Contents Index

The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein

George Levine

In The Endurance of "Frankenstein": Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: Univ. of California Press, 1979), pp. 3-30.


{3} It's a commonplace now, that everybody talks about Frankenstein, but nobody reads it. That depends on what is meant by "nobody." It is possible, of course, that "Frankenstein" became an entry in every serious recent dictionary by way of the variations -- dramas, films, television versions -- through which Mary Shelley's monster and his creator most obviously survive. But while Frankenstein is a phenomenon of popular culture, it is so because it has tapped into the center of Western feeling and imagination: we can hear echoes of it, not only in Gothic fiction, science fiction, and fantasies of all sorts, but in far more "respectable" works, written before the glut of popular cinematic distortions. Frankenstein has become a metaphor for our own cultural crises, and survives even yet in high literary culture whose professors may have seen Boris Karloff stumbling through a fog, hands outstretched, at least once too often.

Of course, Frankenstein is a "minor" novel, radically flawed by its sensationalism, by the inflexibly public and oratorical nature of even its most intimate passages. But it is, arguably, the most important minor novel in English. If we return to the text for a check on Boris Karloff, or, recently, Mel Brooks, or for some further light on Percy Shelley, invariably we find that the book is larger and richer than any of its progeny and too complex to serve as mere background. Even in our dictionaries, "Frankenstein" has become a vital metaphor, peculiarly appropriate to a culture dominated by a consumer technology, neurotically obsessed with "getting in touch" with its authentic self and frightened at what it is discovering: "a work, or agency that proves troublesomely uncontrollable, {4} esp. to its creator."1 Latent in the metaphor are some of the fundamental dualisms, the social, moral, political and metaphysical crises of Western history since the French Revolution. It may well appear that the metaphorical implications are far more serious than the novel that gave birth to them, but that novel has qualities that allow it to exfoliate as creatively and endlessly as any important myth; if it threatens to lapse into banality and bathos, it yet lives through unforgettable dreamlike images -- of the kind explored elsewhere in this volume by Philip Stevick.

Frankenstein echoes the old stories of Faust and Prometheus, exploring the limits of ambition and rebelliousness and their moral implications; but it is also the tale of a "modern Prometheus," and as such it is a secular myth, with no metaphysical machinery, no gods: the creation is from mortal bodies with the assistance of electricity, not spirit; and the deaths are not pursued beyond the grave. The dream vision out of which the work grows -- Mary Shelley's vision embodied in that "dreary night in November" -- is echoed by Victor Frankenstein's dream vision within the novel proper, of worms and shrouds, not of angels or of devils. The dreams emerge from the complex experiences that placed the young Mary Shelley, both personally and intellectually, at a point of crisis in our modern culture, where idealism, faith in human perfectibility, and revolutionary energy were counterbalanced by the moral egotism of her radical father, the potential infidelity of her ideal husband, the cynical diabolism of Byron, the felt reality of her own pregnancy, and a great deal more. Peter Scott and U. C. Knoepflmacher discuss elsewhere in this volume what the circumstances were. But the text itself announces clearly, as only dream can make clear, the terms of our modern crises.

The distinctiveness of the Frankenstein metaphor, its peculiar appropriateness to the developing cultures of nineteenth and twentieth-century England and America, can be usefully clarified by remarking briefly on Percy Shelley's relation to the novel. In the introduction to his excellent edition of the text, James Rieger has shown that Percy watched closely over the development of Mary's manuscript in all of its stages, and received "carte blanche" from {5} her to revise it as he would.2 More than editor, Percy was, in Rieger's view, "a minor collaborator" (p. xliv). Yet, despite involvement in many details of the writing, despite the persistence of Shelleyan images and parallels between Victor's and Percy Shelley's education,3 the central imagination is certainly Mary's alone. Under Percy's eyes, perhaps without his fully knowing (perhaps without fully knowing it herself), Mary created a narrative that put her husband himself to the test -- that juxtaposed ideal vision against the banalities and corruption of ordinary physical and social life in ways that, as I have described them elsewhere,4 anticipated the preoccupations of the Victorian novel, and through it, of the culture itself. Shortly after Frankenstein, Percy Shelley was to create his own Prometheus, a figure who triumphs by renouncing revenge for a visionary love and generative passivity. The Spirit of the Hours, describing the effect of the fall of the tyrant Jupiter, provides us with a Shelleyan vision of man redeemed:

The loathsome mask has fallen, the Man remains, --
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, -- but Man:
Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the King
Over himself; just, gentle, wise; but man
Passionless? no: yet free from guilt or pain,
Which were, for his will made, or suffered them
Not yet exempt, tho' ruling them like slaves,
From chance, and death, and mutability,
The clogs of that which else might oversoar
The loftiest star of unascended heaven,
Pinnacled dim in the intense inane.5
But Frankenstein, of course, denies love its triumph. Men and monster are anything but rulers over guilt and pain: Walton's narrative {6} ends in the frustration of his enterprise; Victor's ends in a death caused by his creature or, more precisely, by his own vengeful pursuit of it; the Monster, with no relation consummated except through murder, goes off to self-immolation. Early on, Frankenstein tells Walton that "a human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity" (p. 51). But the novel refuses to allow human beings to remain "in perfection." Percy Shelley's "loftiest star" may resemble Walton's or Victor's aspirations, yet the novel itself is located, with the weight of earthly gravity, in the material world. The weight is a continuing comment on Victor's ambition, as the obscene flesh of the charnel house is the imaged irony of Victor's attempt to create life out of matter. To attempt to transcend time, chance, death, and mutability by means of matter -- the materials of time -- is literally chimerical.

Yet the novel offers us no other means. The passivity and acquiescence of Percy Shelley's Prometheus, by which he triumphs over Jupiter, has its analogue in Victor Frankenstein's unwilled obsession with creating life. Victor falls into a trance," so driven by his creative energy that even what is loathsome becomes possible to him. In his "workshop of filthy creation" he loses "all soul or sensation" (p. 50) (and the equation of the two is itself interesting). But it is almost a parody of the loss of self in the Christian ideal, or the Shelleyan one. And the trance of the laboratory is echoed in the various trances by which Victor lapses out of action and overt responsibility throughout the narrative. Such trances are obviously not Promethean triumphs of the spirit, but physical, material, time-bound effects of the very passion that man "in perfection" ought not allow to disturb him. Frankenstein rejects the conception of man's spirit unanchored in flesh. In contrast to Percy Shelley's exploration and celebration of at least the dream of the power of spirit to fold "over the world its healing wings," Mary Shelley's novel can be seen as an exploration of the powerlessness of love to control the passions that are hidden deep in our being, that are sure to find physical expression, and, finally, that are unimaginable without pain or guilt.

