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Reading the Symptoms: An Exploration of Repression and Hysteria in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Colleen Hobbs

Studies in the Novel, 25:2 (Summer 1993), 152-69

Why isn't one a beastly girl and privileged to shriek?
Ford Madox Ford, Parade's End, 1925
Critics of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have articulated a multiplicity of gendered characteristics in her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein. Those in the tradition of Ellen Moers interpret the novel as a birth myth, reading Victor as a life-giving mother.1 These studies contrast with works focusing on the character's appropriation of the female realm, which find him to be a Promethean usurper "engaged upon a rape of nature."2 And finally, Shelley's work has been mined for evidence that it blurs cultural definitions of gender by creating an androgynous figure.3 Current critical debate has offered feminist readings of the implications for Shelley's ultra-feminine/hyper-masculine creation, but it has not examined the textual mechanism that Shelley herself uses to focus such an examination of gender socialization. I will suggest that Shelley provides us a locus for her critique of repressive artificial sexual roles in several symptoms and episodes of hysteria that she associates with Victor. In depicting Victor's response to the complications raised by his monster, Shelley attributes a classically female malady to a male character; simultaneously, she produces a site where orthodox gender stereotypes are revealed as inadequate, dangerous constructions. Beret Strong has argued that eighteenth-century hysteria theory combined corporeal symptoms associated with femininity with the masculine associations of reason: as a result, hysteria, in this period, "is located at the crossroads between masculine and feminine as they are culturally construed."4 Shelley's character maps this intersection and the difficulties raised when the boundaries of gender are transgressed. A consideration of the complaint that Shelley calls "insanity, not of the understanding but of the heart," can sharpen our perception not only of her character's actions, but also of the author's commentary on the origins of depravity and monstrosity in Regency England.5

Eighteenth-century doctors increasingly defined hysteria as a "nervous disorder" associated with insanity; therefore, an examination of this social phenomenon must consider the terms in which hysteria and the "English Malady" are discussed during the reign of George III -- Percy Shelley's "old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king."6 In England as well as in France, {153} Philippe Pinel's act of unchaining Paris' lunatics in 1793 symbolized the application of Reason to the problems of insanity: the mentally ill were no longer to be controlled through cruelty and force, but through a more humane system described as "moral management." Patients were seen as children to be controlled through discipline that emphasized "holding out encouragement and approbations to the deserving, [and] exerting the influence of the shame" upon the difficult.7 Physicians attempted to correct disordered reasoning by controlling the minds of their patients, primarily by wearing down their opposition through rigorous treatments of solitary confinement, forced baths, and purges -- laxatives, bleedings, emetics. John Ferriar, a physician in a Manchester asylum, offers insight into the issue of control between doctor and patient. He describes physicians' shift from physical to mental restraint of patients when he states that "though I would exclude everything painful and terrible, from a lunatic-house, yet the management of hope and apprehension in the patient, forms the most useful part of discipline." His treatment of hysterics through "management of the mind" could be unrelenting.8

Hysteria's etymological and historical associations with the feminine are well known, and its manifestations in Victorian women have been the object of much study.9 Hysteria in late eighteenth-century England has not received as much critical attention, but the ailment was so prevalent in 1784 that Thomas Sydenham routinely suspected it when diagnoses of female patients proved difficult.10 Elaine Showalter's work has illustrated how Victorian doctors reduced the concepts of madness and hysteria to a specifically female complaint, yet the sensibilities of the early nineteenth century still could attribute hysteric symptoms to men. In 1823, a legal manual by a doctor and a lawyer illustrated "Feigned or Simulated Diseases" with the following account of hysteria:

Dr. [William] Cullen is said to have been deceived by a man who, pretending to be affected with this disease [hysteria], was retained in the Edinburgh Infirmary as long as suited his convenience, and afterwards triumphantly acknowledged the deceit; affusion of cold water, low diet, and blisters, will generally furnish the means of detection.11
The authors' hostility toward the patient's deception and their willingness to punish it harshly become a commonplace in Victorian case studies; however, their casual inclusion of the example among a legal guide indicates that Shelley's depiction of a male hysteric would not have been without precedent.

Similarly, Ferriar can observe in 1799 that "men are frequently attacked by complaints which approach the hysterical type."12 The doctor then makes a distinction that is particularly telling for readers of Frankenstein. He observes that insanity arises among men as a result of hard drinking, pride, disappointment, terror, and anxiety over business. Of these factors, only terror seems to address the concerns of Shelley's character. Ferriar's explanation of {154} madness in women applies much more directly to Victor's situation: "From the peculiar situation of the other sex, their minds are sometimes deranged by the restraint or misdirection of passions, which were bestowed to constitute their happiness."13 Although Shelley's text never uses the term "hysteria," her depiction of a character with an unspeakable secret suffers the same "restraint or misdirection of passions" that Ferriar specifically attributes to a female hysteric. Likewise, her character is shown to restrain his feelings for the best of motives -- to "constitute the happiness" of his family and friends.

