Contents Index

The Matrushka Monster of Feminist Criticism

Giovanna Covi

Textus, 2 (1989), 217-36

she [. . .] might refuse to comply [. . .]
she might quit him [. . .]
With the rise of feminist studies, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus1 has gained the status of a major work in the history of English literature. Since Ellen Moers's Literary Women canonized it as a woman's book -- the first example of birth myth in fiction, a depiction of maternity as a Gothic fantasy -- a number of feminist readers have seen it as the horror story actually experienced by Mary Shelley during maternity and the attempt by a pioneering woman to bring postpartum trauma into literature.2 In another milestone of feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argued that Moers's reading evades "the problem posed by Frankenstein's literariness",3 and compared it with Milton's Paradise Lost. They maintained that the three concentric circles of Walton's, Victor's and the Monster's narrations provide a {218} technique for exploring origins, identity and sexuality; they present "the fearful tale of a female fall from a lost paradise of art, speech, and autonomy into a hell of sexuality, silence, and filthy maternity".4 The novel is seen as a metaphysical meditation on what it means to be born without a history, "to be a creature of the second sex".5

Moers's 1976 reading insisted on a text voicing specifically a woman's experience, while Gilbert and Gubar's 1978 interpretation considered it representative of a woman writer. In 1980, Mary Poovey advanced feminist criticism by addressing the specific dilemma of defining feminine authorship. Mary Shelley's book, she contended, discusses the oxymoron of being a woman and a writer: "the two editions of Frankenstein provide a case study in the tensions inherent in the feminine adaptation of the Romantic 'egotistical sublime'".6 Through a feminization of Romantic aesthetics -- i.e., the explosion of "the foundations of Romantic optimism" -- Mary Shelley establishes her role as a writer by effacing and asserting herself at the same time, "by demonstrating that the egotistical energies necessary to self-assertion [. . .] inevitably imperil the self-denying energies of love".7 Poovey concluded that "Mary Shelley essentially raises feminine powerlessness to the status of myth",8 when -- in the 1831 "Introduction" -- she insists that external forces brought her to write the ghost story and points out her subordinate role as one worthy of "dramatic representation".

As feminist literary theory matured, it gained complexity. The inquiry concerning women's texts has opened up wider horizons: from the private sphere of the author's biography, to the public one of her literary context, we have adopted a wider epistemological and linguistic discourse. The "literary woman" has been promoted to the "woman writer" -- the author's gender has shifted from noun to qualifier, raising the question of the conflictual relation- {219} ship between the concepts of "woman" and "writer". Inevitably we have come also to the "reader": Mary Jacobus's 1982 response to Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in This Class? (1980) read Shelley's novel focusing on hermeneutics. She considered Frankenstein as a text shaped by the paradigm that "female desire is impossible except as a mimetic reflection of male desire".9 Noting that the narrative starts by recalling "the conversations between Byron and Shelley in which [Mary] took almost no part", Jacobus saw it "as an implicit critique of that ideology for its exclusive emphasis on oedipal politics".10 Concentrating on the failed creation of the female monster, she wrote: "if we look in this text for a female author, we find only a dismembered corpse whose successful animation would threaten the entire structure of the myth".11The monstrous female is interpreted as the narcissistic woman, the object of man's desire: in fact, "intense identification with an oedipal conflict exists at the expense of identification with women" -- i.e., the Monster can "hang, lover-like, over Frankenstein's deathbed"12 only after Elizabeth and the female monster have died. Her analysis moves on to James Whale's film sequel and to other works beyond the concerns of the present discussion, but addresses some issues that I raise later.

Barbara Johnson's article of the same year extended the debate beyond a purely thematic ambit. Focusing rather on structure, she saw the Monster as "a figure for autobiography as such", to the extent that the very theme of the novel becomes "the autobiographical desire par excellence". 13 Johnson pointed out that the three narratives are in the autobiographical first person pronoun, while the 1831 "Introduction" deals with "the problem of specifically feminine autobiography": the Author voices "the repression of her own autobiographical impulse", and confines herself to speak "as an appendage to a text". 14 In this interpretation, Frank- {220} enstein becomes female autobiography characterized by "the monstrousness of selfhood", 15 and Johnson convincingly demonstrated that it "can be read as the story of the experience of writing Frankenstein".16 The ultimate meaning of this narrative is seen as its success "in conveying the unresolvable contradictions inherent in being female"; Mary Shelley's own "staggering" sufferings and contradictions demonstrate that the feminine is represented "in the gap between angels of domesticity and an uncompleted monster, between the murdered Elizabeth and the dismembered Eve".17