Ironically, then, Frankenstein's mysterious power derives from a thoroughly earthy, practical, and unideal vision of human nature and possibility. Its modernity lies in its transformation of fantasy and traditional Christian and pagan myths into unremitting {7} secularity, into the myth of mankind as it must work within the limits of the visible, physical world. The novel echoes, for example, with the language and the narrative of Paradise Lost, but it is Paradise Lost without angels, or devils, or God. When the Monster invokes the analogy between himself and Adam or Satan, we are obviously invited to think of Frankenstein as God. Yet, we know that the Monster is a double of Victor himself, and that as he acts out his satanic impulses he is acting out another aspect of Victor's creation of him. God, however, cannot be a rebel; nor can he be Adam or Satan's "double." He cannot be complicit in his creature's weaknesses, cannot be destroyed by what he creates. The whole narrative of Frankenstein is, indeed, acted out in the absence of God. The grand gestures of Frankenstein may suggest a world of fantasy that has acquired a profound escapist appeal in modern culture, but they take place in a framework that necessarily makes an ironic commentary on them, even while our sympathies are drawn to dreams of the more than human the narrative will not allow.

This characteristic tension between an impinging, conditional, and time-bound world and a dream of something freer and better makes the central subject matter and form of the nineteenth-century novel and, ironically, of nineteenth-century science as well. The old myths enter nineteenth-century fiction, but they do so in the mode of realism (which Northrop Frye, in another context, has described as an "ironic mode"6). Thus, though it would be absurd to claim Mary Shelley as a direct "influence" on the dominant literary and scientific forms of the century, we can see that in her secularization of the creation myth she invented a metaphor that was irresistible to the culture as a whole. As George Eliot turned to Feuerbach to allow her to transform Christianity into a humanism with all the emotional power of religion, so the novel itself, as a genre, put its faith in a material world of fact that, as Matthew Arnold pointed out, had failed us. In writers as central and various as Feuerbach, Comte, Darwin, Marx, Frazer, and Freud we can find Victor Frankenstein's activity: the attempt to discover in matter what we had previously attributed to spirit, the bestowing on matter (or history, or society, or nature) the values once given to God.

{8} This argument puts Mary Shelley in some rather remarkable company, but, of course, the point is not to equate the achievement of her little "ghost story" with that of the great thinkers named. The claim is simply that Mary Shelley did, indeed, create an image, with the authenticity of dream vision, that became prophetic; that the image articulates powerfully the dominant currents of her culture and ours; and that it is for these reasons that Frankenstein has survived its own adolescent clumsiness and its later distortions.

The pervasiveness of the Frankenstein metaphor in modern consciousness testifies to the richness and variousness of its implications. The dictionary definition focuses only on the uncontrollable nature of the thing created; but the image of the created Monster, emerging from the isolated workshop of the obsessed but otherwise gentle scientist, unfolds into more possibilities than I can describe. Serious readings of the novel, of the sort that follow in this volume, will work out in greater detail some of these possibilities, all of which are related to the way the myth is anchored in a newly secular reading of experience. Even Judith Wilt's evocative exploration of how Mary Shelley's narrative, reflecting a negative trinity, arches back toward a traditional religious form, reenforces the sense that Frankenstein offers us a metaphor that expresses the central dualities and tensions of our time by positing a world without God. At the risk of arbitrary exclusions and of belaboring what may seem obvious, I want to outline some of the major implications of the Frankenstein metaphor in contemporary consciousness, and as they have their sources in the novel proper.


1. Birth and Creation. In Frankenstein we are confronted immediately by the displacement of God and woman from the acts of conception and birth. Where Victor imagines himself embarked on the creation of a new race that would bless him, he behaves, even before his creation proves a monster, as though he is engaged in unnatural, shameful activity. Neither of the two attitudes is entirely undercut by the narrative, even though the dream of the new race is, of course, exploded. The image of Frankenstein in his laboratory is not only of an unnatural act, but also one of an heroic dream, and the novel's insistence, even through Walton and the Monster, on Victor's heroic nature, implies that the creation {9} without God, without woman, need not be taken as an unequivocal evil.

The displacement of woman obviously reflects a fear of birth and Mary Shelley's own ambivalence about childbearing (a subject explored below by Ellen Moers and U. C. Knoepflmacher); the Monster's presence on the wedding night becomes a permanent image of the horror of sexuality as opposed to the ideal and nonsexual love of the cousins, Victor and Elizabeth. The image of the Monster lurking ominously in the background, with Elizabeth sprawled on the bed, is one of the dominant icons of the film versions. Obviously, the image is profoundly phallic and profoundly violent, an unacceptable alternative to and consequence of the act of conception in the laboratory. Indeed, in the novel itself (as I shall point out later) the two scenes precisely echo each other. In both cases, there is an association that runs as constant groundmotif through the novel.

Sexuality and birth, imagination and creation are, in this heavily material world, reverse images of death and destruction. Frankenstein and his creature come to represent, in part, an alternative to the violence of sexuality, on the one hand, and to the sheer spirituality of divine creation, on the other. Victor and his Monster hover between, leaning away from the flesh alive (ironically, only to dabble in dead flesh), imitating the divine rather than the human sexual act.

2. The Overreacher. The aspiration to divine creative activity (akin to Romantic notions of the poet) places Victor Frankenstein in the tradition of Faustian overreachers. Frankenstein the creator is also Frankenstein the modern Prometheus, full of the great Romantic dream -- concretized for a moment in the French Revolution -- of a rebirth of mankind. True, Victor is seeking a kind of immortality, but, as Ellen Moers points out, Mary Shelley works the Faust tradition in an unusual (and, I might again add, secularizing) way by having Victor seek immortality not directly for himself but in the creation of offspring. If we detect the stirrings of selfishness in Victor's desire to have a whole species that would bless him, the text still insists on the profundity of his moral character and the conscious morality of all of his choices save the fatal one. Indeed (by a strategy that other novelists would have to adopt7), Frankenstein {10} is removed from direct personal responsibility even for his own ambitions: for the most part he is described as passively consumed by energies larger than himself or as quite literally unconscious and ill when his being conscious might have changed the course of the narrative.

The theme of the overreacher is largely complicated by the evidence that Victor's worst sin is not the creation of the Monster but his refusal to take responsibility for it. It is as though God had withdrawn from his creation. Characteristically, in the secularizing myth, Mary Shelley has imagined the responsibilities of God shifted to mankind. The burden is too great to allow is an easy moral placing of Victor. The theme of the overreacher in this context brings us to the kind of impasse that Frankenstein itself reaches in the mutual destruction of creator and created. That is, we see that the ambition is heroic and admirable, yet deadly because humans are incapable of fulfilling their dreams in material reality, or, paradoxically, of bearing the responsibility for them should they succeed.

