Contents Index

Singles and Doubles: Frankenstein

Irving Massey

Chapter 7 in The Gaping Pig: Literature and Metamorphosis (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), 124-137.

{124} The relation between the character and his author is very much an issue in Frankenstein and Peter Schlemihl. In one form or another, the problem of narcissism is also constantly in the wings. Does the author create his character because he is afraid to deal with people who are genuinely other than himself? Does he produce another being merely in an attempt at self-definition, rather than in the search for relationship? Can the character exist without his author? Finally, is it possible to vanish completely as subject, so that one has no author, and exists only as the fine line dividing the observer from reality, as pure act of perception without a perceiver?

Although the two books in question do not contain explicit instances of metamorphosis, both treat situations that are closely related to that problem. In the one case, a human being is manufactured in the laboratory. In the second, an ordinary man (a perfectly ordinary man) becomes a shadowless monster, moving with seven-league strides, invisible, through the world of men, on his mission to classify the fauna and flora of the entire natural world. In both cases, such a radical transformation of the initial materials has taken place that it is not inappropriate to {125} speak of metamorphosis. But what is more interesting than the degree of explicit transformation in these stories is the way in which they illustrate the problem of fixity, the way one gets stuck in, or resorts to, an alien form, in which one cannot coincide with oneself: a situation that is typical of metamorphosis.


"Victor" Frankenstein is a captive of irony, with its implied duality, from birth, by virtue of his very name. Ostensibly the creator of the "Monster," he is eventually understood to be himself the unsuccessful, un-"victorious" creation of that being, himself the true monster. In the end his creator can do nothing but resort to violence in his attempts to bring Promethean reason to the recalcitrant creature. "Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. . . .I am your master; -- obey!"1

Frankenstein seems to spend his life in one protracted, perpetually frustrated attempt to achieve contact with others, yet (unlike the monster) he is perpetually withdrawing from contact.2 His dabbling in the bones and moldy warp of the human frame at the very beginning of the book suggests a willingness to come into close touch with the safely inert remnants of the living body, a touch of necrophilia perhaps (p. 48),3 but hardly the aspiration of resuscitating the dead and achieving an ideal fatherhood with which he had first justified his labors (p. 47). Frankenstein begins by rejecting his family and friends (p. 49); "I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed" (p. 49). But when his task is completed, he goes on to repudiate the product of his labors, which had presumably exempted him from the obligation of human {126} relationship. No sooner has the last touch been given to the Golem he has manufactured, no sooner has it drawn its first breath and opened its eyes, than, "unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created" (pp. 51-52), he rushes out of the room and (most unlikely sequence!) goes to sleep.

By the following morning, after an unsuccessful attempt to communicate with Frankenstein, the monster is gone. He has gone underground, and, in that dimension, is firmly established as Frankenstein's double, "my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me" (p. 74). As efficiently as Rousseau's Julie in La Nouvelle Heloise, or as James's Fleda Vetch (The Spoils of Poynton), Victor Frankenstein has carried out a program to guarantee his isolation. His "problem" is insoluble (pp. 88, 168, 181), because it is of his own choice (p. 199). So far, we have all the elements of the familiar novelistic situation. The difference between this and many other novels lies in the alternative that Frankenstein has left himself. He can, if he chooses (in fact, it turns out that he must, whether he choose to or not) continue a relationship, not with others, but with himself. He has turned away from others only in order to reduce himself to that single relationship.

Birth of the Self

Hegel tells us that the self is born only in battle with another consciousness, through a struggle with the Other. Frankenstein substitutes a half-battle, with himself as his double, the monster, and so can remain permanently exempt from the necessity of developing his self-awareness. The monster would be fulfilled, within the Hegelian scheme, if he could accept the role of slave in the master-slave relationship (into which all human relationships that do not result in murder resolve themselves). But because the monster is prevented from interacting with {127} people or indeed from assuming any of the genuine functions that are the slave's prerogative, he, too, is prevented from developing an individual consciousness; his unnatural role as quasi-master is forced on him by the inability of Frankenstein to achieve selfhood. (With Frankenstein versus the Monster, cf. Hoffmann versus Nathanael, above; St. Julien versus the beasts, below.) Both lives are short- circuited. (Perhaps this is a characteristic of literary struggles: no one is allowed to achieve a full individual consciousness, and some other means of fulfillment must be sought.)

