Contents Index

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Milton's Monstrous Myth

John B. Lamb

Nineteenth-Century Literature, 47:3 (December 1992), 303-19

{303} At the close of Frankenstein, the monster locates a significant event in his history in a moment of self-identification laden with Miltonic overtones: "Evil thenceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen."1 It would be a mistake, however, to read Mary Shelley's novel as a nineteenth-century reenactment of the fall of Milton's Satan, despite her conscious use of such Miltonic parallels. For the only real sense in which the monster's history can be read as a fall, fortunate or unfortunate, is in his "fall" into culture and language, especially into the limited and limiting ontology of Milton's Paradise Lost. The monster's error has not been in his rebellion against the father, but in his mistaken assumption that his "nature" was a thing that he could "willingly" choose. As Frankenstein makes quite clear, the monster's identity has been shaped by a cultural myth in which the fallen can be only Adam or Lucifer. He finds the answer to his agonizing question "What was I?" in the pages of Paradise Lost, and in so doing recapitulates the hegemonic, that system of meanings and values encoded in Milton's epic, {304} which shapes his perception of his self and comes to constitute his only sense of reality.2

Frankenstein should be read then as an attack upon the monologic and monolithic voice of Paradise Lost. 3 As Mary Shelley's husband noted in the "Preface" to his Prometheus Unbound, the character of Satan (and we might add Paradise Lost itself) "engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry," and that "in the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling, it engenders something worse" (emphasis added).4 As Ellen Moers has suggested, Frankenstein is a "birth myth,"5 but it is about the cultural engendering of a pernicious and powerful ideology of identity or "something worse." If the novel is in some sense an answer to {305} the question Mary Shelley claimed in the 1831 "Introduction" was often posed by her readers -- how she had come to "think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea" (p. 5) -- then we are invited to see that "hideous idea" represented not by the monster or in his creation by Victor Frankenstein, but in a monstrous myth of identity that leads not only to violence, but also to the destruction of any other emergent voices a culture might foster. The larger philosophical issue central to Frankenstein, as Anne K. Mellor notes, is "what, finally, is being," and how is it constituted?; and Mary Shelley's answer to that question is that being is a verbal construct, the product of a cultural naming or misnaming whose pervasiveness and power, perhaps, is unavoidable.6

As a literary text contributing to the production of cultural identity, Paradise Lost stands alone in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries atop the literary hierarchy, and Milton's epic is clearly rooted in the history of Puritanism and in the bourgeois ideal of the individual, the "concept of the person as a relatively autonomous self-contained and distinctive universe."7 Individuality, Milton claims, means being "By nature free, not over-rul'd by Fate / Inextricable, or strict necessity";8 and in Paradise Lost he presents two possible figures of individualism: Lucifer and Adam. But as Frederick Garber suggests, it is ultimately in the character of Satan that "Milton isolated and identified what came to be seen as a predominant form of autonomous selfhood."9 For later generations {306} of writers, especially the Romantics, it is Lucifer who best represents the drive for autonomy within the social and cosmic orders. Thus, not only did Milton help to inaugurate a particular literary and cultural notion of autonomy, but he also encompassed that notion in a limited taxonomy of possible selves. He engendered a cultural system of signs by which those who attempt to achieve autonomous selfhood inevitably come to name themselves "Lucifer," and to believe that identity has been freely chosen. As an intertext Paradise Lost functions in the novel exactly as it did in nineteenth-century culture: as a literary repository of restrictive patterns of self-identification, so deified by tradition as to have become, as the monster claims, a "true history" of what we are. Milton bequeathed to the world a text on which were inscribed the cultural commandments of being, and Mary Shelley set out to break those stone tablets and to expose the illusory nature of bourgeois individualism. Frankenstein is, then, about authorship, about creating a space in nineteenth-century culture to frame a different answer to the question "What was I?" and to add another voice to the discourse of identity. But such a clearing of cultural space required, if not a clear-cutting, at least an undermining of the persuasiveness of Paradise Lost and Milton's monstrous myth.