When Victor refuses to tell Walton the secrets of infusing dead matter with life, we find the fullest justification of the popular anti-intellectual interpretation of the Faustian theme. Early, Victor warns Walton: "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the achievement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow" (p. 48). Victor puts himself forth as a living parable of the dangers of overreaching, yet by the end he refuses to deny the validity of his undertaking and cries, "Yet another may succeed." The novel will not resolve the issue.

3. Rebellion and Moral Isolation. Obviously, these aspects of the myth are related to "overreaching." Yet it is important to note that they apply not only to Victor but to the Monster as well, whose ambition is really limited to the longing for domestic affection. Victor himself is not quite imagined as a rebel, except perhaps in his pursuit of alchemical knowledge after his father ridicules him {11} for reading Paracelsus. In any case, unlike the Monster, he does not consciously rebel against authority. Yet, "animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm," Victor takes up an intellectual pursuit (whence did the "principle of life proceed") that places him outside the traditional Christian world, and that ought to make him, like Adam eating an apple, a rebel against God. The context, however, is quietly un-Christian. Victor speaks in a scientific or at least naturalistic language that assumes a natural material answer to what was once a religious and metaphysical question. "One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life" (p. 46). And though he concedes that "some miracle might have produced" the discovery, "the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable" (p. 47). Such passages, in their insistence on the merely human credibility of the extraordinary narrative, are characteristic; and although we can recognize here that Victor has stepped over the limits of safe human behavior, and that his success will be blighted, the rhetoric of scientific probability is never seriously undercut in the book.

The moral isolation into which Victor sinks is, in effect, chosen for him by his obsession. Like Raskolnikov plotting murder, like Dimmesdale guilty of adultery, Victor lives with a secret that we understand, without explanation, must be kept from public knowledge. Here the residue of metaphysical shame works its effects, but social and psychological explanations offer themselves immediately. In any case, the activity separates Victor from normal life as fully as a direct act of murder would. He works in a solitary chamber, or cell, "at the top of the house" (p. 50). After analyzing "all the minutiae of causation," he wonders why "among so many men of genius, who had directed their inquiries towards the same science,. . . I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret" (p. 47). This humble pride echoes the tone of the peaceful Frankenstein household in Geneva; but its association with Victor's obsession with "filthy" work makes even the humility of the scientific quest an act of rebellion against the enclosed harmony of that household.

The Monster's isolation derives not so much from his actions as from his hideousness. Where Victor moves from domestic bliss to the garret, the Monster leaves the garret to seek that bliss. Victor's revolutionary action causes his isolation; the Monster's isolation {12} causes his revolutionary action. "Believe me, Frankenstein," he says, "I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone?" (p. 95). Unless Victor creates a companion for him, he warns, he will not again be "virtuous"; "I will glut the maw of death until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends" (p. 94).

Despite the apparent moral simplicity of most modern versions of Frankenstein, the Frankenstein metaphor implies great ambiguity about where the burden of good and evil rests. Both Victor and the Monster imply resistance to the established order. Lee Sterrenburg points out how the iconography of the monster is clearly connected with Bonaparte and political revolution. In early Romantic literature, of course, rebellion is more likely to be a virtue than a sin, and the Monster makes a strong case against social injustice. Even Walton, though warned by Victor, is instinctively convinced of the justice of the Monster's arguments.

The constantly shifting moral perspectives of the narrative results from the fact that each of its major figures -- Walton, Victor, the Monster -- is at once victimizer and victim; and this tradition is even continued in modern movie versions. In novel and films, any singularity is punished by the community, either by forcing isolation or by literal punishment. The three major figures and Felix De Lacey variously challenge the established order and acquire dignity by virtue of the challenge and of the punishment that ensues. Thus the novel, which might be taken as a parable of the necessity of limits is an entirely secular world, may also be taken as a parable of the necessity for revolutionary reprisal (at whatever cost) because of the social and political limits that frustrate the noblest elements of the human spirit.

4. The Unjust Society. After the execution of the innocent Justine, Elizabeth Lavenza, the vessel of domestic purity, tells Victor that "men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other's blood" (p. 88). Even if she retracts immediately ("Yet I am certainly unjust"), the notion that the world of men is itself "monstrous" is a constant motif of the novel. Even in the most conventional of the modern Frankenstein films, the motif emerges when, in the obligatory misty night, the villagers turn out as a maddened lynch mob and transform Frankenstein and the Monster into victims of an overwhelming attack on the castle. In almost every film, the townspeople are almost comically banal, the burgomeisters and gendarmerie {13} officious and totally without sensibility. Absurd though these figures may be (Cedric Hardwicke's wooden arm is transformed in Dr. Strangelove and Young Frankenstein into appropriately grotesque and comic parodies), they echo the essentially shallow ambitions and dreams of security that fill the background of the novel.

There the motif is handled subtly enough to make the monstrous problematic. Elizabeth's sense that "men are monsters" recurs in the monster's ingenious hectoring of Victor in a fine Godwinian rational discourse. Moreover, the De Lacey story is a continuing narrative of injustice, on all sides. And in his last speech to Walton, the Monster makes clear once more that his own monstrousness is not really different from that of the world that condemns him. Of Victor, he says:

For whilst I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were for ever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me? Why do you not hate Felix, who drove his friend from his door with contumely? Why do you not execrate the rustic who sought to destroy the saviour of his child? Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings. I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice. [P. 219]
The novel has taught us to distrust the evenhandedness of the law that Victor's father praises before Justine is executed; we understand with the monster that greed is a commonplace of social activity. Not even the family unit -- Frankenstein's and the Monster's ideal -- escapes the contamination that almost makes rebellion necessary and that makes Victor's escape to this laboratory from Geneva seem psychologically and socially explicable.

5. The Defects of Domesticity. The theme of the overreacher and the rebel -- the Promethean theme -- is the other side of the theme of ideal domesticity. Percy Shelley, in the preface he wrote -- in the guise of Mary -- for the 1818 edition, insisted that Frankenstein's chief concern is "the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue" (p. 7). Although this assertion is more than a devious defense of a possibly offensive story, it is only part of the truth. Kate Ellis shows elsewhere in this volume that Mary Shelley treats "domestic affection" in such a way as to make it possible to read Frankenstein as an attack on the {14} very traditions of bourgeois society it purports to be celebrating. Certainly, as we have seen, "the amiableness of domestic affection" does nothing to satisfy Victor Frankenstein's ambitions, or to prevent the monstrous creation; nor, in the tale of the Monster's wanderings, does it extend to anything outside itself to allow for the domestication of the Monster's loving energies. "Domestic affection" is, in a way, defined by its exclusion of energy and by its resistance to the larger community. The Monster instinctively believes in the rhetoric of domesticity and the need for community; it is psychologically and dramatically appropriate that he should exhaust himself in the total destruction of ostensibly ideal domesticity when he discovers that he is excluded from it, and that the ideal is false.

