Contents Index

The Gothicism of the Gothic Novel

Frances Ferguson

In Solitute and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation (New York: Routledge, 1992) pp. 97-113.

The problem of the relation between self and society, as it has been efficiently if inelegantly termed, has been with us for some time. The human tendency to collect into societies, despite the apparent separability of the individual human body from that collection, did not begin with the rise of the early modern state with its increasing rationalization of the roles of the people that were its elemental parts.1 Yet with the notion of system emerged an antitype to the notion of society as a collection of individuals. Whereas empirical induction might (as Kant's discussion of the aesthetical normal idea of a beautiful man suggested) create a norm as an average different from all -- and, indeed, any -- individual cases of beauty, the rise of systematization in the eighteenth century (from Adam Smith's economic theory to biological classification) amounted to a claim for unexperiential existence. If past experience from an empirical standpoint can serve only as an indicator of the probability rather than the necessity that future experience will continue the same, predictability can be obtained from a systematic standpoint precisely by severing it from any grounding in experience.

The incongruity -- even more, the nearly absolute incompatibility -- between a systematic account and the inductive account appeared to reach one kind of resolution (or, one kind of impasse) in the Kantian description of the aesthetic particular about which one can make a universal claim. In the work of Jeremy Bentham, it found another. For Bentham's famous effort to rationalize the English law essayed to resolve just such an incompatibility between the inevitably empiricist individual perspective and the systematic perspective. The "legal fiction," the attempt to establish meaning by stipulation, is the result. Thus, although legal fictions had done extensive duty in the law for many centuries (in the form of such notions as that of legal infancy that could be established arbitrarily and uniformly without any actual determination of the relative maturity or immaturity of the legal infant), {97} one could argue that Bentham first recognized its full significance. His contribution was, that is, not merely to classify the law so that individual moral agents might know "where they stood"; it was also (and infinitely more importantly) to insist upon the legal fiction as a bridge between the individual and the systematic. The law was, simultaneously, clarified by a rationalization of the common law that emphasized the intentional nature of genuinely moral and legal choices and supplemented by a collection of legal fictions that made individual epistemology and intention supremely irrelevant.

I have discussed the legal fiction or statutory stipulation in conjunction with Richardson's Clarissa and the psychological novel elsewhere.2 There I argued that Richardson identifies Clarissa's heroism not merely as a function of her being personally unusual, a paragon for her sex, an object of worship for humankind. Instead, her standing as a paragon works itself out as a novelistic contest between a notion of empirical evidence, what is available to sensation, and what can be, from the perspective of system, asserted in spite of its opposition to all sensory evidence. Clarissa's continuing importance for the novel (and the Gothic novel in particular) thus lies less in its having established the setting and props of the psychologically harrowing than for having established the novelistic interest in an account of experience as self-haunting, by forcing the issue of the relationship -- the conflict -- between experience and the formal construction of it which such ideas as statutory stipulation entail.

In Caleb Williams and Frankenstein, the Gothic novels we are concerned with here, that haunting takes the form of doublings or character echoes. Caleb, the young man of modest means and immodest curiosity or ambition, seeks to know, to love, to be Falkland, the older man whom he serves as secretary. Victor Frankenstein creates his artificial offspring, his monster, only to be pursued ceaselessly by him. These are the gross facts of the way character figures as doubling in the plots of the novels. Yet the implicit argument of the novels makes these doublings less a matter of characters' relationships and attractions than a precipitate of the conflict between the individual perspective on society (which stresses individual agency and experience) and the societal perspective on the individual (the formal claim that an external categorization of an individual can be definitional regardless of the individual's actual experience and action). Lovelace's desire to possess Clarissa, Caleb's desire to be Falkland, and the monster's desire to be loved by Victor may thus bring on stories of love and death, but the heterosexual and homosocial bonds are here epiphenomena of the conflict between individually occupied and socially occupied identity.3

Near the end of Caleb Williams, Caleb, portraying himself as totally cut {99} off from all human friendship and sympathy, finds a figure for the twinned character: the individual and his species are not the one and the many. They are one twin and another. Or, rather, they are one twin but not really another -- Siamese twins joined from birth so that separation can be only disastrous but continued combination remains at best cumbersome.

