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The Nightmare of Romantic Idealism

Chapter 3 of Creature and Creator: Myth-Making and English Romanticism (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), 103-32

Paul Cantor



Frankenstein has as much claim to mythic status as any story ever invented by a single author. The original novel continues to be read by a wide audience, and has of course spawned innumerable adaptations, imitations, and sequels.1 Through its cinematic incarnations, the Frankenstein story has ingrained itself on the popular imagination. Although no one believes in the literal truth of the story, it has all the other earmarks of a genuine myth, above all, the fact that men keep returning to it to find ways of imagining their deepest fears. But as original as the Frankenstein myth is, Mary Shelley did not create her story out of thin air. Much of the power of her book can be traced to the ways she found of drawing upon traditional mythic patterns. A glance at the title-page shows that in composing the book she had two of the central creation myths in the Western tradition in mind. The subtitle of Frankenstein, "The Modern Prometheus," points to the myth of the Greek Titan. The epigraph from Paradise Lost suggests that the story refers to Milton's creation account, and by extension to Genesis. But if one tries to align the characters in Frankenstein with traditional mythic archetypes, one runs into difficulties. Although Frankenstein at first seems to offer a potentially confusing array of mythic correspondences, by trying to sort out the mythic roles assigned to the central characters, we can approach the thematic heart of the book.

We can begin by asking: who is the modern Prometheus referred to in the subtitle? The obvious answer is Victor Frankenstein, and many critics have pointed to the Promethean elements in Frankenstein's character.2 Victor wants to be the benefactor of mankind, rebels against the divinely established order, steals, as it were, the spark of life from heaven, and creates a living being. But like Prometheus he ends up bringing disaster and destruction down upon those he was trying to help. In many respects, however, the monster Frankenstein creates is an equally good candidate for the {104} role of Prometheus in the story. It is the monster who literally discovers fire, and in a sense steals it (99-100). Moreover, the monster tantalizes Frankenstein with a mysterious secret concerning what will happen on his wedding night. Frankenstein's blindness to the real meaning of the monster's prophecy (182) associates him with the role of Zeus, particularly if one looks ahead to Percy Shelley's version of the Prometheus myth, in which the story of the secret concerning Jupiter's wedding hour is central to the plot. The fact that both Frankenstein and the monster have their Promethean aspects should not be surprising, since the original Prometheus archetype is ambiguous. With respect to man, he appears as a creator and thus as a divine figure; with respect to Zeus, he takes on the role of a rebel against divine authority and eventually of a tortured creature, thus becoming a symbol of human suffering at the hands of the gods.

The same sort of ambiguity of mythic archetypes is evident when one considers the Miltonic analogues to the Frankenstein story.3 As the creator of a man, Frankenstein plays the role of God. But Frankenstein also compares himself to Satan: "All my speculations and hopes are as nothing, and like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell" (200). The narrator Walton describes Frankenstein in terms that clearly recall the fallen Lucifer of Paradise Lost: "What a glorious creature must he have been in the days of his prosperity, when he is thus noble and godlike in ruin! He seems to feel his own worth and the greatness of his fall" (200).

The monster similarly compares himself to two Miltonic roles. He is both Adam and Satan, as he tells his creator: "Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed" (95). Later, while reflecting on his reading of Paradise Lost, the monster develops this idea:

I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; . . . but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me. (114)
{105} The apparent difficulty in aligning the characters of Frankenstein with their Miltonic archetypes is that the two main characters, Frankenstein and the monster, must be correlated with three figures from Paradise Lost: God, Satan, and Adam. In reducing three characters to two, Mary Shelley has in effect eliminated the middle term, taking some elements from the role of Satan and giving them to her god-figure, Frankenstein, and taking other elements from Satan and giving them to her Adam-figure, the monster. The result is to make both characters in her story, both creator and creature, in some sense Satanic. Satan's role in the traditional story is to take all of the blame for the evil in the world away from God and some of the blame away from man. In Milton's account, God intended the world to be perfectly good; only Satan's willfulness perverted the creator's plan. And although man is responsible for his fall, he was in a sense the victim of a clever enemy's machinations. The third term in Milton's story allows him to grant a greater purity of intention and motive to both his creator and his creature.

Without a separate Satan-figure to mediate between her creator and creature, Mary Shelley gives a gnostic twist to her creation myth: in her version the creation becomes identified with the fall. Frankenstein does God's work, creating a man, but he has the devil's motives: pride and the will to power. He is himself a rebel, rejecting divine prohibitions and, like Satan, aspiring to become a god himself. But Victor's act of rebellion is to create a man, and what he seeks out of creation is the glory of ruling over a new race of beings. Mary Shelley thus achieves a daring compression of Milton's story. Frankenstein retells Paradise Lost as if the being who fell from heaven and the being who created the world of man were one and the same. In Frankenstein one can no longer speak of an original divine plan of creation which is perverted by a demonic being; the plans of Mary Shelley's creator-figure are both divine and demonic from the beginning.

If the creator's motives in Frankenstein are suspect, one might at first suppose that the rebellion of his creature must be unequivocally good. One could in fact attempt a straightforward gnostic reading of Frankenstein.4 The story suggests that the original creation of man was defective; therefore man owes nothing to his creator; his wisest course is then to rebel against what he has always been told is the divine order. But in Frankenstein our sympathies are not this simply allied with the creature against his {106} creator. The creature's rebellion does not lead to liberation. On the contrary, it results in the creator and creature becoming locked in a life-and-death struggle that eventually destroys them both. Rebelling against Frankenstein's tyranny, the monster threatens to become a tyrant himself, seeking to turn the tables on his master, to the point where Frankenstein actually speaks of "the whole period during which I was the slave of my creature" (146). Thus although the monster has something of Adam's innocence, he is also impelled to his rebellion by Satan's motives: envy and the thirst for revenge. The monster carries his tempting serpent within his own breast. Instead of being passively seduced into rebellion like Adam, he actively pursues rebellion like Satan.

The mythic ambiguity of the central figures in Frankenstein points to an underlying moral ambiguity. What is characteristic of Mary Shelley's creation account is that neither her creator in his creation nor her creature in his rebellion have morally pure motives. In this respect, her myth contrasts sharply with that of her husband in Prometheus Unbound. Percy Shelley rejected the figure of Satan as a poetic paradigm precisely because of the moral ambiguity of his nature. In explaining in his preface why his Prometheus is a fitter subject for a poem than Satan, Shelley suggests that Satan has both good and bad sides. He has "courage," "majesty," and "firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force," but he also is moved by "ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandisement" (R & P, 133). In creating his own myth, Shelley as we have seen divided up these qualities between his Prometheus and his Jupiter, keeping the one wholly pure in his motives and the other thoroughly corrupt and ripe for overthrow. Even Shelley realized that it would take a struggle for Prometheus to overcome his desire for revenge and become purely good. But Mary Shelley displays a deeper sense of the complexity of human nature. She was unwilling to divide up the character of Satan in the same way, parceling out all his good qualities to the rebellious monster and leaving the creator-god, Frankenstein, with all the bad. She maintains the same moral ambiguity in both characters, and in virtually the same proportions.5

In Frankenstein, the creature is truly made in the image of his creator: Frankenstein and the monster are mirror images of each other. As many readers have sensed, they are the same being, viewed in different aspects, as creator and as creature.6 As creator {107} this being feels an exhilarating sense of power, an ability to transgress all the limits traditionally set to man and realize his desires and dreams. But as creature, this being feels his impotence, feels himself alone in a worlds that fails to care for him, a world in which he is doomed to wander without companions to a solitary death. It is important to realize that both Frankenstein and the monster experience both these sets of feelings. It might at first seem logical for one to feel like the creator and the other to feel like the creature. But the book does not fall into that simple pattern. Although Victor obviously has his moments of triumph and the monster his moments of despair, the two characters reverse their roles as the book proceeds, until it becomes difficult to tell one's voice from the other's. Consider the following passage:

I abhorred the face of man. Oh, not abhorred! They were my brethren, my fellow beings, and I felt attracted even to the most repulsive among them, as to creatures of an angelic nature and celestial mechanism. But I felt I had no right to share their intercourse . . . How they would, each and all, abhor me and hunt me from the world did they know my unhallowed acts and the crimes which had their source in me! (176)
Reading this passage out of context, one would guess it was the monster speaking, but it is actually Frankenstein. Victor at times feels cut off from all mankind, denied human sympathies as if he himself were the monster: "I walked about the isle like a restless spectre, separated from all it loved and miserable in its separation" (162).