The dream of moving beyond the ideal prison of domesticity and the warning that such dreaming is deadly are among the staple patterns of nineteenth-century realistic fiction. Realism tends to remove the spirit, the ideal vision, the angel, from the Miltonic worldscape to the bourgeois household. The final reduction of the religious to the secular is perhaps most evident in the way the home is imagined as a temple. In the idealized Elizabeth Lavenza, in Frankenstein's self-sacrificing mother, in selfless Justine, we have foreshadowings of the Victorian angel in the house. None of the angels survive: the monstrous (which turns out to be at least partly sexual, the creation of human energy exerted on matter) intrudes on the angelic world. The threat of such intrusion is central to the meaning of the Frankenstein metaphor, and brings us to the edge of the conception of civilization and its discontents. Even domestic affection is imprisoning, a weight on individual freedom, and it may be only less disastrous than the energy required to break free. Either way one turns, to a defective society or a rampant individualism, there is no peace without the sort of frustrated compromise Walton makes and that the Victorian novel will insist on.

6. The Double. Almost every critic of Frankenstein has noted that Victor and his monster are doubles.8 The doubleness even enters some of the popular versions and is un-self-consciously accepted by everyone who casually calls the monster "Frankenstein." The motif of the Doppelgänger was certainly in Mary's mind during the {15} writing, as it was a part of the Gothic tradition in which she wrote; moreover, it is one with which she would have been intimately connected through Shelley himself, as in "Alastor" and "Epipsychidion." So pervasive has been the recognition that the Monster and Frankenstein are two aspects of the same being that the writers in this volume assume rather than argue it. The narrative requires us to see that the doubling extends beyond the two major narrators: Walton is obviously another aspect of Frankenstein, and Clerval yet another; Elizabeth can be paired with Victor's mother, with Justine, and with the unfinished "bride" of the Monster. U. C. Knoepflmacher brilliantly argues further that the Monster and Elizabeth are really one. (In the film The Bride of Frankenstein, as Albert LaValley reminds us, Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary Shelley and the monstrous bride; and in the recent Warhol Frankenstein, Victor's wife is also, and accurately, his sister.) Such doublings and triplings, with reverberations in and out of the novel in Mary Shelley's own life and in modern psychological theory, suggest again the instability and ambivalence of the book's "meanings." They point centrally to the way "Frankenstein" as a modern metaphor implies a conception of the divided self, the creator and his work at odds. The civilized man or woman contains within the self a monstrous, destructive, and self-destructive energy. The angel in the house entails a demon outside it, the Monster leering through the window at the horrified Victor and the murdered Elizabeth. Here, in particular, we can watch the specially secularized versions of traditional mythology. The devil and the angel of the morality play are replaced by a modern pre-Freudian psychology that removes the moral issue from the metaphysical context -- the traditional concepts of good and evil -- and places it entirely within the self. Morality is, as it were, replaced by schizophrenia. Frankenstein's longing for domesticity is echoed in the Monster's (and in Walton's expression of loneliness in the opening pages); Frankenstein's obsession with science is echoed in the monster's obsession with destruction. The two characters haunt and hunt each other through the novel, each evoking from us the sympathy for their sufferings, revulsion from their cruelties.

The echoes force themselves on us with persistence and intensity that override the mere narrative and even enter into popular versions that are not intrinsically concerned with doubling. The book creates a psychomachia, an internal war that has its own {16} authenticity despite the grotesqueness of the external action. If the characters seem shallow as novelistic figures within the conventions of realism we have come to assume are natural to nineteenth-century fiction, it is partly because they are imagined from the start as incomplete (a notion explored in Peter Brooks's essay). They can be seen, indeed, as fragments of a mind in conflict with itself, extremes unreconciled, striving to make themselves whole. Ambition and passivity, hate and love, the need to procreate and the need to destroy are seen, in Frankenstein, as symbiotic: the destruction of one is, through various narrative strategies, the destruction of the other.

7. Technology, Entropy, and the Monstrous. Perhaps the most obvious and continuing application of the word "Frankenstein" in modern society is to technological advances. This is altogether appropriate to Mary Shelley's original conception of the novel since Victor's discovery of the secret of life is fundamentally scientific; and he talks of his "animation" of the Monster's body as a mere trick of technology. Modern science fiction and modern industry are full of such "animated" beings, the products of computer technology; with the discovery of DNA, biologists even seem on the verge of simulating the natural process of creation of life. But both of these developments are part of the same imagination as Mary Shelley gives us with her Monster: that life is not "spirit" but matter imbued with energy, itself another form of matter.

Martin Tropp has noted that "when Mary Shelley gave her intended 'ghost story' a scientific context, she linked the Gothic concept of the double with technology."9 Her fears of the creation of life by mere mechanisms, Tropp notes, resulted from her awareness that "technology can never be more than a magnified image of the self" (p. 55). And when that self is engaged in a psychomachia, the result can only be large-scale disaster. In a psychic world of the divided self, in a social world in which domesticity and ambition are seen as incompatible poles, the self expressed in technology can only be what our original dictionary definition tells us, "troublesomely uncontrollable, esp. to its creator," i.e., monstrous. The nightmare quality of the novel depends on this projection of the self into an objectively existing, independent reality over which one {17} necessarily loses control as it acts out one's own monstrous passions. Here all the battery of Freudian equipment comes neatly or, perhaps, explosively into play. All the elements of moral isolation, the grubbing in filthy flesh, the obsessed and inhuman energies that went into the creation of the Monster, can be seen acting themselves out in the destruction they really imply -- in the incestuous destructiveness of Victor's ostensibly ideal relation to Elizabeth, in the fraternal hostility buried in his love for poor William, in the hatred of his mother implied in his failure to save Justine (who has adopted Mrs. Frankenstein's very way of life). Such implications are explored in a great deal of criticism of the novel. But the point here is that technology becomes the means by which these buried aspects of the self are enacted. The "work or agency" does not rebel against the creator but actually accomplishes what the creator wants. It is only in his "mental consciousness," as D. H. Lawrence would have called it, that the creator does not know what he wants. The uncontrolled technological creation is particularly frightening and obsessively attractive to modern consciousness because it forces a confrontation with our buried selves. It promises to reveal to us our deepest and most powerful desires, and to enact them. The Monster demands our sympathetic engagement while our social consciousness must be an act of will -- almost like Walton's when he finds himself irresistibly attracted by the Monster's talk -- reject him.