I had never experienced the purest refinements of friendship, but in two instances, that of Collins [Falkland's steward, who first confided to Caleb the story of Falkland's repeated clashes with Tyrrel, the man for whose murder the tenant-farmers, the Hawkinses, were executed] and this of the family of Laura (with whom Caleb lived in Wales during his flight from Falkland's agents]. Solitude, separation, banishment! These are words often in the mouths of human beings, but few men, except myself, have felt the full latitude of their meaning. The pride of philosophy has taught us to treat man as an individual. He is no such thing. He holds, necessarily, indispensably, to his species. He is like those twin-births, that have two heads indeed, and four hands; but, if you attempt to detach them from each other, they are inevitably subjected to miserable and lingering destruction.4
As Godwin put it in the appendix to Political Justice entitled "Of Cooperation, Cohabitation and Marriage," "It is a curious subject, to enquire into the due medium between individuality and concert."5

Godwin's conclusion in that appendix to Political Justice is, "We ought to be able to do without one another" (3: 505). This statement can, in one aspect, be seen as a version of the claim of the sublime aesthetic. More than a mere advocacy of rustication, Kant's interest in the sublime had represented the most serious version of that heuristic conclusion. It meant, in the first place, that one could hear without the benefit of individual testimony, without benefit of the guises in which persons present themselves. It meant, in the second place, that the formalization of perception that was possible in the absence of persons could, in the presence of persons, create a competitive speech that counterpointed their testimony.

Godwin's account of "the due medium between individuality and concert" in Political Justice projects a world in which individuals in concert will merely be one another's siblings, freed of the monstrosity that results when one twin is an individual and the other, continuous with it, is not equal but the composite rendering of the species. He thus envisions the withering away of government as men "are perpetually coming nearer to each other" as "mind is in a state of progressive improvement" (2: 501). The individual reading of circumstance, that is, will enable persons to unite more efficiently than the reading of persons can ever do. The coercions of government and {100} its legal institutions will become irrelevant as soon as local agreements between persons are abandoned in favor of universal agreement arrived at through different routes of individual error and self-correction. Disagreement, rightly understood, is uniformity: "The proper method for hastening the decline of error, and producing uniformity of judgment, is not, by brute force, by laws, or by imitation; but, on the contrary, by exciting every man to think for himself" (2: 501). On this model, universal individuality produces the closest possible approximation to uniformity of judgment. Thus, the peculiar virtue of individuality for Godwin is that it is conducive to the cause of society, in that a society in which everyone thinks for himself is a society in which all individuals will agree without needing to understand one another.

Yet that version of the absolute convergence between individualism and society is as remote from the Gothic novel generally and from Caleb Williams particularly as individual agency and fate are from one another. Thus, critics have repeatedly seen the novel as repudiating the political philosophy, and have seen the opposition between them as supporting the view that Godwin was an extraordinarily inconstant thinker, as changeable in his beliefs about individuals as in his religious views. From William Hazlitt's early comment on the differences between Godwin's two modes ("it was a new and startling event in literary history for a metaphysician to write a popular romance") to Angus Wilson's discussion of a "schizophrenic tendency" in Godwin, critics have found the novel to identify society, not with the collection of freely choosing individuals that Godwin projected in Political Justice, but instead with something much closer to fate. If A. D. Harvey has claimed that "in the last resort, it is not society but fate which hounds Caleb," the project of Caleb Williams is to collapse the difference in that distinction, to make the Siamese twin of individual volition be fate rather than collectivized action.6

Now the Gothic novel in general features the plight of young persons -- particularly and notoriously young women in distress, as if to lay stress on the importance of circumstances in forming and enforcing character. The extreme account of character -- that it is always being determined by external agency -- appears most clearly perhaps in a novel like The Monk, where Ambrosio's virtue is instantly convertible into vice, and the circumstances make the man. Indeed, even where virtue persists in spite of its distress, it becomes conspicuous less as moral choice than as frustration. From this perspective, Godwin's choice of the Gothic mode appears less schizophrenic and more consistent with his interest in the politics of romance. For the Gothic both echoes and intensifies his remark in Political Justice that "every man that receives an impression from any external object, has the current of his own {101} thoughts modified by force; and yet, without external impressions, we should be nothing"(2: 505). Concert, in the form of similar circumstances, may be compulsion; the alternative to being "nothing" may be the haunting of the unsealed border between the Siamese self and Siamese other.