The medical profession's discussion of misdirected passions is further illustrated in the works of Rousseau, an author well known to both Shelley and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. The learned father of Rousseau's Émile espouses the Enlightenment models of education, order, and control through the training he gives his son. This narrator describes the feminine ideal of moderation through his heroine, Sophy, yet he grants the self-abnegating creature a measure of emotional excess on behalf of her loved ones. Rousseau's male character must endure this criticism from his father when courtship jeopardizes his emotional equilibrium:

How pitiable you are going to be, thus subjected to your unruly passions! There will always be privations, losses, and alarms . . . How will you know how to sacrifice inclination to duty and to hold out against your heart in order to listen to your reason? . . . Inform me, then, at what crime a man stops when he has only the wishes of his heart for laws and knows how to resist nothing he desires?14
For Rousseau's narrator, passion is equated with anarchy and destitution, a message that never is painted so bleakly when applied to women. Sophy's emotional outbursts are discussed as threatening her character, but the very existence of civilization appears to depend on Émile's ability to resist the destructive force of his heart by applying the force of reason.15

Shelley's own family shows evidence of such instruction in this rational model of happiness through emotional restraint. Two-year-old William died in 1819 -- the third child lost to his parents in a little more than four years -- and his passing left Mary Shelley inconsolable. When Percy asked his father-in-law to comfort the grieving mother, Godwin complied, but with a curious condolence. "You must . . . allow me the privilege of a father, and philosopher, in expostulating with you on this depression," he writes in a letter that offers more scolding than sympathy:

I cannot but consider it as lowering your character in a memorable degree, and putting you quite among the commonality and mob of your sex, when I had thought I saw in you symptoms entitling you to be ranked among those noble spirits that do honour to our nature.16
{155} Godwin argues here that his daughter is indulging in the weakness exhibited by the "mob of your sex" rather than exerting more of the control practiced by "our" noble spirits. His concern for strength of character assumes a connection between intense emotion and feminine inferiority that he contrasts with "noble" self-control. In addition, the contrast of "mob," "lowering," and "commonality" with "entitle[ment]," "rank," and "privilege" evokes a class ideology that again confirms masculine character and emotional restraint.

Shelley's fictional portrayal of grief in Frankenstein not only prefigures Godwin's response to an emotional crisis, but it replicates the sensibility of Reason and emotional restraint. Shelley creates the same terrible struggle for moderation between a learned father who shares Godwin's "philosophy" of logic and a passionate son struggling for self-control. In her representation, Alphonse lectures Victor on "the folly of giving way to immoderate grief" as the guilt-ridden protagonist mourns the deaths of William and Justine.17 Shelley's character can avoid further censure only by adopting a strategy to avoid his father "until I had recovered myself so far as to be enabled to conceal those feelings that overpowered me" (pp. 91-92). She illustrates that the son has learned the father's lesson by having him uncritically repeat Alphonse's homily that "a human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity" (p. 51).

Given the coincidence between the scathing condolence Shelley received from her father and her fictional representations of grief, it is understandable that Anne Mellor would find Victor Frankenstein's statement of emotional control to be an "authorial credo and moral touchstone."18 However, critics who credit the thoroughness of the character's emotional repression overlook the problems raised by Shelley's model of artificial tranquility. Shelley's novel complicates the question of emotional control by revealing its problematic implication with gender. According to Godwin's model, as we have seen, expression of grief characterizes only the common "mob" of women; therefore, the Promethean protagonist of Frankenstein resists "unmanly" emotions. As Marlon Ross's study illustrates, this Godwinian repression of the feminine reflects a specifically masculine ideology within Romantic poetics. Ross finds that in separating itself from the feminine influence of shared community values, Victor's project "looses his own unrestrained desire upon the world, a desire that is relentlessly aggressive, anarchic, and destructive."19 While the monster illustrates the expression of Victor's unspeakable masculine desires, Shelley uses Victor's body to show the dangers of unspeakable feminine ones. She observes that because a social and psychological system categorizes strong emotion as feminine and common, the men who experience such emotion risk chaos: a redefinition of gender and class status. In examining Shelley's depiction of Victor's repression of the feminine, we must take {156} into account the social and political consequences which occur when control gives way to an emotional transgression.

Shelley illustrates this redefinition most clearly in several episodes of hysteria that she associates with Victor -- a character who may be less the phallic aggressor that some have described than a prototype for Freud's Dora. By attributing hysteria to a male character, Shelley invites us to look for problems in the cultural orthodoxy of masculinity, especially as represented in Victor's project. The representation of a male hysteric in Shelley's text illustrates her belief that, despite a culture's artificial division of emotions by gender, the male body can, if need be, speak in a "feminine" voice.

As we have seen, the purveyors of "rational" medicine allowed men to experience hysteria for "manly" reasons: duplicity, drunkenness, and pride. Yet Victor Frankenstein, who attempts to heed Alphonse's maxims for moderation, transgresses the conventions of gender representation by being the wrong kind of hysteric. Not until his manly deathbed speech does Victor become the prideful, masculine hysteric of Ferriar's model. Instead, his behavior more closely replicates talkative, emotional, feminine hysteria. In his failure to uphold his father's standards for male reason and control, Victor articulates the schism between "masculine" and "feminine" behavior. In Shelley's narrative, the bourgeois Frankenstein family unit has maintained Alphonse's standards by insulating itself from the disruptive outside world. As Kate Ellis has argued, the members "wall in" domestic affection as they "[adjure] one another to repress their anger and grief for the sake of maintaining tranquility."20 However, Ellis' model does not account for the manner in which the Frankenstein family has segregated masculine from feminine emotions. The iconic figure of Caroline Beaufort weeping on her father's coffin illustrates how gender intersects with demands for emotional control. Caroline is presented as a model of femininity, and her display is the only instance in the novel where grief is not only accepted, but valorized: the idealized image of Caroline "weeping bitterly" [1.1.2] occurs early in Victor's autobiography and immediately defines the family pattern of female grief and its dependence upon male protection and control. Indeed, Alphonse finds a means of controlling even Caroline's moment of agony -- the portrait he commissions captures her moment of despair in a manner that provides "an air of dignity and beauty, that hardly permitted the sentiment of pity" (p. 73). Her pain is now domesticated in a fashion that enhances the charm of her grieving demeanor, and the squalor and poverty of the "historical" situation are omitted to emphasize the scene's calm "dignity."21 Alphonse's aesthetic revision of Caroline's history implies a patriarchal code -- the father's ability to control the emotions of his entire family, sanitizing an occasion of despair for display over the family mantelpiece.

