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The Mother Tongue in Phèdre and Frankenstein

Elissa Marder

Yale French Studies 76, Autour de Racine: Studies in Intertextuality, ed. Richard E. Goodkin, (1989), 59-77

My poor mother, how strange was your love.
-- Euripides, Hippolytus
{59} Apparently, Phèdre and Frankenstein make strange bedfellows. Racine's tragedy is the exemplary text of seventeenth-century French drama while Mary Shelley's horror tale has been read as a gloss on the English Romantic imagination. Although Phèdre is written in French and Frankenstein in English, these two texts speak to each other through a haunting figure for the foreignness of language itself. Both authors supplement the body of their texts with prefaces that recount the genesis of their works and name sources of foreign origin. Racine acknowledges his debt to Euripides' Hippolytus and Shelley attributes the inspiration of her tale to French translations of German ghost stories, but these explicit references to foreign sources are only traces of a tacit obsession common to both texts. By speaking about foreign origins, these two texts both speak about language in terms of errancy and exile--to speak about origins is to speak one's alienation from them. Phèdre and Frankenstein speak to each other through the echoes of a common obsession with the relationship between the question of origins and that of language; these two questions converge in a figure which, through the marks of its absence, becomes curiously central.

The question of origins and the implicit impossibility of speaking about them is articulated through the figure of an absent mother who dictates and engenders the texts that circumscribe her absence. Both texts are haunted by the specter of a mother who is ultimately unspeakable. The horror that permeates these texts emanates from the figure of a mother confronting the indelible trace of an offspring which she engenders but which is also foreign to her. Both works stage scenes of monstrous or unnatural childbirth which simultaneously recall and obliterate the strange affiliation between the mother and language.

{60} To be born is to be born into language and to be exiled from the mother. In this sense, the word "mother" is profoundly meaningless and can only be read as a figure of speech, even as the figure from which speech necessarily springs. How can the word "mother" speak the unaccountable event of our birth which we can neither remember nor bear to forget? In Phèdre and Frankenstein, the desire to speak stems both from an impossible desire to account for the mother and from an attempt to efface the mark of this unaccountability. The desire to speak recalls an impossible desire for the mother, a desire that she bear the burden of our birth by remaining the silent witness to a time we can only imagine but never know, a time before we needed to speak our alienation from her. In both texts, however, the mother's legacy is not the safe haven of prolinguistic plenitude, but rather the strange exile of speech itself.


"Par où commencer?" [Where to begin?], Phèdre says as she begins to break the silence around which the drama unfolds. This question interrupts Phèdre's first dialogue with Oenone, which is characterized by verbal detours that circumscribe the unnamed cause of her silence. Phèdre's response to this question seems at first like one more circumlocution. Instead of beginning to speak about her own illicit desire, she speaks about her mother and her mother's desire. Phèdre's allusion to her mother, however, is only apparently a refusal to speak. She might well ask, "Where to begin?", for the story of her still unspoken woe and the language with which she could tell that story both, in a sense, precede her. Her question leads her inexorably to the question of the mother.

To begin to speak is to begin to speak about the mother. But to speak about the mother is to enter into a labyrinth of discourse and desire from which there is no exit:

O haine de Vénus! O fatale colère!
Dans quels égarements l'amour jeta ma mère!

Oh hatred of Venus! Oh fatal wrath!
Into what aberrations did Love cast
My mother!1

{61} Between the lines of Phèdre's allusion to her mother lurks the monstrous figure of the minotaur. In an attempt both to conceal and to contain this monstrous effect of Pasiphaë's "unnatural" desire, the labyrinth was constructed. Phèdre's reference to the "égarements" that her mother endured evokes the errancy of the desire that engendered the minotaur as well as the necessity for the circuitous detours of the structure in which he was incarcerated. In order to speak her transgressive desire for Hippolyte, she must begin by speaking about her mother's transgressive desire for the bull. She both reproduces the discourse of that desire and becomes herself "lost" in that labyrinth of speech. The mother's legacy is a discourse of desire which Phèdre recalls and reproduces.

Where to begin, indeed? In a desperate attempt to exit from this labyrinth of speech and desire, Phèdre chooses to remain silent. Oenone accuses her of an "inhuman" silence: "Mourez donc et gardez un silence inhumain" (227) [Die then, and keep an inhuman silence!] But this inhuman silence does not, and perhaps cannot, remain unspoken. Before Phèdre begins to speak of her mother's love and of her own, these stories have already begun to speak through her. Phèdre's silence speaks -- not through words, but through the pains in her moribund body:

Ah! s'il vous faut rougir, rougissez d'un silence
Qui de vos maux encore aigrit la violence.


Oh! If you must blush, blush at a silence
Which ever sharpens the violence of your pains.