Moreover, because Godwin conceives of the individual as requiring external impressions to be an individual at all, more than "nothing," the achievement of equality among men, can result only from what Godwin calls "equality of conditions." And this equality is not to be effected solely through redistribution of wealth, so that equal circumstances will produce equal individuals. Rather, the yielding of one's own benefits must arise from the inability of the individual ever to have been an individual: inherited knowledge and the possibility of one's actions being inherited by another become the explanation and motivation for altruism, "rendering the cession, by him that has, to him that wants, an unrestrained and voluntary action." "There remain," he says, "but two instruments for producing this volition, the illumination of the understanding and the love of distinction" (2: 469). "The illumination of the understanding" is, in his view, inevitable, for two related but distinct reasons: first, that anyone who sees "the merits of a case in all their clearness cannot in that instance be the dupe either of prejudice or superstition" because "truth and falsehood cannot subsist together" (1: 307); and second, that the invention of the printing press has given virtually all men an acquaintance with the advances that human thought has already made, thus making it possible for individuals to avoid wasting their time trying to do such things as discover the laws of gravitation on their own and also making it possible for there to be many who were more competent judges of truth than there had been before the widespread dissemination of books. The ability to relate to other humans, then, does not rest on sympathetic identification or a Kantian imperative to accord other persons a respect that will not involve disrespect for one's own contractual obligations with oneself. Rather, it ratifies both rationalism and altruism on the grounds of heritability, the persistence of the consequences of individual actions on the level of society. "The love of distinction," then, in part represents a characteristic English turn on what was perceived as French misanthropy; following Adam Smith's account of benevolence toward others as a primary source of individual satisfaction, Godwin insists that an individual's account of his own worth is always to be perceived in terms of his estimation of his worth to other people. Morality without consequence would, that is, be no morality at all: "no being can be either virtuous, or vicious, who has no opportunity of influencing the happiness of others" (1: 50).

Human beings, in other words, are, like the printing press, tools. Both self- improving and causes of improvement for others, humans would lose {102} not merely an audience were they alone but would cease to have distinction by ceasing to have effect. Godwin's account of the importance of benevolence, distinction, and virtue represents, that is, what we might think of as a reversal of Berkeleyan philosophy: if a man commits a crime or a virtuous act in a forest and no one hears him, neither the crime nor the virtuous act has any real existence.

In Caleb Williams, by contrast with Political Justice, this very issue of consequentialism produces its own self-doubling. For it is not only that Falkland, the man of rank and reputation, possesses a love of esteem which both makes his character and breaks it, rendering him equally capable of exceptional valor (risking his own life, for example, to save persons trapped in a fire) and excessively inclined to obey the "laws of honour" which "are in the utmost degree rigid" and which can lead him to speak of his own actions as dictated. Thus he can say to Count Malvesi, with whom he almost duels in Italy, "there was reason to fear that, however anxious I were to be your friend; I might be obliged to be your murderer."7 This discrepancy between volition and necessity, between the consequences one would choose and the consequences that choose one, becomes the interference of the notion of character with individuality, who one must continue to be by virtue of one's self- inheritance rather than by virtue of one's action.

Falkland's virtuous acts, that is, produce his reputation, but his reputation serves to nullify his vicious acts, to render invisible his murder of Tyrrel and to make it visible only as the action of another (Hawkins, the innocent man who, it appears, played Good Samaritan to his former oppressor Tyrrel). In short, Falkland has so much "character," in the sense of reputation, that his actions cease to have consequences. Or rather, they come to have only private consequences, the melancholy that attends the man with every apparent reason (wealth, station, learning) for happiness.

The Gothic character of Caleb Williams thus looks like character itself, the extension of individual action through narrative until it has become romance, the impossibility of action. And from this perspective, the initial ending that Godwin sketched for the novel looks inevitable. In that ending, Caleb accuses Falkland of having murdered Tyrrel and having allowed suspicion to fall on the Hawkinses, who were, père et fils, executed for a murder that they did not commit. Falkland in turn accuses Caleb of false accusation, of having maliciously accused him of murder in retaliation for Falkland's having brought theft charges against Caleb. Rank, on this account, enables one character to trump another when they make equal and opposite charges. Rank is not only inherited but also serves as the character of character, the persistence of its claims in the absence of corroboration. Thus, the tenant Hawkins can have a "record" of extreme probity and indeed forbearance in {103} dealing with the bullying landholder Tyrrel, but character unsupported by rank looks as though it could do anything -- which, in this case, means that he suddenly seems capable of committing a murder merely on account of having a motive. (Tyrrel's rank, conversely, mitigates the consequences of his reputation.) And if the desire for distinction is the desire for consequence, for having a real effect on other humans, reputation combined with rank is the inability to stop being seen to continue "in character," to produce any consequential actions that are anything other than more of the same.