This depiction of Alphonse Frankenstein, like William Godwin's letter to Shelley, represents a code of emotional repression enforced by the male head {157} of the household. Although her novel emphasizes Caroline's moment of grief, it is through Victor's self-conscious struggles that Shelley reveals the actual work of perpetuating a system designed to denigrate feminine outbursts in favor of masculine self-control. He is a model of Alphonse's ideas of "reason" and "moderation" when he chides Earnest for weeping at William's death, ordering him to "try to be more calm . . . you must assist me in acquiring sufficient calmness" (p. 74). However, Victor previously had admitted that "my tears flowed" as he looked on William's miniature before Earnest entered the room. In addition, he had shown no indication that Elizabeth, "for ever weeping," had acted inappropriately. His correction of Earnest's behavior further confirms the family's inability to cope with outward signs of male grief; the contradiction of this brotherly reprimand with Victor's own unseen tears alerts us to an interior struggle with his father's ideals of masculinity and reserve.

Emphasizing this code of restraint, Shelley shows Victor under the influence of other domestic models valorizing control. Caroline internalizes this repression to such an extent that she apologizes for not wanting to die. She reconsiders her wistful deathbed observance, "is it not hard to quit you all," and interprets her remark as an impropriety; she immediately qualifies her imagined transgression by saying that "these are not thoughts befitting me; I will endeavour to resign myself more cheerfully to death" (p. 38). Similarly, Alphonse refuses to display emotion after William's murder and, if allowed, would have changed the subject, "introduc[ing] some other topic than that of our disaster" (p. 75).

Shelley's treatment of the family psychodynamics makes it clear that, for the Frankensteins, grieving must be completed quickly and privately, and with the intervention of female nurturers who speed up the process. Alphonse's patriarchy, advancing a code of self-containment, charges these nurturers with responding to masculine demands for the kind of attention and comfort that will relieve them of emotional distress. Delegating these emotionally laden "feminine" tasks to women detaches men even more from this "unmanly" activity. For example, Elizabeth recognizes that her job following Caroline's death is to console the entire family. Victor recalls: "she felt that the most imperious duty, of rendering her uncle and cousins happy, had devolved upon her. She consoled me, amused her uncle, instructed my brothers . . . continually endeavouring to contribute to the happiness of others" (p. 39). Shelley's depiction of Elizabeth, as Ellis notes, spells out her "role in maintaining the atmosphere of continual sunshine in which Victor claims he spent his best years."22 Although, as Shelley illustrates with Alphonse, men determine the rules of behavior, they give women the most visible role in the grieving process, and Alphonse deifies Caroline Beaufort as the perfect mourner. For men in such a world, Shelley's novel implies, repression is the {158} only appropriate response to grief and, indeed, the only response accepted by Alphonse.

The Frankenstein men actively distance themselves from disturbing emotions, and their need for this insulating distance is apparent if we consider one particular consequence of unchecked feeling: sexual passion. Shelley indicates that, for the Frankenstein family, sexuality is the only subject more taboo than grief. In her novel of creation, the only scenes that obliquely indicate sexual desire are the monster's hovering over the sleeping Justine and his triumph over the prone body of Elizabeth. Shelley's narrative suggests the volatility of sexual passion and illustrates Alphonse's attempts to contain its power. For Victor's father, marriage is not a concession to love or physical attraction, but rather the culmination of a patriarchal ideal that will "[bestow] on the state sons."23 Similarly, Shelley has Victor's quasi-incestuous relationship with Elizabeth emphasize compatibility, not the sexual chemistry. Elizabeth describes herself as "cousin and playmate"; Victor is her "constant friend and companion" (p. 185). Alphonse looks forward to their marriage as a time when "we shall all be united, and neither hopes or fears arise to disturb our domestic calm" (p. 150). Victor is decidedly guarded about marriage, and even in his most passionate declarations of love to Elizabeth, he can only consecrate to her his "endeavours for contentment" (p. 187). In Shelley's 1823 addition, she makes Victor reflect on his lack of feeling when, on his wedding day, he gazes at his bride and "instead of feeling the exultation of a -- lover -- a husband -- a sudden gush of tears blinded my sight . . . Reason again awoke and [I shook] off all unmanly -- or more properly all natural thoughts of mischance" (p. 190, emphasis mine). Shelley's text replicates Victor's turmoil on two levels. His fears of "mischance" are a conscious response to the monster's death threat, yet they apply to his unstated doubts about his cousinship with Elizabeth. The text emphasizes Victor's apprehension of this relationship by breaking the narrative as the character stumbles over the words "lover" and "husband."

Shelley emphasizes Victor's awareness, at this moment, of the contrast between lovers' passion and cousins' contentment, but she quells his contemplation through the quick return of "reason." In Victor's expression of discomfort, Shelley plants a telling comparison: his "unmanly thoughts" -- in effect, a "feminine" admission of fear -- are equated with what is properly "natural." She here reveals how Victor has consciously constructed the "manly" for himself, knowing that it involves "shaking off" his true feelings. The "manly," then, is Victor's denial of the disruptive and thus frightening possibility of physical passion, as well as the unseemly "feminine" admission of fear.