Also Devon Hodges's 1983 article directed attention to the structure of Frankenstein. He observed that it is "a flawed novel" which "does not exist entirely within the conventional literary framework", and in which "the unity of the subject is subverted by the presence of multiple narrators". 18 Relying on the identification of linear fiction with the articulation of patriarchal truth, identity and knowledge, Hodges read the novel as a destabilization of such order, by virtue of the fact that it is constructed in a "dream form". In his view, Mary Shelley "both appropriates the form and disrupts it: her narrative technique provides a model for a more flexible discourse, but Shelley accepts conventional standards and calls that discourse 'hideous'".19

William Veeder's 1986 comprehensive study, which analyzed the work using biography to supplement a historical and psychological textual analysis, supported the thesis that "the monster is male because chaos is". In fact the whole argument is hinged upon his conviction that "men reject complementarity for self-protection, domesticity for self-indulgence, marriage for self-union".20 I have mentioned only the most significant feminist readings of Frankenstein, in order to discuss an issue at the core of feminist {221} criticism itself -- its apparently inescapable necessity to bring either biography or ideology into the text, as if its discourse could exist only somewhere outside the linguistic actuality of the literary work. As Mary Jacobus very pointedly observed at the end of her essay, to reduce Frankenstein to the record of Mary Shelley's experience of postpartum trauma is to reduce the text to a symptom, exactly the same as to consider it a feminist version of Paradise Lost, written in the image of female experience: "interpretations such as these have no option but to posit the woman author as origin and her life as the primary locus of meaning". It would be better for feminist critics to ask: "Is there a text in this woman?", rather than "Is there a woman in this text?"21

These interpretations of Frankenstein prove the inescapable necessity for feminist criticism to be anchored outside the boundaries of literature: Moers's, Johnson's and clearly Veeder's theses, although different, are all grounded in the Author's own life; Gilbert and Gubar's, and Poovey's arguments are rooted in the historically determined assumption that "feminine" equates "fallen" and "powerless"; even Jacobus's and Hodges's interpretations -- despite their claims to escape such an impasse -- are not immune to the double bind. The former starts her analysis with a reading of the "Introduction" that takes the triangle Byron-Percy Shelley-Mary Shelley at face value, as the unquestioned actual occasion that originated the writing of the novel. In this she shows a blind faith in the absolute coincidence between signifiers and signifieds, in the certain reliability of the speaking-I, which -- in contrast with the psychoanalytical reading of the text -- ultimately grounds Shelley's text in the Author's experience as a woman. In addition, she has to move into the movie sequel to find evidence for the equation between Elizabeth and the female monster. Similarly, Hodges relies on the syllogism that if nonlinear narrative is patriarchal, then a dreamlike form must disrupt masculine supremacy from a feminine standpoint -- a logical deduction that also transcends the text. There appears to be a "monstrousness" inherent in feminist literary criticism, which is continuously and inevitably urged to {222} take a position both outside and inside the text, both in and out of the canon in order to make its point. Such monstrousness, I think. points in a direction where feminist criticism may find fruitful soil for a future development based on a continuous dialogue among various interpretations and a multiple approach that also entails a critique of the category "woman". No matter whether "the woman" is in or out of the text, it is time for feminist criticism to engage a questioning of the function of "woman" as a category of interpretation. This can be achieved by creating a space that accepts contradiction and diversity.

Mary Shelley's polyglossic novel, I suggest, demonstrates the potential of such an approach. The ambiguity of a position that is both within and outside the text is symptomatic of the place to which woman has been confined in the patriarchal discourse -- within as the Ideal Female, outside as Nature -- and is symbolically reproduced in Frankenstein's matrushki-like structure. Like Russian dolls, the numerous narratives are both contained in, and the containers of one another. They occupy a marginal, ambiguous position that delays the solution of their "mystery": one more doll before the "baby grain" -- i.e., one more story before we get to the "mystery" of the novel which consists in the revelation that the issue at stake is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of interpretation. Portraying Frankenstein's structure as a series of matrushki, I find the "baby grain" in the "reading lessons" of Chapter 14 and consider this emblematic of the epistemological interest of the novel's discourse.