Frankenstein's life remains incomplete at many levels. One of his problems seems to be that, as man of ideas, he has left his body behind him, has lost his body, or, more simply, is unable to establish any ground or reason for the possession of a body.4 Frankenstein's last hope for a body is in the monster. His rebirth through the monster is the attempt to create a body for himself, although he can concoct it only by bricolage. (As an attempt at rebirth, and a reconstruction of the bodily dimension that the hero feels he lacks, it is reminiscent of the "Cave of Montesinos" episode in Don Quixote, where the substantiality of the flesh suddenly becomes all too apparent in the mythical knights and ladies.) The warmth of love and life that can be known only through the body, is felt in the monster, yet it cannot be fulfilled through the monster's body. His physical unacceptability dooms Frankenstein's aspirations to vicarious bodily expression. The move toward externalization (as, later, in Flaubert) is unsuccessful. An imagined body is finally more loathsome than no body at all. The monster appears as a kind of masturbatory image of the self: "my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance" (p. 136).

The truth is that the monster finally has no more body than Frankenstein does. Pure body would, theoretically, be ugliness itself. Yet it is more than clear that the monster is {128} not merely a body and that his ugliness is not simply the reflection of a brutish state. His ugliness seems rather to act as an invisible shutter for the mind, something that prevents us from looking at him directly and acknowledging his presence. It is as if, if we could look at him directly, we would know that he is not there. There is a curious elision of vision in every confrontation with the monster. Despite all of Frankenstein's would-be horrifying descriptions of him, one does not really see him as ugly,5 or in fact as anything at all. The only distinct visual impression that remains is of a hulking figure in the act of departure, of vanishing over some Alpine snowdrift or glacial excrescence. Most of the time, the monster is experienced as a disembodied voice coming from within.6 Perhaps he is hideous because he is an unseen inner image, a truth that we cannot admit, cannot face, and his ugliness is, like Mr. Hyde's, psychological in origin, felt rather than seen. (It is of course because the monster is something completely internal that he cannot have a mate, that the notion of his being married is ridiculous rather than horrifying.)

But it is very difficult to say what the monster communicates that is intolerable when given physical embodiment, although he is so persuasive and appealing in words. All his virtues come to nothing when he is forced to reveal himself in the visible world, somewhat as Peter Schlemihl's wealth is futile when he must stand in the sun and reveal that he has no shadow. Perhaps the objection is that the monster is, finally, an idea rather than a being of any kind, the incarnation of the solipsism by which we flatter ourselves into thinking that we can body forth whatever we may wish. The monster may be simply solipsism itself, or an unhappy form of narcissism, through which we close ourselves off from the dualism of the outside world, and reenter the private life of self-preoccupied, circular dreams. We must not see the monster because he is the shadow of our vanishing selves,7 the image of the single {129} inner man who aspires to an autistic completeness, to the earthly paradise of self-satisfying virtue (that land of Cockaigne), whom we must hide in ourselves like a guilty fantasy. He is imagination, which reveals itself as a hideous construct of the dead parts of things that were once alive when it tries to realize itself, enter the world on the world's terms. It can survive only in its symbiotic relationship with the artist, in the love-hate struggle that goes on between itself and its creator, within his mind. Any attempt to send it out into the physical universe is a violation of some pact of decorum with the world, the infliction of the inner on the outer, a demand that one's thoughts be dealt with like one's skin. (A problem that we will return to in Flaubert.)

Whatever aspect of himself the monster may represent for Frankenstein, it is clearly an aspect with which he either cannot or will not come to terms. Having sent him out to fight his battles for him (rather like Nerval emitting his series of personae), Frankenstein is not prepared to take the monster back when he meets with no greater success than his master. And so they must resume their endless dialectic of conflict, until, in death, they spiral into one again.