Such a deconstruction or undercutting of Paradise Lost was aptly suited to Gothic fiction, and Frankenstein takes part in the Romantic desecration of Milton. The impulse behind the Gothic is an impulse toward formal innovation or insurgency. In its challenge to the structural and ideological constraints of the realistic novel, Gothic fiction "emerges as the form that can answer the ontological and epistemological, as well as the structural, demands of the Gothicists."10 In its investigation of what constitutes being, the Gothic novel is best suited to the exploration of ontological crisis and ontological insecurity. Although the monster makes claims for his own autonomy, he finds himself so different from the rest of the world that his identity is always in question. In Mary Shelley's critique of Milton's epic, such ontological insecurity {307} is marked by the conflict of identities the monster contemplates in answer to his question "Who was I?" [2.7.2] As Chris Baldick notes, "When Victor and his monster refer themselves back to Paradise Lost -- a guiding text with apparently fixed moral roles -- they can no longer be sure whether they correspond to Adam, to God, or to Satan, or to some or all of these figures" (p. 44). Paradise Lost, Shelley suggests, splits man up verbally, a cultural fragmentation that cannot be healed as long as such terms as "Adam" and "Satan" hold exclusive claim to denote identity; and Milton's myth, therefore, engenders a type of cultural schizophrenia, a disruption of the self's relation with the world and with itself.

The thematic locus of Gothic fiction, therefore, is the nature of identity; and in Frankenstein that focus is extended to include the cultural and literary codes that shape and contain that identity. In its subversion of the claims of verisimilitude, or in its substitution of one type of verisimilitude (subjective) for another (objective), the Gothic novel becomes both a way to demonstrate how subjective self-representation is infiltrated, and indeed controlled, by larger and more powerful culturally determined "objective" ideas of personality and, at the same time, a way to critique or indeed subvert hegemonic notions of identity and the hegemonic as a "sense of reality" (Williams, p. 110). Realism and the realistic novel are "slavishly chained to the status quo,"11 and the hegemonic thrives in a realistic literature in which the form of the text and its accompanying ideology -- its system of meanings and values -- are said to mirror the "natural" and, hence, appropriate condition of humans. The subjective or fantastic element in Gothic fiction, however, subverts the primacy of a realistic reading and calls into question the ideology of the real and the hegemonic status quo. As George E. Haggerty suggests, the key to the subjectivity in Gothic fiction

lies in its ability to confuse our sense of what is "real." Such confusion is at the heart of the tale form: In the tale's momentary suspension from the world of the novel, we are left without the {308} reassurance of what we think of as "natural" limits. The ontological basis of the experience of fiction has shifted, and "realism" has given way to "fantasy" as a way of interpreting experience itself. (p. 32)
Gothic fiction often parodies the truth claims of realistic narrative and, therefore, challenges its embedded system of meanings and values. Seen in this way, Frankenstein becomes an example of the counter-hegemonic, an ideological act that seeks to undermine the potency of the master narrative -- here, Paradise Lost.12 Mary Shelley's novel is a fable of false identity, of the residual concepts and ideas derived from Milton that exist in nineteenth-century culture and that delineate and prescribe the boundaries of self. Having a self, the novel suggests, depends upon being defined as an object in a world that is already given over to a cultural system of signs, preeminently language, and hence the "self" the monster "has" is only the one posited by the language of that cultural system. By having her monster give primacy to Paradise Lost in what is admittedly his own limited literary hierarchy, Shelley recognizes that Milton's text occupies a central place in such a cultural system.

[ * * * * * * ]

As a series of "enveloped" first-person narratives, Frankenstein continually reveals the cultural and linguistic formation of identity, especially as it applies to Paradise Lost. The monster's autobiographical fragment -- the heart of Mary Shelley's investigation of Milton's monstrous myth -- is circumscribed by the narratives of Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton. Shelley's use of the autobiographical form in her novel is central to her investigation of the pernicious influence of Milton's ontology because such self-representation is apt to show most clearly the ways in which the hegemonic prescribes the boundaries of self. The mon- {309} ster's text, which announces his self-identification with Milton's Satan, is surrounded by other texts that suggest that the tropes allowing such self-identification exist prior to and independent of his own "birth" or fall into language. The monster and his text, or the monster as text, are engendered in a world in which the process of naming relies upon a culturally predetermined system of signs: Adam and Lucifer, the only two constructs for the fallen male in Milton's cosmology. The ontological choices in Paradise Lost control not only the monster's self naming but the self-characterizations of Victor and Walton as well.