There are 10 doll-stories altogether, counting "Preface" and "Introduction", and the three larger narratives merge in the end. The reader is forced to shift from one to the next, just like the Author was forced to shift her last name from Wollstonecraft, to Godwin, to Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin-Shelley: a name that does not have the fixed nature of a noun, but is rather in the transitional state of a verb -- a "shifter" moving and changing in search of an agent, just as the nameless monster wandering in search of an identity, or like the reader jumping from one plot to another.

The most striking characteristic of this novel is its textuality. It hints at a referentiality outside of itself only in the "Preface" {223} (which, in the "Author's Introduction", is presented as "entirely written by" Percy B. Shelley [F, xii]), where it is argued that the event -- "not of impossible occurrence" (F, xiii) -- could be pinned down to actual places and circumstances. The overall interest of the work is neither strictly Realistic, nor Surrealistic. It is a philosophical work having as its thematic unity the issue of the "mysteries of creation" (F, 47), addressed in terms of cultural, specifically literary production. The matrushki-like structure itself is a copy neither of nature nor of society; rather, it is a symbolic representation of communication and interpretation in which various messages (stories) are intertwined and interrelated, one inside the other, each referring to the others and to itself. The work of art is a comment on life and on the meaning of art to life, but not a competition with life. The observation that Mary Shelley offers here, by addressing the nature of language, touches upon questions of culture and power, and consequently it also speaks to the sexual politics of our patriarchal cultural tradition.

The first doll, the "Author's Introduction", overtly opposes any attempt of infusing the text with its author's life; it announces that we are to read a "story" by a writer who is "very averse to bringing [her]self forward in print", and will deal only with "such topics as have connection with [her] authorship alone" (F, vii). Remembering the days when she was writing and Percy Shelley was alive, she comments: "But this is for myself; my readers have nothing to do with these associations" (F, xii). As if to underline this position further, she mentions her own family in terms of a literary milieu, by calling herself "the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity" (F, vii). She stresses the "invention" of "creatures" of "fancy", "castles in air", "waking dreams" which -- we must not fail to notice her specification -- "does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos" (F, x). Fiction is not an imitation of reality, but a moment in the interpretive process that constitutes the gist of our human activity. Therefore, reality is not an original to copy, but the occasion for the work of art. This is about perceiving reality: it is an act of "reading".

Were Frankenstein a contemporary novel, it might well be deemed a work of metafiction. It does indeed address the question {224} of creation within a frame that is exclusively and insistently fictional. Its non-referentiality is as diffuse as its self-referentiality. Only the world of books stands behind this text: Paradise Lost and many echoes of the Romantic literary canon superimpose their meaning even on geographical locations in a story that functions within a framework of absolute fictionality. Most striking of all: it is ultimately about literary representation. That is what makes it such a "hideous" story, the fact that it places the utmost flesh-and-blood metaphor of childbirth at the center of an impalpable world whose only substance is letters. Yet, it is also by virtue of its pure literariness that the novel manages to discuss such fundamental human questions as justice in relation to class. race, and gender. According to Lacanian theory, it is indeed only within the symbolic world of the signifiers that "the other" of sexual, racial and social differences can signify and be said; only in the context of its representation can the possibility of identity be raised.

Frankenstein is about the relationship between signifiers and signifieds, about communication and interpretation, and about their political and cultural implications. The letter is its world: letters contained within other letters constitute its structure, together with two texts whose function is by definition metafictional: "Introduction" and "Preface". The first matrushka doll is the "Author's Introduction", which stresses the fictional quality of the text revealing that the identity of the author of the "Preface" is not that which readers have believed it to be for 14 years. Already in the "Preface", the speaking "I" is fictional, inviting the assumption that the circumstances it describes are fictional as well. This undermines an acritical realistic reading of the book from the outset, drawing the reader into the semantic creation of the text.

This unmasking of the narrator is the first challenge to the concept of identity by an Author whose name is a symbol of such a critique. The reader is made aware of the fact that the book is neither a slice of the world, nor a reflection of the life of the Author, however metaphorical. Rather, it is a story told by a fictional narrator, which demands multiple interpretations. It is upon the request of the publishers, who are responsible for {225} conveying the Author's words to the readers, that the speaking "I" releases certain information on the origin of the story. This happens through an "account" which is considered a partial "appendage" -- i.e., words in the margin, dealing only with her "authorship", once again words, as opposed to her experience. She states that at an early stage in her life there was only writing (an imitation of others), and dreams (her own free thinking). "Reality" soon replaced the "fiction" of this early stage (F, viii), when her husband -- who "desired that [she] should write", so that he could evaluate her performance -- came into her life. Even if she still preferred to read and improve her "ideas in communication", she finally agreed to Lord Byron's suggestion that each member of the group writes a ghost story. This is when she discovered "the misery of authorship", "that blank incapability of invention", which made her spend time as "a silent listener" of Byron and Shelley's conversations on "the nature of the principle of life" (F, x).