By the same token, the monster has moments when he glories in his strength, when he even feels himself more powerful than his creator:

Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master; obey! (160)
When the monster murders Victor's younger brother, he triumphantly proclaims his own creativity:
I gazed on my victim, and my heart swelled with exultation and hellish triumph; clapping my hands, I exclaimed "I too can create desolation; my enemy is not invulnerable; this death will carry despair to him, and a thousand other miseries shall torment and destroy him." (136)
The statement "I too can create desolation" reveals the heart of the monster's tragedy. He can imitate his creator only in creating suffering and misery.

{108} Both Frankenstein and the monster experience feelings of triumph and despair; each has his "creative" and his "creaturely" moments, though obviously Frankenstein emphasizes the creative side of man, and the monster the creaturely. Frankenstein deals with the tension in human existence basic to the Romantic understanding of man, the tension between man's visionary powers as a creator and his spiritual limits as a creature. The alternation between feelings of power and impotence is in fact characteristic of nothing so much as the Romantic poets themselves. Consider the case of Percy Shelley: as a poetic visionary he thinks that his power to remake the world is unlimited, culminating in his triumphant claim in A Defence of Poetry that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World" (R & P, 508). But Shelley also has a debilitating sense of himself as a creature, his creative spark trapped in the "loathsome mask" of the flesh (Prometheus Unbound, III.iv.I93). One need not claim that Mary Shelley was trying specifically to give a portrait of her husband in Frankenstein, although there is evidence that her personal experiences did play a role in the genesis of the book.7 In any case, in seeking to portray a creator Mary Shelley could not help being influenced by her most direct experience of what creative spirits are like, and that means her observations of her husband (and Byron as well). As a result, by whatever process of imaginative recreation, she has captured in the composite figure of Frankenstein and the monster the complex Romantic soul, the dark as well as the bright side, the violent as well as the benevolent impulses, the destructive as well as the creative urges. On the one hand, she portrays the sympathetic reaching out to other human beings; on the other hand, a merciless and brutal turning in upon the self, a willful sundering of all bonds that tie a man to the rest of humanity. Frankenstein is not simply an example of Romantic myth; it is also on the deepest level of interpretation a myth about Romanticism, a mythic dramatization of the dangers of an unbridled idealism. At first sight, Frankenstein seems to provide a clear case of a Romantic creation myth, since its explicit theme is remaking man. The scientist becomes a metaphor for the poet8 -- Frankenstein's physical attempt to reconstruct the human frame serves as an image for the goal of Romantic artists: the spiritual regeneration of man. But somehow, put into practice, this process fails to have the glorious results it was supposed to have. The creation itself is {109} portrayed as a filthy and disgusting process, and the creator is revealed to be seized by a will to power. Originally the creation myth served Romantic artists as a vehicle for criticizing the established order, for exposing the corrupt foundations of religious and political authority. But Mary Shelley seems to have turned the creation myth back upon Romanticism, making Romantic creativity itself, in all its problematic character, her subject. Although certain revolutionary elements can be found in Frankenstein, the work seems basically conservative in its implications. Human creativity appears to be dangerous in Frankenstein, because it is unpredictable and uncontrollable in its results. Frankenstein remains what it was when the idea for it first came to Mary Shelley: a nightmare, the nightmare of Romantic idealism, revealing the dark underside to all the visionary dreams of remaking man that fired the imagination of Romantic myth-makers.9 If one wonders why of all Romantic myths it is the Frankenstein story that has caught on with the popular imagination, perhaps the reason is that the understanding of creativity embodied in Frankenstein is close to the common sense understanding: while creativity can be exhilarating, it can also be dangerous, and passes over easily into destructiveness.


Given the link between creator and creature in Frankenstein, discussions of Frankenstein as a character and of the monster as a character tend to shade into each other, that is, one can approach either character through analyzing the other. In studying Frankenstein, one readily sees how the monster can be regarded as an extension of his creator, in a sense as a projection of Frankenstein's psyche. The more difficult task is to show in analyzing the monster's character how in a strange sense Frankenstein can be regarded as a projection of the creature's psyche.

The key to understanding Frankenstein's character can be found in the detailed portrait of his childhood Mary Shelley creates. Victor himself sees a connection between his idealistic pursuit of science and his childhood aggressiveness: "My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law in my temperature they were turned not towards childish pursuits but to an eager desire to learn" (37). Given the eventual results of {110} Frankenstein's experiments, we should not be surprised to hear that his interest in science was originally a sublimation of his violent impulses.10 But the most important fact we learn about Frankenstein's youth is his attitude toward Elizabeth, the little orphan girl his family takes in. Here Mary Shelley introduces a displaced incest motif a familiar device in Romantic fiction.11 Victor calls Elizabeth his "more than sister" (35), and indeed their relationship has all the the potential for incest except the blood tie.12 They grow up in the same household, share the same childhood experiences, and have a secret bond of sympathy, much as do Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Even when presented in displaced form, an incestuous relationship involves an inward-turning of energies, a refusal to leave the self-contained world of childhood desires and dreams, that is the central impulse in Frankenstein's life.13

The other trait that Victor's attitude toward Elizabeth reveals is his possessiveness. Elizabeth is introduced to him as a present, and he persists in regarding her that way, as something given to him to hold on to as his private possession:

On the evening previous to her being brought to my house, my mother had said playfully, "I have a pretty present for my Victor -- tomorrow he shall have it." And when, on the morrow, she presented Elizabeth to me as her promised gift, I, with childish seriousness, interpreted her words literally and looked upon Elizabeth as mine -- mine to protect, love, and cherish. All praises bestowed on her I received as made to a possession of my own. We called each other familiarly by the name of cousin. No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to me -- my more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only. (35)
This possessiveness turns out to be the root of Frankenstein's activity as a creator. He creates a being because he wants someone to worship him with complete devotion: "A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" (52). Victor views his experiment as a way of becoming a father, obviously an alternative to becoming a father in the ordinary sense in view of the way the experiment poisons his relationship to Elizabeth. The irony of Frankenstein's story is that he is obsessed with the idea of creating human life, and yet seems to do everything in his power to avoid creating life in the easiest fashion, As Robert Kiely writes of Frankenstein:
{111} Stripped of rhetoric and ideological decoration, the situation presented is that of a handsome young scientist, engaged to a beautiful woman, who goes off to the mountains alone to create a new human life. When he confesses to Walton that he has "worked hard for nearly two years" to achieve his aim, we may wonder why he does not marry Elizabeth, and, with her cooperation, finish the job more quickly and pleasurably.14
Victor's hope for his creations -- "no father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" -- shows why he rejects the conventional role of a parent. A father must share the gratitude of his children with their mother. As a true Romantic creator, Victor wants total responsibility -- and total credit -- for any of his creations. In the image of Victor Frankenstein going to any lengths to avoid being indebted to nature, Mary Shelley's myth embodies a profound understanding of the character of modern creativity. Frankenstein rejects a natural means of creativity, fatherhood, which would prevent him from calling his creation wholly his own, in favor of an artificial means of creativity, which allows him to regard his creation as solely a projection of his self. But to produce a creature with its origin in his self and his self alone, Frankenstein must draw upon every resource within his self. He ends up cannibalizing his life for the sake of his experiment, sacrificing all his everyday human concerns to his single-minded aim of creating a living being:
I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement . . . My eyes were insensible to the charms of nature. And the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me called me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time . . . I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every ha bit of my nature, should be completed. (53-54)
In psychological terms, Frankenstein is a classic case of sublimation; he uses the energy he derives from repressing his normal feelings, especially his sexual desires, to fuel his intellectual and scientific pursuits.15 Victor's loneliness and isolation is thus not accidental to his creativity. He must cut himself off from the rest of humanity to achieve his goals, and his goals require that he do everything alone.