Walton's declaration at the outset of his narrative, "I shall commit my thoughts to paper" (p. 19), suggests the essential linguistic nature of self in Frankenstein, an idea that is repeated and reinforced in Victor's and the monster's ensuing narratives. Early on in his epistolary exchange with his sister, Walton tropes himself as a rebellious angel, acting against his father's injunction not "to embark in a seafaring life" (p. 17), and his expedition to the Arctic clearly recalls the fallen angels' exploration of the "dismal world" of Hell in Book II of Paradise Lost:

Far off from these a slow and silent stream,
Lethe the River of Oblivion rolls
Her wat'ry Labyrinth, whereof who drinks,
Forthwith his former state and being forgets,
Forgets both joy and grief, pleasure and pain.
Beyond this flood a frozen Continent
Lies dark and wild, beat with perpetual storms
Of Whirlwind and dire Hail, which on firm land
Thaws not, but gathers heap, and ruin seems
Of ancient pile; all else deep snow and ice.
(II. 582-91)
The Miltonic subtext of Walton's voyage suggests that his journey to the "frozen continent" is an attempt to pass both through and beyond Lethe: to forget "his former state and being" and to inscribe a new and more heroic version of himself -- to rename himself "God" or "Adam." It may also imply the self's desire to escape or elude the social determination of identity in a quest for autonomy. Ironically, however, {310} as his letters testify, Walton voyages on a sea of words, and his identity is already indelibly etched; the boundaries of self ordained by the master narrative are inescapable. Thus, Walton leaves England as a rebellious angel and returns as such, chastened but not saved, not an Adam but only another Lucifer of diminished stature. Walton's journey of forgetfulness, his attempted voyage beyond the culturally prescribed boundaries of self, is later reenacted in the monster's attempt to overcome his physical deformity by learning the art of language, and, like Walton's, the monster's attempt is failure.

Victor's autobiography, which follows Walton's narrative and envelops the monster's, betrays a similar imprisonment in the ontology of Paradise Lost. His scientific research, like Walton's exploration, is described as a revolt against the father, specifically against his father's claim that the writing of Cornelius Agrippa is "sad trash" (p. 39). It is important to note that Victor's subsequent creation of the monster and the birth of the "monstrous" is precipitated by books, by language itself. Like the being he creates, he "falls" into language, into the "treasures" of Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus: "But here were books, and here were men who had penetrated deeper and knew more. I took their word for all that they averred, and I became their disciple" (p. 40). The lure of such texts is their apparent mastery of the world, and in them Victor finds his "fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature" defined (p. 39), and, thus, through them he begins to shape both his sense of self and his destiny. Such a total acceptance of the truth claims of such texts foreshadows the monster's unquestioning assent to the ontological claims of Paradise Lost and suggests the insidious power of hegemonic forms that can perpetuate their own claims to "speak" the truth. The self that begins to evolve in Victor's autobiography is conspicuously un-Adamic, and Victor rejects the role of the natural philosopher who, like Adam, "might dissect, anatomise, and give names" (p. 40, emphasis added) but never acquire the sublime knowledge of God. Victor's creation of the monster is an attempt to create man in his own image, and the monster's hideousness implies the distortion of self that his fall into language entails:

{311} Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. (p. 57)
Victor creates not Adam but an unnamed horror, "a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived" (p. 58), but that Milton had. Satan first appears in Paradise Lost without a name and possessed of a questionable identity. In Book I, Milton, wondering what caused Adam and Eve's fall, questions "Who first seduc'd them to that foul revolt?" and answers, "Th' internal Serpent; hee it was" (ll. 33-34). Satan, though described by analogy to the serpent, is not actually called Satan by Milton until later in Paradise Lost, just as Victor withholds his direct naming of his creation until later in his narrative when he relates the events that take place on Mont Saleve: "A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon, to whom I had given life" (p. 76, emphasis added). The monster, first an "object," is named as "demon" and then later as "Devil" (p. 99); he is signified. But when Victor begins to name and designate the monster's identity he imposes selective cultural categories that exist prior to that naming and to the action of the novel and that reflect the self-namings in Walton's letters and Victor's own claim that he "bore a hell within [him], which nothing could extinguish" (p. 88). Victor's naming of his creation as "Devil" immediately precedes the monster's own autobiographical fragment, thus reinforcing the notion that the monster's autobiography, his self-signifying, is immured in Victor's naming of him. Figuratively, the monster's narrative is Victor's narrative -- a "creature" engendered by a shared system of signs -- and by analogy Walton's as well. The monster's fall into language both reenacts and glosses Victor's and Walton's descent into a limited cultural ontology. The monster's reply to Victor's "Devil" indicates that Victor's naming {312} only confirms an identity the monster himself has accepted as his own: "Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed" (p. 100).

