Outlandish was a favorite word of hers to be applied to anything of which she did not approve" (p. 46). The narcissistic perspective is reflected in Caroline's practiced self-righteousness undergirded by her conviction that people are motivated solely by self-serving intentions. "Aunt Caroline saw everything in that way. People did things for what they got, never for any other reason. I think she had come to look after my father to make sure of her place in heaven" (p. 41). Matilda's hypochondria is another form of narcissism in which concern with the self takes a negative expression. The more {136} irregular was Matilda's health, the more pleased she became. "She could also be quite happy discussing other people's ailments and brightened at the mention of them but nothing pleased her so much as her own" (p. 41). The aunts are narcissistic in their inordinate emphasis on all that is homemade and are predictably self-absorbed to the point that they cannot relate to others; they never listen to each other, speaking independently rather than in conversation. Narcissistic inflation, the brand of self-absorption and aggrandizement apparent in all Gothic villains, is evident in Frankenstein's initial drive to master science to the point of omnipotence, to the point where he could become God in the act of creating a man -- in fact, a man superior to the one that God created. The extremes of self-involvement are rooted in infant and prenatal stages and may therefore entail an incestuous inability to break primary ties, such as the ties to home and mother, to a native land, or to mother earth. A person who is incestuously fixated ultimately seeks a return to the darkness of the womb or, reaching further back, to earlier forms of animal life and inorganic compounds. A craving for certainty, predictability, and control is related to this fixation. In On the Night of the Seventh Moon Anthony exemplifies incestuous tendencies in proposing to a woman because his mother loves her (Helena makes the additional comment: "If Anthony had found a girl in the mist, he would have taken her straight back to where she belonged and if he could not, to his mother" [p. 44]); Count Frederic is incestuously tied to a substitute mother, the nurse who raised him whom he is unable to oppose even when she berates him like a child; and Frankenstein marries a woman whom he thinks of as his sister and who, in his dreams, is transformed into his dead mother.

When necrophilic, narcissistic, and incestuous tendencies combine, a frightening syndrome of violence and decay results, as can be seen particularly in the character of {137} Frederic, a man consumed by his concern for himself and his ability to dominate others; lacking all compassion even for his own children, he finally becomes a killer driven to completely possess people and power. In his final scene he stands on the island of graves, greedily peering into an open pit at the child he believes he has murdered.

Shelley and Holt systematically explore the different kinds and degrees of violent motivation in two works that are all but case studies in the pathology of violence and the attraction to death. Against this presentation of corrosive malignancy shine the exceptional, exuberant portraits, such as that of Helena Trant, the protagonist in Holt's novel, who describes herself as "in love with life," whose budding sexuality blooms with Maximilian -- even Helena's wedding dress is organic green rather than white. In confrontation with violence, Helena intensifies her affirmations: "I can still recall that terrifying day on the Island of Graves where I looked straight into the face of death and learned then how precious life was" (p. 383). In Frankenstein the countervailing attraction to life is depicted, though not so unambiguously in a single character, in the navigator's impatience and ardent curiosity which, like Helena's, are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death. Like Maximilian, Frederic, and Helena in Holt's novel, Shelley's navigator (who is the narrator) ran wild for the first fourteen years of his life, and he is a sensitive day-dreamer who, like Frankenstein, is a lover of nature, especially spring. He is an inquisitive, anxious explorer eager for sensation. "I felt my flesh tingle with excess sensitiveness and my pulse beat rapidly. I was unable to remain for a single instant in the same place" (p. 56). This mixture or proximity of life-giving and death-oriented inclinations in these two novels, as in other Gothic works, is more striking and more horrible because combined. As Fromm states in reference to mental illness, sadism and masochism or necrophagia {138} and coprophagia are not perversions simply because they deviate from customary standards of sexual practice but precisely because they signify the one fundamental perversion: the blending of life and death.4 Herein lies the essence of the Gothic perversion, a perversion that is inevitable in light of Gothicism's abhorrence of separations, whether between the sacred and profane, the beautiful and the ugly, the natural and the supernatural, or the healthy and the sick. The great Gothic compounds, relished for their intensity, are perverse as opposed to pure, giving a pungent, sweet-and-sour flavor.

Violence is the propellant that moves Gothic novels; the character is a stranger; the setting is a mountain; the secret is of origins and outcomes -- a press toward the death on either side of life, the hereafter and the herebefore. The strangers in these two novels include Helena, who in England is regarded as foreign because her parents are German, while in Germany she is considered British; Ilse and Ernst, who are similarly strangers in both England and Denkendorf; Frau Graben, described as a stranger, who commends Helena for "taking in the stranger within her gates"; and, of course, both Frankenstein and his monster. The domestic and the foreign are clearly divided, as are indoors and outdoors, in both works; against Frankenstein's early domesticity and that of the aunts in England are set the fantastic adventures that follow. The exotic, the outcast, the outlandish (literally "another land") is characteristic of the other whom one becomes through loss -- loss of native land, loss of past, loss of innocence -- and the internal gap that results, the void filled by guilt, the changed sense of self, precipitates a greater self-consciousness and self-knowledge that separate the stranger first from his old self and then from the rest of humanity. A certain complexity that invites inspection, that leads to still other complications, beckons the stranger to unravel the mysteries; hence {139} Helena "wanders away from others" (p. 18), Frankenstein is the "divine wanderer" (p. 24), and the monster "wanders with wild agitation" (p. 101) through the countryside and into the past.