Frankenstein's urge to create life by himself shows his titanism, his longing to do something never before attempted by man. But it also suggests a less heroic side to his character, a fear of growing up, a hesitation at taking his place in the world of adult responsibility. {112} That this fear is in part sexual in nature is shown by the fact that Frankenstein's anxieties eventually come to focus on his wedding night. Though on the literal level of plot, the monster's threats concerning this night give Victor sufficient cause to be afraid, certain details of the narrative make one wonder what exactly is the "dreadful secret" (183) Frankenstein is worried about revealing to his innocent bride. The description of Frankenstein on his wedding night suggests an immature and nervous bridegroom, looking for anything to divert him from consummating his marriage. When Victor speaks of the struggle he anticipates, though he clearly has the monster in mind as his adversary, he is inadvertently revealing the subconscious, childish fears that have long delayed his union with Elizabeth, whom he in some sense regards as his real enemy:

I had been calm during the day, but so soon as night obscured the shapes of objects, a thousand fears arose in my mind. I was anxious and watchful, while my right hand grasped a pistol which was hidden in my bosom; every sound terrified me, but I resolved that I would sell my life dearly and not shrink from the conflict until my own life or that of my adversary was extinguished.

Elizabeth observed my agitation for some time in timid and fearful silence, but there was something in my glance which communicated terror to her, and trembling, she asked, "What is it that agitates you, my dear Victor? What is it you fear?"

"Oh! Peace, peace, my love," replied I, "this night, and all will be safe; but this night is dreadful, very dreadful."

I passed an hour in this state of mind, when suddenly I reflected how fearful the combat which I momentarily expected would be to my wife, and I earnestly entreated her to retire, resolving not to join her until I had obtained some knowledge as to the situation of my enemy. (185-86)

Noting "the language of anxiety, phallic inference, and imagery of conflict," Kiely writes of this passage: "the immediate situation and the ambiguity of the language contribute to the impression that the young groom's dread of the monster is mixed with his fear of sexual union as a physical struggle which poses a threat to his independence, integrity, and delicacy of character."16 When Frankenstein's monster succeeds in turning his bridal bed into a "bridal bier" (186), one might read the episode in psychological terms as indicating that Frankenstein's marriage is destroyed by his fear that sexuality is something monstrous, a force that turns men and women into something other than human beings.

But Frankenstein's fear of getting married and having a family like any ordinary man is not simply sexual. He regards family life as {113} dull and conventional, potentially stifling to his creativity. When he reflects upon his father's career, he sees a disjunction between the path of glory and the path of raising a family:

My father had filled several public situations with honour and reputation . . . He passed his younger days perpetually occupied by the affairs of his country; a variety of circumstances had prevented him from marrying early, nor was it until the decline of life that he became a husband and the father of a family. (31)
The 1818 edition of Frankenstein contains a further suggestion that Victor has reason to fear that a family will limit his creativity: "When my father became a husband and a parent, he found his time so occupied by the duties of his new situation, that he relinquished his public employments, and devoted himself to the education of his children."17 Victor reveals another defect of becoming a father in the conventional way: it carries a sense of responsibility to one's children, to care for them and raise them properly. Victor does not want to be burdened by such time-consuming ties to other human beings. He was spoiled as a child, and as he grows older he does not want to relinquish the situation of having everything go his way, without his having to make any concessions to the needs of others. He says of his childhood:
My mother's tender caresses and my father's smile of benevolent pleasure while regarding me are my first recollections. I was their plaything and their idol, and something better -- their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me. (33)
When Frankenstein comes to be a father in his special way, he conveniently forgets these duties of parents to their offspring. The one quality he most conspicuously lacks as a creator is the quality he most praises his own parents for: "the deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life" (33). What ultimately turns Frankenstein's creation into the improvident, even bungled work of a gnostic demiurge is the fact that from the start he seeks out this form of creativity precisely as a way of escaping the responsibilities of ordinary parenthood.

From one point of view, Frankenstein appears as a Faustian figure, daring to undertake a superhuman task; from another, he seems like a little boy, hoping to prolong forever the situation of his childhood, in which he can live within the private world of his own {114} fantasies, unburdened by the duties of adult life. In particular, he seems to fear the entanglements of mature sexuality, and one senses that his experiment has in part the purpose of finding a way for him to reproduce without his own body having to become directly involved in the process. Frankenstein wishes that human beings could create life with their minds alone. He is most fundamentally a Romantic in his faith in the power of the imagination to shape a world in accord with man's dreams and visions, although ironically his attempt to realize his dreams only draws him deeper and deeper into contact with the corrupt material world he is seeking to avoid. In the end, one cannot distinguish the heroic from the childish side of Frankenstein. All his strengths and weaknesses are bound up with his refusal to accept an adult role in life. By clinging to his childhood dreams, he retains a power of vision that lifts his imagination above that of ordinary men, and gives him the power to create. But at the same time, he is thoroughly irresponsible in his creativity and lacks the courage to face up to the consequences of his deeds.

Like many Romantic works, Frankenstein suggests a link between the creator and the child. But Mary Shelley portrays this relation much more equivocally than most Romantics do, for she senses the childish, as well as the childlike, aspects to Frankenstein's "innocence." What from one angle appears as a visionary refusal to rest content with the way things are and always have been, from another angle appears as an immature unwillingness to come to terms with the facts of the human condition. At the core of Frankenstein's scientific enterprise is a partly heroic, partly childish, refusal to accept the fact of death. Victor's departure for the University of Ingolstadt, where his researches begin, is immediately preceded by the death of his mother. His reaction to this event perhaps supplies the deepest motive for his experiments:

I need not describe the feelings of those whose dearest ties are rent by that most irreparable evil, the void that presents itself to the soul, and the despair that is exhibited on the countenance. It is so long before the mind can persuade itself that she whom we saw every day and whose very existence appeared a part of our own can have departed forever . . . The time at length arrives when grief is rather an indulgence than a necessity . . . My mother was dead, but we had still duties which we ought to perform. (43)
For once Victor speaks with the sober voice of experience. But beneath his adult reflections on the need to accept death and carry on with the day-to-day business of life, one can hear the accents of his {115} uncompromising idealism, his hope that the mind could somehow triumph over the brute fact of death. That becomes the goal of his scientific experiments:
Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world . . . I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time . . . renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption. (52-53)
If to be a Romantic is to deny the limits on human creative power, then Frankenstein's project becomes the ultimate test of Romantic vision. With the eagerness, the confidence, and the willfulness of a child, he sets out to challenge the one seemingly in disputable fact of man's nature, his mortality.


Frankenstein's activity as a creator presents such a mixture of idealistic and self-serving motives that evaluating it in moral terms becomes difficult. But whatever Frankenstein's intentions may be, he clearly does not plan his creation with the interests of his creature in mind. He is too concerned about his own glory to take the safer, surer course in creation:
I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man. (52)
Frankenstein's talk of his "exalted imagination" makes one think of a poet, and indeed he thinks he can become a poet of material reality, immediately embodying his most ideal visions in physical form. The narrator Walton, who admits to being a failed poet himself (16), displays the same fault as Frankenstein: "I am too ardent in execution and too impatient of difficulties" (18). In his haste and lack of attention to details, Frankenstein adopts a course guaranteed to satisfy his eagerness but at the same time to make his creature miserable:
The materials at present within my command hardly appeared adequate to so arduous an undertaking, but I doubted not that I should ultimately succeed . . . Nor could I consider the magnitude and complexity of my plan as any argument of its impracticability . . . As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first {116} intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large. (51)
Frankenstein casually revises his plans at the last moment, solely to make things easier for himself, without the slightest thought of how this "gigantic stature" will affect his creature's life. His idealistic unwillingness to compromise with the limits of human nature evidently passes over easily into total disregard for practical considerations of the physical needs of man.