The monster repeatedly entreats Victor to "listen to my tale" and to "listen to me," once again confirming the notion of self as text in Frankenstein and revealing the monster's mistaken belief that his language is empowering, that it will convince Victor of the justice of his position and his demands. Having mastered the "godlike science" of language, the monster is betrayed into the belief that he is the master of his history and of his world, that he can shape and control the self he would become. That the monster conceives of language as a "godlike science" clearly recalls Victor's experiments with human creation, and for the first time in the novel Mary Shelley links language to the creation of the monstrous itself. Both Victor and the monster seek mastery over origins and the fullness of presence. Language tantalizingly presents itself as an escape from the boundaries of self, a transcendental medium with which to master the monstrous, the finite limitations of life and identity. But, ironically, language is the monstrous, a limiting and limited taxonomy, a preestablished cultural hierarchy that defines all the possible definitions of self -- here, Adam or Lucifer. Language as the monstrous insures what Foucault calls the "emergence of difference"13 -- "I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel" -- and as such continues to promote ontological uncertainty, a verbal self-fragmentation that cannot be "healed" until the taxonomic field is expanded. What the monster's narrative reveals is not that one can master self through language but that self is mastered by language and the hegemonic forms encased within it.

[ * * * * * * ]

The monster's autobiography is the history of his fall into language and into the meanings and {313} values encoded in Milton's mythology. It is the tale of how Paradise Lost almost exclusively comes to define the monster's sense of who he is and of what constitutes his "being." Even though his history begins at what he calls the "original era of my being," it is marked by insistent moments of self-definition in the Miltonic mode and by an insistent movement toward the word "Satan" as the best suited to his configuration of self. The shepherd's hut he describes early on in his narrative is "as exquisite and divine a retreat as Pandaemonium appeared to the demons of hell after their sufferings in the lake of fire," and his hovel adjoining the DeLacey's cabin appears a "paradise" (pp. 106-7). If language is the cultural system into which the Monster as individual subject is inserted,14 then that system, as Walton's and Victor's narratives have previously attested, is already dominated by a master text: Paradise Lost; and what seems conspicuously absent from the monster's self-representation are those allusions that might suggest the influence of the other texts from which he cons the "godlike science" of language. Goethe's Sorrows of Werter, for example, might have provided an oppositional voice to Paradise Lost, a different cultural source for identity formation, but that voice, the novel suggests, has been stifled and silenced by Milton.15

When the monster begins life his mind is a blank, like the empty page or the uninscribed text -- "No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused" (p. 103) -- and he struggles to articulate even the simplest of his sense impressions: "Sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again" (p. 104). But the space of silence is a space without language, and hence antithetical to the formation of identity. The monster is held back from both self-expression and self-identification because he lacks language: "but at that time I knew nothing of the science of words or letters" (p. 109).

{314} The monster learns the "science of words or letters" from the DeLaceys, and it is then that he enters culture and begins erroneously to believe that language is a form of mastery and a way to overcome difference: "although I eagerly longed to discover myself to the cottagers, I ought not to make an attempt until I had first become master of their language; which knowledge might enable me to make them overlook the deformity of my figure" (pp. 113-14). In retrospect, the monster claims that he "did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity" (p. 114), and hence he is encouraged "to apply with fresh ardour to the acquiring the art of language" (p. 115).

