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Vindictiveness and the Search for Glory in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Harry Keyishian

The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49:3 (1989), 201-10

{201} It is unfortunate that the phrase "Frankenstein's monster" has, in the popular imagination, become associated with the lurching, inarticulate being portrayed in numerous films by Boris Karloff and others. In the novel that inspired those films, written by a teen-aged Mary Shelley, the creature is highly articulate and intensely self-analytical about his poignant situation. So is the novel's protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, the tragic overreacher who brings to life and then attempts to destroy his creature.

From its first publication early in 1818 Frankenstein has excited interest and curiosity, but in recent years the work has, justly, received serious scholarly attention for its brilliant foreshadowings of numerous modern concerns. Frankenstein has been interpreted as a tale of excessive ambition, a social critique, warning about the dangers of technology, and a myth of creation. Psychological and psychoanalytical interpretations have also been offered: the novel has been read as a tale of the "double," in which Victor and the creature are seen to be aspects of the same being; the monster has been characterized as a projection of the raging id, carrying out its creator's forbidden, destructive, unconscious wishes. In recent years, feminist scholars have been attracted to the work as a reflection of birth trauma and as a male appropriation of female functions and texts. The novel's ability to generate and sustain such a range of views amply demonstrates the suggestive richness of its artistic texture.1

In these pages, I would like to discuss the novel from a different and, I think, especially apt perspective. The aspirations and interactions of the major figures of the story -- Victor Frankenstein, his nameless creature, and the young sea-captain to whom he tells his story -- prefigure and exemplify Karen Horney's account of the destructive effects of self-idealization, pathological vindictiveness, and the "search for glory." In turn, Horney's views provide excellent insights into the dynamics of the novel and the psychology of its major figures.

Mary Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the feminist classic A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), died shortly after her daughter's {202} birth in 1797. Mary Shelley was raised by her father, William Godwin, a widely known radical philosopher who encouraged her to read widely and introduced her to the leading literary figures of their generation. One of these was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, with whom she fell in love in 1814 and, at the age of 17, eloped -- a romantic story, marred by the fact that Shelley was already married and abandoned his wife to run off with Mary, and by the tragedies that followed: the infant death of their first child in 1815 and the suicides of Harriet, Shelley's abandoned first wife, and of Mary's half-sister Claire [Fanny], both in 1816.

The writing of Frankenstein occurred during this period of their lives. In the spring of 1816 Mary and Percy, living near Geneva, were visited by Lord Byron and his doctor and traveling companion, John Polidori. To pass the time during a spell of rainy weather, Byron proposed a contest: that each member of their party write a ghost story. The others tried but soon gave up; Mary had trouble getting started but, determined to produce a work that would, in her words, "speak to the mysterious fears of our nature" [Introduction 7], finally found inspiration in a particularly vivid dream of a "pale student of the unhallowed arts, kneeling beside the thing he had put together." In her dream, she "saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion" (Shelley, pp. ix-xi). From mid-1816 to mid-1817, amidst her personal tragedies and travels, and her own pregnancy, she worked on the novel, which was published anonymously in January 1818. Critical reception was mixed, but public interest was intense. The title character, Frankenstein, is an intellectually ambitious, moody, willful young man (rather like Mary's husband Percy, many scholars have observed) who is never content with the ordinary knowledge his university education provides. Filled with dreams of performing unprecedented feats, he seeks and eventually discovers the secret of animating dead matter. The prospect of actually creating life -- of playing God -- thrills him:

A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. (p. 52)
To complete his work, and to attain the God-like status he desires, he isolates himself from his friends and family and from the healing influences of nature.

Horney (1950) clearly describes what occurs when an individual seeks to gain a sense of integration and identity through self-idealization. "In the process," she writes, "he endows himself with unlimited powers and with exalted faculties; he becomes a hero, a genius, a supreme lover, a saint, a god" (p. 22). He also, of course, turns away from true sources of growth within {203} himself, striving through imagination to fulfill his search for glory. This search Horney says, "can be like a demoniacal obsession, almost like a monster swallowing up the individual who has created it" (p. 31).