The Gothicism of this Gothic, then, is not merely injustice, the inequities and inequalities of "things as they are," the leading portion of Godwin's title in the first edition of 1794. It is, instead, that the perception of the way things are can convert itself into an insistence upon seeing things as they are not, to making character less the consequence of action than the impossibility of avoiding one's character as one's inheritance, so that character becomes less a predictor of action than an emblem of the irrelevance of action.

Godwin's initial conclusion, in other words, first staged a contest of characters -- Falkland against Caleb (echoing Falkland against Tyrrel, Falkland against Hawkins) -- that made character look like character only when it was "supported by witnesses," in the form of the public opinion that sees character as producing all the circumstances of evidence.8 It also, however, made character its own contest, a competition between a character based on consequential action and a character as the invisibility of consequential action. The version with which Godwin finally concluded the novel, however, disclosed Falkland's direct and indirect crimes (his murder, his complicity in having allowed the Hawkinses to be framed and executed, his active contrivance to trump up charges of theft against Caleb). The "truth" comes out; Falkland acknowledges that Caleb has been right about him, and the fact that "the perpetrator [Falkland] knew that I [Caleb] was in possession of the truth upon the subject"(317) ceases to be a liability to Caleb and becomes his asset.

The sunniness of such an outing of the truth might seem to compromise the novel's standing as a Gothic, were it not for one thing. The courtroom drama in which Falkland praises Caleb's nobility of mind and Caleb explains Falkland to himself ("But thou imbibedst the poison of chivalry with thy earliest youth,"326) may resolve the contradiction within character, may make character look again like the consequence of action. It does so, however, by insisting upon punishment without consequence as the inevitable companion piece to action without consequence. Godwin had, in Political Justice, crucially disagreed with such prominent contemporary writers on crime and punishment as Cesare Beccaria by insisting upon the centrality of individual {104} intention in determining the criminality of an action -- to which Beccaria's riposte was, "If the intention is to be taken into account, we need a fresh law for every crime."9 Unintended consequences, he maintained, should go unpunished. And he had similarly asserted that crimes incapable of amendment ought to be forgotten and go forever unpunished.

In Caleb Williams, however, the novel finally, revisedly, ends with truth emerging only as punishment that can have no consequences. Falkland, aged, broken, and only days away from his death, discovers in himself a character of consequence only at the point at which the consequence can only be annihilated, or preserved merely in the register of character. "Getting Falkland," that is, involves connecting his actions with consequences only when he is past both punishment and reformation, so that the legal record anneals the crimes as the forever unrealized legend on his character (as if a coat of arms and its motto were competing with one another). Indeed, the trial scene's resemblance to a deathbed scene can only insist upon the alternative claims of a truth that can be told simply because it can have no consequences and a truth that need not be told because it can have no consequences.

Or, because it can have no consequences for Falkland. For if the projected ending envisioned a contest between characters in which the problem with justice looked as if it were reducible to an opposition between the truth and the appearance of truth, Caleb's being right and Falkland's always looking right, the revised ending makes Caleb himself count as the consequence of Falkland's character. Falkland, having murdered to preserve his honor, can have his honor impugned, but only by Caleb's having claimed to have murdered him: "He survived this dreadful scene but three days. I have been his murderer" (325). The connection -- or lack of it -- between character (or honor, or reputation) and action maintains itself, in that the conviction of the identity between character and action makes Caleb a murderer when he has struck no blow -- in exactly the same ways that it had kept Falkland from being one when he had. Caleb, in amending Falkland's public character, cannot come into his own:

I thought that, if Falkland were dead, I should return once again to all that makes life worth possessing. I thought that, if the guilt of Falkland were established, fortune and the world would smile upon my efforts. Both these events are accomplished; and it is only now that I am truly miserable. [325]
He who "began these memoirs with the idea of vindicating my character" has "now no character" to "vindicate"(326). For character looks like the Siamese twin that keeps the individual from being alone and whose detachment subjects the so-called survivor to "miserable and lingering destruction."