Hastening to narrate the "more moving part" of his story, the monster begins to relate those events that he claims "impressed me with feelings which, from what I had been, have made me what I am" (p. 116). Those events primarily center around his learning the art of language: "My days were spent in close attention, that I might more speedily master the language" (p. 118). He is first "instructed" by Volney's The Ruin of the Empires, which appears merely to foreshadow the lessons of Paradise Lost, especially the history of mankind that the angel Michael relates to Adam in Books XI and XII: "so violence / Proceeded, and Oppression, and Sword-Law / Through all the Plain, and refuge none was found" (XI, ll. 671-73). Such instruction leads the monster to self-reflection: "The words induced me to turn towards myself," and to the question that lies at the heart of his narrative, "What was I?" (p. 120). The fall into language is a descent into introspection and the nature of identity; however, the question "What was I?" can only be answered by language itself. Identity can only be sought in culture and its masterworks, and so the monster turns to Paradise Lost, which, along with the Sorrows of Werter and Plutarch's Lives, is the "prize" he believes he has found one night in his rambles. Again his reading prompts insistent self-questioning about his origins and his identity: "Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them" (p. 128). The monster's "birth" into language and culture promotes the ontological insecurity Frankenstein sets out to ex- {315} plore. Because the monster cannot distinguish between levels and types of discourse -- for him all narratives are "histories," and therefore true -- he reads Milton's text in the same light he has interpreted the tales the DeLaceys and Saphie relate, as "a true history" (p. 129). But for the monster, Paradise Lost, unlike Volney's Ruins, is not simply a history of civilization but a chronicle of self, in which he searches for the lineaments of his own identity, in which he searches for a name:

I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me. (p. 129)
What he finds in the character of Satan is what he feels is the best name to fit the facts of his existence, and when he is rejected by the DeLaceys he accepts that name as his own: "I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me; and, finding myself unsympathised with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin" (p. 136).

As Raymond Williams notes, "the true condition of hegemony is effective self-identification with the hegemonic forms: a specific and internalized 'socialization' which is expected to be positive but which, if that is not possible, will rest on a (resigned) recognition of the inevitable and the necessary" (p. 18). This, in effect, is what has happened to the monster. In accepting Paradise Lost as his own "true history" -- a history that is corroborated by his subsequent reading of Victor's journal -- he has begun a process of self-identification with the possible ontological choices encoded in the master narrative. At first he hopes for the name and identity of Adam and the positive attributes that, in his mind, accompany such a self; he hopes that he too can be "a perfect creature, happy {316} and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator." But the monster must resign himself to the inevitable implications that the master narrative, as a hegemonic form that has come to comprise his only sense of reality, prescribes: he is not Adam but Satan, and, hence, he is forced to act out the role of Satan: "from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me, and sent me forth to this insupportable misery" (p. 136). Confronted by the ontological insecurity engendered by the master narrative, the monster now becomes absorbed in ways of preserving his identity and his supposed autonomy. The monster's quest for revenge, then, becomes the very means of maintaining his existence, an existence he continues to cling to at novel's end: "Evil thenceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen. The completion of my demoniacal design became an insatiable passion. And now it is ended; there is my last victim!" (p. 220).

The movement within the monster's autobiography from Milton's "true history" to his discovery of what he believes is his "true" self suggests that, at novel's end, he comes to embody the hegemonic, which exists not in the abstract but in a lived system of meaning and self-identification: he now is the "monstrous." Though Victor Frankenstein, the monster's "last victim," lies dead, William, Clerval, and Elizabeth have also been victims of his necessary acts of self preservation. As alternative configurations of self, they threaten the ontological security the monster achieves in his self-identification with Milton's Satan. William, Clerval, and Elizabeth represent competing claims to what defines the "natural," and, hence, their continued existence threatens the monster with the discovery of his own unnaturalness. Their murder at the hands of the monster symbolically enacts the way in which the hegemonic preserves itself through the destruction of alternative systems of meaning and value; and, therefore, the linguistic process of naming engendered by Paradise Lost becomes, as Mellor notes, "a discourse of power that results in the domination of the ideology of a ruling class and leads directly to the creation of evil" (p. 134).

{317} Such self-preservation of the hegemonic does not end with the death of Victor Frankenstein, however. As the monster admits, he "did not satisfy [his] own desires. They were forever ardent and craving" (p. 221). As his earlier self-identification with Milton's Satan makes quite clear, the "demonical design" is not his own but society's, a hegemonic form engendered by Paradise Lost; nor is it ended -- it has to be continually "renewed, recreated, defended, and modified" (Williams, p. 112). Although Victor is dead and the monster is about to resign himself to the silence and darkness of the Arctic night, Walton lives to return, to repeat and recapitulate in his life and letters the triumph of Milton's monstrous myth.