The drive to attain glory, Horney points out, can override "the checks which usually prevent our imagination from detaching itself from actuality." We need, for our well-being, "the vision of possibilities" and the "perspective of infinitude," but we must also understand limitations and necessities:

If a man's thinking and feeling are primarily focused upon the infinite and the vision of possibilities, he loses his sense for the concrete, for the here and now. He loses his capacity for living in the moment. (p. 35)
As he grows more involved in actualizing the idealized figure of his imagination, this individual loses contact with all that makes human contentment possible.

In Frankenstein, Victor isolates himself from his friends to pursue his experiment:

In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation . . . It was a most beautiful season; never did the fields bestow a more plentiful harvest or the vines yield a more luxuriant vintage, but my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature. (p. 53)
In pursuit of his extravagant dreams, Victor cuts himself off from all the forces that might connect him with ordinary existence. Further, to ensure that his creation will completely fulfill his ambition, Victor collects individual human body parts of great size, strength, and beauty with which to build it. When he at last assembles the creature and gives it life, however, he is repelled by the actual product, which is "a miserable monster," a "thing such as even Dante could not have conceived" (p. 57). He is so horrified, in fact, that he abandons the creature, hoping it will simply go away and die of neglect.

Such a development is clearly anticipated by Horney. The search for glory and the all-out striving to actualize the idealized self must, she points out lead inevitably to self-hate:

The glorified self becomes not only a phantom to be pursued: it also becomes a measuring rod with which to measure his actual being. And this actual being is such an embarrassing sight when viewed from the perspective of godlike perfection that he cannot but despise it. (p. 110)
Because reality keeps interfering with the flight to glory, the individual grows to hate it, and to hate himself. This process Mary Shelley has dramatized in {204} Victor's disappointment at viewing his actual creation, so far inferior to the race of "excellent" beings he had dreamed of creating. And, as the novel proceeds, the creature behaves terribly, murdering or causing the deaths of several innocent people, including Victor's younger brother, his closest friend, and his bride. Victor's response is to give his life over to revenge by pursuing the creature to the death.

The novel thus seems to dramatize the situation Horney describes as taking place within the "pride system." Because "pride and self-hate are actually one entity," it is inevitable that antagonism will grow up between the components of the personality: the "unique, ideal person" and the "omnipresent stranger (the actual self), always interfering, disturbing, embarrassing." The ideal self "turns against this stranger with hate and contempt." Self-hate, Horney says, "makes visible a rift in the personality that started with the creation of an idealized self" (pp. 110-112). In her portrayal of Victor Frankenstein's relationship to his monster, a considerable imaginative feat, Mary Shelley has given dramatic life to that "rift" and to "the rage of the proud self for feeling humiliated and held down at every step by the actual self" (p. 114).

Had she gone no further than this with her material, Mary Shelley would have produced a competent gothic tale. But she raised her book above that level by entering imaginatively into the mind of the creature itself and keenly tracing its development from innocent benevolence to cruel vindictiveness.

Horney describes, in a general way, the processes that go into the formation of the arrogant-vindictive type:

Like every other neurotic development, this one started in childhood -- with particularly bad experiences and few, if any, redeeming factors. Sheer brutality, humiliations, derision, neglect, and flagrant hypocrisy, all these assailed a child of especially great sensitivity. (p. 202)
In order to survive, the child stifles his softer feelings, such as compassion for self and others:
He may make some pathetic and unsuccessful attempts to win sympathy, interest or affection but finally chokes off all tender needs. He gradually "decides" that genuine affection is not only unattainable for him but that it does not exist at all. (p. 202)
Because this individual comes to give up all hope of being loved, he develops compensating needs for "vindication, revenge, and triumph" (p. 203); he comes to live for a day of reckoning.