It is only after all this dreaming, reading and listening that she could finally write her story, which she meant to appeal to the "heart" of the reader. Its origin is neither in sleep nor in rational thinking, but in the free unraveling of her imagination (F, x-xi). She started writing Chapter 5, focusing on the Monster's tale, while "the form in which [Frankenstein] was presented to the world" (F, xi) was imposed by her husband. Denying authorship of the "Preface", she declares that the story was "the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words" (F, xii). This rules out the possibility of identifying the speaking "I" with the implied Author-narrator, since we know from Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin-Shelley's biography that she had indeed known death, and supposedly also grief, already. The "Introduction" concludes with "one word" on style, stressing the focus on language by a dialogic narrator who starts by letting the others speak (the publishers) and proceeds by always putting herself in relation to others -- an "I" who tells what she has done, rather than stating who she is.

An altogether different voice is that allegedly belonging to Percy B. Shelley in the "Preface". This "I" prefers to communicate an objective view of the "event" and the "circumstance" in a {226} referential, rather than emotional tone, declaring authoritatively its purpose: "the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue" (F, xiv). While the "I" of the "Introduction" insists that the story springs from her imagination, this voice states that, "it is by no means to be conceived as existing always in [her] own conviction" (F, xiv).

The story itself begins with four letters written by Captain Walton to Mrs. Margaret Saville from Petersburg, Archangel and an undefined place on his way to the North Pole. Their author realizes that language cannot bridge the distance between himself and his addressee. He feels "it is impossible to communicate" (F, 20) his sensations, and regrets that paper "is a poor medium for the communication of feeling (F, 18). Nevertheless, his "will" is "determined" and "resolved" and he resists such limitations by becoming acquainted with "more languages" (F, 19), as well as more countries and beings. Like Frankenstein, Walton does challenge the limits and limitations of knowledge, but his critical appropriation of language anticipates his eventual return to England, a world of relations and difference.

The fourth letter contains the tale of Frankenstein, written by Walton but edited by Frankenstein (F, 199), and divided into 24 chapters, five of which -- 11 to 15 -- embody the Monster's story told by his creator. This, in turn, subsumes the story of the cottagers (Chapters 14-15), which finally includes the reading lessons. The tone of Frankenstein's tale is set by the very first sentence, introducing the unshakable identity of its narrator/protagonist: "I am by birth a Genevese" (F, 31). He knows who he is, and fully controls the words of his utterance; he is a literal interpreter who doesn't question the unreliability of the signifiers and imposes his authority over the world. The first chapter makes this clear: because he "interpreted [his mother's] words literally", now he can consider Elizabeth his property and declare, "till death she was to be mine only" (F, 35). He sees the world as a linear hierarchy "of things" whose "causes" he delights in investigating", as "a secret which [he] desire[s] to divine" (F, 36). He challenges the threatening uncanniness of the unknown in the pursuit of "immortality and power" (F, 46), and rejects "chance" as "the evil influence, the Angel of Destruc- {227} tion" (F, 45). Almost a mimicry of the Lacanian phallic voice of the Father, in the end he makes explicit his already obvious preoccupation for having a "story connected" (F, 189) and becomes a ludicrous figure. Indeed, what else could he want but a coherent plot, given his disinterest in exploring the structure of language and his obsession for finding "the final cause, causes of [reality's] secondary and tertiary grades" (F, 39)?

He loses control only when he comments on the destructiveness of any pursuit that interferes "with the tranquillity of [. . .] domestic affections" (F, 54), and when he releases a "gush of sorrow" (F, 149) relating the circumstances of Clerval's death. However, he hastens to apologize for "moralizing in the most interesting part of [his] tale" (F, 54) and for wasting words in communicating his feelings. His priorities are underlined in Chapter 22:

I checked, therefore, my impatient thirst for sympathy and was silent when I would have given the world to have confided the fatal secret. Yet, still, words like those I have recorded would burst uncontrollably from me. I could offer no explanation of them, but their truth in part relieved the burden of my mysterious woe. (F, 177)
He would follow this rule until his death, when he demands a closure for his narratives: "Since you have preserved my narration", he said, "I would not that a mutilated one should go down to posterity" (F, 199). Control, closure, referentiality: Frankenstein is a perfect example of the Omniscient Author whom Stephen Dedalus described as being "like the God of creation" who "remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence indifferent, paring his fingernails". It is precisely his epistemological position that determines the negativity of his character throughout.