The aural double meaning of "maux" (pains) and "mots" (words), suggests that Phèdre's unspoken words are incorporated as pains through which her silence speaks. This active silence threatens to destroy her; the word "violence" follows "silence" like an echo that this silence has produced. Phèdre is the bearer of a maternal legacy that cannot be silenced, a mother tongue passed on to the daughter by way of the body. What is so unspeakable in this maternal legacy? Where is the cause for horror? Phèdre can only respond to the lethal "maux" produced by her inhuman silence by uttering the "mots" of a transgressive desire that produces monstrous effects.

We can read the traces of what is horrifying, violent, or unspeakable in the figurative language through which this unspeakability is spoken. Oenone attempts to force Phèdre to name her crime, but the mark of her crime is that its horror exceeds any name one might assign it. {62} After Oenone violates Phèdre's injunction against speaking Hippolyte's name in her presence, another discourse about the crime emerges. Oenone, Phèdre's nurse, serves as the midwife to an appalling figure of speech which interrogates Phèdre's unspoken desire:

Et quel affreux projet avez-vous enfanté
Dont votre coeur encor doive être épouvanté?


To what awful project have you given birth
Which must still horrify your heart?

In the felicitous precision of this figure everything has already been said. Here Phèdre's crime is animated through a figure of a monstrous childbirth. Once again, as in the case of Phèdre's allusion to Pasiphaë, transgressive desire is marked by a maternal figure.

It is precisely at this juncture that Racine departs from Euripides' Hippolytus. Up to this point, the dialogue in the Racinian play has followed the Euripidean tragedy almost word for word. Here, however, Racine strays from his near-translation of the "original" text by emphasizing a maternal figure who produces a child that is not a child. In the Euripidean text, the Nurse invokes Phaedra's love for her children and Phaedra acknowledges this love. The interrogation continues, leaving the question of "children" behind. But in the Racinian text, the question of childbirth and childbearing produces a monstrous figure that expresses precisely what cannot be said: an unspoken crime is compared to the birth of an offspring which horrifies the mother. Phèdre's "actual" crime, that she loves Hippolyte, perhaps could not engender more horror than the strange figure that Oenone employs to elicit her confession.

This figure both recapitulates the mythical maternal legacy and prophesies the outcome of the drama. In a question that posits Phèdre's unnamed crime as a monstrous childbirth, we cannot help hearing echoes of Pasiphaë. The figurative language that is used to account for a drama that is supposedly unfolding in the present speaks metaphorically of past transgressions that are passed down along the maternal line. Thus, before there are even words to "name" Phèdre's crime, it has already been articulated as a repetition of her mother's reproduction. This repetition is itself a figure for reproduction. The figure invoked by Oenone is monstrous because it is a child that is not a child. The fact that Phèdre can engender something other than literal children, and that desire does engender a child that is not a child, produces {63} horror. For the very literal status of children is put into question. Hippolyte is a peculiarly appropriate object of this desire, since he himself is a child that is not a child--that is, his status as Phèdre's stepson blurs the distinction between her "actual" children and other children, both literal and figurative, that could come to take their place. The horror engendered by the "project affreux" is that a discourse of desire and one of childbirth converge in the same figure. If this play is about incest, it is not simply because Hippolyte occupies the place of Phèdre's "son," but, more, because maternity and desire cohabit the same figure. Phèdre has become a vessel who has been figuratively impregnated by the mother's desire, which she expresses as love for her stepson.


The confusion between Phèdre's actual son and Hippolyte, her stepson, emerges as the motivating and inevitable force behind her infamous declaration of love to Hippolyte. Phèdre demands to see Hippolyte in order to speak to him about the fate of her son; but through a metonymic slippage, a discussion "about" her son leads directly to a confession of love for her stepson. Phèdre herself is utterly confounded by the inexorable logic of the discourse which leads her to this conclusion:
Que dis-je? Cet aveu que je te viens de faire,
Cet aveu si honteux, Ie crois-tu volontaire?
Tremblante pour un fils que je n'osais trahir,
Je te venais prier de ne le point haïr.
Faibles projets d'un coeur trop plein de ce qu'il aime!
Hélas! je ne t'ai pu parler que de toi-même.


What am I saying? Can you believe that this
Confession I have just made to you -- this
So shameful a declaration -- is voluntary?
Trembling for a son whom I dared not betray,
I came to beg you not to hate him.
Feeble projects of a heart too full of what it loves!
Alas, I could only speak to you of yourself!

"Trembling for a son," Phèdre can speak only about her love for her stepson; Phèdre's mother tongue conceives of maternal love as desire. {64} Any words that she utters, no matter how veiled, can only speak in a language of desire.