The duality of our relationship to creator and creature is an echo of our relationship to the technology that we worship even as we recognize that it is close to destroying us. Another way to express the duality, in technological terms, is through the idea of entropy. Victor's overreaching is an attempt to create new life. He fails to recognize the necessary secular-scientific myth of entropy: that in any closed system, the new energy generated will be less than the energy expended in its creation, and that ultimately the system will run down. It took a great deal of death to make the new life; the making of the Monster is at the expense of all of Victor's immediate world -- brother, father, bride, friend. The world of mere matter is both finite and corrupted. Without the incalculable presence of divine spirit, creation can only entail destruction larger than itself. It is, ultimately, this nightmare image that the Monster represents to our culture.


{18} These seven elements of the Frankenstein metaphor are, of course, arbitrarily chosen; each of them has further implications that remain alive for us in the idea of Frankenstein and that have sources in the novel itself. The creator-monster dualism, for example, is also the traditional dualism of mind and body, another form of schizophrenia. The novel has achieved its special place in modern consciousness through its extraordinary resistance to simple resolutions and its almost inexhaustible possibilities of significance.

The echoes of the form and implications of the novel are pervasive through the following century. This is not to deny that it is a radically uneven and awkward work, or to claim that every echo is a direct reference. Yet in the face of its remarkable participation in the central myths of developing industrial cultures, its obvious literary deficiencies become merely curious in a work so much larger than its failings. As we listen to some of the echoes, we ought not to forget that a reasonable formal case can be made for the novel.

Unlike many of its Gothic predecessors, for example, Frankenstein has a tight structure, a pervasively self-contained set of relevancies. The nightmarish and anarchic energies of its subjects are restrained formally and within a language inherited from a rationalist literary tradition; and the restraint can itself be seen as evidence of the authenticity of the experience. Northrop Frye, for example, identifies the special quality of genuine romance as just such formal tightness as we find in the Chinese-box-like structure of the narratives, and in the echoes and parallels that bind them together. Walton, imagining himself a scientific explorer who will do wonders for mankind, is, of course, a potential Frankenstein. The whole story is told through his letters to his sister, and Frankenstein's narrative to him is both a series of moral connections and a potentially redeeming example. Frankenstein's relation to Walton is similar to the relation of the Monster to Frankenstein himself. Volume II of Frankenstein is largely given over to the report of the Monster's story (which also includes his report of the De Lacey story); it is not clear that any of the three learn from the stories they hear.

The only other English nineteenth-century novel with so successfully tight and complicated a narrative structure is Emily Brontë's {19} Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights, too, juxtaposes the demonic with the domestic, the story of Heathcliff and Cathy being enclosed in the narrative of the imperceptive Lockwood, relating the story as Nelly Dean tells it. But, as Robert Dusenberry has argued in an as yet unpublished essay, the narrative of Wuthering Heights encloses a second generation freed from the incestuously self-destructive energies of its protagonists. Thus, Emily Brontë moves her narrative from the world of romance and nightmare into that of comic (and natural) regeneration. The comparison makes the case of Frankenstein all the more perplexing.

While Wuthering Heights achieves, in its prose and wonderful control and transcendence of Gothic traditions, an unequivocal greatness and maturity, Frankenstein remains in nightmare and constantly threatens to lapse into absurdity. In Wuthering Heights everything is dramatically embodied, and the language is precise and free from the merely assertive emotionalism of the Gothic tradition. In Frankenstein there is far more telling and talking, far less dramatic realization. One of the surest signs of the frailty of the language is the frequency with which Victor fails to describe his feelings. He is always telling Walton that he "cannot describe" his emotion, or that "no one can conceive" the horror. The writer too often attempts to horrify without being horrific. The great moments tend to be enacted through melodramatic gestures, appropriate to the stage. Although the "psychology" of Frankenstein is impressive, the book has no language for the internal processes of mind. Its method is always a public rhetoric, like that Peter Brooks points to in the language of the Monster. Everything internal is transformed into large public gesture or high rhetorical argument. Or, equally significant, motives are unexplored, as Victor, at every crucial moment, faints, sleeps, or dreams.

But this weakness of the language is the other side of the psychological intensity of sharply perceived images. The external world carries, mysteriously, the internal significances. The nightmare into which Victor lapses after he has brought the Monster to life, though full of conventional images, has a resonance that echoes through the book. In that dream Elizabeth is transformed into "the corpse of my dead mother": a "shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the graveworms crawling in the folds of the flannel." The nightmare vision is followed by the waking vision that conflates remarkably with Elizabeth, Victor's mother, and the Monster. {20} The Monster appears "by the dim and yellow light of the moon," the same light that will later fall on the Monster when Victor sees him after the murder of Elizabeth: "He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sound, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks." His "yellow" skin "scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath" (pp. 52-53). However close to absurdity, such grisly moments are part of the still living metaphor of Frankenstein.

In fact, the Gothic trappings are essential to the book's power. Frankenstein is, as I have suggested in describing it as a psychomachia, a psychological novel, but certainly not in the sense that would mean anything to readers of George Eliot or Henry James. Psychological analysis in fiction tends to depend on the assumption that the workings of the human mind, if mysterious seeming, are nevertheless comprehensible within the terms of our language. And criticism, attempting to "understand" characters, tends to seek explanations that make the irrational rational. This is the peculiar strength of George Eliot, who did more to develop psychological analysis in English fiction than any English nineteenth-century writer. But the "psychology" of Frankenstein is essentially a psychology without explanation. To be sure, the book is full of the appearance of explanation, but its apparent absurdity is precisely its strength. The elaborate formal rhetoric actually tends to disguise the absence of explanation. In traditional psychological terms, the explanations for all the crucial events in the novel (except, ironically, the Monster's decision to make evil his good) are totally inadequate. Yet, in the long run, they are entirely credible. It is not possible, for example, to understand why Victor goes to the "filthy" lengths he does in handling corpses to create his Monster; or to explain, first, why he immediately assumes that the Monster is guilty of William's murder; second, why Justine confesses; and third, why, being so sure of her innocence, Victor does not defend her. And why does he fail to credit the Monster's threat to be with him on his wedding night? Obviously, no single set of explanations will do; yet nobody, I think, would have the action work out otherwise. The intense moments are there, without what Philip Stevick calls "secondary elaboration." The inadequacy of Mary Shelley's explanatory language is almost precisely the point -- ra- {21} tional discourse cannot fully account for the experience, which comes to us with the authenticity of irrational dreams.