The central part of the novel is occupied by the Monster's "long and strange" tale. He is an autobiographical narrator who announces in his first utterance the "considerable difficulties" with which he remembers his origin, exposing his unreliability. His relationship to language is critical: while his creator seeks the single cause, he learns that "the same cause" can produce "opposite effects" (F, 100). His episteme accepts ambiguity and multiplicity. It is precisely the equivocal nature of his language {228} that will determine Frankenstein's ruin. The monster's threat 'I shall be with you on your wedding night" (F, 161), is quoted by his creator four times, two times of which are significantly inaccurate, turning the prediction of an intention (shall) into a common non-volitional future (will): "I will be with you on your wedding night" (F, 161 and 179). Most importantly, Frankenstein can only read one meaning in the sentence -- the monster will kill him. Any reader ends up laughing at his monolithic blindness, when he leaves Elizabeth alone (F, 186) and the novel offers, in its most tragic incident, a comic side. Even Elizabeth, whose knowledge of the circumstances is very limited, can perceive the possibility of another development of the facts. But because he is blind to the ironic meaning of words, the "other" of language, Frankenstein literally kills his bride. Only after the crime caused by his monomaniacal will to power over the world, he can say, "I love you": the Lacanian phallus can love only a dead woman. It seems very appropriate that in popular culture "Frankenstein" has become the monster, since what is truly monstrous is the violence of his paranoia.

The story of Frankenstein embedded in Walton's letter contains three more letters. One is by Frankenstein's father (Chapter 7), who had strongly objected to chimeric science and knows "it is impossible" to control his narrative and "prepare [his son] for the woeful news" of William's murder. He acknowledges that the reader can deconstruct the text and "skim over the page to seek the words" (F, 69) containing the truth that only an authorial voice can believe s/he can rule and divert -- i.e., differ and transform into the excluded, different Other.

The same is true for Elizabeth's two letters (Chapters 6 and 22), one in the form of questions and the other a declaration of her love, which -- she proclaims -- shouldn't intrude or hurt ((F, 179). A comparison between her love letter to Frankenstein and his to her is significant: Elizabeth wishes to "express" her feeling; Frankenstein on the contrary, incapable of saying "I love you" to his live bride, "explains" his plans, "know[ing]" that she will "comply" although what he offers her is not "love", but a "dreadful" secret that "will chill" her "with horror". He will reveal his secret to her only after their marriage, since, he pro- {229} claims, "there must be perfect confidence between us" (F, 180). "Confidence", however, is a tricky word: the "confidence" he demands of her is blind reliance on the trustworthiness of his "confidence game"; the "confidence" she doesn't ask for is the sureness in the condition of her love. Indeed it must not be difficult for him, a reader who takes words only at their face value, to be confident with her who has declared in writing, "I love you" (F, 178). Elizabeth's words echo Justine's, who struggled in her deposition to include difference even at the cost of her death. They are both instances of anti-persuasive rhetoric, inevitably anticipating the death of the bride.

There are more matrushki: the story entails a repetition of itself on a smaller scale, in the report of Frankenstein's deposition to the Magistrate (chapter 23). But this is not the last version of the creation and life of the Monster, which in the last Chapter Frankenstein will recapitulate in a very monolithic and persuasive style -- when he tries to bring Walton "to undertake [his] unfinished work" (F, 206) -- and the Monster will complete filling in his own suffering (F, 210) in a sort of Appendix to the tale.

A house of mirrors, texts reflecting one into the other, art doesn't hold the mirror up to anything outside discourse. Each character's "actuality" can be found only in another text, and the Author herself, playing at unmasking the fictionality of the "Preface", participates in the same game. But the nature of this discourse shouldn't lead us to exclude Mary Shelley's involvement in a reality outside the texts. One more time, we should keep in mind that "invention [. . .] does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances but cannot bring into being the substance itself" -- just like the baby grain at the core of the matrushki. It is interpretation; as such, it inscribes itself in the infinite process of critical response which constitutes what Charles Olson would call "our dance of life".

Even the actual settings are literary: from the North Pole, to St. Petersburg, Mont Blanc and the Alps -- where the monster becomes inevitably a "vampire" (F, 74) -- we cannot help hearing the echo of the works that have given these landscapes their symbolic significance. And the fictional Archangel, the place from {230} where Walton sends his third letter, anticipates the final image of Frankenstein as Fallen Archangel and the Monster as less than Satan.