The sexual theme in the novel is readily assimilated to the general issue of unity versus duality. Frankenstein does provide sexual organs for the monster-he did think of that-but, like his own, they will never be used. Rape is the one crime that the monster will not commit, under even the most tempting circumstances (for example, when he finds Justine sleeping on the straw, p. 151). He demands the creation of a female monster like himself, who will not find him revolting (p. 152). Denied access to the male-female duality, he will see to it that Frankenstein does not have it either (p. 239). Neither Adam will have his Eve (p. 137), and neither wants her; they have prior and more urgent {130} business to settle between themselves (see below, "The Divided Self"). The problem of isolation, which was William Godwin's major theme, assumes a fresh intensity in his daughter's novel, where it is not treated as a personal, psychological, or sociological issue, but as a fundamental aspect of consciousness. Parodoxically, the cure for man's difficulties in establishing viable relationships is sought in further isolation: the monster, because he is not born into society, may have a fresh start. But his brief idyll in natural surroundings (pp. 104-106) comes to an abrupt end; and even before he encounters the misunderstanding and violence of man, he discovers that the natural element of fire also burns (p. 106). Like Oedipus, born from nothing (p. 126), the monster finds that to be without context and without sources is a mixed blessing. The virtuous natural man is a detested outcast, like Rousseau, the victim of perpetual persecution (p. 125). And isolation is vice: "My vices are the children of a forced solitude . . . " (p. 156) He must "become linked to the chain of existence and events from which I am now excluded." (p. 156. We think of St. Just, of Schiller, of the revolutionary Odes to Fraternity). He calls for a mate, but we realize very well that there cannot be two of him; unlike mere people, and, again, somewhat after the fashion of Hyde, the monster is unique; single and out of the realm of duplication.

Eventually, Frankenstein does find his own double, Walton. When Frankenstein has died, Walton, who does not have Frankenstein's reasons for persecuting the monster, provides the transition that leads to the reconciliation between the monster and his creator, or other dimension of himself. When the intellectual self has been eliminated, monster and Frankenstein can come together again, (rather as Marlow reaches an understanding with Kurtz after Kurtz's death, or Godwin's Caleb Williams with Falkland). We realize at this point that Frankenstein, supposedly his enemy, had been the monster's only true love and that he {131} could have wanted no other mate. Frankenstein is now acknowledged to be "the select specimen of all that is worthy of love and admiration among men . . . " (p. 241). The monster, it is true, kills everyone whom Frankenstein loves: but it is only in order that Frankenstein love him. We see now why all of Frankenstein's rant and execration were mere verbiage, why all his supposed attempts to destroy the monster were lacking in any physical substantiality. One cannot wish to destroy physically the hypostatized thought that gives meaning to oneself. In fact, it is apparent that the freely provided nonsensical Gothic elements in the novel do not determine its genre at all. They merely carry the negative, or antithetical strain in the book: the refusal to deal honestly with the challenge or thesis of the monster's existence and his significance to Frankenstein.8

Fire and Ice

In some way, the resolution of the book, the embodiment of its purpose, is contained in the symbol of fire amidst ice with which it ends.9 The monster will be consumed on his solitary pyre in the center of the polar wastes. The symbolism may appear crude or hackneyed, yet it reaches the reader with a conviction that would not follow from a shallow or stereotyped thought. Before trying to formulate an intellectual equivalent to the imagery of fire and ice, or to discover a ground for their synthesis, I should like to illustrate the importance of these images in the book.

One of Victor Frankenstein's crucial experiences is seeing an oak destroyed by lightning (that is, electricity), even before his scientific interests have been formed. The oak is not merely struck by a bolt from without. "As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump" (p. 32). The fire (a beautiful fire) from within does {132} not attract Victor to the study of electricity; on the contrary, the event is traumatic for his scientific interests, leading him to give up the physical sciences temporarily. Whether he interprets the scene as a warning, or whether it reveals a force in experience which is simply incommensurate with any formulae that can be generated by the intellect ("It seemed to me that nothing would or could ever be known," p. 33) is not made entirely clear. In any case, fire becomes a constant visitor in the book from this moment on. We have already seen that it provides the monster with his first experience of pain, setting up early in the work the antithetical structure that seems to express its principal perception. Fire gives warmth and pain, almost simultaneously; "How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!" (p. 106). At the setting of the moon, which had been the source of the monster's first pleasure in the world (p. 105), he fires the cottage of the De Laceys, the one place where he had almost known happiness: "I lighted the dry branch of a tree, and danced with fury around the devoted cottage . . . " (p. 146). When he promises Frankenstein that he will leave the habitations of man forever if only he is provided with a companion, he swears "by the fire of love that burns my heart . . ." (p. 157). In the end, with fire upon fire, the searing pang of life will be consumed in the fire of his death, "Consumed with that which it was nourished by." "Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames" (p. 242). There is no mistaking the sense of fulfillment with which the monster enters upon his final act. The fire is his completion, his element, it is what he stands for; and yet his auto-da-fé must be performed in the midst of the ice, and, when it is over, "my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds." The antithetical element will embrace him in his passion and complete his alchemy. "My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus."