That authenticity is especially confirmed by the reverberations of Frankenstein through the subsequent literature, even where no direct allusion is intended. The nineteenth-century English novel, as a whole, saw itself as realistic, and self-consciously rejected the kinds of excess that make the very substance of Frankenstein. Yet frequently it seems a kind of mirror image of Mary Shelley's story, emphasizing the particularities of domesticity but struggling to create heroes -- Promethean creators -- out of its protagonists, and bringing forth monsters -- if domesticated ones.

One of the most interesting mirror images is in Dickens's Great Expectations, where the plight of Magwitch, the monstrous-seeming convict who is full of violence and the capacity to love, strangely mirrors the story of the Monster in Frankenstein. Like Mary Shelley's Monster, Magwitch has an autobiographical narrative that implies the Monster's theme: if society would make him happy, he would "again be virtuous." Magwitch makes clear that he was provoked to evil by social and human injustice, and though he terrifies Pip with his battered ugliness and his tale of a wicked "friend," we sympathize with him in his pain and suffering.

But if he is like the Monster in one way, he is like Victor in another. To redeem his thwarted life, he creates a gentleman -- Pip. When Magwitch returns from Australia, Pip instinctively withdraws from him. Pip has become a moral monster. Magwitch's generous and grateful impulses have transformed a naive boy into a guilty, snobbish, and metaphorically murderous young man; and those generous impulses are almost as destructive as Victor's -- though on a smaller scale. The motif of the Doppelgänger, as Julian Moynahan long ago pointed out, is at the structural and psychological center of Great Expectations.10 Moynahan shows how Orlick acts out (as the Monster does not for Victor) hostilities that Pip, his psychological double, is not allowed to face or even to imagine. Pip {22} may only resent his sister; Orlick brains her. Pip wishes Magwitch were not his benefactor; Orlick brings the police to cart the convict away. As in Frankenstein, where the relations between Victor and Monster will spread to the other characters, monsters can destroy what we are culturally required to love or respect.

The analogy between Frankenstein and Great Expectations clearly did not escape Dickens. After Pip hears the returned Magwitch's explanation of his role as provider and creator of Pip's identity as a "young gentleman," Pip recoils and remembers Mary Shelley's novel: "The imaginary student pursued by this misshapen creature he had impiously made, was not more wretched than I, pursued by the creature who had made me, and recoiling from him with a stronger repulsion, the more he admired me and the fonder he was of me" (Great Expectations, chapter 40). Dickens brilliantly exploits the analogy. Pip refuses to see that he, albeit a gentleman, is a created monster. He identifies with Victor, "the imaginary student," not with the "misshapen creature" who has, in the shape of Magwitch, come to haunt him. And in his repulsion of the creature who stretches his hand out towards him -- just as the Monster had "stretched out" its hand -- he is emulating Victor Frankenstein's "horror" and lack of fellow-feeling.

Dickens had resorted to Frankenstein earlier. As U. C. Knoepflmacher has pointed out, The Haunted Man (1848) inverts and exorcises the specter of monstrosity. Like Victor Frankenstein, Dickens's Redlaw is a lonely scientist, a "learned man in chemistry" who possesses the powers to "uncombine" and reconstitute "component parts." His abode is a place of ice and death, "where no sun had straggled for a hundred years," the realm of blankness that Andrew Griffin, in his essay below, identifies with the death-in-life presented in both Frankenstein and Jane Eyre. Mary Shelley has Victor deny the Monster the warmth and nurture he had himself enjoyed; only by becoming himself a victim, dispossessed of friends and mate, can Victor be brought to acknowledge his oneness with his creation. The Haunted Man begins with that acknowledgment. Dickens's Redlaw does not flee from but is arrested by the "uplifted hand" of the grisly Phantom who is his double. Redlaw accepts his kinship with "this awful likeness" of himself: "living man, and the animated image of himself dead" stare at each other. And he obeys the Phantom's exhortation to destroy all other kinship. He finds another analogue of himself in the "baby savage" deposited at his {23} doorstep, "a young monster, a child who had never been a child. (The Haunted Man, chapter 2).

Still, The Haunted Man is a Christmas Book. Both Redlaw and the monsterchild can be reclaimed through the ministrations of the angelic Milly Swidger, an Elizabeth-like figure who is immune to male cruelty. The Phantom itself, though as "terrible" an "instructor" as the Spirit of Christmas Future in A Christmas Carol, effect a beneficent transformation and teaches the humanized Redlaw to care for others. The deserted child becomes an emblem for remediable social conditions. "Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds, and by thousands!" (chapter 2).

Both Great Expectations and The Haunted Man are fables, manifestations of Dickens's lifelong concern with the exorcism of private and social monstrosity. In his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend (1865), Dickens animates an entire world composed of disjointed and inorganic "component parts," a world introduced by the floating cadaver in the opening chapter, and epitomized by the dust heaps and the disjointed parts of human beings in Mr. Venus's shop. Dickens resisted the specter of monstrosity, the denial of relation, which is indulged in later Victorian fantasies such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Even in the central achievement of the Victorian realistic novel, Middlemarch, the Frankenstein metaphor emerges. Dr. Lydgate, with enormous faith in the power of biological science, seeks to discover the primitive tissue that is the source of all life. Fifteen years before Middlemarch, George Eliot had acknowledged her kinship with Mary Shelley in her anonymous short story, "The Lifted Veil."11 But in Middlemarch, the Gothic horrors that were openly presented in "The Lifted Veil" lurk beneath the ironic fabric of allusion. Lydgate, who yearns for the "monster" preserved in Mr. Farebrother's makeshift laboratory, who identifies with that Andreas Vesalius who rifled graves, in Frankenstein fashion, to study the anatomy of cadavers and was defamed as "a poisonous monster," is himself a new Prometheus whose quest will lead to disaster.

In one of the best essays written on Middlemarch, David R. Carroll characterizes Lydgate as

{24} pursuing the interaction of mind and matter to the apotheosis -- the discovery of mind in matter -- where their separateness will be resolved and paradise will eventually be regained.12
This Promethean dream -- again, like Victor's, couched in the terms of science and invested with the forms of religion -- is a more sophisticated way to imagine Victor's quest. What Victor seeks is the principle of life in matter, the transformation of it from brute externality to that which is compatible with humanity and the human dream. Yet with Lydgate, too, the activity is separated from the surrounding community, which regards Lydgate superstitiously -- so separated, indeed, that Lydgate cannot imagine marriage as compatible with his work. Because of its realist, ironic mode, Middlemarch cannot allow Lydgate even preliminary success.