As a result, Mary Shelley's myth takes us back to the world of the demonic creator. Frankenstein resembles a gnostic demiurge, struggling to infuse the spark of life into dead matter:

In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of my home, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation. (53)
From the way Frankenstein secludes himself, one begins to suspect that he is ashamed of what he is doing. By his own admission, Frankenstein's creation is a "filthy" process, and he dwells upon its disgusting physical aspects. He is clearly not the benevolent, all-powerful creator of Genesis, who could stand back from his creative activity and see that it was good. On the contrary, Frankenstein has to struggle with his materials and with himself to go on with the creation, and the whole process makes him ill.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Frankenstein is repulsed by the end-product of his creativity:

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips . . . Now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. (56)
Mary Shelley provides a nightmarish counterpart to her husband's experience as a poet of the gap between inspiration and composition: "When composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original {117} conceptions of the poet" (R & P, 504). Frankenstein beholding his creature is like a Shelleyan poet, disgusted by the fixed form into which his imaginative inspiration has sunk.18 The corrupting medium of human flesh has distorted Frankenstein's creation into a grotesque mockery of his original vision. When forced to confront his creation later, Frankenstein rejects him completely. Having created for the sake of his own glory, Frankenstein is ready to take out his frustrations on his creature for not living up to his expectations. His first thought is to destroy the evidence of his own limitations and failings as a creator, not to try to make up for the defects of his creation.

But the monster survives and as a result, Frankenstein's will to power does not stop with the act of creation. The monster becomes Frankenstein's Doppelgänger, his double or shadow, acting out the deepest, darkest urges of his soul, his aggressive impulses, and working to murder one by one everybody close to his creator.19 As we have seen, Frankenstein thinks that his violent side has been harmlessly sublimated into his scientific pursuits. But the result of his experiments is to set free the aggressive emotions his conscious mind refuses to acknowledge. In particular, Victor's possessiveness as a lover ultimately requires the death of his beloved, for only death can turn her into an object instead of an independent human being, and thus into something he can call his own. Immediately after creating the monster, Victor dreams of Elizabeth's death:

I thought I saw Elizabeth in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. (57)
In addition to vividly expressing Victor's Oedipal longings, this dream shows that he somehow associates Elizabeth with the death of his mother.20 His mother contracted her fatal illness while taking care of Elizabeth and died instructing her: "Elizabeth, my love, you must supply my place to my younger children" (42). Perhaps Victor does not believe that Elizabeth has adequately supplied the place of the woman she "killed," and harbors repressed anger against her that can reach the surface of his mind only in the distorted form of a dream, in which Elizabeth dies and then is replaced by Victor's mother, thus reversing and righting her original "crime." Finally, {118} the dream reveals how closely linked the ideas of love and death are in Frankenstein's mind. In his subconscious, the kiss of love is ultimately the kiss of death, and one can possess one's beloved only in a shroud.

The timing of Victor's dream -- his passing out at this point results in setting the monster loose -- suggests that the monster is the agent for bringing about Frankenstein's equation of love and death. He himself sees that the monster serves his own destructive urges:

I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave and forced to destroy all that was dear to me. (74)
Accordingly, Frankenstein seems to know intuitively what the monster has done, even before he receives confirmation of the facts: "Could he be (I shuddered at the conception) the murderer of my brother? No sooner did that idea cross my imagination than I became convinced of its truth" (73). Frankenstein even seems able to anticipate the monster's intentions:
Sometimes I thought that the fiend followed me and might expedite my remissions by murdering my companion. When these thoughts possessed me, I would not quit Henry for a moment, but followed him as his shadow, to protect him from the fancied rage of his destroyer. (155)
Frankenstein knows the monster's intentions because deep down they are his own. Something in Frankenstein wants to kill anyone who comes close to him so that he can maintain his willful isolation. Once the monster has succeeded in cutting Victor off from all the ties that bind him to the rest of humanity, only one task remains: to see that Frankenstein himself is destroyed. From the beginning, Victor's aggressive impulses have the potential of being directed inward. If the monster is truly his double, then Frankenstein's destructiveness is finally revealed to have been self-destructiveness.21

As we have seen, from the start Frankenstein's experiments serve the purpose of avoiding marriage and banishing him from the ranks of ordinary mankind. His idealism provides him with a noble-sounding excuse for not facing up to his immediate responsibilities. Frankenstein is characterized by a kind of abstract benevolence. He is willing to see himself and anyone else he knows suffer in the {119} name of a visionary dream of aiding mankind as a whole. We see how his mind operates when he rejects the idea of creating a mate for the monster, despite the threat to his loved ones:

A race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations? . . . I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race. (158-59)
Later Victor tells his father of the monster's victims: "A thousand times would I have shed my own blood, drop by drop, to have saved their lives; but I could not, my father, indeed I could not sacrifice the whole human race" (177). Frankenstein may well be correct in his assessment of the dangers of allowing a race of monsters to propagate, and his self-sacrifice in acting to prevent that outcome is noble. Nevertheless, it is significant how quickly his mind moves from the immediate and concrete threat against his friends and family to the more remote and vaguer threat against humanity in general. Frankenstein readily leaps from his specific situation to visions of distant lands and future ages, and he shows the reformer's mentality in his willingness to sacrifice individual men and women for the sake of mankind. As he himself senses, there is even something of the religious zealot in his character:
I trembled with excess of agitation as I said this; there was a frenzy in my manner, and something, I doubt not, of that haughty fierceness which the martyrs of old are said to have possessed. But to a German magistrate, whose mind was occupied by far other ideas than those of devotion and heroism, this elevation of mind had much the appearance of madness. He endeavored to soothe me as a nurse does a child and reverted to my tale as the effects of delirium. (191)
In its equation of religious martyrdom with madness, and of heroism and elevation of mind with the delusions of a child, this passage sums up the complex character of Frankenstein, who forever presents two sides to us, no matter how we look at him.


As fruitful as it is to study the monster as an extension of his creator, one cannot fully appreciate the significance of the character until one studies his story from his point of view. In portraying the {120} monster, Mary Shelley, whether directly or indirectly, drew upon Rousseau's conception of natural man.22 Thus at the same time as Frankenstein involves a retelling of Paradise Lost, it also undertakes an imaginative recreation of the Second Discourse, blending Milton and Rousseau just as the poetic creation myths we have studied do.

One could undertake a fairly simple interpretation of the monster's story in Rousseauian terms. The monster as originally created corresponds to natural man; his fall is his fatal attraction to civil society; and his attempt to join the ranks of social men leads to his misery. The story would then show how civilization corrupts an essentially benevolent being into a demon. Society is shown as being based on the will to power, and therefore rejects the outward-turning sympathies of natural man. The civilized world brutalizes the monster, awakening his lust to dominate by thwarting his impulse to love.23 One can almost hear the voice of the monster in Rousseau's comment on himself in the Reveries:

If I had remained free, obscure, and isolated as I was made to be, I would have done only good; for I do not have the seed of any harmful passion in my heart. If I had been invisible and all-powerful like God, I would have been beneficent and good like Him. (R, 82)
The fact that the representative of natural man in Frankenstein appears as monstrous to those he meets could be a telling commentary on a society that has lost touch with its origins and thus lost its ability to distinguish true humanity from the veneer of civilization.