{133} Ice is no less ubiquitous in the book than fire. "The desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge," says the monster (p. 102); "the caves of ice, which I only do not fear, are a dwelling to me, and the only one which man does not grudge" (p. 102). The ice sea of Mont Blanc is the scene of the first great dialogue between Frankenstein and the monster (p. l01ff.), and as the book draws to a close the monster forces Frankenstein to follow him into his own habitat. "Follow me; I seek the everlasting ices of the north, where you will feel the misery of cold and frost to which I am impassive" (p. 222). Ironically, the dying Frankenstein, in his Ulysseslike speech to the men of Walton's ship, exhorts them to continue to the north and conquer the ice: "Oh! be men, or be more than men. Be steady to your purposes and firm as a rock. This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts may be; it is mutable and cannot withstand you if you say that it shall not" (p. 233). The quest for the ideal may breach the barrier between thought and reality; but it is not for Frankenstein, or, for that matter, for the monster, to sail upon the seas of peace. As the monster leaves the side of his author's corpse, it is to guide his ice raft to the bitter north, where the last conflagration of his life may not melt the ice but will illumine it, and touch it with the afterthought of quiet. Mutatis mutandis, the last lines of Frankenstein may be compared with the last sentence of another book where there is question of a monster and a conflict, Wuthering Heights.

It would be easy to think of Frankenstein as the working out of a set of abstract relationships, in which nothing of great intensity or immediacy is involved, if it were not for the deliberate confrontation between the polar extremes of fire and cold, which cannot be taken any more casually than it can be in Inferno XXXII. In fact, in some way the whole issue of the book seems to lie in the transfiguration of such schematic oppositions into an urgent and unavoidable reality, rather as the formal oppositions of Lévi-Straussian {134} mytho-logic ultimately reveal a crucial inference in real experience: our emotions do cleave to categories, or perhaps it is the other way around. The anxiety, the violence, and the need generate the formal opposition, rather than vice versa; as I have said, the monster creates Frankenstein.

The Divided Self

This is, of course, too simple; it serves to restore the balance but it does not solve the problem. In some sense, obviously, each creates the other. Frankenstein, as scientist, is not allowed to have a self. His identity must presumably be subordinated to the ideas or facts he deals with. Yet this scientist is in a privileged position: his escape from being leads to a creation of being, and the self that he has done away with inside himself reappears before him. The object or purpose of his impersonal study is the production of a person. He escapes from the damned circle of science by picking the right project, one that will reaffirm in the very midst of bare abstraction the reality of emotion, of subjectivity, even of the body. Unlike Peter Schlemihl, who disposes of his shadow and of his substantiality immediately, as a first step toward becoming a scientist, Frankenstein tries to manufacture a shadow or some kind of substance for himself; his first step is to create a self as a replacement for the one he has abandoned, like the imaginary playmate of Piaget's developing child. The remainder of the novel consists in the stripping away of impediments to the reunification of Frankenstein with the real self he has created. William, Justine, Clerval, Elizabeth, even the half-finished "mate" for the monster, are all substitutes. Desire is for the self; and it can be fulfilled only through the suppression of the false desire for Elizabeth, or for other "normal" relations. Finally it can be fulfilled only after the suppression of the desire for life; for Frankenstein's very existence, hollow as it is, is. incompatible with the integrity {135} or even the reality of the monster's. The monster is a real thing doomed because he stems from an unreal cause. His "author" is also the author of the book, who reflects the hollowness of all writers, and fulfills himself only in dying and allowing his creation to live on. In a comment on Lautréamont, Philippe Sollers says, "La Langue (et son effet, le sujet parlant) a besoin, en un point, d'être prise en charge par la 'carcasse creuse' d'un créateur soi-disant hors-système, assumant l'origine ou l'infini comme hors-texte, d'une fonction marginale, immobile. . . . "10 But the monster is not quite a word, or even a book, though he shares some of their features. Perhaps he is the human principle that has freed itself from the power of the negative; but without the negative, it must consume itself in the ice (the ice as the negative, no longer as active dialectical principle but as the very condition of existence). One (the monster) cannot live without zero, object without perceiver (empty though he may be), emotion without its negation.11