Explaining his murderous actions to Frankenstein, the creature asserts that he {205} has behaved badly only because of the ill treatment he received from his creator and from the world:

Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous. (pp. 95-96)
To prove his case, the creature describes in detail the experiences that have made him what he is. In the course of doing so, he demonstrates considerable understanding of the psychological processes that have shaped his personality.

His first recollections, the creature reports, were of undifferentiated physical impressions: an intermingling of lights, sounds, smells, and feelings. Compelled by hunger and cold to seek food, shelter, and clothing, he was eventually able to sort out his sensations and identify sources of pleasure -- the bright moon, trees and water, the songs of birds -- and to gain such pragmatic knowledge as the uses and dangers of fire. We are to understand from his account that he was from the start fully sentient, capable of gathering information and drawing inferences about his experiences.

But what inferences did his experiences make possible? From the start the creature was rejected by all. His creator fled from him in horror. The shepherds and villagers he encountered attacked him and drove him away. He understood why when he finally saw his own image in the water:

At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of dependence and mortification. (p. 108)
And so the creature was deprived of the experience of total acceptance and uncritical love which is one of the saving legacies of normal infantile development.

The next set of encounters with humans aids the creature in some respects, but in others makes his situation even worse. In hiding, he observes a human family's daily round of life, following their troubles and changing fortunes. From hearing the Delaceys speak, he learns human language and manners; from entering imaginatively into their experiences, he learns to identify with their aspirations and to sympathize with their feelings. Desiring to share their harmonious and happy relations, the creature dreams of someday presenting himself to them and gaining their acceptance; he hopes that his inner virtues and benign intentions will compensate for his hideous appearance. Of course, when the family does see him, they flee in horror, leaving him all the more alone, embittered, and outraged.

We must, of course, make allowance for the fictional form in interpreting these developments: in the novel, the creature is horrible not just to Frankenstein {206} but to himself and to everyone else; he is objectively ugly. This experience parallels the subjective sense of a child who has suffered constant rebuffs and rejections: the feeling that he is an unacceptable thing, a monster.

Having learned to read, and thus having access to human history and wisdom, the creature comes to feel even more isolated. From Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, an enormously popular sentimental novel of the time which concerned the heartbreak and suicide of a disappointed young lover, the creature learns of "lofty sentiments and feelings"; in Plutarch's Lives, he reads of "high thoughts," the deeds of great men, and the nature of human vice; and from Paradise Lost, which seemed to provide the closest analogy to his own situation, he discovers the proper relationship between God and his creation. Sometimes the creature identifies with Adam, as the only being of his kind, except that Adam has been made "a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the special care of his Creator"; but more often, he identifies with Satan, because watching the "bliss" of others makes him feel "the bitter gall of envy." (p. 124.)

In short, the creature has come to understand the nature of human love, but has discovered that he never can share it; he has learned of human society, but has been made to feel he will never be part of it; and he knows the proper relationship between man and God, but has been imperfectly created and then unjustly neglected by his "God," his creator, Victor Frankenstein, who has failed to fulfill his responsibilities to the being he brought to life. The creature has come to identify with human values and to wish to live by human standards, but cannot have what others take for granted: a human identity.

All that is left to him, therefore, are feelings of envy -- the emotion, Horney says, that most contributes to the callousness which vindictive individuals demonstrate toward others:

It is a bitter envy -- not for this or that particular asset, but pervasive -- and stems from his feeling excluded from life in general. And it is true that, with his entanglements, he actually is excluded from all that makes life worth living -- from joy, happiness, love, creativeness, growth. (p. 211)
Feeling that others are much better off than he, the arrogant-vindictive type, Horney points out, resents the way they seem to flaunt their happiness before him. What Mary Shelley has nicely fictionalized is the sense of self that such a person might develop: the sense of being a monster, forever barred from human intimacy.

The creature's responses well demonstrate this mechanism. Rejected by the family he identified with, from whom he hoped to gain acceptance and friendship, he is overcome by "rage and revenge":

{207} I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me, and finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction about me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin. (p. 130)
From that moment he declares "everlasting war" against the human species and especially against his creator.