Phèdre tries to silence the transgressive element in this discourse by speaking about the two figures whom she can love legitimately: her son and her husband, Theseus. She attempts to conceal the hidden referent of her desire by circumscribing her love for Hippolyte in circumlocutions about her husband.2 These detours lead her to the figure of the labyrinth. At the end of this labyrinthian discourse Phèdre irrevocably utters her desire for Hippolyte:

Par vous aurait péri le monstre de la Créte,
Malgré tous les détours de sa vaste retraite:
Pour en développer l'embarras incertain,
Ma soeur du fil fatal eût armé votre main.
Mais non: dans ce dessein je l'aurais devancée;
L'amour m'en eût d'abord inspiré la pensée:
C'est moi, prince, c'est moi, dont l'utile secours
Vous eût du Labyrinthe enseigné les detours.
Que de soins m'eût coûtés cette tête charmante!
Un fil n'eût point assez rassuré votre amante:
Compagne du péril qu'il vous fallait chercher,
Moi-même devant vous j'aurais voulu marcher;
Et Phèdre au Labyrinthe avec vous descendue
Se serait avec vous retrouvée, ou perdue.


You would have been the monster's killer then,
In spite of all the windings of his maze.
To find your way in that uncertain dark
My sister would have armed you with the thread.
But no! In this design I would have been
Ahead of her, my sister! Me, not her,
It would have been whom Love at first inspired;
And I it would have been, Prince, I whose aid
Had taught you all the Labyrinth's crooked ways.
Oh, how I would have cared for this dear head!
A single thread would not have been enough
To satisfy your lover's fears for you.
I would myself have wished to lead the way
{65} And share the perils you were bound to face.
Phaedra, into the Labyrinth, with you
Would have descended, and with you returned,
To safety, or with you have perished!

At the critical moment when Phèdre finally confesses her love for Hippolyte, when she finally says the unspeakable, her declaration of love is framed as a hallucinatory attempt to rewrite the history that has led them both to this place. But in Phèdre's revision of the story, the last word is "perdue" [lostl. The mother's legacy is a threadlike speech which leads back into the labyrinth and not out of it. Phèdre can do nothing other than bear the thread of this discourse, which draws her back into the past of her mother's transgression and her sister's abandonment. In her futile attempt to conceal her love for Hippolyte through verbal detours, this love emerges as the transgressive offspring of the mother tongue.

After Phèdre confesses her love to Hippolyte, she tells Oenone:

J'ai dit ce que jamais on ne devait entendre.
Ciel! comme il m'écoutait! Par combion de détours
L'insensible a longtemps éludé mes discours!


I have said that which never should be heard nor understood.
Oh heavens, how he listened! How,
For such a long time, my speech eluded that
Unfeeling one!

"Discours" [speech] rhymes with "détours" and leads its interlocutor along labyrinthian paths. Because Phèdre speaks in detours, the listener who follows her discourse becomes himself lost in it. The power of this speech derives not merely from what is said, but also from the fact that what is said is heard and understood ["entendre"]. Through his understanding of her discourse, the listener is implicated in Phèdre's transgression. Phèdre's utterance, "I have said that which never should be heard," displaces her culpability onto her interlocutor. Despite repeated attempts to silence Phèdre's discourse, Hippolyte is drawn into the labyrinthian detours of this speech and is lost in them once he understands.

If Hippolyte "hears" and "understands" what he shouldn't -- what Phèdre is saying -- It is because he realizes, ultimately to his own horror, that he speaks her language. Hippolyte himself is the recipient of a mother tongue which speaks a language of desire. In his prior declara- {66} tion of love to Aricie, Hippolyte refers repeatedly to his "foreign," "wild" and "barbaric" mother, Antiope. He asserts that the words he uses to express this love are not his, but, rather, are spoken in a "foreign tongue":

Peut-être le récit d'un amour si sauvage
Vous fait, en m'écoutant, rougir de votrc ouvrage?
D'un coeur qui s'offre à vous quel farouche entretien!
Quel étrange captif pour un si beau lien!
Mais l'offrande à vos yeux en doit être plus chère:
Songez que je vous parle une langue étrangère;
Et ne rejetez pas les voeux mal exprimés,
Qu'Hippolyte sans vous n'aurait jamais formés.


Perhaps this tale of passion so uncouth
Makes you, in hearing me, blush at your work.
How wild a way to offer you a heart!
How strange a captive for so beautiful
A leash! But dearer to your eyes should be
This offering. Believe I speak a tongue
Unknown to me! Do not reject these vows
So ill-expressed, indeed, which, but for you,
I never would have formed at all.