In A Writer's Diary Virginia Woolf remarks that in Milton "is summed up much of what men thought of our place in the universe, of our duty to God, our religion" (emphasis added);16 but in A Room of One's Own she claims that the woman writer must "look past Milton's bogey," for only then "she will be born."17 Like Woolf, Mary Shelley recognized the immense power of the monolithic and monologic voice of Paradise Lost particularly as it pertained to the nineteenth-century discourse of identity; and she, too, attempted to "look beyond" the ontological boundaries prescribed by Milton's epic. But in order to engender a counter-mythology of self she had to discover "new forms or adaptations of form" (Williams, p. 126), and Shelley found them in the Gothic. Concerned as it is with questions of identity, ontological insecurity, and the cultural and psychological boundaries of self-representation, the Gothic novel became the emergent literary form best suited to explore and unmask the limited and limiting ontology of Paradise Lost.

Gothic fiction betrays an anxiety about such boundaries or limits -- especially those that separate the individual self from something that is other18 -- not only the limits to self that confront the characters but those that confront the au- {318} thor as well. For Mary Shelley and her monster, Paradise Lost and its system of naming presents just such an apparently impenetrable boundary, which, in its ontological limitations, cuts off the self from alternative namings such as "Elizabeth" or "Clerval." But as Mary Poovey points out, the "representation of ideology (whether conscious or not) can sometimes expose its implicit contradictions";19 and while the monster remains trapped in the cultural parameters of being engendered by Paradise Lost, for the author a means of escape from such limits may be found in the Gothic form itself, in which its two contradictory patterns, realism and fantasy, overlap but do not join. As stated earlier, the subjective or fantastic element in Gothic fiction subverts the primacy of a realistic reading and calls into question the ideology of the real and of the hegemonic status. In her conscious representation of Milton's myth of identity and its disastrous consequences, Mary Shelley points out the contradictions inherent in the bourgeois ideal of the individual. Explicit in the narratives of Walton, Victor, and the monster is Shelley's recognition that subjective self-representation is infiltrated and controlled by culturally predetermined ideas of personality; and yet, the notion of self inaugurated by Milton's myth insists on the relative autonomy of the individual, who is "by nature free." In fact her novel suggests that the very moment the self claims its greatest autonomy may be the moment that is most marked by the cultural predeterminants of identity. As Frankenstein makes clear, our nature is never "willingly chosen"; self is always a social construct. Such an intuition on Mary Shelley's part paves the way for other culturally determined notions of male and female identity, for alternative discourses of self based not on the ideal of autonomy but, perhaps, on those of community and companionship. As Eugenia DeLamotte points out, the boundaries of the self was a crucial issue for nineteenth-century women, and the female Gothic dramatizes the awareness that women have to "struggle for self-realization in an artificially enclosed world" (p. {319} 27). In Frankenstein the Miltonic subtext stands as a linguistic mausoleum, and the novel deals with woman's and man's (author's and character's) immurement in such an ideologically confining space. By novel's end, however, Mary Shelley may be suggesting that we can escape the artificial enclosure of self by expanding our idea of what the self means, if only to include the final vision of Paradise Lost, where Adam and Eve, "hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow, / Through Eden took thir solitary way" (XII, ll. 648-49; emphasis added).

Yet, while Frankenstein clearly dramatizes the self's immurement in the restrictive ideology of Paradise Lost, the relationship of Mary Shelley's novel to Milton's epic remains problematic. Since all literature retains cultural ideology, and this is especially the case with a work like Paradise Lost, while Shelley may reject Milton's prescriptive and prohibitive ontology, she cannot avoid the ideological detritus that her own deconstruction of Milton's monstrous myth precipitates. There is always fallout when we explode inherited systems of meaning, and as criticism of the novel -- past and present -- evinces, Milton's work retains its powerful hold on Mary Shelley's imagination as well as our own.20 Yet while she could not silence Milton's voice, in her critique of his role in the cultural formation of self Shelley did succeed in changing the discourse of identity from monologue to dialogue. She began to reconstruct and restore the voices against which Milton's masterwork was opposed, voices "for the most part stifled and reduced to silence" (Jameson, p. 85). In Frankenstein Mary Shelley looked beyond "Milton's bogey" in search of another "true history" of what we are.