One can find elements of social commentary in Frankenstein, and one should not neglect the ways in which the novel is a plea for social justice and benevolence among men. The story exposes the decadence and corruption of sophisticated society, while portraying the virtues and benefits of a simple life. This dimension of the novel is particularly evident in the long De Lacey episode, which contrasts the injustice of the French monarchy with the rustic simplicity and harmony of the Swiss republic, thus moving between the two poles of Rousseau's life and thought: Paris and Geneva. But a straightforward social-political reading of Frankenstein is ultimately inadequate. To be sure, on one level Mary Shelley is saying that a little more kindness and understanding in the world would improve the lot of man. But she senses a profounder tension in human existence than mere social conflicts. Thus her novel is truer than most Romantic works to the complexities of Rousseau's {121} thought. Like the Second Discourse, Frankenstein is a story of a being's fall from an original unity with nature into a state of painful separation. But, also like the Second Discourse, Frankenstein does not offer a way to overcome this separation. In Mary Shelley's myth, isolation from nature seems to be the permanent price man pays for his consciousness and his creativity. The monster moves through the first two stages of the Romantic dialectic, but never achieves any third or higher stage which would allow him to transcend the contradictions of his existence.

Like Rousseau's natural man, the monster begins his life in a solitary state, living in the woods by himself with only accidental contact with other beings. This solitariness gives him the freedom of Rousseau's natural man: "I was dependent on none and related to none" (123). His life is uncomplicated by social relations, and also uncomplicated by the sophisticated and decadent wants men acquire in the process of civilization as Rousseau portrays it. At first the monster need only fulfill his basic animal desires, which he finds simple enough to do, since he is not attached to any given locale and can move on whenever he runs out of food:

Food, however, became scarce, and I often spent the whole day searching in vain for a few acorns to assuage the pangs of hunger. When I found this, I resolved to quit the place that I had hitherto inhabited, to seek for one where the few wants I experienced could be more easily satisfied. (100)
In accord with Rousseau's speculation that natural man did not eat meat,24 the monster is a vegetarian: "My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment" (139). With his simple diet and easily satisfied wants, the monster begins life in animal contentment. Like Rousseau, he at times longs for this original state: "Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!" (115).

But the monster's innocent state has its limitations, even if he eventually comes to regret having left it. Again like Rousseau's natural man, he originally lacks speech or fully developed powers of reasoning. The world presents itself to him right after his creation as a mass of undifferentiated sensations, which he only gradually learns to distinguish:

A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to {122} distinguish between the operations of my various senses . . . No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and on all sides various scents saluted me . . . Sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again . . . My eyes became accustomed to the light and to perceive objects in their right forms; I distinguished the insect from the herb, and by degrees, one herb from another. (98-99)
This account of the development of the monster's consciousness resembles Rousseau's speculations on the origins of speech and reasoning, particularly in the characterization of the monster's mental growth as a process of learning to differentiate an originally unarticulated whole (SD, 123). The monster's mental progress is, however, considerably faster than that of Rousseau's natural man, largely because he is able to acquire language from already civilized men.

But the monster's reaction to his education is much like Caliban's to his teacher Prospero: "You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse" (The Tempest, I.2.363-64). The monster's loss of innocence and growing experience of the world only make him progressively more miserable: "sorrow only increased with knowledge" (115). At times he longs to reject his learning and return to his original state of virtual unconsciousness: "Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind when it has once seized on it like a lichen on the rock. I wished sometimes to shake off all thought and feeling" (115). Frankenstein expresses the same sentiments in a passage that reads like pure Rousseau:

Alas! Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us. (93)
In Frankenstein both creature and creator end up seeking freedom from the burden of consciousness. But in the bleak world of Mary Shelley's myth, no way to achieve this freedom can be found, no means of combining the happiness and unity of man's original state with the consciousness and developed power of his civilized state.

Thus the monster has a tragic vision of the direction in which his story is headed: "I learned that there was but one means to overcome the sensation of pain, and that was death" (115). In the absence of a means of retaining the gains of experience while {123} recapturing man's lost innocence, death becomes desirable as the only way of annihilating the painful divisions of consciousness. The monster's story culminates in the promise of an apocalyptic moment of death, which, in its symbolism of a funeral pyre and drowning waters, is reminiscent of the climax of Wagner's Götterdämmerung:

I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall mount my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. (211)
The monster's Immolation scene centers on a common Romantic image for consciousness: a fire rapidly consuming itself which gives off blinding light but eventually burns itself out.25 The monster expects his ashes to be swept out to sea, where, dissolving into the primeval waters, he can at last be reunited with nature. Death conceived as physical dissolution becomes a way of recapturing the primal unity man lost when he first departed from his natural state. This motif of undoing the fall by means of a catastrophic dissolution into nature is the mythic equivalent of the more familiar Romantic notion of the healing powers of nature. Frankenstein knows that when he is feeling depressed, he ought to seek out sublime scenery:
Sometimes the whirlwind passions of my soul drove me to seek, by bodily exercise and by change of place, some relief from my intolerable sensations. It was during an access of this kind that I suddenly left my home, and bending my steps towards the near Alpine valleys, sought in the magnificence, the eternity of such scenes, to forget myself and my ephemeral, because human, sorrows. (89-90)
Achieving some form of unity with nature helps Victor overcome the divisions within his own soul, until he is able to achieve a momentary peace and release from suffering: "The same lulling sounds acted as a lullaby to my too keen sensations; when I placed my head upon my pillow, sleep crept over me; I felt it as it came and blessed the giver of oblivion" (91). But sleep is only temporary, and like the monster, Frankenstein eventually can find relief from the intolerable pain of his consciousness only in death.

One interpretation of the original Prometheus myth is that it embodies man's awareness of the equivocal value of his consciousness.26 According to this view, the spark Prometheus steals for man is the spark of consciousness. Prometheus awakens man from his animal ignorance, thereby making him conscious of the threatening {124} aspects of his existence, above all, his mortality. Frankenstein is true to its central Prometheus archetype in suggesting that man's fall results from his attempt to rise above his animal nature, for in developing his specifically human potential, his creative powers, he brings a greater awareness of pain and suffering upon himself. Frankenstein expresses the feeling of being trapped within his own consciousness in a passage that suggests the image of Prometheus Bound: "For an instant I dared to shake off my chains and look around me with a free and lofty spirit, but the iron had eaten into my flesh, and I sank again, trembling and hopeless, into my miserable self" (153). Having sought to create solely out of his own self, Frankenstein succeeds in destroying everything he loves, everything that might threaten his independence, until he is left alone with only a creation of his own hands, an extension of his self. But under these circumstances, his self becomes a prison to him. Frankenstein banished with his creature to the Arctic wastelands becomes an emblem of the dangerous solipsistic tendency inherent in the Romantic concept of the imagination.27 If man creates the world through the power of his own consciousness, then man is threatened with having to exist alone in that world, or, worse, to be confronted only by an externalization of his own desires that horrifies him in its hideousness. To be the sole creator of one's world seems like a glorious prospect, until one realizes the consequences of seeing one's self mirrored everywhere one turns.


Is there any way out of the Romantic prison of the self? Paradoxically the monster pursues a solution to this problem with a greater sense of urgency than his human creator does. Frankenstein usually expresses a longing for another human being only when that person has been placed out of reach by death. The monster by contrast truly desires a living companion. In depicting the monster's sympathetic reaching out for human beings, Mary Shelley draws upon another trait of natural man in Rousseau's view, his compassion (SD, 130-33). From the beginning, the monster experiences fellow feeling for all living creatures. He even applies Rousseau's formula for natural man to himself, claiming that he was naturally good until human society made him otherwise: "Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and {125} good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous" (95-96). Longing for some form of love, the monster reaches out for any human being he sees, and of course his one request of his creator is to provide him with a mate. The monster exhibits all the natural sympathies Frankenstein had to repress in order to create him.