Freud (1916/1963), too, has given an account of the assumptions that underlie this state of mind. He paraphrases the vindictive person's case against existence in these terms:

Nature has done me a grievous wrong in denying me that beauty of form which wins human love. Life owes me reparation for this, and I will see that I get it. . . . I may do wrong myself, since wrong has been done to me. (p. 161)
The character whose underlying assumptions Freud is paraphrasing here is Shakespeare's spectacularly villainous Richard III, who compensates for his physical deformities by seeking the destruction of others; but Freud maintains that the complaint is a universal one:
We all think we have reason to reproach nature and our destiny for congenital and infantile disadvantages; we all demand reparation for early wounds to our narcissism, our self-love. (p. 161)
It is for this reason that the complaint of Mary Shelley's creature touches us all: it is, potentially, our own.

Vindictiveness will not, of course, solve the monster's underlying problem, which is the need for companionship. This is clear from his account of the murder of Victor's young brother, whom the monster had met accidentally on the road not long after his rejection by the DeLacey family. Aching for human company, he had determined to kidnap a child and raise him as a friend, training him to accept his hideous appearance. When the boy also rejects him, and in the process reveals that he is a member of the Frankenstein family -- indeed, the brother of his detested creator -- the creature in his rage strangles him.

The creature is astute enough, however, to realize that he has gained no permanent satisfaction from his revenge. It is because he realizes his underlying need for companionship that he confronts Frankenstein to demand the creation of a female of his own kind:

It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another. Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless and free from the misery I now feel. (p 139)
{208} This development, too, is predicted in Horney's analysis. For the arrogant-vindictive individual, she writes:
the grapes of life, though he has declared them sour, are still desirable. we must not forget that his turning against life was not a voluntary move, and that the surrogate for which he exchanged living is a poor one. (p. 212)
The individual who can grasp this is in a position to recognize the limitations of his vindictive stance and understand his true need for acceptance and companionship.

But in the novel the creature is robbed even of that consolation. Victor, moved by pity for the creature's plight, at first consents to his plea and gathers the body parts and equipment necessary to create a mate for it. But then, out of fear of the destruction the pair might cause should the creature break his promise to live peacefully, Victor destroys the female just when he is at the point of bestowing life upon her. Victor deems the act necessary for the safety of the human species, but, of course, the creature is outraged and embarks upon a cruel campaign of revenge. He kills Victor's closest friend, Clerval, and strangles Victor's bride on their wedding night. With nothing left to live for, Victor in turn dedicates his life to the pursuit and destruction of the monster, exhausting himself and dying in the process. The creature, left utterly alone, without even his enemy for company, finally ends his own life in the frozen north.

Before going to his lonely death, the creature has one last chance to reflect on his life. He recognizes that his vindictive actions were not freely chosen: "I was the slave, not the master, of an impulse which I detested yet could not disobey" (p. 208). And he stresses the futility of this mode of fulfilling his emotional needs: "For while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were forever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned" (p. 210). He has come to recognize the compulsive and self-defeating nature of his pursuit of revenge.

Mary Shelley's novel has dramatized the consequences of self-idealization, as described by Horney, and has sketched the development of arrogant-vindictiveness as an interpersonal strategy. Victor's ardent wish to actualize an "idealized self" inevitably led to disappointment, to the creation of an equally exaggerated "despised self," here fictionalized as a horrible monster who shatters its creator's dream of glory. In the creature himself we see the "hardening" process that results from a pathogenic childhood environment and can culminate in the development of vindictive attitudes.

The novel does even more, however. It dramatizes another process described by Horney: the "central inner conflict" that appears late in analysis, {209} when the "emerging constructive forces of the real self" (p. 112) begin to assert themselves and struggle against the pride system, which is the core of the neurosis. In Horney's view, it is only when this happens that the sources of authentic growth and creativity within each person can be released.