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the tradition of monstrosity continues. As if in producing her novel in commentary on her father's work, Shelley worded her dedication this way: "To William Godwin, Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &c. These Volumes Are respectfully inscribed By the Author."10 Given the scope of Godwin's literary work, which ranged from political journalism like that of The Enquirer to school books for children by the time Shelley published Frankenstein, one might speculate that not merely did Shelley want to double her father in the process of writing a story of the doubling of creator and creature but that she also conceived that doubling to involve the questions of social monstrosity raised in Political Justice and Caleb Williams. Yet if those works suggested that the "due medium between individuality and concert" was difficult to attain, Frankenstein virtually burlesques the question in portraying its impossibility.

In a novel that celebrates both solitude and friendship, that is, solitude itself is both friendship and a recommendation for friendship. Even Victor's apparently solitary appreciation of nature (as a respite from care, as a departure from society) tends to look less like the kind of pathetic fallacy that Ruskin so loathed in Romanticism than like the species identification of the individual.11 While in Caleb Williams, character as the public version of one's probability held one hostage to society, in Frankenstein, individuality (in the person of Victor) continually projects its extension in the formalization of nature.

It is thus not simply comic that Victor has abandoned his family so as to make a creature to keep him company, and that he has abandoned (and fled) his creature so as to be alone to search for friends. Rather, this amiable isolation, like Victor's persistent inclination to think that his creature murderously stalks him (even as one after another of the members of his extended family fall to the monster), makes creatures and friends in Quixotic fashion, by never attending to experience and its inductions.

The landscape that is presented as a companionable form commends Victor to companions is sociability without society, a love that rests always on the way people might be (were they artificially and formally generated) rather than the way they are. (In this Victor's amiability exactly corresponds to Kant's description of sublime misanthropy.) Thus, the capacity to respond to the sublime aspects of nature is a trait for which the framing narrator Walton esteems Victor in his letters home to his sister Mrs. Savile in England: "Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems [sic] still to have the power of elevating {106} his soul from earth"(23). A love of nature, a love of no consequence, recommends one more than any social guise. Indeed, it may console one for living in a world of disguise and reputation, the one that Victor needs consolation for because the servant girl Justine has been falsely tried and executed for his brother William's murder. "Sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving. They elevated me from all littleness of feeling; and although they did not remove my grief, they subdued and tranquillized it"(91). In his account of the same Alpine excursion, moreover, Victor elaborates on the virtue of sublime scenes to intervene between a man and his pettier cares:

The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind, and causing me to forget the passing cares of life. I determined to go alone [to the summit of Montanvert], for I was well acquainted with the path, and the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene.[92]
Of all the situations described in Frankenstein, the ascent to the summit of Montanvert may well be the most perilous, as Victor suggests when he says that one of the paths "is particularly dangerous, as the slightest sound, such as even speaking in a loud voice, produces a concussion of air sufficient to draw destruction upon the head of the speaker." In the face of the kind of danger that Victor had earlier been praising for its solemnizing influence, however, he begins to lament, "'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 . . .'"(92-93). Victor, having acted to produce a creature whose existence seems beyond empirical bounds, has, in a strange twist on Falkland's situation, produced a murder by proxy for which he can never be blamed. The formal extension of one person (Victor) into another (his creature) has collided with the necessity of humans being sociable creatures, which in the case of Frankenstein means that Victor's defense of Justine looks ever more generously specious the more he advances it. And the landscape that becomes dangerous only as it acquires speakers is, from this standpoint, merely emblematic of the dangers of a world in which people speak at all, in which the telling of the truth may be not merely ineffectual but also murderous.

This point, moreover, begins to seem particularly obvious when a figure appears to disrupt the awful calm of the landscape. The figure is that of the monster, who has come to reproach Victor for his misery, and who provides an implicit gloss on the nature of the necessity that Victor has earlier been {107} lamenting. Describing his observations of various forms of community that appear especially idyllic to him because he has been excluded from them, the monster begs entrance into society as necessity, the very necessity and probability that has made Victor's testimony go unheard and indeed count as proof of Justine's guilt rather than exoneration. For "necessity" in Frankenstein translates into something like "community," "love," and "friendship" -- and particularly the costs attendant on the human need for them.