But there is a dark side to the monster's reaching out for sympathy. When he is rejected, he lashes back with fierce hatred, most often with murderous fury:

All, save I, were at rest or in enjoyment; I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me, and finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin. (130)
The monster has inherited a deep ambivalence of emotions from his creator: his love is never far from hate. He is most demonic -- even quoting Milton's Satan -- when he vents the sum of his frustrations in his final revenge upon his creator:
When I discovered that he, the author at once of my existence and of its unspeakable torments, dared to hope for happiness, that while he accumulated wretchedness and despair upon me he sought his own enjoyment in feelings and passions from the indulgence of which I was forever barred, then impotent envy and bitter indignation filled me with an insatiable thirst for vengeance . . . Evil thenceforth became my good. (208-9)
The monster certainly has reasons for hating humanity, but in one sense he may be treating men as unfairly as they treat him. For all his fellow feeling, the monster is not sympathetic to others in one respect, for he fails to understand fully their difficulty in accepting him. They judge him by appearances, and his looks are hardly calculated to inspire warmth and affection.

This problem calls our attention to the one decisive respect in which the monster differs from natural man in Rousseau. Natural man is of course in the state of nature, that is, everybody around him is in more or less the same condition and thus nobody stands out. But the monster's state more closely resembles that of a natural man in the midst of civil society. One can compare his situation to that of the savages brought to Europe whom Rousseau discusses in the Second Discourse. His situation is even worse, since the people who meet the monster will not even acknowledge his common humanity. They all think that he is some form of beast, an inferior being. None of the characters in Frankenstein acknowledges the {126} ways in which the monster is superior to them, the fact that he is physically stronger, can endure the elements better, can survive in places which would destroy them, and is all in all the more independent being.28 The monster's tragedy is that he is forced to accept the civilized world's view of him as inferior, for he has no other standard to go by. Rousseau's savages can reject Europe and return to their own people, as the Frontispiece of the Second Discourse reminds us: "He goes back to his equals" (76). Possessing an independent standard for judging themselves, these savages can remain convinced of their own worth, no matter what the Europeans think of them. But having no equals and hence no standards of his own, the monster is forced to accept the opinion of the only beings he has ever known and they all think that he is hideously ugly. He must accept the same conclusion:

I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers -- their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions; but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity. (108)
The reason the monster desperately desires a mate is to have someone who would deny his ugliness, if only because she shared it. In demanding a creature as "hideous" as himself, the monster clearly has this consideration in mind:
I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects . . . It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attracted to one another. (137, 139)
When Frankenstein fails to fulfill the monster's request, he destroys his one hope of achieving any form of self-satisfaction.

The deepest source of the monster's troubles is that he is alienated from himself, doomed to see himself as others see him. In that respect, he is not free to be a natural man in Rousseau's terms: "The savage lives within himself; the sociable man, always outside of himself, knows how to live only in the opinion of others; and it is, so to speak, from their judgement alone that he draws the sentiment of his own existence" (SD, 179). Tragically, the monster is forced to endure the isolation of natural man, but is denied his {127} independence of judgment. His socially derived sense of his own ugliness, and hence of his unworthiness, ultimately thwarts all his benevolent impulses. Convinced that his creation was defective, the monster is filled with an "impotent envy and bitter indignation" that awakens his "insatiable thirst for vengeance" (208). Thus he lays all the blame for his crimes at the feet of his creator, since Frankenstein is responsible for his being ugly: "Unfeeling, heartless creator! You had endowed me with perceptions and passions and then cast me abroad an object for the scorn and horror of mankind" (133). In this reproach we begin to get a glimpse of how Frankenstein can be regarded as a projection of the monster's psyche. The monster is undoubtedly placed in unusual circumstances by his objective ugliness and he clearly has just cause for complaint against his creator. And yet his situation is not unique the way he claims; his experience is not entirely remote from that of ordinary men. All men have moments when they feel different, when they feel themselves inadequate to mixing in society, when they sense some form of ugliness standing between themselves and other human beings. The monster's fear of not being accepted because of being different is, paradoxically, a very human fear.29 But the monster also has a very human response to this fear: he claims that he is not really different -- inside he is just like any human being -- only his outward form makes him seem different,30 and for that his creator is to blame. In making a distinction between inner being and outward form, the monster is trying to turn what differentiates him from others into a principle external to his self, projecting onto his creator the total responsibility for his alien character.

In this way, the monster is strangely like a Romantic myth-maker, picturing for himself an incompetent, power-mad creator, who is wholly to blame for the misery of his situation. The monster gets to act out the scene many a Romantic poet dreamed of: the opportunity to confront his creator and tell him how thoroughly he bungled the job of creation. The idea of a demonic creator allows man to evade responsibility for his condition in the thought that, given the chance, he would have made himself better. We see this tendency toward evasion in the monster, even though he is more justified than most in criticizing his creator. "Victor Frankenstein" becomes his answer to all his nagging questions concerning why he fails to fit into the world. The monster continually consoles himself {128} with the idea that if he had only been made with more skill and forethought, he would have been a morally better being. His repeated argument is that any ugliness in his soul is purely the result of the ugliness of his body; he is in no way responsible for his self because his self is the product of someone else's creativity; he was not given the freedom to create his self once he was placed in a warped body. Mary Shelley's epigraph from Paradise Lost sums up the monster's charges:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
These lines express what came to be a widespread Romantic experience: the protest against the lack of autonomy in the human condition.31 Milton's Adam speaks for many Romantics when he complains: "my will / Concurred not to my being" (X.746-47).32 The desire to remake man's being until it becomes entirely the product of his own will, or at least to reject a situation not of his own making and choosing, is what is expressed in the gnostic pattern of Romantic creation myths. Though they express it in different ways, both the monster and Frankenstein share this attitude. Convinced that only a defective providence denied him happiness, and armed with hard and fast evidence of the limitations of his creator, the monster expresses the Romantic sense of man as a creature. Confident in his ability to remake human nature, Frankenstein expresses the Romantic hope in man as a creator. One of the profound ironies of Mary Shelley's myth is that the visionary creator can only produce a heightened version of human creaturely dependence.


No matter what line we pursue in Frankenstein, we keep coming back to the fundamental identity of Victor and the monster, of the creator and the creature. The story of the monster seems to take up what it would be like for a lower, or more primitive, being to fall into civilized society. But at the same time, it takes up what it would be like for a higher, or more advanced, being to move among the ranks of ordinary men, if we bear in mind the ways in which the monster exceeds normal human capabilities. Conventional society {129} cannot tell if the monster is an inferior or a superior being, for it cannot fully understand him. All it really knows is that he is somehow different from ordinary men. In this respect, the monster's story is the same as Frankenstein's. As Victor suspects (and as several movies have proven), if the common people knew of his experiments, they would hunt him down like a beast. Any man with an unconventional vision runs the risk of being regarded as inhuman by conventional society. Rousseau expresses this idea in a passage that sounds as if it came right out of the pages of Frankenstein:
Could I in my good sense have supposed that one day I, the same man that I was, the same that I still am, would -- without the slightest doubt -- pass for and be taken as a monster, a poisoner, an assassin; that I would become the horror of the human race, the plaything of the rabble. (R, 2)
Frankenstein is in a very real sense a higher being than those around him: he is more imaginative and has greater creative powers. But for that very reason he can no more fit into conventional society than his monster can.

In dramatizing the position of an alien being in an uncomprehending community, Frankenstein embodies what gradually emerged as the Romantic conception of the artist's relation to society. Victor is the epitome of the isolated Romantic genius: a man with a special power of insight, a rebel against convention, living on the fringes of society, losing touch with his fellow men even as he works to transform their existence. Both Frankenstein and the monster stand out from the ranks of ordinary men. What distinguishes the creator from the creature is that he glories in his sense of being different: "I could not rank myself with the herd of common projectors" (200). The monster, by contrast, does not like to dwell upon the ways in which he excels ordinary men, but only craves their acceptance in normal life. Frankenstein, who evidently could enjoy a successful family life with Elizabeth, gives it up for the sake of his creativity, while the monster, who is free of all ties and could, for example, achieve success as an Arctic explorer beyond Robert Walton's wildest dreams, longs for nothing more than lingering by the sort of family hearth both Frankenstein and Walton despise. Deep down, the creator and the creature in Frankenstein yearn to exchange roles: the monster craves the home life Frankenstein rejects, and Frankenstein covets the freedom from personal bonds which the monster views as his curse.