But again there is a remarkable transference between science and sexuality. The failure in the laboratory ostensibly results from a marriage. Incomplete and insufficiently self-aware in his great ambition, Lydgate frees in his drawing room another kind of monster -- his destructive "torpedo" of a wife, Rosamond, who, instead of being a pretty, anonymous support and comforter, as Lydgate dreamed, manifests an independent will more powerful than his own. Lydgate's dream of domesticity, because it is entirely separate from his ambitions in the laboratory, ends with his being imprisoned by the dream house and the cuddly dream wife. Rosamond becomes to Lydgate what the Monster is to Victor, his own "vampire" (Frankenstein, p. 72).

Once again, Carroll's essay clarifies the connection, already established in Frankenstein, between science and vampirism. Following a convincing analysis of the vampiric relation between Bulstrode and Raffles, Carroll articulates the activity of Middlemarch in terms that apply directly to Mary Shelley's novel:

Now all this, especially the glimpse of vampires feeding off each other, may seem a long way from the exact functioning of a scientific hypothesis. But I suggest that one leads to the other, that George Eliot's scientific conceits (those unliterary devices paraded in Middlemarch) lead logically to these monsters, vampires, and assorted succubi (the stock in trade of Gothic fiction) who live a subterranean {25} metaphoric life beneath the provincial surface of the novel. The mind in its pride seeks to redeem by fiat the fallen world in which it lives, but instead turns it into an inferno where it is hunted down by monsters of its own creating. [p. 84]
The people of Middlemarch believe Lydgate has resuscitated a dead body, a clinching bit of evidence for Carroll's reading of the novel in terms of the Frankenstein metaphor.

The heritage of Frankenstein is yet more direct and extensive than these allusions and metaphorical elaborations can suggest. Even those verbal and melodramatic elements of Frankenstein which can seem absurd to us now have their echoes in later literature, echoes that suggest an uncanny rightness in the adolescent's dream vision. What, we might ask, do we make of a book whose initial dramatic moment is of a man in a dog sled on an ice floe in the frozen Arctic, who pauses to look up at the captain of a ship and says, as Frankenstein does, with drawing room politeness: "Before I come on board your vessel . . . will you have the kindness to inform me whither you are bound?" (p. 18). Yet in The Secret Sharer, in which Joseph Conrad takes up several of the motifs of Frankenstein -- especially that of the Doppelgänger -- the first dramatic scene duplicates, with new literary sophistication, the opening of Mary Shelley's novel. Miles from shore, Conrad's captain-double looks over the side of his ship and asks of the man swimming by, "in my ordinary tones," "'What's the matter?'" And the escaped murderer Leggatt looks up, casually, to answer, "Cramp." 13 Both scenes blend the astonishing with the commonplace in ways that mark their mutual Romantic heritage. Both books assume and enact in their language the discontinuity and incompleteness of conventional moral life.

In The Secret Sharer there is no amiableness of domestic affection, but there is the same moral entropy we have seen in Frankenstein. This too is a fiction about birth, the rescue and delivery of Leggatt from the ship, the moral birth of the captain himself. Again we see that the expense of life is death; the mark of Leggatt's living is his killing of the mate of the Sephora, and the captain himself can only be "born" by risking his ship and coming close to strangling his own mate.

{26} Just as the images and patterns of the novel recur in fiction, so they are enacted in the progress of science through the nineteenth century. Through the motif of the double, which can be transformed, as we have seen, into the motif of the vampire, we come to recognize our own potential monstrousness. At the end of the century, Freud reveals it to us with a scientific dispassion that turns it into the dominant myth of the twentieth century. We speak easily now of superego, ego, and id, of the civilized self and deepening levels of animality and instinct. Obviously, Frankenstein's Monster, though it aspires to be an ego, resolves itself into an id: certainly it is a metaphor for an uncontrollable and destructive energy. And again, no image works better than that of the figure of Elizabeth on the bed with the Monster leering through the window. Yet the particular Freudian connection with the novel comes not through the Gothic, both through the association of the Gothic with science, and with a secular vision that translates spirit into natural energy.

In an appendix to this volume, U. C. Knoepflmacher briefly analyzes a work by T. H. Huxley, Man's Place in Nature, which, he shows, not only works out in ways remarkably analogous to Frankenstein, but whose whole strategy seems to be to force on its Victorian readership the recognition that in the images of the apes, illustrations of which, front and rear view, sprinkle the text, they are -- hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable -- seeing themselves. From this perspective the entire furor over Darwinian theory can be seen as a real cultural enactment of the implied fiction of Frankenstein. Science, penetrating to the sources of life, finds our animal selves, our uncontrollable instincts for life and death.

Frankenstein as metaphor has assimilated itself to all of these intellectual and scientific developments that have transformed the way we imagine our lives. The continuity and importance of this metaphor in modern English literature might be best illustrated by concluding with its rather amusing appearance in D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, where it again comes alive, in the surprisingly offhand way Lawrence can use, located in precisely that secularizing, despiritualizing focus on matter that I have taken as the specially modern quality of Mary Shelley's myth.

Who should turn up in the college laboratory where Ursula Brangwen is studying the structure of the human cell, but Dr. {27} Frankstone? With a delightful twist, Lawrence makes Frankstone a woman, allowing the masculine mask of Victor Frankenstein to fall away and reveal the feminine spirit of his creator. In her one major speech, she in fact articulates the assumptions implicit in Victor's creation of the Monster -- the transformation of spirit into mere matter:

I don't see why we should attribute some special mystery to life -- do you? We don't understand it as we understand electricity, even, but that doesn't warrant our saying it is something special, something different in kind and distinct from everything else in the universe -- do you think it does? May it not be that life consists in a complexity of physical and chemical activities we already know in science? I don't see, really, why we should imagine there is a special order of life, and life alone -- 14
The Monster is, in some ways, the imaged articulation of the idea that there is nothing special about life, and Lawrence turns directly to the metaphor of Frankenstein for his image of that modern tendency to substitute mechanism for life. In the passage that follows this one, Ursula rejects such a vision while at the same time bringing to her examination of the cell a sort of passionate intensity we have already seen in both Victor and Lydgate; and in her questioning of what she sees she brings science and religious forms together.

Was she herself an impersonal force, or conjunction of forces, like one of these? She looked still at the unicellular shadow that lay within the field of light, under the microscope. It was alive. She saw it move -- she saw the bright mist of its ciliary activity, she saw the gleam of its nucleus, as it slid across the plane of light. What then was its will? If it was a conjunction of forces, physical and chemical, what held these forces unified, and for what purpose were they unified? [p. 441]
Ursula here turns the narrative of Frankenstein on its head. Lawrence is clearly taking that narrative as the image of the domination of mental consciousness over the mystic vitality of the whole human organism. The "sweet mystery of life" about which Mel Brooks's Elizabeth uproariously sings in Young Frankenstein is precisely what is missing in Frankenstein. And Ursula makes the true discovery in {28} Lawrencian religious vision, a discovery which, had Victor Frankenstein made it, would have sent him back to a sexual union with Elizabeth rather than on to the manufacture of his animated being, the Monster:

She could not understand what it all was. She only knew that it was not limited mechanical energy, nor mere purpose of self-preservation and self-assertion. It was a consummation, a being infinite. She was a oneness with the infinite. To be oneself was supreme, gleaming triumph of infinity. [p. 441]
At this point Ursula feels a deep "dread of the material world" and turns to "the new life, the reality," which is her relation with Skrebensky.