Victor, that is, has dreamed of a generation that would proceed ideally and formally, without being founded on the social induction for which "character" counted in Caleb Williams and for which language, society, and the family count in Frankenstein. The monster, like a living impersonation of Victor's testimony in Justine's trial, dreams of entering that world and coming to have visibility in it. Victor, having created an individual detachable from society, thus, discovers that individual to be monstrous -- monstrous, however, not on account of being an artificial creature but on account of insisting that his individual birth requires Siamese twinning. Whereas the monster continually personified landscapes as hecklers, as if his every effort to make nature a companionable presence for him were yet another mark of the insufficiency of ideal form, Victor repeatedly tries to make nature an alien form precisely because he seems doomed to community, that is, to the impossibility of his ever being alone. Throughout the novel, Victor announces his desire to be alone -- so that he can work in his laboratory, so that he can avoid the gazes of his family after he recognizes the devastation wrought by the monster he has created, and so forth. The novel frustrates Victor's desire for solitude by having the monster appear at Montanvert. But it does so as well by providing a would-be friend in the form of Walton even when Victor goes to such an extreme and deserted place as the North Pole and by, in a stroke of genius, having the monster strew graffiti through the landscape, when "sometimes, indeed, he left marks in writing on the barks of trees, or cut in stone, that guided me, and instigated my fury"(202).

Victor's desire for solitude of course manifests itself most strongly as a desire not to pass any time in the company of the monster he has made. He thus initially responds to the monster's request for companionship by expressing his willingness to create a monster-mate (who would provide the company he is so unwilling to provide) and heeds the argument that the monster has advanced about the ways in which affection will give him a stake in justice and humanity: "'If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion; the love of another will destroy the cause of my crimes, and I shall become a thing of whose existence everyone will be ignorant.'"(143). The monster, always a good deal cleverer than his creator, has of course presented the case for the creation of another monster by {108} suggesting that a proliferation of monsters will render him -- and the two of them -- invisible. Already invisible to most of the world, the monster would, he promises, become invisible even to Victor were he given a species identity. Because Victor wants to get the monster out of his life, he responds to the request and sets about manufacturing a female monster. He destroys his half-finished product, however, when he thinks of a future society of monsters:

"Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies tor which the daemon thirsted would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I a right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?"[163]
Whereas the monster has argued that the union of two monsters into a community will produce a harmony that will distract him from his desire to have revenge on Victor for denying him his society, Victor sees the union of monsters as multiply monstrous. And in doing so, he recurs to his earliest image of the monster in his initial moments of life. For the individual monster has, it appears, never been individual at all, but has always incorporated the disjecta membra of society. As Victor inquired of his journal on the event of the creature's "birth,"
"How can I . . . delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? 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."[52]
One might argue (as Victor nearly does) that Victor is a poor technician or that his inexperience at creation makes him incapable of coming up with anything but the roughest kind of prototype for a creature. What gives significance, however, to Victor's perception of the monster as beautiful parts and hideous whole is that it recapitulates his view of society more generally and the novel's depiction of domesticity.

For even though Victor's own family appears to represent bourgeois domesticity in its most thoroughly accomplished form, it was from the start monstrous, as Victor's nearly obsessive desire to be away from home registers. Yet the nature of that monstrosity is anything but apparent. Why would anyone want to leave such an idyllic domestic circle as that of the {109} Frankensteins? The answer to that question lies, I would suggest, in the way in which the Frankenstein family itself is presented as an analogue to Victor's monster in being composed of beautiful parts that are rendered hideous when unity is imposed upon its various members. The family assembled is almost as much an experiment in social engineering as the monster is an experiment in physical engineering. Frankenstein père (who is named only as père in the novel) arrives at Caroline Beaufort's hovel as she is weeping over the coffin of her impoverished and humiliated father, his friend; he conducts her to Geneva after her father's burial, and two years later, makes her his wife (28). Not only do they produce Victor, Ernest, and William, "bestowing on the state sons who might carry [M. Frankenstein's] virtues and his name down to posterity"(27) as intended, but they also expand their family circle by including Elizabeth, who is either the only child of M. Frankenstein's deceased sister (as in the 1818 text) or an Italian foundling (as in the 1831 text), the servant girl Justine, who is taken into the Frankenstein family when Mme Frankenstein perceives the girl's mother's aversion to her, and Victor's dear friend Henry Clerval, who is recurrently described as very nearly a brother to him.