This urgency of self-control does not suggest that Victor is incapable of passion; Shelley instead shows that he is unwilling to bring it into the domestic realm. His passion is directed toward his work, which is safely outside the {159} family circle. His descriptions of scientific discovery display a sexual tension that would have been inappropriate in Alphonse's home. Pursuing his studies, he is "exalted to a kind of transport"; he feels "delight and rapture" upon arriving at the "summit of my goals . . . [the] consummation of my toils" (p. 47). His rhetoric sounds like an address to a lover: he desires scientific discovery "with ardour," while his warmest feelings toward Elizabeth are decidedly less enthusiastic, no more than a platonic, "paradisiacal [dream] of love and joy" (p. 186). Shelley illustrates, then, that to maintain this code of masculinity, physical passion must be controlled to protect the interior, domestic world of serenity from the outside world of turbulent feeling.

Shelley's attention to repression in Victor's code of masculinity is significant because his version of the "manly" is maintained only by constant vigilance. Like William Godwin, Victor accepts an ideology of masculine control, feminine nurturing, and the sanctity of home at the expense of communication with family members. Yet after the creation of the monster and the crisis it precipitates, Victor no longer can meet these rigid demands. Victor has proven his feminine capacity for procreation and then denied that aspect of himself by abandoning his monster/child. The rejection of his disappointing, but powerful offspring unleashes a truth about the denial of human feeling that sheer masculine repression can no longer control. Shelley makes its inadequacy clear in Victor's aborted attempt to share his emotional problems with Alphonse. Tortured by the guilt of irresponsibly engendering a life that has destroyed his family, Victor claims, as he has before, to have murdered William, Justine, and Henry. Although he would have "given the whole world to have confided the fatal secret," Victor always had refused to explain his self-accusations for fear of being labelled insane (p. 182). His father, who previously had ignored these outbursts, now responds in the manner Victor has predicted: "are you mad? My dear son, I entreat you never to make such an assertion again." Victor recalls that his statements

convinced my father that my ideas were deranged, and he instantly changed the subject of our conversation, and to alter the course of my thoughts. He wished as much as possible to obliterate the memory of the scenes that had taken place in Ireland, and never alluded to them, or suffered me to speak of my misfortunes. (p. 183)
Alphonse shuts down Victor's every response to his crisis. He must not appear outwardly unhappy; he is accused of lunacy when he expresses his grief and guilt. Shelley takes away even his voice, since Victor is forbidden to broach the subject ever again. Shelley's articulation of this narrative raises a question: other than the rigorous self-control encouraged by Alphonse -- evident in the "utmost self-violence" Victor employs to quell the "imperious voice of wretchedness" -- what opportunities for self-expression are available in such a controlled, "masculine" environment? {160}

Shelley's answer to this question effectively subverts the patriarchal hierarchy epitomized by Alphonse. Victor revolts against his father's demands that he be the most "manly" of men by exhibiting the behavior of the most "womanly" women. She burdens her ultramasculine character with a plethora of feelings and secrets that must be silenced, but she also provides him a method of revealing his emotions through an equally exaggerated inscription of femininity. Critics have explored hysteria's potential for protest and disruption and have examined how repressed hostility is transformed into physical symptoms like the fainting, trembling, and hallucinating that Victor exhibits.24 These symptoms are evident in Shelley's character when, like the hysteric, he is unwilling to communicate a truth, either to himself or to those around him. Victor's behavior after creating the monster, for example, enacts a hysteric response both to the guilt of abandoning his creature and to his anxiety about hiding its existence from Clerval. "I dreaded to behold this monster," he says, "but I feared still more that Henry should see him" (p. 56). His fear of Henry's reaction demonstrates, as Ellis notes, "his inability to bring the Monster home" to the family that refuses to acknowledge the world's unpleasantness.25 The tension between his need to deny his creature's existence and his wish to "bring home" the monster is resolved by a series of hysteric symptoms. After determining that his creature has fled, he clasps his hands, jumps over chairs, and indulges in "loud unrestrained, heartless laughter." He then hallucinates, seeing the monster "seize him," and falls down "in a fit" (p. 56).

The "feminine" component of such behavior, i.e. Victor's post-partum depression and agitation, is more evident if we compare it to that of the "lovely maniac" in Wollstonecraft's Maria, who sings ballads and utter "unconnected exclamations and questions . . . interrupted by fits of laughter."26 Even the source of this character's madness has echoes of Victor's situation: "she had been married, against her inclination . . . [and] in consequence of his treatment, or something which hung on her mind . . . lost her senses" (emphasis mine). Showalter suggests that Wollstonecraft uses the asylum to illustrate confining masculine institutions that can drive women to insanity. Because women are traditionally associated with irrationality and the body -- at the expense of the "noble spirits" of reason and mind that Godwin observed -- "madness, even when experienced by men, is metaphorically and symbolically represented as feminine."27 By attributing the most "feminine" of female traits to a male character, Shelley forces us to reassess a character who, heretofore, seemed determined to impress us with his "manly" control. Wollstonecraft uses hysteria to depict the oppression of women: Shelley employs the condition to uncover what is being repressed in and by Victor's code of masculinity. She calls into question her character's aggressive version of masculinity by shutting it down with an extreme inscription of the feminine that silences him when he wants to speak and paralyzes him when he most {161} needs to act. Victor's hysteric symptoms illustrate that his body will address the message that his brain would deny: even rational "noble spirits" must attend to their emotions.