Like Phèdre, Hippolyte displaces the responsibility for this discourse of desire onto the listener. He claims that his speech is spoken in a foreign tongue and that it is in fact Aricie's "work" [ouvrage]. The words in this foreign tongue that connote foreignness ("sauvage," "farouche," "captif") recall Hippolyte's maternal legacy. These words remind us that, in the act of speaking his desire, Hippolyte is his mother's son -- son of a wild, barbaric huntress. The mother tongue is a foreign language. This language of desire is always already a foreign language from which its speaker is exiled and in which he or she is lost.

Although Hippolyte is seduced by the savage joy that he experiences when he expresses his desire for Aricie, this joy turns to horror when he is compelled to hear Phèdre's declaration of love. For both of these confessions of love are bound by a common law. They both lead to a labyrinth of speech from which there is no exit. Phèdre's declaration stuns Hippolyte into a horrified silence. Hippolyte's name now rings with the echo of the epithet, "interdit," which Théramène uses to describe him. "Interdit" means both silenced and outlawed:

Théramème Est-ce Phèdre qui fuit, ou plutôt qu'on entraîne?
Pourquoi, Seigneur, pourquoi ces marques de douleur?
Je vous vois sans épée, interdit, sans couleur?
Hippolyte Théramène, fuyons. Ma surprise est extrême.
Je ne puis sans horreur me regarder moi-même.
Phèdre . . . Mais non, grands Dieux! qu'en un profond oubli
Cet horrible secret domcure enseveli!

Theramenes Is that Phaedra in flight? Or rather dragged
By someone off? What mean these signs of grief"
I see you without color, sword, or speech.
Hippolytus Let us fly, Theramenes! Extreme
Surprise confounds me. I can look
No more except with horror on myself.
Phaedra . . . But no, great Gods! Let this be kept
This horrible secret forever dark.

From this point on, Hippolyte remains silent -- but his silence only speaks further against him. Accused and condemned of trying to seduce his stepmother, he is banished by his father and dismembered by a monster from the sea. Struck by the force of a discourse of desire in which he himself is implicated, Hippolyte can only look at himself with horror. Hippolyte's desire to remain silent is articulated as a desire to bury the secret of what has been spoken. But like the monster at the center of the labyrinth, this secret cannot be buried, but only immured in detoured walls of discourse.

Hippolyte's desire to silence the horrifying offspring of the mother tongue recalls Oenone's response to Phèdre's allusion to her maternal lineage:

Oublions-les, madame; et qu'à tout l'avenir
Un silence éternel cache ce souvenir.


Let us forget such stories, Madame
And may an eternal silence forever hide this memory.

Oenone's imperative implies that she believes that this legacy can in fact be silenced. But the very urgency with which Oenone pleads for this forgetting reveals that she has heard the terrifying implications in Phèdre's invocation to the mother. As the end of her line, Phèdre is condemned to be the bearer of the mother tongue, the porte-parole of this maternal legacy which cannot be silenced.


{68} Oenone's question, "Quel affreux projet avez-vous enfanté . . ." might well have served as an epigraph for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This vertiginous text stages at least two extraordinary scenes of "monstrous" childbirth. As Barbara Johnson demonstrates, "Frankenstein . . . can be read as the story of the experience of writing Frankenstein."3 In her preface to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes the book as her "hideous progeny" [Introduction 12] and recounts the story of how she, "then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea" [Introduction 1].4 In the novel, Shelley's fictive character, Frankenstein, creates a being which, once given life, horrifies his creator. Like Phèdre, this text is obsessed with questions of maternity, the mother tongue and desire. But it is as if this text responds directly to Oenone's wish that the maternal legacy be effaced and forgotten. Frankenstein can be read as the attempt to "forget" the mother's legacy entirely, to circumvent the necessity of passing through the mother in order to give birth and to be born.5

The most striking feature of Frankenstein is that it attempts to conceive of an entirely immaculate conception, one in which there is no place for the mother or her body.6 But the figure of the mother, along with the attendant worries of the relationship between maternity, femininity and desire, are doubly effaced in Frankenstein. The text provides us with a series of family units in which every mother {69} figure is absent, either entirely unaccounted for or dead. While Phèdre's maternal legacy is the story of the mother's unspeakability, Frankenstein supplies us with a detoured narration of convoluted genealogies in which biologically "natural" mother-daughter ties are virtually nonexistent and in which the daughter has been, albeit indirectly, responsible for the mother's death. Like unhallowed ghosts, these dead mothers return incessantly to haunt the novel and its characters. The importance of these figures, as well as the critical role they play in Frankenstein, is obscured by the fact that their stories are embedded in the inner recesses of the novel's many narrations and narrators. Not only are these mothers themselves motherless but they are almost all foreign and therefore irrevocably cut off from their mother tongue.