Although the monster initially attacks and kills William, Victor's youngest natural brother, it is striking that Elizabeth, Justine, and Clerval -- that is, all three of the children assimilated to the Frankenstein family -- perish because of the monster. On the one hand, the monster may be seen to attack the four most recent additions to the family because they are the ones whom Victor loves most dearly. But, on the other, it is almost as if the monster attacked these figures in particular because he imagined Victor's repudiation of him as an argument that the family unity could only be stretched among so many persons -- and because he imagined, further, that the existence of those persons made it impossible for Victor to expand his notion of the family enough to include him, the monster.

If the monster might seem to be naive to imagine the substitution of one person for another in the domestic affections (and the substitution of an unnatural connection for a natural one), he is not alone in such imaginings. For marriage in the novel appears to be founded on the substitution of the father for the husband in a very literal way: the death of Caroline Beaufort's father leads quite directly to her marriage to M. Frankenstein, and monster's tale of the DeLaceys involves Safie's fleeing her father, "the treacherous Turk," and seeking out her lover Felix instead. A woman's going forth from her father's house and cleaving to her husband is, of course, the standard means through which a new family is created and continued. Yet while this process may look fairly normal much of the time, in Frankenstein it comes to seem strangely monstrous. The skin of the family appears in the very process of {110} seeming to be stretched too tight to cover the various parts. Family unity comes to entail division as this skin of inclusiveness turns out not to incorporate new elements but to require the complete annihilation of certain family members.

Victor's horror at the prospect of any such kind of overextension is very consistent. Whereas he delights in the transport that sublime scenery affords him, he complains of any situation that demands any kind of adulteration of the self. Thus, he thinks of generations of monsters with particular loathing because he imagines them all under his own skin; just as he had earlier fantasized that "a new species would bless me as its creator and source"(49), so he later thinks of future generations of monsters as only partially separable from himself -- what they might do will be his responsibility. Although Victor represents the most extreme version of the belief that responsibility can never be delimited and restricted to the individual who lives in society, enough other characters in the novel share a version of this belief for there to be a substantial collection of people confessing to murder. When William's dead body is discovered, for instance, Elizabeth, Justine, Victor, and the monster all take the blame for his murder. The monster obviously bears some responsibility, as the one who directly committed the murder, and Victor can be said to bear some, as the one who created the monster, but Elizabeth accuses herself of murder only because she had allowed William to wear a miniature of the late Mme Frankenstein, and Justine, because she thought she might have prevented the murder had she not gone to her aunt's house for the night. Being treated like members of the family strangely implicates both Elizabeth and Justine in the role of mother to William, and motherhood here is merely the domestic version of the infinite responsibility that the monster tries to inspire in Victor.

Yet while the sheer extension in time of family ties appears as a terrible burden for the Frankenstein family, the monster's account of the DeLacey family might seem to offer an alternative vision of idyllic family life. Whereas the Frankensteins write to one another, they don't seem to talk much among themselves (as Victor's autodidacticism in his medical studies would suggest), but the monster describes the DeLaceys' language as a model of communicative transparency: "'I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. . . . This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it'"(107). This "godlike science" enables the transfer of information, which Victor's creature begins to rehearse. As the monster becomes more familiar with the cottagers' language, he discovers the "'names of the cottagers themselves. The youth and his companion had each of them several names, but the old man had only one, which was father. {111} The girl was called sister, or Agatha; and the youth, Felix, brother, or son'"(107-8). Although the monster merely recounts the existence of an increasing number of names or roles for the members of the family, one might well imagine that Victor Frankenstein would have seen in Felix's "several names" a cause for the fact that Felix "was always," in direct contradiction of the message of his name, "the saddest of the groupe"(108). For just as the effort to unify the monster's disjecta membra under one skin renders hideous what was beautiful in its parts, so Felix's effort to unite in one person the several roles of brother, son, and -- later -- husband recapitulates the awkward diffusion of the self that marks the Frankenstein family. It is, moreover, a diffusion made especially painful by the fact that it is continually being reconnected. The definitional assertion of what family is incessantly reinstitutes the union no matter what distances in space and what differences in blood separate its various units.