Through the depiction of such symptoms, Shelley can concisely communicate the numerous fears and anxieties that Victor is unable to articulate. In the novel's chronology, she shows Victor's first hysteric symptoms appearing as he constructs "a new species [that] would bless me as its creator" without reflecting on the ethical repercussions of his endeavor. Significantly, even at this stage, Shelley has his body signal that the project conflicts with his internal moral code. Victor outwardly asks himself no questions about the implications of his work. He sees it only as a scientific study that will "pour a torrent of light into our dark world" (p. 49). The act, as he sees it, is not an appropriation of the female act of birth and procreation, but an "[infusion of a] spark" in the manner of the Old Testament God, or of Prometheus (p. 52). His body, however, sends a very resistant message that seems almost to replicate some of the conditions of pregnancy. He is "oppressed by a slow fever . . . [his] trembling hands almost refused to accomplish their task; I became as timid as a love-sick girl and alternate tremor and passionate ardour took the place of wholesome sensation and regulated ambition" (p. 51). For William Veeder, this passage offers evidence of effeminacy resulting from Victor's bifurcation of male from female. Shelley's message, however, does not so much polarize genders as it manifests a return of the repressed: Victor's body becomes the text of the feminine characteristics he has denied himself. The act of creation makes Victor physically feverish and ill; his hands, significantly, object to the task he sets before them. The timidity and tremors that Victor would attribute to nervousness are also signs of fear, but is he frightened by his grisly work, or by his unconscious anxiety about his appropriation of the female role? Victor refers to a tactic Alphonse has employed, hoping that "exercise and amusement would soon drive away such symptoms" (pp. 51-52), but since his afflictions are the result of mental, not just physical duress, they cannot be eradicated simply by amusement. Shelley reveals that the work Victor can describe as mere "regulated ambition" is loaded with ethical questions and, from the outset, his body reflects these inner doubts.28

Many of Victor's symptoms, then, are manifestations of his wish to conceal or deny his own creation, which is allied with disruptive emotions he must not bring home. These symptoms make literal his refusal to look upon his own work. His hysteric fit in Clerval's presence ends as Victor loses consciousness, an act that ensures he is "not the witness of [Henry's] grief; for I was lifeless."29 The lengthy nervous fever following this fit allows him to avoid responsibility for his new creation. Even in his illness, however, he cannot entirely forget his accountability, since his guilty conscience imagines {162} that "the form of the monster on whom I had bestowed existence was ever before my eyes" (p. 57).

Victor's symptoms also may be found in the "mist" that obscures his vision. It first occurs when he sees the creature on the glacier: "I was troubled: a mist came over my eyes, and I felt a faintness seize me . . . I trembled with rage and horror" (p. 94). Here, Shelley stages Victor's reaction to the monster -- mist," trembling, and faintness -- as much more than a simple display of fear. Victor cannot admit to himself and cannot explain to others that he has neglected an obligation to a creature that endangers his family. He can do so only in Ireland, when informed of a murder. Although he is still unaware that Clerval is the victim, he begins to suspect the monster's involvement when told of the bruises on his neck: "I remembered the murder of my brother, and felt myself extremely agitated; my limbs trembled, and a mist came before my eyes" (p. 172). The repetition of these details indicates that Victor knows how this episode will end. He has refused to comply with the monster's demand for a companion, has destroyed the female creature as the monster watched, and has been threatened with retribution for failing to keep his promise. Shelley underscores Victor's capacity for repression by having him obliterate even this overwhelming evidence: the "mist" allows him to pretend, for a little longer, that he cannot see the tragedy for which he is responsible. When forced to view Clerval's body and to confront physical evidence of his action, he again loses consciousness and succumbs to a lengthy fever: "The human frame could no longer support the agonizing suffering that I endured, and I was carried out of the room in strong convulsions" (p. 174). Victor cannot bear the weight of his guilt, and so he again escapes into illness. But even his sickness bears out his inner feelings: his ailment is a fever, a symptom that indicates a burning admission of culpability.

If it is only through hysteria that Victor can voice the unspeakable, then his body speaks volumes on his wedding night. Here, Shelley brings to a climax the issues of hysteria and sexuality, just as the monster has promised all along. She has shown us Victor's perception that a union with his "more than sister" will prove problematic. Gilbert and Gubar see the relationship as one of "barely disguised incest,"30 and even Shelley's Alphonse wonders if Victor "regard[s] her as your sister, without any wish that she might become your wife" (p. 148). The narrative associates Victor's future bride with unnatural monstrosity in two forms. In an early dream after creating the monster, Victor's kiss (their only kiss) transforms Elizabeth into Victor's dead mother. He awakens from this vision of Elizabeth/Caroline to view the monster standing over his bed. This nightmare scene, George Levine notes, "conflates remarkably with the actual wedding night murder; in both, the Monster appears in the moonlight, looking in the first instance upon Victor's body, then upon Elizabeth's."31 In addition to the doubling Levine observes, Shelley connects Elizabeth to the monster in another instance. On their {163} honeymoon trip to Evian, the same trip where Victor stumbles over the term "lover," his vision becomes blurred while "gazing on the beloved face of Elizabeth" (p. 190). Just as a "mist" obscured Victor's view of the monster and the dead Clerval, so now "a sudden gush of tears blinded my sight and . . . I turned away to hide the involuntary emotion." Victor is concealing "unmanly" emotion, but he also is concealing the face of the woman whom he has married -- the woman he associates with his uncontrollable creation and with an incestuous relation. Victor's last words to Elizabeth, then, are doubly loaded. When she asks "what is it you fear," his reply that "this night is dreadful, very dreadful," addresses both his stated apprehension about the monster and his unstated fear of consummating their marriage.