{130} Perhaps then we can view the monster's attitude toward Frankenstein as the creature in man rebelling against the creator in man. The monster expresses the resentment of man's creaturely instincts against his creative impulses, which cause him to suffer and be lonely in his life. Reduced to its essentials, the monster's charge against Frankenstein is: "You've made me miserable for the sake of your creativity." One can think of this reproach as the human half of a poet saying to the artistic half: "For the sake of your art, you've ruined my life." If we take seriously the idea of Frankenstein and the monster as a composite being, we see that in portraying the conflict of creator and creature, Mary Shelley's novel begins to explore the tension between art and life that became such a central theme in nineteenth-century literature.

If one thinks of the creator-half as the real essence of man, then the monster is his nightmare image of his human, all-too-human limitations.33 To an idealistic visionary like Percy Shelley, his creaturely aspects as a human being can seem monstrous. Anxious to soar into the heaven of his own imagination, he would like to be free of the weight of his own body, which he regards as ill-made because it is not the creation of his own mind. But in trying to reject his creaturely impulses, to distance himself from them, the artist runs the risk of perverting them, of letting his darkest urges work below the level of consciousness toward destructive ends because he refuses to recognize them for what they are. Frankenstein is much like Blake's Urizen:34 he tries to reject his emotions, to separate himself from them by shunting them off into his creation. But as a result Frankenstein's emotions run wild in the externalized form of his monster.35 His story suggests that the worst thing that can happen to an artistic visionary is to let his concern for his art and his vision thwart his ordinary human sympathies. Frankenstein himself rather heavy-handedly points the moral of his tale:

If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. (54)
If the creature-half is the real essence of man, then an obsessed creator-god is his nightmare image of the artist in him. He sees this force as ruining all his chances for acceptance in life and thereby making him miserable. The danger of this form of projection is that it provides an excuse for not facing up to the challenges of life. {131} The thought that only his creator could improve his condition relieves the monster of the task of trying to make something of his ugliness, of creating something out of his admittedly defective existence. It is perhaps asking too much to expect the monster to accept his solitary situation and learn to sublimate his energies into some form of creative endeavor. But if he did, it would not be the first time that a curse proved to be a blessing, and the creaturely defects of man turned out to be a spur to his creativity. Because of his resentment against his creator, the monster ensures that his difference from others can never become a creative difference. Only once does he force himself to leave his creaturely doubts behind him:
I felt emotions of gentleness and pleasure, that had long appeared dead, revive within me. Half surprised by the novelty of these sensations, I allowed myself to be borne away by them, and forgetting my solitude and deformity, dared to be happy. (134)
Here the monster achieves an important insight: for him happiness requires daring. Pursuing the life of a Rousseauian solitary walker and rejecting the artificial standards of civilization in order to achieve communion with nature, the monster is able for the moment to forget his "deformity." But as he says, this path requires the courage to set his own standards and be his own judge. Once the monster turns to Frankenstein to give him happiness, assuming that Frankenstein knows what is best for him and is the only one who has creative power, the monster seals his fate. One begins to suspect that Frankenstein plays the role of God for the monster in a deeper sense than at first appears.36

The psychological projections Frankenstein and the monster attempt can, then, be viewed as ways of evading responsibility for their deeds.37 Each becomes the other's all-purpose excuse. One must not be misled by the tendency of Frankenstein and the monster to wallow in self-accusations. Their admissions always take the form: "I am the greatest of criminals, but --." Each always has some way of disclaiming ultimate responsibility for his actions. Frankenstein builds up to what promises to be a climactic scene of mutual confession from Victor and the monster. But what starts out in the mea culpa mode passes imperceptibly into a final round of self-justifications. Somehow Frankenstein finds it possible to conclude: "During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable" (206). And the {132} monster returns to his favorite theme: "Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all mankind sinned against me? . . . Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice" (210). In their conviction of the original purity of their intentions, and their belief that only material circumstances thwarted their benevolent impulses, both Frankenstein and the monster maintain to the end the idealist's moral composure in the face of even his most disastrous attempts to act in the real world. The source of this self-assurance is in the nightmare images Frankenstein and the monster have of each other, which allow them to project their faults and failings onto something external to their selves.

Understanding the psychological functions which Frankenstein and the monster serve for each other helps in understanding why they become locked in a life-and-death struggle of mutual flight and pursuit. The creator can never get entirely free of the creature in man, and the creature would be lost without the creative power that is his only hope for making something better of himself. Yet somehow the creative and creaturely principles cannot get together and they remain at war with each other. Frankenstein embodies the two images of man that are the imaginative core of Romantic creation myths, but it elaborates them differently than do most Romantic works. The monster stands for man as suffering creature, poorly provided for by an indifferent world order. Frankenstein stands for man as powerful creator, hoping to claim his long-sought happiness by making himself anew. But in Mary Shelley's myth, the deformed is not transformed, the monster is not the prelude to Frankenstein, the suffering creature is not on the verge of turning himself into the powerful creator in an apocalyptic metamorphosis of the human condition. For Mary Shelley, the two sides of man coexist, and apparently can, never achieve a simple harmony. Both Frankenstein and the monster are symbols of the Romantic revolt against the human condition, the idealistic refusal to accept the facts of human nature. In portraying the disastrous consequences of this revolt Mary Shelley wrote one of the few truly tragic stories in Romantic literature because she was dramatizing Romanticism itself. For another attempt to portray the Romantic tragedy, to show the twisting of idealistic thoughts into murderous impulses, we turn to Byron's Cain.


1. Of recent versions of the Frankenstein story I have read, the most inventive and symbolically rich is Frankenstein: The True Story (New York: Avon Books, 1973), a screenplay written by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy for a 1973 television movie. In the same year, an interesting science fiction treatment of the theme appeared, Brian Aldiss's Frankenstein Unbound (New York: Random House, 1973). Both works develop the connections between the Frankenstein story and the events in the Byron-Shelley circle at the time Mary conceived the novel.

2. See, for example, Harold Bloom's Afterword to his edition of Frankenstein, pp. 213-14. On the Prometheus archetype in Frankenstein, see also Small, Frankenstein, pp. 48-55 and Martin Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), pp. 56-57.

3. See Small, Frankenstein, pp. 57-70, 64-65; Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster, pp. 69-80; James Rieger, "Introduction" to Frankenstein (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974), p. xxxii; and Burton R. Pollin, "Philosophical and Literary Sources of Frankenstein," Comparative Literature, 17 (1965), 103-4.

4. See, for example, William Walling, Mary Shelley (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972), pp. 41-47 and Milton A. Mays, "Frankenstein: Mary Shelley's Black Theodicy," Southern Humanities Review, 3 (1969), 146-53.

5. See Small, Frankenstein, pp. 59, 66, 186 and George Levine, "Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism," Novel, 7 (1973), 23.

6. See, for example, Harold Bloom, "Afterword," p. 113; Levine, "Tradition of Realism," p. 18; Small, Frankenstein, p. iii; and Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster, pp. 8, 81.

7. See especially Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster, pp. 17, 59 and Rieger, Mutiny Within, pp. 237-47. The most elaborate and convincing attempt to link Frankenstein and Shelley can be found in Small, Frankenstein, pp. 100-121. Small establishes the parallels between Frankenstein's intellectual development and Shelley's, above all their common interest in alchemy, chemistry, and technological progress, and their fascination with death as the key to life. "Victor" was Shelley's childhood name for himself (p. 101). Small concludes of Frankenstein: "If he is not Shelley he is a dream of Shelley" (p. 102).