Lawrence provides us with a creative reading of Frankenstein. With the rest of the culture, Lawrence sees the Monster as horrifying, but because he associates mere mental consciousness with mechanism and matter, he helps us understand why the Monster is not -- in the novel -- imagined as the raging id he is usually portrayed on the screen. In Lawrence's vision, the Monster is precisely the objective image of mental consciousness, which despiritualizes matter and establishes a fatal dualism between mind and matter, that psychological and moral schizophrenia that is the source of the self-destructiveness of our culture. In turning Ursula, through the vision of the "consummation" that comes to her via the microscope, from mental consciousness to sexual life, Lawrence provides yet another commentary both on Victor's moral isolation and on the Monster's murder of Elizabeth on the night and in the place where the sexual relation was to be consummated.

In his original essay on Benjamin Franklin,15 Lawrence further elaborates his reading of Frankenstein. He sees with uncanny sureness that "Mary Shelley, in the midst of the idealists, gives the dark side to the ideal being, showing us Frankenstein's monster" (p. 34). Whatever the ambiguity of Mary Shelley's narrative, the idea of Frankenstein could only have emerged from a culture that had imagined the perfectability of humanity, rationalist or apocalyptic, or both, as in the French Revolution. And that notion of perfectibility was, as Lawrence suggests, allied to the fresh sense of the {29} power of man to shape men: "The ideal being was man created by man. And so was the supreme monster" (p. 34).

The dark side to the ideal being is a rationalist, a Godwinian, and Lawrence talks about Franklin as though he were the Monster: "if on the one hand Benjamin Franklin is the perfect human being of Godwin, on the other hand he is a monster, not exactly as the monster in Frankenstein, but for the same reason, viz., that he is the production of fabrication of the human will, which projects itself upon a living being and automatises that being according to a given precept." The true monstrousness is not, then, the raging id (which Lawrence translates into the "creative mystery"), but the attempt of consciousness to impose itself on the world, either in the form of morality or science.

The brilliance of Lawrence's "reading" of Frankenstein is not, for my purposes, as important as the fact that he thinks he finds in the Frankenstein image the materials for a radical critique of his culture. And that image works, as I have suggested, because Mary Shelley brought together in it the central dualities of a culture in which reason and science were displacing religion as centers of value. She does so without lapsing into moralism, through the simple technique of filtering the narrative through voices not her own -- in a manner that Browning used some decades later.16 By "animating" her narrative with many voices, she escaped the narrowness of the conventional first person Gothic romance, and was released from a single perspective that might have forced her into the morally conventional.

The tale survives the teller, in a way that Lawrence -- despite his rejection of both Victor and his Monster -- would have to approve. {30} Wherever we attempt to find an image of human aspiration in a technological and scientific world, wherever we attempt to find an image for the failure of that aspiration, the metaphor of Frankenstein comes immediately to hand. Ursula's quest in The Rainbow is in fact also a quest for perfection, although one in which mind and body are reconciled. But in her narrative the image for achievement cannot be Frankenstein. Ursula's dream vision, unlike Mary Shelley's, unlike Victor's, is a vision of the resurrection and the life, not of death. And it comes from Revelations, not science or radical idealism. Frankenstein is the perfect myth of the secular, carrying within it all the ambivalences of the life we lead here, of civilization and its discontents, of the mind and the body, of the self and society. It is, indeed, the myth of realism. To find another myth, the "new germination," the "earth's new architecture" which Ursula prophetically sees, we must look elsewhere, if we can.


1. This definition is from Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1971). The American Heritage Dictionary (1969) defines it similarly: "Any agency or creation that slips from the control of and ultimately destroys its creator."

2. James Rieger, ed., Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (the 1818 text) (Indianapolis, 1974). All quotations from Frankenstein will be from this edition; references will incorporated into the text.

3. Joan Baum, of York College, CUNY, has pointed out to me several very interesting parallels between Victor Frankenstein's scientific training and Percy Shelley's.

4. "Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism," Novel VII, no. 1 (1973): 517-29.

5. Prometheus Unbound, act III, scene 4, lines 193-204.

6. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 134 and passim.

7. The figure of the passive hero in Scott's novels is described carefully in Alexander Welsh, The Hero of the Waverly Novels (New York, 1968). This figure recurs with extraordinary persistence in Victorian fiction, most obviously in Dickens (cf. Oliver Twist himself), and all the way from Dobin to Daniel Deronda.

8. See, for example, Masao Miyoshi, The Divided Self (New York, 1969), and Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), esp. pp. 170-73.

9. Martin Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster (Boston, 1976), p. 52.

10. Julian Moynahan, "The Hero's Guilt: The Case of Great Expectations," Essays in Criticism X, no. 1 (1960): 60-78.

11. For a discussion of connections between "The Lifted Veil" and Frankenstein, see pp. 139-43 in U. C. Knoepflmacher, George Eliot's Early Novels (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968).

12. David Carroll, "Middlemarch and the Externality of Fact," in This Particular Web: Essays on "Middelmarch," ed. Ian Adam (Toronto, 1975), p. 77.

13. "The Secret Sharer," Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (London and Toronto, 1923), XIX: 98.

14. D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (New York, 1961), p. 440.

15. D. H. Lawrence, The Symbolic Meaning, ed. Armin Arnold (New York, 1964), pp. 34-47. This is the original version of the essay revised for Studies in Classic American Literature.

16. In a letter written to Elizabeth Barrett on 11 September 1845, Browning expressed his disappointment in finding that "'Mary dear' with the brown eyes, and Godwin's daughter and Shelley's wife" had become a "commonplace" travel writer who "surely was something better once upon a time" (The Letters of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett: 1845-1846 [New York, 1898], I:196). Robert and Elizabeth (who as early as 1831 feared that "Mrs. Shelley's genius" had "exhaled" with Frankenstein) unquestionably saw their elopement -- as did the Shelleyan George Henry Lewes and George Eliot -- as a reenactment of Percy's and Mary's flight. More important, however, is the recurrent interest in animation and resuscitation found in Browning's poetry; an essay on his indebtedness to Frankenstein would have been a valuable contribution to this volume and should be undertaken.