Shelley's exploration of her character's fears of sex and loss of control culminate in the scene of Elizabeth's murder. His reaction to Elizabeth's murder seems passive, or simply cowardly, only if insulated from questions about his ambivalence toward marriage, or more specifically, heterosexual passion. Victor's body shows, in effect, his fear that desire will kill the woman he has considered only in terms of her purity and innocence. When Victor hears his wife scream, "the whole truth rushed into my mind, my arms dropped, the motion of every muscle and fibre was suspended . . . this state lasted but for an instant; the scream was repeated, and I rushed into the room" (p. 193). Here, the character faints, just as he did when viewing Clerval's body. However, Shelley explicitly contrasts his former paralysis with the active role he takes after Elizabeth's death: "I rushed toward her, and embraced her with ardour" (emphasis mine). Significantly, Shelley crafts the novel's only erotic embrace to include a lifeless body, one that cannot arouse uncontrollable sexual passion and that will preserve the brother-sister relationship threatened by nuptial union. Her language suggests that Victor's paralysis in a situation demanding action is due to both the fear of defiling his bride's virginity and the fear of the unleashed powers of sexuality. Immediately after Victor hears screams, Shelley interrupts the narrative to have Victor recall Elizabeth as "the best hope, and the purest creature of the earth." Victor regains command of Elizabeth as a sexual being, emphatically closing down the possibility of passion and asserting her innocence to assure us that she did die before losing her virginity.

Here, then, we learn the knowledge that the Frankenstein family suppresses by focusing on compatibility and domestic tranquility, the knowledge that Victor's "workshop of filthy creation" tries to make obsolete. A scream from the room where Victor will consummate his marriage freezes him with fear because Victor's dread is not simply of the monster. His fear is of the terrifying sexual truth that, for a moment, he clearly sees: physical passion is unstable, disruptive, and irrational -- the antithesis of the "tranquil" existence he has been trained to pursue. His fears, then, are not just of the explosive emotions Elizabeth and other women can unleash. He is, for a moment, aware {164} of the duplicity involved in his own enactment of masculinity. If Victor's understanding of himself as a gendered being is determined on the basis of emotional control, then overpowering, hysterical symptoms reveal the frailty of his gendered construction. A man without rational self-control is what? A lunatic? A woman? According to Alphonse's code, he certainly cannot be a man. In this moment, when "the whole truth rushed into my mind," he unconsciously may wish for the monster's success in his murderous endeavour. The monster can remove both the doubts he feels about his sister/wife relationship with Elizabeth and terrifying possibilities opened by the sexual act. Shelley has emphasized her character's repeated refusal to examine these issues, and the fulfillment of the monster's promise will ensure the continued sublimation of passion in favor of detachment and Reason. On his wedding night, the moment that most acutely defines Victor as not-woman, Shelley's character refuses to fulfill the role of an aggressive, phallic male: "the motion of every muscle and fibre was suspended." Victor is implicated in Elizabeth's death not just, as Veeder argues, because he wishes to "transcend mortal unions" and achieve androgynous perfection. If Victor's body strives for a union, it is one that can call back the emotional range denied him by his culture's construction of masculinity. In this moment, his body resists its construction as a gendered self by refusing to rescue Elizabeth.32

Victor's hysteria results from his emotional constraints, in addition to the ethical questions raised by his creation of the monster. Not only must he restrain his grief for lost family members, but he also must cope with his feelings of guilt and responsibility for their deaths. Perhaps most difficult, though, is the repression of the self-doubt he feels about the moral questions the monster raises. His final speech, in which he reports that "I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable," protests his innocence rather too much to indicate a guilt-free conscience. Victor has brought a creature into the world and abandoned it; a review of his actions, for all his rationalizing, seems to find him culpable. Shelley's narrative unleashes a set of circumstances that her protagonist cannot control; his refusal to admit his own vulnerability ensures that the unexamined issues ultimately will consume him.

Shelley shows that Victor's failure is not so much that he made a monster, but that he failed to tell anyone about it. Because his scientific discoveries are covert and his personal fears are hidden, Victor faces his deepest fears in rational, manly privacy. Shelley indicates that the division of gender roles is dangerous not just because of its instability, but because it produces this isolation. When ideology circumscribes communication according to gender, too many important messages remain unsaid, messages that would articulate vital information concerning human pain and human need. In discussing Freud's hysteric patient Dora, Hélène Cixous describes the hysteric as resisting the family system by destroying its ability to function -- a model that {165} Shelley's systematic annihilation of the Frankensteins pushes to extreme limits. Cixous observes that the hysteric's resistance is driven by an unspoken need: "[t]he hysteric is not just someone who has had her words cut off, someone for whom the body speaks. It all starts with her anguish as it relates to desire and to the immensity of her desire."33 To Freud's question "What do women want?" the hysteric would answer "everything": including, but not limited to, unconditional love, sexual gratification, and the support and empathy of family members. Like Freud, even William Godwin seems to divine that his daughter's despair articulates an unfulfilled desire. The letter of condolence concerning his grandchild's death, the letter in which he denies his daughter's right [to?] powerful, immoderate grief, continues by asking, "What do you want that you have not? You have the husband of your choice . . . You have all the goods of fortune, all the means of being useful to others, and shining in your proper sphere."34 Godwin's harangue of his daughter's depression chides her for not properly appreciating the "goods of fortune" while, like Alphonse, he ignores her deeper, non-rational, emotional wants.