To appreciate this aspect of the novel, we must take account of its narrative strategy. The story is told in the form of letters sent home by Robert Walton, a sea captain who has rescued Victor in the course of his Arctic travels. All the "present" action of Frankenstein takes place on board the ship as the captain hears out Victor's extraordinary story. The creature himself also appears to Walton, after Victor's death, to express his regrets and announce his intention to destroy himself.

In a sense, then, the story takes place in the consciousness of the explorer -- both Victor and the creature perhaps being projections of certain elements of the narrator's mental processes -- and is a revelation of his "central inner conflict." It is the narrator, in the end, who absorbs and benefits from the lesson of Victor's life.

Walton is an ambitious young man who has embarked on a voyage never taken before, hoping to make unprecedented discoveries in unexplored areas to confer "inestimable benefits" upon all human kind. He wants to discover a passage to the Pole and to learn the "secret of the magnet"; he feels he deserves to "accomplish some great purpose" (pp. 16-17). In short, he is, like Victor, about to embark on a search for glory.

But certain forces and needs -- Horney would define them as healthy ones -- coexist with Walton's ambitions. The search for glory is a potentially isolating experience, but Walton strongly feels the need for an understanding companion in his travels, "a man who would sympathize with me, whose eyes would respond to mine" (p. 11). When Walton rescues Victor, nearly exhausted after his long pursuit of the creature, he immediately sees he has found that companion. But he has found more: he has found in the experiences of Victor and the creature warnings against presumption, self-idealization, and vindictiveness.

Victor appears in Walton's life at a point analogous to the "most turbulent period of analysis," when the patient confronts his central inner conflict:

it is at bottom this question: does the patient want to keep whatever is left of the grandeur and glamour of his illusions, his claims, and his false pride or can he accept himself as a human being with all the general limitations this implies, and with his special difficulties but also with the possibility of his growth? There is, I gather, no more fundamental crossroad situation in our life than this one. (pp. 356-357)
If the individual proceeds along the path of growth, he will begin to "experience himself for the first time as being neither particularly wonderful nor despicable but as the struggling and often harassed human being which he really is" (p. 359).

{210} At the end of the novel, having heard Victor's story and having met the creature and heard its expression of deep regret, Walton turns his ship homeward. It is a decision he makes reluctantly, after urging by his fearful crew: "Thus are my hopes blasted by cowardice and indecision; I come back ignorant and disappointed" (p. 204). But shortly after he makes his momentous decision, the symbols of his inner struggle vanish: Victor dies and the creature trudges northward to die.

The novel may, finally, express a degree of ambivalence on the subject of ambition. The author sees its dangers but also finds something special and glorious about those who strive beyond human possibility. Partly, this may be due to the spirit of romanticism, which produced the Byronic hero, the larger-than-life figure of daring sins and lofty aspirations. Mary's husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was himself an intellectual rebel and an impetuous, ambitious individual with self-idealizing tendencies.

At the same time, Mary's life experiences at the time she wrote the novel -- the deaths of her children, the suicides of persons close to her, the precedent of her own brilliant mother's death after childbirth -- all made her aware the limitations and realities of human aspiration. To that, she seems to have added considerable wisdom about human behavior and profound insight about the workings of the human mind. As a result, her work continues to intrigue and enlighten us today.


1. The amount of recent work on Frankenstein is too large to summarize here, but a few suggestions are in order. For general background on Frankenstein, see In Search of Frankenstein by Radu Florescu (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975). A superb and essential collection of critical studies is The Endurance of Frankenstein, edited by George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979). The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, edited by Betty T. Bennett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983) are a valuable source of psychological background. Important new light is shed on the composition of Frankenstein by Anne K. Mellor in her fine study Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988). Mellor's extensive bibliography covers the ground well.


Freud, S. (1916/1963). Some character-types met with in psychoanalytic work. Character and Culture. New York: Collier Books.

Horney, Karen (1950). Neurosis and Human Growth. New York: Norton.

Shelley, Mary (1818/1983). Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. New York: NAL Penguin.