The literary nature of the main characters is absolute. Just as the text of Frankenstein originated from the reading of The History of the Inconstant Lover, Walton's infatuation with the north pole originated in "Uncle Thomas's library". He phrases the purpose of his trip in Coleridgean terms: "I am going to unexplored regions, to 'the land of mist and snow', but I shall kill no albatross" (F, 20). He was 'passionately fond of reading", "became a poet" (F, 16), and couldn't be friends with the lieutenant and the master, because of their lack of education (F, 20). Finally, he finds a "brother" (F, 25) in Frankenstein, whose "inquiries were directed to the metaphysical" (F, 37) -- indeed, a metaphysical texture holds together characters and action in the novel.

Also Frankenstein's destiny has been shaped by a knowledge coming from books: Natural Philosophy and Cornelius Agrippa are at the foundation of his monstrous creation. His journey into the making of the creature originates in a library, too -- his father's -- where it also ends (F, 75). During the nine months of his pregnancy", he cannot write home, as if the artist engaged in a rival creation with God were cut off from human contacts. His best friend belongs to the world of words: "full of imagination [. . .] he invented tales of wonderful fancy and passion" (F, 68), read "books of chivalry and romance", and "act[ed] plays [. . .] and masquerades" (F, 37). Clerval appears much closer to the Author of the "Introduction" who "did not make [her]self the heroine of [her] own tales" (F, viii), than to his own friend.

In this context, what can the monster do but desperately seek identity within language? Like his creator, he is defined in terms of "the letter" and he is nothing but a script, a "transcript", contained in a letter. Appropriately born in a university, he is the protagonist of a story beginning, "It was on a dreary night of November [. . .]"., which is "only a transcript of [. . .] waking dreams" (F, xi). The protagonist of a dream, he gains roundness by telling his own tale, "long and strange" (F, 97), exactly like Frankenstein's. His existence comes to light when he manages to {231} "take the word", to become a speaking "I". Moreover, his story, like the novel and his creator's tale, has a matrushki structure: his autobiography contains the cottagers' tale which includes the reading lessons. The monster's story is a Bildungsroman in which his education comes to completion through the acquisition of 'the science of words and letters" (F, 104). He is so "frightened" by his own "inarticulate sounds" (F, 99) -- by the uncanny nature of sounds "signifying nothing" -- that he manages first to teach himself a few family names (F, 107), and then to "master" the "language" (F, 108.)

Only by gaining control over the linguistic signs, and becoming aware of their function in writing (F, 108), can the monster come to full consciousness of his otherness: "I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am" (F, 108). In fact the symbolic frame of language is the condition for conceiving the phallic notion of Otherness, in accordance with Lacan's suggestion that the identity and superiority of the phallus is that of a mere signifier. Yet, for a while the monster believes that he can actually change, become a "One", find his own identity, and be accepted by the world, thoughts which led him "to apply with fresh ardour to the acquiring of the art of language" (F, 109). Then language, the control of words and of written signs, is the necessary condition for entering the human contract; whether this is also sufficient, is another matter. Unquestionably, it provides him with a powerful weapon against his master, whom he drags into "the everlasting ices of the north", precisely because he can leave "marks in writing" (F, 195). It is so fundamental that written documents literally stand for "the truth" of the monster's tale:

I have copies of these letters, for I found means, during my residence in the hovel, to procure the implements of writing [. . .] they will prove the truth of my tale [. . .]. (F, 118)
It must not be overlooked that they are love letters, and love is transgressive within the master's world of destruction.

Hence the necessity for the striving artist to use the language of the Father; for the subaltern voice, whose participation in the artistic creation goes against tradition, this means to embrace the discourse of its marginalization. The requirement to comply is {232} imposed upon this voice, with the same insistence that Shelley and Byron demanded of Mary: "'Have you thought of a story?' I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative" (F, x). For the Author-Creator, invention is a forceful act of will, a making of the story, rather different from letting the imagination free to deliver its narrative on the author's own pillow, as claimed by the narrator of the "Introduction". It is a "hideous" approach to language if compared to the linearity of Frankenstein's reasoning in his workshop. Yet, if the former is transgressive, the latter is destructive, and they are the two sides of the same coin.