A simple enumeration of the "family history" of the female characters in Frankenstein produces a stunning narrative. Caroline, Victor Frankenstein's mother, is initially described as the doting daughter who nurses her father on his deathbed. There is no mention of her mother. She marries her father's best friend, Alphonse, and produces Victor, who recounts: "My mother had much desired a daughter, but I continued their only offspring" [1.1.3]. One day, in Italy, Caroline stumbles upon a young orphan, Elizabeth, who lives with a peasant woman: "She was not her child, but the daughter of a Milanese nobleman. Her mother was a German and had died on giving her birth" [1.1.3]. Caroline adopts Elizabeth, who becomes Victor's "more than sister" and to whom he is later betrothed. Elizabeth contracts scarlet fever and recovers, but he disease spreads to Caroline, who dies from it. Elizabeth has thus indirectly killed both her "real" mother and her surrogate mother. On her deathbed, Caroline instructs Elizabeth to "take her place" as mother of the family. In addition to Elizabeth, the Frankensteins bring another adopted daughter, Justine, into the family. Justine, the only female character in the book who has lived with her "natural" mother, is forced to leave her home because "her mother could not endure her." Justine's mother eventually dies, like all the mothers in this book, but not before she accuses her daughter of having been responsible for the deaths of her brothers and sister. The monster's adopted family, the De Laceys, are also motherless. The family consists of a father and two children: a son, Felix, and a daughter, Agatha. Even Safie, Felix's bride, the daughter of a Turkish father and an Arab mother, bears the legacy of a dead mother.

Although Safie's story occupies the most obscure and parenthetical place in the novel, her relationship to her mother and her mother's {70} legacy is the most enigmatically explicit example of a vital dialogue between mother and daughter. But this dialogue transpires in Arabic and through the many translations that it endures, the meaning of this maternal legacy is garbled and almost lost in the endless passages of the stories by which it is circumscribed. It is the only example of an instructive and affirmative relationship to the mother, and, perversely, it is the only place in Frankenstein where the question of a woman's role in society is addressed directly:

The young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom, spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion and taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Muhammad. This lady died, but her lessons were indelibly impressed on the mind of Safie, who sickened at the prospect of again returning to Asia and being immured within the walls of a harem, allowed only to occupy herself with infantile amusements, illsuited to the temper of her soul, now accustomed to grand ideas and a noble emulation for virtue. (118-19)
Strangely, it is in the mouth of Safie's Arab mother that we find the clearest traces of Mary Shelley's maternal legacy. Speaking through the translated and accented voice of Safie's mother, all but buried in the cacophony of Frankenstein's many languages and voices, we hear distinct echoes of Mary Wollstonecraft's literary legacy.7 This legacy, which is relegated to a peripheral figure in the book, emerges as the repressed but "indelible" trace of a possible relationship between mother and daughter. Apart from this brief reference to the history of a minor character, mothers and daughters appear to be mutually exclusive, even mutually destructive. It would seem that the figure of the mother is so inherently horrifying that no mother can take an active, {71} living role in the story. Mothers appear as benevolent only when dead and daughters are guilty of being born.

Although Caroline, Victor's mother and Elizabeth's surrogate mother, plays only a minor role in the text when living, she is nonetheless a central figure, and an active one after her death. Her portrait is the ostensible pre-text for the monster's first crime, William's murder. Elizabeth blames herself for the crime because she allowed the boy to wear their mother's portrait. The following description of Elizabeth's reaction to William's death is recounted by Alphonse Frankenstein in a letter to Victor:

She was very earnest to see the corpse. At first I attempted to prevent her, but she persisted, and entering the room where it lay, hastily examined the neck of the victim, and clasping her hands, exclaimed, "Oh, God! I have murdered my darling child!"

She fainted, and was restored with extreme difficulty. When she again lived, it was only to weep and sigh. She told me that that same evening William had teased her to let him wear a very valuable miniature that she possessed of your mother. This picture is gone and was doubtless the temptation which urged the murderer to the deed. (70)

The force and extent of Elizabeth's self-accusation is staggering. Not only does she blame herself for William's death, but she asserts that she herself has murdered him. Like all of the monster's victims, William has been strangled. When Elizabeth examines the corpse, however, she is apparently more horrified by the absence of the portrait of the mother than by the "print of the murderer's finger . . . on his neck" [1.6.2]. In a curious substitution, the murderer's mark takes the place of the mother's portrait. Through this substitution, William is metaphorically strangled by his mother's portrait. It is almost as though Elizabeth is horrified (and rendered temporarily lifeless) by the fact that she has placed the burden of the mother's legacy around WiIliam's neck. This hallucinatory and imagined infanticide is double. Caroline accidentally causes her son's death from beyond the grave by the very presence of her image; Elizabeth, William's surrogate mother, assumes the blame for having provided "her" child with the image of his natural mother.