Shelley allows Elizabeth, the monster's final victim, to examine the human cost of remaining in one's "proper sphere." In her last moments, even Elizabeth seems to hear the hollowness in her instructions to "be calm, my dear Victor; I would sacrifice my life to your peace. We surely shall be happy: quiet in our native country, and not mingling in the world." Victor reports that Elizabeth weeps at her statement, "distrusting the very solace that she gave; but at the same time she smiled, that she might chase away the fiend that lurked in my heart" (p. 89). The fiend lurks in Elizabeth's heart as she altruistically attends to male discomfort, sacrificing her own desires in order to shore up men's emotional stability. It lurks in Victor's as he dutifully refuses to attend to the passionate, immoderate, "feminine" side of his nature. Mary Shelley's novel illustrates the manner in which a rational society has relegated even emotions to a Godwinian "proper sphere" in arbitrarily dividing them by gender; in the process, it has taken away the words of both men and women. The policy of reasoned control can be breached through the language of the body, but only imperfectly: this mute message carries force and integrity, but it ultimately depends on the sensitivity and skills of the interpreter, and, as we have seen, none of Shelley's characters can read Victor's somatic cries of distress. Shelley's characters must articulate their most essential needs with only the vocabulary of their bodies. In the silence that results, many monsters will be formed.


1. Readings in the tradition of Moers's "Female Gothic" in Literary Women (Garden City: Doubleday, 1976) explore the manner in which Shelley articulates particularly female questions through a male character. For example, Marc A. Rubenstein reads the novel as Shelley's attempt to define herself in relation to Mary Wollstonecraft ("Frankenstein: Search for the Mother," Studies in Romanticism 15 [1976]: 165-94). For Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the character is a fallen Eve, illustrating women's alienation in a patriarchal society (The Madwoman in the Attic [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979]). My interpretation is sharpened by a knowledge of this subtext of female birth, creation, and alienation.

2. Anne Mellor, Mary Shelley, Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988), p. 86.

3. The most detailed discussion of this argument is William Veeder's Mary Shelley and "Frankenstein," The Fate of Androgyny (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1984). Veeder identifies moments in the text in which Victor is "effeminized" or in which he wills his "masculine self" into action, but, as Mellor's Mary Shelley observes, his categories of gender are essentialist: he never looks at these parts of the self as social constructions (p. 242). My use of the terms "masculine" and "feminine" in this discussion will refer to gendered, not biological, characteristics.

4. Beret E. Strong, "Foucault, Freud, and French Feminism: Theorizing Hysteria as Theorizing the Feminine," Literature and Psychology 35 (1989): 11.

5. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, ed. James Rieger (1974; rpt, Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1982), p. 183. This passage is found in the addition to the Thomas copy, made in 1823.

6. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Random House, Pantheon, 1965), argues that hysteria's association with madness developed as physicians began to focus on the ailment's effects on the mind rather than the body: "as long as vapors were convulsions or strange sympathetic communications through the body, even when they led to fainting and loss of consciousness, they were not madness. But once the mind becomes blind through the very excess of sensibility -- then madness appears" (p. 158).

7. A Letter from J. Fothergill Relative to the Intended School at Ackworth (1778), p. 17. Quoted in Anne Digby, Madness, Morality and Medicine: A Study of the York Retreat, 1796-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), p. 60. Critics have refined Michel Foucault's argument in Madness and Civilization that Rationalism put "all forms of unreason . . . under lock and key." For example, Roy Porter's Mind-Forg'd Manacles discounts the notion that British lunatics were confined in great numbers and emphasizes the continuity between eighteenth-century medical practices and earlier methods of treatment (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987). In Social Order/Mental Disorder (London: Routledge, 1989), Andrew Scull argues that Foucault's model of repressive moral treatments diminishes the subtlety and pervasiveness that such a program might have exerted. For further discussion, see also Kathleen Jones, Lunacy, Law, and Conscience, 1744-1845 (London: Routledge, 1955); William Parry-Jones, The Trade in Lunacy (London: Routledge, 1972); and Robert Castel, The Regulation of Madness, trans. W. D. Halls, 1976 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988).

8. John Ferriar, Medical Histories and Reflections, First American Edition (Philadelphia: Dobson, 1816), 2:188. This observation does not appear in Ferriar's original edition of 1799. A case study of an elderly man confined for lunacy illustrates Ferriar's methods. He reports that the patient is stubbornly "determined to retain his urine," apparently succeeding for three days. The patient's behavior speaks to the "reasonable" conditions that have deprived him of all other forms of autonomy: within the confines of an asylum, the sufferer can control only his body's wastes. Ferriar's treatment ignores the integrity of even his patient's body: he covertly adds an emetic to the elderly man's food, at which point the patient yields up both the contents of his stomach and his bladder (pp. 180-81).

9. Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane's collection In Dora's Case: Freud -- Hysteria -- Feminism (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985) is representative of feminist criticism's exploration of hysteria and psychoanalysis, and Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady (New York: Pantheon, 1985) looks at nineteenth-century psychiatry's construction of madness as a female disorder.

10. Thomas Sydenham, Médecine Practique (Paris, 1784), pp.400-404. Quoted in Foucault, pp.149-50.

11. J. A. Paris and J. S. M. Fonblanque, Medical Jurisprudence (London: Phillips and Yard, 1823), 2:362. This volume makes a clear distinction between insanity and hysteria, which is categorized with fictitious illnesses under the heading "Of Impositions." Their reference is to Cullen's piece in Male's Elements of Jurical Medicine, 2nd ed., p. 237.