8. See Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 161; Wilfred Cude, "Mary Shelley's Modern Prometheus: A Study in the Ethics of Scientific Creativity," Dalhousie Review, 52 (1972), 218; and D. J. Palmer and R. E. Douse, "Frankenstein: A Moral Fable," The Listener, 68 (1962), 281. Frankenstein himself, in thinking of his enthusiasm as a creator, mentions "an artist occupied by his favourite employment" (55).

9. See M. K. Joseph, "Introduction" to Frankenstein (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. xiv and Mary Poovey, "My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and the Feminization of Romanticism," PMLA, 95 (1980), 332-33. For the connection between Frankenstein and Mary Shelley's doubts about her husband's idealism, see P.D. Fleck, "Mary Shelley's Notes to Shelley's Poems and Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism, 8 (1967), 226-54.

10. See Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster, pp. 21-22.

11. See Small, Frankenstein, p. 73.

12. In the original version of Frankenstein (1818), Victor and Elizabeth are in fact cousins. As Small points out, "Elizabeth" was the name of Percy Shelley's mother and of his "favourite sister" (Frankenstein, p. 103).

13. See Levine, "Tradition of Realism," p. 21. Consider in this context the argument Frankenstein uses to repulse Walton's offer of friendship: "the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain. They know our infantine dispositions, which, however they may be afterwards modified, are never eradicated" (201).

14. Kiely, Romantic Novel, p. 164.

15. See Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster, p. 64. Hawthorne's short story, "The Birthmark," which resembles Frankenstein, also presents science as the product of sublimated sexuality. See Frederick Crews, The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 111-12, 125-26, 156-57.

16. Kiely, Romantic Novel, pp. 165-66.

17. Rieger, Frankenstein (The 1818 Text), p. 29.

18. See Sherwin, "Creation as Catastrophe," p. 899. That Frankenstein himself is thinking of the poetic imagination at this moment is evident from the fact that he says of the animated monster: "it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived" (57). Mary Shelley's choice of words in her recollection of the animation scene in her original dream is also revealing: "His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his handi-work, horror-stricken" (xi). Frankenstein is even more repelled by his second attempt at creating life (see pp. 156-57). Like a Romantic artist, he loses his enthusiasm for the task of creation once he is forced to repeat it. The second time around, Frankenstein's work is, as it were, commissioned by the monster, and hence not the free projection of Frankenstein's mind.

19. See Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster, pp. 24, 37-40, 43, 48, 50 and Small, Frankenstein, pp. 186, 214.

20. See Kiely, Romantic Novel, p. 165; Small, Frankenstein, p. 191; Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster, pp. 22-23; and Sherwin, "Creation as Catastrophe," p. 887. Mary Shelley's own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died as a result of bearing her, and perhaps she was familiar with the results of this kind of association in her father's neglect of her as a child.

21. See Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster, p. 42. Frankenstein's suicidal longings are revealed long before the conclusion of his tale. See, for example, p. 82: "I was tempted to plunge into the silent lake, that the waters might close over me and my calamities forever."

22. For the influence of Rousseau on Mary Shelley, see Small, Frankenstein, p. 62; Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster, pp. 71, 162-63 (n. 12); and Pollin, "Sources of Frankenstein," p. 106. Mary Shelley's journal records that she read the Emile and the Nouvelle Heloise in 1815. She was reading the Reveries from Thursday, August 1 to Sunday, August 4, 1816, that is, exactly when she was at work writing Frankenstein. See Mary Shelley's Journal, pp. 48, 55-56. I have been unable to find any evidence that Mary Shelley read the Second Discourse, but she certainly was exposed to the work's ideas through the writings and conversations of both her father and her husband.

23. This was Percy Shelley's interpretation of Frankenstein: in his review of the book (unpublished in his lifetime), he stated its moral this way: "Treat a person ill and he will become wicked." See Shelley's Prose, p. 307.

24. See Note (e) of the Second Discourse, pp. 187-88. It might be argued that in making the monster a vegetarian, Mary Shelley was influenced not by Rousseau but by her husband's early essay, A Vindication of Natural Diet (1813). But since Shelley's essay is itself heavily influenced by Rousseau -- he advances the same evidence as Rousseau from comparative anatomy to prove that man is by nature a frugivorous animal -- this example shows how the influence of Rousseau might have reached Mary Shelley indirectly, if not directly.

25. See Harold Bloom, "Afterword," p. 222. A late example of this Romantic fire motif is Nietzsche's brief poem, "Ecce Homo," in the prelude to The Gay Science.

26. See Carl Jung, Two Essays, p. 318 (n. 1).

27. See Levine, "Tradition of Realism," p. 21. The solipsism of Frankenstein's imagination becomes evident once all his relations are dead and he believes that he can possess them within his mind: "During the day I was sustained and inspirited by the hope of night, for in sleep I saw my friends, my wife, and my beloved country . . . Often . . . I persuaded myself that I was dreaming until night should come and that I should then enjoy reality in the arms of my dearest friends" (195). Walton views Frankenstein's confusion of dream and reality as "the offspring of solitude and delirium": "he believes that when in dreams he holds converse with his friends . . . they are not the creations of his fancy, but the beings themselves who visit him from the regions of a remote world" (200). This passage should be compared with Mary Shelley's description of her own childhood day-dreaming: "I was not confined to my own identity, and I could people the hours with creations far more interesting to me at that age than my own sensations" (viii).

28. These are precisely the ways in which Rousseau thinks natural man excels civilized man. For the monster's advantages, see for example p. 115: "I was more agile than they and could subsist upon coarser diet: I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs."

29. See Frye, English Romanticism, p. 44 and Elizabeth Nitchie, Mary Shelley: Author of "Frankenstein" (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p. 187.

30. Consider the monster's comment: "Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding" (209).

31. See, for example, Byron's Cain, who echoes Milton's Adam:

What had I Done in this? I was unborn;
I sought not to be born; nor love the state
To which that birth has brought me.
Later Cain seeks to excuse his crime because of the bad timing of his conception:
After the fall too soon was I begotten,
Ere yet my mother's mind subsided from
The serpent, and my sire still mourned for Eden.
That which I am, I am. I did not seek
For life nor did I make myself.
(III.i. 506-10)
32. Frankenstein predicts a similar attitude in the mate he is creating for he monster; he suspects that she "might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation" (158).

33. See Joseph, "Introduction," p. xiv: "If Prometheus, in the romantic tradition, is identified with human revolt, is the monster what the revolt looks like from the other side -- a pitiful botched-up creature?" A similar, though even more grotesque, image for the creator's disgust at the creatureliness of man is developed in John Barth's "Petition" in Lost in the Funhouse (New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1969). Barth pictures the artist-half of man as the weaker of a pair of Siamese twins, perpetually repulsed by the grossness of his more physical half, who takes active pleasure in life, while his frail brother remains "an observer of life, a mediator, a taker of notes, a dreamer if you will . . . being out of reach except to surrogate gratifications" (pp. 61, 65).

34. Sherwin, "Creation as Catastrophe," pp. 892, 895.

35. Something similar happens in the other great nineteenth-century myth of scientific creativity gone awry, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll's attempt to distill out the good part of man only results in turning his evil impulses loose in the monstrous form of Mr. Hyde. See Palmer and Douse, "Moral Fable," p. 284.

36. For insight into this aspect of Frankenstein, see the chapter, "The Ugliest Man," in Part IV of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which becomes in effect a dialogue between the creature and the creator in man, and explores the connection between creaturely ressentiment and the murder of the creator-god. In Nietzsche's terms, the problem with the monster is that he is so thoroughly a creature that he cannot create his own values and hence is forced to accept them ready-made from his creator and his creator's race. That is why the monster can become creative only in destruction. The most he can do is to attempt what Nietzsche calls the slave revolt in morals, merely reversing the values of his "natural lord and king" (95). It is in this context that we can best understand the monster's echo of Milton's Satan: "Evil thenceforth became my good" (209).

37. On the issue of moral responsibility in Frankenstein, and its relation to Percy Shelley's own capacity for psychological projection, see Small, Frankenstein, pp. 171-95.