Like Elizabeth, Justine accuses herself of the crime. But unlike Elizabeth, Justine, who is found in possession of the portrait of the mother, is condemned and executed for Wiiliam's murder. Mere possession of the portrait of the mother is, in the eyes of the accusors, tantamount to guilt; but Justine incriminates herself beyond redemp- {72} tion by confessing, in her confusion, to this crime that she did not commit. She explains the circumstances of this false confession as follows: " Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was" [1.1.7]. In some sense, Justine condemns herself because she is called a "monster." The mention of this particular word, which "names" the real murderer, seemingly corresponds to Justine's self-image, and propels her to confess that she did in fact murder William. The name "monster" is invoked to describe that moment where the image of the mother is linked to that of a surrogate daughter by the murder of a child. We shall see later how the relationship between Justine's indictment and the portrait of the mother is curiously explained and validated by the monster himself.


If the figure of the mother is thematically repressed in Frankenstein, the confusions and contradictions evoked by this figure operate on the most primal level of the novel, in the novel's discussion of its own literary origins as well as in the language of the text. Although, in the preface, Mary Shelley alludes to her literal precursors, her parents, the literary inspiration for Frankenstein apparently derives from a translated text that is twice removed from her mother tongue: "Some volumes of ghost stories translated from the German into French fell into our hands" [Introduction 5].8 Frankenstein itself is, strangely, written in translation. While the outermost "frame" of the novel is Walton's letter to his sister, which is composed in English, the bulk of the narrative is recounted by Frankenstein to Walton in English tinged with a "foreign accent" Letter 42]. English is not spoken by any of the book's central characters; the fact that their stories have been transparently "translated" goes largely unnoticed because of the novel's imbricated structure.

The insistence upon translations between German, French, and English returns at a crucial moment in Frankenstein: when the monster learns to read and speak. The acquisition of language by that motherless creature takes place in the interstices of many languages. The monster learns about translation -- about the foreignness of lan- {73} guage -- before he acquires a "mother tongue." He initially learns to speak by observing the De Laceys, a French family exiled in Germany. Following along with the French lessons that Felix gives Safie, the Arabian girl, the monster gradually masters the language. But before he even understands the language that they are both being taught by the De Laceys, the monster understands the concept of translation -- he understands that Safie speaks a foreign mother tongue that the others do not understand:

I soon perceived that although the stranger uttered articulate sounds and appeared to have a language of her own, she was neither understood by nor herself understood the cottagers. (112)
For the monster, language is, originally, foreign language. Bereft of a mother as well as a mother tongue, the monster learns first that language is foreign, that it expresses primally that which cannot be said.9 Although Safie cannot communicate in words to the cottagers, she speaks to them in music. The monster is deeply moved by this foreign music which seems to him like a sublime expression of nature: "She sang, and her voice flowed in a rich cadence, swelling or dying away like the nightingale of the woods" (113). Because the monster learns language simultaneously with Safie, who yearns to express her love for Felix, he learns that language can be used in order to express desire.

Just as the monster learns that speech is originally translation, he learns to read in translation. He finds and studies three books in French, each originally written in another language: "Fortunately the books were written in the language, the elements of which I had acquired at the cottage; they consisted of Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch's Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter. The possession of these treasures gave me extreme delight . . ." (122). These literary primers are literally translations; the monster learns about literature and history as translation. He is unable to distinguish between fact and fiction and finds his origins in Paradise Lost which he reads as a true story: the translation of his life story. Reminiscent of Mary Shelley, who, in the {74} preface, "gives birth" [Introduction 12] to the book Frankenstein, the monster finds his roots in literary history.10

If the monster identifies his creation so thoroughly with a literary work, it is in part because the word "mother," along with the concept of maternity, is initially omitted from his education. Before Safie arrives in the De Lacey family, the monster teaches himself a handful of basic words. The first words learned by this creature who has no name are the names given to family members as well as their "given" names:

I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar objects of discourse; . . . I learned also the names of the cottagers themselves. The youth and his companion had each of them several names, but the old man had only one, which was "father." The girl was called "sister" or "Agatha," and the youth "Felix," "brother," or "son." (107)
Having neither father nor mother, but only a creator, the monster in his first words describes those very experiences and relationships from which he is irrevocably exiled. He is unable to distinguish between proper names and the names of relationships. In the enumeration of names for family relationships that the monster learns, there are two obvious omissions: that of "mother" and "daughter." Where "Felix" is referred to as "brother" or "son," Agatha is referred to simply as "sister." The omission of the term "daughter" is the mark that the relationship that is most systematically effaced in Frankenstein is that which occurs between daughter and mother. Just as there is no name to describe the monster's place in this family unit, there is no name to describe the place of the mother, who in the De Lacey family not only is absent, but seemingly was never present at all. On the level of the plot, the fact that the monster does not learn the name for "mother" is accounted for by the fact that there is no mother in the De Lacey family. But this does not explain why, on the textual level of Frankenstein, there is no mention of the mother at the moment when family relationships are invoked as the first linguistic referents in the acquisition of language. Given the central contradictions and confusions that surround the figure of the mother in the text as a whole, we might say that if there is no "mother" in the De Lacey family, it is {75} perversely because there is no word for "mother"; no word can name what she is, or delineate her place within the family.

The confusion that surrounds the mother's name, image and function in Frankenstein spreads to all of the definitions of family relationships in the book. Although Victor, unlike the monster, is blessed with both a mother and a loving family, he has more difficulty than the monster in learning the names of the relationships between family members. In his attempt to define and describe his relationship to Elizabeth, Victor uses a provocative figure of speech, one in which the absence of a word is associated with procreation:

We called each other familiarly by the name of cousin. No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to me -- my more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only. (35, emphasis mine)
Victor and his betrothed call each other "familiarly" by family names. It would seem that the name of "lover" or "beloved" does not exist in the Frankenstein family lexicon. The strange and almost unreadable phrase "body forth" seems to denote the missing relationship that would be neither familiar nor familial. The phrase "body forth" evokes the image of giving birth physically to a word or expression of desire. In the resonances of this obscure figure of speech, the function of maternity is obliquely associated with the absent discourse of desire. In Frankenstein, the effacement of the figure of the mother is accompanied by the omission of a discourse of desire.

Although the mother is systematically "effaced" in Frankenstein, we discover that the mother's "face" is endowed with the threatening capacity to engender a discourse of desire in the character that beholds her image. As he strangles her child, the monster is aroused by the portrait of Caroline that he finds around William's neck:

As I fixed my eyes on the child, I saw something glittering on his breast. I took it; it was a portrait of a most lovely woman. In spite of my malignity, it softened and attracted me. For a few moments I gazed with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips: but presently my rage returned; I remembered that I was forever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow and that she whose resemblance I contemplated would, in regarding me, have changed that air of divine benignity to one expressive of disgust and affright. (136)
It is only through the eyes of the monster that the reader is finally provided with a vivid and sensual description of the infamous portrait {76} of the mother. In the language of the monster's description of this image, we finally hear the unmistakable, albeit unfamiliar strains of a discourse of desire. Looking at the portrait of the mother makes the monster think of sex. He laments that he is "forever deprived of the delights that these beautiful creatures could bestow." As he beholds the lifeless picture of Caroline, the monster fantasizes her back to life, but his sexual fantasy turns into a nightmare when he discovers that his amorous gaze is met by a look of horror, not desire. Given, however, that the effacement of the mother coincides with the repression of a language of desire in Frankenstein, the horrifying encounter between the desirous monster and the benignly dead mother seems to mask an even more horrifying scenario: that the mother who is associated with a language of desire might, once animated, respond to a look of desire with desire, and not horror.

The text hints at this possibility when, after the monster is aroused and spurned by the image of the dead Caroline, he turns his amorous gaze to her surrogate daughter, Justine. After the monster has beheld the portrait of the mother, he suddenly finds words (the very ones that Victor does not know) to express his sexual feelings for these two women:

A woman was sleeping on some straw; she was young, not indeed so beautiful as her whose portrait I held, but of an agreeable aspect and blooming in the loveliness of youth and health. Here, I thought, is one of those whose joy-imparting smiles are bestowed on all but me. And then I bent over her and whispered, "Awake, fairest, thy lover is near -- he who would give his life but to obtain one look of affection from thine eyes; my beloved, awake!"

The sleeper stirred . . . (137)

The monster addresses Justine as "beloved" and calls himself her "lover." Inspired by the portrait of Caroline which he holds in his hands, he transfers his desire for the mother onto her surrogate daughter, who is not dead, but merely sleeping. This time the monster fantasizes that Justine is capable of a "look of affection," but he is enraged by the fact that this imagined look is not directed at him. But the line "the sleeper stirred" indicates that Justine may be at least partly aroused by the monster's speech. This would help to account for Justine's extreme confusion concerning her role in the crime as well as her surprising confession. In any case, the monster perceives that Justine, as a potentially desiring creature, is the "source" of his crime and he judges that she should justly pay for it:
{77} -- Not I, but she, shall suffer; the murder I have committed because I am forever robbed of all that she could give me, she shall atone. The crime had its source in her; be hers the punishment! (137)
The monster transfers not only his desire for the mother onto Justine, but also his guilt in the murder of the mother's child. Justine becomes a substitute for both mother and monster; she becomes the recipient of the monster's desire for the mother and pays for the infanticide that accompanies this desire.