1.Mary W. Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), p. 220. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

2. See Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 108-14.

3. Contemporary study of Frankenstein that treats, at least in part, the relationship between Mary Shelley's novel and Milton's Paradise Lost begins with Harold Bloom's "Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus," Partisan Review, 32 (1965), 611-18, and can be divided into two groups. In the first group, critics like Bloom see Shelley's novel essentially as a Romantic version of Paradise Lost, in which Milton's epic serves ironically as a gloss upon the action of the novel and the identity of the characters. See, for example, Burton R. Pollin, "Philosophical and Literary Sources of Frankenstein" Comparative Literature, 17 (1965), 97-108; Milton A. Mays, "Frankenstein: Mary Shelley's Black Theodicy," Southern Humanities Review, 3 (1969), 146-53; Joseph H. Gardner, "Mary Shelley's Divine Tragedy," Essays in Literature, 4 (1977), 182-97; and Leslie Tannenbaum, "From Filthy Type to Truth: Miltonic Myth in Frankenstein," Keats-Shelley Journal, 26 (1977), 101-13. More recently, however, critics have begun to see Frankenstein not simply as a Romantic reworking of Paradise Lost but as a critique and/or subversion of Milton's epic and its inherent ideology. See, particularly, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 213-47; Peter McInerney, "Frankenstein and the Godlike Science of Letters," Genre, 13 (1980), 455-76; Paul Sherwin, "Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe," PMLA, 96 (1981), 883-903; Mary Jacobus, "Is There a Woman in This Text?," New Literary History, 14 (1982), 117-42; Joyce Carol Oates, "Frankenstein's Fallen Angel," Critical Inquiry, 10 (1984), 543-54; Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 100-119; and Chris Baldick, In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 30-62. This essay takes part in this recent trend of reading Shelley's novels as a critique of Milton's epic and differs primarily in that it argues that the focus of her critique is the ideology of identity and parameters of being encoded in Paradise Lost.

4. "Preface" to Prometheus Unbound, in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 133.

5. Literary Women (New York: Doubleday, 1976), p. 92.

6. Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 136. Like Mellor, who does not deal specifically with Paradise Lost, I believe that Mary Shelley sees the monster's identity as "an arbitrary semantic construction" imposed upon him and that severely limits the possible answers to his ontological crisis (p. 128). But, whereas Mellor maintains that identity in the novel is a process of seeing, I feel that it is more of a process of "reading," in which Paradise Lost and the ontological choices it provides serves as a restrictive cultural repository 'of the lineaments of being and that Milton's epic as such names not just the monster but Frankenstein and Walton as well.

7. Edward E. Sampson, "The Deconstruction of the Self," in Texts of Identity, ed. John Shotter and Kenneth J. Gergen (London: Sage Publications, 1989), p. 3.

8. John Milton, Paradise Lost, in Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1957), Bk. V, ll. 527-28. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

9. The Autonomy of the Self from Richardson to Huysmans (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), p. 33.

10. George E. Haggerty, Gothic Fiction / Gothic Form (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1989), p. 14.

11. Claudio Guillén, Literature as System: Essays Toward the Theory of Literary History (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), p. 65.

12. The term "master narrative" is borrowed from Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), p.28.

13. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), p. 156.

14. See Peter Brooks, "Godlike Science / Unhallowed Arts: Language and Monstrosity in Frankenstein," New Literary History, 9 (1978), 593.

15. Jameson claims (p. 85) that such silencing is part of the very process of hegemonic culture.

16. A Writers Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953), p. 6.

17. A Room of One's Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1919), pp. 198-99.

18. See Eugenia C. DeLamotte, Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), p. 19.

19. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), p. xv.

20. Martin Tropp, in Mary Shelley's Monster: The Story of Frankenstein (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), for example, perpetuates the reading of Frankenstein as a Romantic version of Paradise Lost; and even Gilbert and Gubar claim, finally, that "by parodying Paradise Lost in what may have begun as a secret, barely conscious attempt to subvert Milton, Shelley ended up telling, too, the central story of Paradise Lost" (p. 221).