Not surprisingly, the monster experiences his first identity crisis (F, 114), while learning "the science of letters" (F, 113) from Volney's book Ruins of Empires. After he has completed his education -- reading Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and the Sorrows of Werther -- his crisis not only becomes deeper, but appears unsolvable, a difficulty derived from his unfamiliarity with "men concerned in public affairs, governing and massacring their species" (F, 123). His knowledge of the world, on the contrary, is that of a woman confined to the domestic sphere: "The cottage of my protectors had been the only school in which I had studied human nature" (F, 123). Hence his inadequacy: "perhaps, if my first introduction to humanity had been made by a young soldier, burning for glory and slaughter, I should have been imbued with different sensations" (F, 124).

If this accounts for his peaceful nature and his marginal role, what is the explanation for his monstrous appearance? He significantly finds information about his origin in another text, his creator's journal (F, 124). It is most horrifying to see his "accursed origin" fixed in words, frozen in an image by the same language that petrifies the changeable and multiple being of temporality into the Being of the Subject of Identity. Victor's journal confines him outside language, a position worse than Satan's, condemning him to solitude (F, 125). By casting his creature outside the Kingdom of the Word, Frankenstein's Book of Genesis gives him an image that is horrifying precisely because it is Other. Like the woman, created neither after God's image nor directly by Him, he finds no interlocutor in Him-Who-is-the- {233} Word: "I remembered Adam's supplication to his creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart I cursed him" (F, 126). The corporeality of Frankenstein's monster becomes malignant and threatening only when he enters the linguistic contract, echoing the classical image of the woman polarized between the ephemeral ideal Angel without speech nor body, and the scary Witch with her monstrous body and magic language. In a desperate attempt to be accepted, he notices that his "voice had nothing terrible in it", and decides to hide himself from sight. The plan is so successful that the old blind De Lacey takes him for his "countryman". Similarly, in the eighteenth century, a woman could write "like a man", but anonymously, without revealing her gender -- her body -- like the monster.

For analogous reasons Frankenstein had to destroy the female monster. His creature had asked for a companion "of the same species" and with "the same defects" (F, 137), demanding "a creature of another sex, but as hideous as [him]self" (F, 139). This is truly a transgression to the phallic law which Frankenstein embodies. It would really be utterly monstrous to allow the existence of a relationship between the two sexes that is not opposite and complementary. The otherness of the unnamed and unnameable monster can still be comprised within the binary logic of Western metaphysics, confined outside the boundaries of the legitimate world of the Father; his physical difference can still be displaced -- locked up in the birth room, hidden away in the forest or the mountains better yet, sent to the Third World (F, 141) where Western Culture has confined and leveled all differences into Difference. But for the monstrous equality between the sexes, for a sexual difference that is thought of in terms other that those imposed by the binary logic of the Western metaphysical tradition, even ghettoization is insufficient. The fact that Frankenstein prevents her existence only after he has proved that he can create her, shows that the impediment is political. He well realizes the consequences of the admission of difference within equality for his own culture:

she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning {234} animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. [. . .] she might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him. (F, 158)
He knows too well how labile is the relationship of the master to his slave, because the monster reminds him of the double bind that ties the two dialectical poles: "You are my creator, but I am your master, obey!" (F, 160). The price paid for the exclusion of the feminine from patriarchal culture, and for the banning of sexual difference in non-oppositional terms from the whole world, is put clearly at the center of the book by Frankenstein himself:

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 word may convey to us. (F, 93)
"The word", the symbolic within which the superiority of the phallus is guaranteed, prevails not only over "hunger, thirst, and desire", but also over freedom. Where it dominates, the "Other" is ghettoized into the night of the home, the slum, the forest; so the monster can exist in the moonlight, but his relationship to an Other who is not his opposite must be buried at the bottom of the ocean.

Yet, the female monster shares a number of characteristics with the "acceptable" women of human society. Comparing her birth to that of her companion, we first notice that while the male monster is born in culture, at the University, the female is born in the wildest nature, "on one of the remotest of the Orkneys" (F, 156). If her unacceptable otherness ranks with the wilderness of nature, the acceptable otherness of the women characters, who also end up all killed by the same Primary Cause, sides rather with ideal representation: the monster is the witch, and the women are angels, but no female is actually a human being.

The otherness of Margaret, Caroline, Elizabeth and Justine -- each "an orphan and a beggar" -- symbolizes their existence as either mere "pictures" and "jewels", or recipients of the men's letters. Justine even dies because of a "picture"; Elizabeth dies because, as "the living spirit of love" (F, 37), her reading of the world is not worth considering; Margaret suffers, because Walton {235} doesn't write. As imaginary others they are victims; as possible equal companions they are destroyed before they can exist.