The portrait of the dead mother is benignly oblivious to the desire that it arouses but once animated by the monster's fantasy, the mother is horrified by his amorous gaze. This moment of the text is haunted, however, by the missing corollary: the specter of a potentially desiring mother. The suppressed image of a desiring mother reappears in the terrifying figure of the female monster that Frankenstein begins to "body forth" and then destroys.

Throughout Frankenstein, the monster's narrative has been subsumed and translated. Victor tells the monster's story to Walton in English. But in the final pages of the novel, after Frankenstein dies, the monster encounters Walton and finally speaks for himself. Paradoxically, at the moment when the monster tells his own tale, he speaks in a language that is utterly foreign to him. There have been repeated references to the fact that the monster speaks only French and Walton understands only English. With his final words, spoken in a foreign tongue, the monster calls himself an "abortion" [Walton 13] Deprived of the prospect of a mate, and bearer of a discourse of desire, the monster has been aborted. But the book Frankenstein is brought to term. The time that elapses between Walton's first letter to his sister and his last is exactly nine months.11


1. Racine, Phèdre, in Oeuvres complètes(Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1962) ll. 249-50. All subsequent quotations refer to this edition, and all line numbers will be indicated in the text. English translations are my modified versions of Phèdre, trans. Margaret Rawlings (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962).

2. Phèdre's begins her confession by veiling it as a declaration of love for Theseus: "Oui, Prince, je languis, je brûle pour Thésée" (634) [Yes, Prince, I am languishing, I am burning for Thésée].

3. Barbara Johnson, "My Monster/My Self" in A World of Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 151. This text, an earlier version of which appeared in Diacritics (Summer 1982) was a major source of inspiration for this paper. Although Johnson does not explicitly address the mother figures in Frankenstein, the implications of her argument led me to ponder the relationship between maternity, monstrosity, and desire in the novel.

4. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Or the Modern Prometheus (New York: New American Library, 1965), vii-xii. All references to Frankenstein will henceforth be noted in the text.

5. See also Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, 100-19). In some ways, Homans's analysis of the circumvention of the mother runs parallel to the analysis presented here; however, Homans locates desire exclusively in the character of Frankenstein and therefore in a fictive representation of male sexuality. This and other differences of emphasis lead our analyses to somewhat different conclusions, although I find her discussion of the question of literalization extremely suggestive.

6. Sharon Willis has reminded me that the term "immaculate conception" refers to the fact that Mary herself was conceived outside of original sin. It is worth noting that it is not sufficient for there to be a "virgin birth" -- the mother herself must be purified of the implicit sin received by her mother.

7. The relationship, both biographical and textual, between Mary Shelley and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is too complex to be fully explored here. However, we might point out that Frankenstein can be read, in its entirety, as both a re-writing and an effacement of Wollstonecraft's Maria or the Wrongs of Women. Both of these books are explicitly described as "horror stories"; Frankenstein is a horror tale in which mother/daughter relationships are effaced whereas Maria delineates the horror that surrounds mother/daughter relationships because of socially repressive conditions for women. In the opening pages, Maria, a woman abused and enslaved by her husband, laments both the loss of her child and the fact that she is a girl. "Still she mourned for her child, lamented she was a daughter, and anticipated the aggravated ills of life that her sex rendered almost inevitable, even while dreading she was no more." Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria or the Wrongs of Women (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), 23-24.

8. It is interesting to note that in Percy Shelley's preface to Frankenstein, he, unlike Mary, does not specify in which language the stories were read: "We . . . occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts which happened to fall into our hands" [Preface 2].

9. David Marshall has recently written an extraordinary chapter in his book The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau and Mary Shelley (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988) in which he points out that large portions of the monster's "autobiography" are very nearly line by line translations of Rousseau's Rêveries into English. The difference that emerges between these "autobiographies" is precisely one of translations for the monster "autobiography" exists only as translation.

10. When he reads Plutarch, Racine's historical "authority," the monster displays a distaste for the story of Theseus: "I felt the greatest ardour for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice, as far as I understood the signification of those terms. . . . Induced by these feelings, I was of course led to admire peaceable lawgivers, Numa, Solon, and Lycurgus, in preference to Romulus and Theseus" [2.7.3] Is Theseus's "vice" that he kills monsters?

11. I would like to thank Mary Quaintance, Rindala El-Khoury, and Tom Keenan, who were of invaluable assistance during the writing process and without whose help this paper might never have been written.