12. The case study of a hysterical seventeen-year-old boy is included in Ferriar's first edition of Medical Histories and Reflections and reprinted in his subsequent, expanded versions (1:57).

13. Ferriar, p. 180.

14. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or On Education, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), p. 444. The Shelleys' reading diary records Shelley reading this text in 1815, and again in 1822. See The Journals of Mary Shelley, 2 vols., ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 2:670.

15. James O'Rourke traces Shelley's ambiguous response to Rousseau in "'Nothing More Unnatural': Mary Shelley's Revision of Rousseau," ELH 56 (1989): 543-69. O'Rourke cites Shelley's article, "Rousseau," in Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France (London: Longman, 1839). In her review of his Confessions, Shelley berates Rousseau for leaving his five children in a foundling home and makes this observation of the author's model of human development: "nothing can be more unnatural than his natural man. The most characteristic part of man's nature is his affections" (p. 547).

16. C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries (London: Henry S. King and Co., 1876), 2:269-70.

17. Shelley, p. 86. After losing several children and her husband, Shelley must have found the phrase's Godwinian resonances too harsh. She canceled the passage in the 1823 Thomas copy, replacing it with a milder call for the moderation of grief: "he [Alphonse] called to his aid philosophy and reason, while he endeavoured to restore me to a calmer state of mind."

18. Mellor, p. 122. Other critics have noted the character's denial of domesticity and the female. For Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1983), this denial stems from Victor's aggressive, "egotistic" ambitions. Fred V. Randel reads Victor as a masculine character whose isolation from women leads to his ill-adjusted creation. See "Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Intertextuality of Mountains," Studies in Romanticism 24 (1985): 515-32.

19. Marlon Ross, The Contours of Masculine Desire (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), p. 114. Ross notes Shelley's inscription of a "femininely influenced male" in the construction of Henry Clerval, a character that understands the necessity of domestic affection but is unable to bring his friend under the influence of the feminine. Shelley compares this character with Victor's fiancée, Ross observes, and she scripts his murder as retaliation for the monster's destroyed female mate. For further discussion of the masculine ideology of Romanticism, see Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne Mellor, (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1988), and Mellor's "Why Women Didn't Like Romanticism," in The Romantics and Us, Essays on Literature and Culture, ed. G. Ruoff (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1990).

20. Kate Ellis, "Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family," in The Endurance of "Frankenstein," eds. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979), p. 138.

21. William Veeder argues that Shelley constructs the passage as a tribute: "Mary then is careful to hang Caroline's portrait in the very place in Alphonse's home that the portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft hung in Godwin's -- over the mantlepiece in the study" (p. 186).

22. Ellis, p. 134.

23. Shelley, p. 27. Compare to Rousseau's address from father to son in Émile: "In aspiring to the status of husband and a father, have you meditated enough upon its duties? When you become the head of a family you will become a member of your state, and do you know what it is to be a member of the state? Do you know what government, laws, and fatherland are? . . . Before taking a place in the civil order, learn to know it and to know what rank in it suits you" (p. 448).

24. For example, Bernheimer's overview of Victorian hysteria finds that women "developed unconscious strategies whereby they disavowed the intense anger and aggressive impulses for which the culture gave them no outlet" (pp. 5-6). The danger in discussions of hysteric protest is the risk of valorizing women who often were incapacitated by the very protests they staged. Strong takes French feminists to task for this kind of glorification, finding that "though we can say that the hysteric speaks the truth of her difference by refusing the so-called 'health' of a sick system, refusal is not everything" (p. 24). Regardless of hysteria's effectiveness, it suggested a useful model of cross-gendering for Shelley's project.

25. Ellis, p. 140.

26. Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman (New York: Norton, 1975), p. 37.

27. Showalter, p. 4.

28. Sara Coleridge notes this connection between mental and somatic symptoms in her 1834 essay "Nervousness," a work that draws on Bernard Mandeville's A Treatise of the Hypochondriak and Hysterick Diseases (1730). Coleridge reflects on her own "nervous derangement" of 1832, observing that it "manifests itself by so many different symptoms that the sufferers themselves are puzzled what to make of it, and others, looking at it from different points of view make wrong judgments on the case. Those who perceive only how it affects the mind are apt to forget that it also weakens the body; those who perceive that it is a bodily disease wonder that it should produce any alteration in a well regulated mind" (emphasis mine). In Bradford Mudge's Sara Coleridge, A Victorian Daughter (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1989), p. 203.

29. Shelley, p. 57. Robert Whytt's 1777 catalogue of hysteric symptoms in Traité des Maladies Nerveuses covers almost any conceivable ailment, including several found in Shelley's text: "an extraordinary sensation of cold and heat . . . syncopes and vaporous convulsions . . . palpitations of the heart; variations in the pulse; periodic headaches; vertigo and dizzy spells; diminution and failure of eyesight; depression, despair, melancholia or even madness; nightmares or incubi" (quoted in Foucault, p. 137).

30. Gilbert and Gubar, p. 228.

31. George Levine, "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein," in The Endurance of "Frankenstein," p. 53.

32. Veeder, p. 117. His examination of androgyny maintains that Elizabeth prevents Victor from achieving the solipsistic union he desires and that "only with her death, he unconsciously imagines, will free him to transcend mortal unions and reach immortality through Erotic self-union."

33. Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (1975 rpt. Minneapolis: Minnesota Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 154-55.

34. Godwin, 2:269.