But precisely because the Author of Frankenstein is not Frankenstein, but one who can see complexity, ambiguity and multiplicity, the novel can address the question of differences within Difference, and transcend this binary logic. In so doing, it also highlights the serious limitations of the Lacanian interpretation I have followed so far. In his tale, the monster points out that he is not only "wretched" but also "solitary" (F, 125). His loneliness blocks the way to an idealized oversimplification of the historical articulations of difference. It is important to take into consideration that the Author provides a specific time-space reference -- the story takes place in Europe in the eighteenth century -- and to understand the characters and events in that context. In the light of the politics that places Europe at the center and top of the world, that subordinates women to men, that sets national boundaries for identity, and proclaims social class as a matter of distinction, the Monster not only speaks against discrimination in matters of race, nationality, political diversity, class and gender, but he also points out that these groups of subalterns do not easily merge into a single category. The wretched of the earth have conflicts within themselves as well as identities, and it is only the superimposition of the imperialist European point of view that can turn the various countries of our globe into a monolithic Third World.

The Monster can be associated with women to the extent that he seeks love, which patriarchy regards as feminine; yet, he doesn't hesitate to use women for his revenge against the Father. He is rejected even by the cottagers who, in their struggle against discrimination and for the pursuit of justice, have lost all their possessions and their country. The Monster shares their ideals and weeps "with Safie over the hapless fate of [America's] original inhabitants" (F, 114); he sympathizes with Felix's subversive plot to circumvent the "barbarous sentence" of the Paris Court against Muhammadan, 'condemned to death" for "his religion and wealth rather than the crime alleged against him" (F, 117). Moreover, the blind man is convinced of his sincerity (F, 127). Yet, the physical -- racial -- difference between them is sufficient to cast a barrier {236} that separates the unfortunate creature from his "protectors" for ever.

Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin-Shelley's matrushki stand also for the complexity of the many boundaries that divide and unite social beings. They provide a political commentary on the relations among differences and on their cultural -- i.e., linguistic -- construction. They cry our for an interpretation that doesn't reduce their multiplicity to a single Frankenstein-like doll. If it is accurate to observe that feminism exists only as feminisms, a feminist approach should then be the most likely to "refuse to comply" to the subdivision of criticism into separate and separatist camps. Like feminism which objects to the reduction of the polyphony of voices of different women to the abstract category "Woman", Frankenstein questions the simplistic identity between words and things leaving its conclusion open to interpretation. In the last chapter, the narrator completely loses his detached control over the plot and significantly switches to the present tense -- i.e., he chooses to tell his story before knowing its ending. Rather than showing the Monster's end, Walton lets him recount his own disappearance. The conclusion, after Frankenstein's death, is in the form of a dialogue between Walton and the Monster, meant to convey their "impressions", rather than the truth.

It is left to the readers, who know no less than the narrator, to decide whether the Monster is no more. But what the structure and the ending of the novel have made clear to both reader and narrator is that "the monster Frankenstein" is dead.

[I wish to thank Professor Philip Rogers and the Women's Studies Graduate Research Group of SUNY-Binghamton for their comments. G.C.]

1. M. Shelley, Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus, Signet, New York 1983 [1965]. Hereafter incorporated into the text as F.

2. See E. Moers, Literary Women, Anchor Press, New York 1976, pp. 90-101.

3. S. Gilbert-S. Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, Yale U.P., New Haven 1978, p. 222.

4. Ibid., p. 227.

5. Ibid., p. 235.

6. M. Poovey, "My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and the Feminization of Romanticism", P.M.L.A. 95 (1980), p. 333.

7. Ibid., pp. 332-333.

8. Ibid., p. 346.

9. M. Jacobus, "Is There a Woman in this Text?", New Literary History 14 (1982), p. 130.

10. Ibidem.

11. Ibid., p. 131.

12. Ibid., p. 134.

13. B. Johnson, "My Monster/My Self", Diacritics 12 (1982), pp. 3-4.

14. Ibid., p. 4.

15. Ibid., p. 10.

16. Ibid., p. 7.

17. Ibid., p. 11.

18. D. Hodges, "Frankenstein and the Feminine Subversion of the Novel", Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 2 (1983), pp. 156-157.

19. Ibid., p. 162.

20. W. Veeder, Mary Shelley & Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny, Chicago U.P., Chicago 1986, p. 97.

21. M. Jacobus, op. cit., p. 139.