Helena comments:

it is a strange feeling to know that a part of your life is wrapped in mystery and that you have been unconscious of what happened to you during that period. You feel apart from your fellow human beings. You are both a stranger among them and to yourself. (p. 111)
The unconscious past ultimately involves the question of origins: Frankenstein explores the source of life by creating a person himself, the monster searches for the secret of his own creation, and Helena discovers the birth of her child in her own forgotten past.

The terrain in these two novels, as in a great many others, is marked by peaks and overhanging precipices, icy cliffs, and misty summits where deception and disguise are promoted by haze. Whether the Alps, the Apennines, or the Orkneys, the ridges along the Arve, the Rhone, or the Rhine, mountains with their twisted paths become an extension of the hero's wanderings. Frankenstein climbs above the jutting rocks and ravines, temporarily at peace in his heavenly perch like a God who has transcended the contortions of life. From the mountaintop he can absorb the greatest vision of the world, a view that is astonishing, magnificent, sublime; he feels exalted, "elevated from all littleness of feeling" (p. 91). The monster too climbs skyward in the course of his wandering. "The desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge. I have wandered here many days; the caves of ice, which I only do not fear, are a dwelling for me" (p. 95) Other heights -- high latitude in the North, the height of the summer, the raising of spirits, the high of intoxication or enthusiasm, high destiny or the {140} higher powers of intellect, the sexual heights that Helena experiences after mounting the stairs to her lover's chamber, or the "high tea" drunk on the night of the seventh moon, which is in fact the time when the moon rises to its greatest height -- all these elevations, along with the literal mountains, represent intensity of sensation and expansion of vision, inflation of the self and ascension to omnipotence. Mountains, according to Helena, are both beautiful and cruel, cruel because they are, in Frankenstein's words, "not in harmony with man"; a fall is inevitable. In On the Night of the Seventh Moon Helena dreams of a golden-haired child in a flowing white dress dancing along a narrow cliff while a guardian angel protects her. Helena herself leaves home to wander in the hills in search of her past, abandoning the safe road, and Frankenstein pursues the heights of curiosity and ambition. The monster observes a young girl who slips from a river bank into the rapid current, in On the Night of the Seventh Moon a pregnant girl throws herself from the attic of an inn, another pregnant girl (Girda) jumps down the mountainside from the window of a turret room, and there are two attempts to push Helena out of upper story windows. Emotionally, a rise in expectation is typically followed by sudden disappointment and the collapse of hope, and thematically a decline in status, wealth, health, or happiness echoes the biblical Fall from grace that is evoked through images of Adam's apple and the expulsion from Paradise. Whether literal or figurative, trivial or cosmic, a radical shift from ecstasy to dejection-- augmentation followed by drastic reduction -- is the Gothic progression.

Frankenstein and On the Night of the Seventh Moon both leave the reader with a final image of ice, of glaciers, northern breezes, and snowy forests. The navigator's ship in Frankenstein becomes wedged in on all sides by a frozen sea most reminiscent of the one in "The Haunters and the {141} Haunted," where time slows down as in Melmoth the Wanderer. These "everlasting ices of the North," the "eternal frosts," represent not only an affinity for death but the secret of life as well; the navigator is searching for the wondrous power that attracts the needle at the point where life has been frozen still, arrested from its changes so that is can be observed. Like Frankenstein, who tried to discover the secret of all life, the navigator seeks to approach and fix the magnetic source of attraction.

The Gothic hell is not a fiery pit, not a burning pain or an all-consuming fear, but a stagnant, rigid reality where the fluid and dynamic become concrete and secure. Gothicism abhors a fixed consciousness, security, stability, solidarity. In On the Night of the Seventh Moon Helena contrasts the shifting sands of romantic dreams with the house built on the firm rock of reality, and although she realizes that strong passions can destroy that house, she chooses risk and romance rather than Anthony's rock, rejecting religion and reason, repression and restraint, in favor of turbulent waters.

Through boundless curiosity or boundless seas, through excesses of despair or insatiable appetite, unremitting suffering, infinite wretchedness, gigantic stature, or inordinate strength, Gothicism aspires to enlarge the faculties, to exceed nature in all dimensions, in potency and duration. In On the Night of the Seventh Moon Ilse paraphrases Hamlet's famous lines: "There are more things twixt heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy." Gothicism encourages expansive dreams. Helena explains, "I had strayed into a strange world where events which would seem inconceivable in a logical world had happened." Gothicism strays into unfathomable worlds. An uncontrollable hunger for sensation and excitement, adventure, discovery, domination, and depravity is the germ that carries the Gothic infection. In the garden of the vicarage in {142} England, Helena notices on the sundial the old adage, so contrary to her own experience, "I count only the sunny hours." Gothicism cherishes the cloudy with the sunny, the bleak beside the brilliant; Gothicism counts them all.


1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1963), p, 95.

2. Victoria Holt, On the Night of the Seventh Moon (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1972), p. 72.

3. Eric Fromm, in his work The Heart of Man, Its Genius for Good and Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), presents a theoretical and clinical discussion of the different degrees of violent inclination.

4. Ibid., p. 46.