From the perspective of the horror of domestic overextension, Victor's particular delight at the prospect of the path to Montanvert appears inextricably linked with the fact that "the slightest sound, such as even speaking in a loud voice, produces a concussion of air sufficient to draw destruction upon the head of the speaker." For if language from one standpoint facilitates the kind of communication between persons which enables families and civilized societies to exist, it also makes the expression of reproach possible. And what attracts Victor Frankenstein to the sublime dangers of landscape is precisely the way in which the landscape continually threatens to silence any who should direct reproaches at him. While the sublime continually raises the specter of the annihilation of the self, even such annihilation looks like a consolidation beside the constant stretching necessary to any self that attempts to honor the various claims on its attention and affection. Thus, although there is more than a little self-delusion in Victor Frankenstein's argument that his actions are constrained by society -- that he can't tell the true story of William's murder because no one would believe him, that he can't create a monster-woman because generations of monsters might destroy human society, there is also some truth to his apologies for himself. In Frankenstein the sublime vvillingness to entertain the prospect of the annihilation of the self turns out to reflect a desire tor purity of selfhood which is only imperfectly satisfied by the schadenfreude of observing the annihilation of others. One might well maintain that this is the knowledge from which Victor Frankenstein protects his creature in refusing to make a monster-mate for him. For the monster thus retains a mystified understanding of the operations of the human affections and never experiences any of the further stretching of his skin that would have resulted from his having become not just son or creature but also husband, father, and so on. The {112} monster may not have enough skin to cover his tissues with complete ease, but the true peau de chagrin is that of the domestic world in which the consciousness that humans are "necessary beings" makes it seem impossible for any one person to fulfill the responsibilities imposed by his multiple ties. If the monster longs for companionship, Victor Frankenstein does bequeath him one rare -- and sublime -- privilege: being alone means never having to say you're sorry.


1. Michel Foucault's account of the disciplinary state in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977) produces the most recent masterful account of this process, with its attention to the spatialization of power and its interest in suggesting the power of architecture as organized space to organize consciousness. From my perspective, however, The Order of Things, with its account of the movement from empiricism to idealism, is particularly important tor understanding the structures of the Gothic novel, in which the fear is continually that one person's experience merely figures as an element in the system of another.

2. See "Rape and the Rise of the Novel," Representations 20 (Fall 1987), 88-112.

3. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, with a new preface (New York: Methuen and Co., 1986), for an account of the relationship between the Gothic and what Sedgwick terms the "homosocial." From my perspective, Sedgwick's interest in the Gothic is particularly useful for suggesting the Gothic's collision between empirical and formal accounts of identity. If the Gothic locates horror in the simultaneous existence of competitive accounts of gender (one based on the empirical evidence of biology, another based on the formal reading of action), it also (in Sedgwick's view) establishes the homosocial bond as if empirical accumulation of enough instances of this conundrum of identity could be the normality of society.

4. William Godwin, Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 303.

5. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, facsimile 3d ed., ed. F. E. L. Priestley, 3 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), 3: 499.

6. For a representative sampling of intelligent critical response, see William Hazlitt, "Review of Cloudesley and Estimate of Other Works," Edinburgh Review 51 (April 1830), 144-59; Leslie Stephen, "Godwin and Shelley," Cornhill Magazine 39 (1879), 281-302; Angus Wilson, "The Novels of William Godwin," World Review 28 (June 1952), 37-41; and A.D. Harvey, "The Nightmare of Caleb Williams," Essays in Criticism 26 (1976), 236-49.

7. Godwin, Caleb Williams, 15.

8. Godwin, Caleb Williams, 101-2. This is the phrase Falkland uses in court when he is describing himself as incapable of having murdered Tyrrel: "what sort of a character is that which must be supported by witnesses?"

9. Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments, tr. David Young (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1986), 16.

10. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818 text), ed. James Rieger (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1974), 5.

{113} 11. I claim no originality for the view that Frankenstein concerns the relationship between individuals and society in concerning the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his monster. The long-standing interest in the novel's doubling raises this issue from several different perspectives, the most influential being those that see the existence of the monster as a version of fractured identification. For a review and reconsideration of psychological accounts, see Paul Sherwin, "Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe," PMLA 96 (1981): 883-903. For readings of psychological doubling in terms of gender, see such accounts as those of Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1976) and Barbara Johnson, "My Monster, My Self," Diacritics 12 (1982) 2-10.