In spite of his death, though, or in it, the monster does give us satisfaction and does fill our solitude. The ending escapes the novel's typical return to the commonplace. Frankenstein had pursued the monster, though ostensibly to destroy him, actually in a futile quest for reunification with his permanently detached self, as inaccessible as his shadow. The paradox could not be overcome: if the empty mind were to succeed in embracing the fullness of its projection, it would obliterate it. It must die, surrender its hope for a reconciliation in the here and now, and wait for whatever happens. The self that has been created in the shadow of the mind can then return without fear, though fully aware that it cannot survive alone. In its freedom it can reach back toward the abstraction that was its master, and fulfill what was not possible in life; fit itself back against the hollow form upon which it had been molded. After its death, the two can be related again without loss or diminution on {136} either part. In its death, it can affirm the completeness of half of the self. The monster reassures Walton: "Neither yours nor any man's death is needed to consummate the series of my being . . ." (p. 241). Unlike Frankenstein's (p. 191), the monster's being has been a series in the literal sense: events, with spaces between them; the impossibility of achieving a continuum, a never-ending procession of needs and desires, each one disappointed, each in turn creating a space out of which the succeeding desire will surge. Finally "the miserable series of my being is wound to its close!" (p. 238). This serial existence is contrasted with Frankenstein's, dominated and unified first by his scientific mania and then by his pursuit of the monster, continuous by virtue of its abstraction, occupying the space only of the mind and therefore unbroken by time.

The Reader's Task

The problem of the novel keeps rising to the surface: how can an allegory be real? for the novel draws its power and conviction from the reader's knowledge that the monster is intense and violent even though he is not a separate being, even though he is, like the Don Quixote of the second part, acknowledged to be a fiction of the imagination -- of our imagination, not only of Frankenstein's. He is unmistakably an allegory of something; yet we cannot gainsay him, we cannot shake off his voice, he fascinates us precisely in the measure that his power and his unreality coexist. Perhaps it is the reader's mind that has to replace Frankenstein's when the scientist dies, making the link between the timelessness of abstraction and the seriality of desire, and allowing both to exist by holding them in either hand, so that they may both be complete although neither, in itself, can really exist.12 We are the death that grants its hospitality to both, and can unite them. We are the sustaining response that mitigates the absolute solitude the monster laments, and {137} that spares him from being in the end only a Mr. Hyde. We restore duality without imposing it, without reviving Dr. Jekyll or Frankenstein to renew their persecution.

Mary Shelley had a strong talent (not unshared in her time) for the apocalyptic: for describing how people might feel in ultimate situations. Or, if not exactly people, imagined projections of parts of ourselves, dimensions or aspects of the mind, onion-skins or imaginings. We have, of course, no monopoly in the late twentieth century on visions of the final cataclysm, and we tend to think of it in merely realistic terms, losing the flavor of privacy and the fullness of thought in our preoccupation with the technics of annihilation.13 A few lines from The Last Man will convey some of the sense of oneness beneath or beyond all sharing , except possibly sharing with the reader, with which that book, like Frankenstein, concludes. "Death had hunted us through the course of many months, even to the narrow strip of time on which we now stood"; "who, like flies that congregate upon a dry rock at the ebbing of the tide, had played wantonly with time. . . . "14 In the end Verney, the last man on earth, his comrades dead of plague or drowned at sea, will go wandering in his boat along both shores of the Mediterranean and down the coast of Africa, searching for a companion in a world in which there is no other human consciousness.


1. Frankenstein (London and New York, 1959; Everyman edition), pp. 178-197.

2. Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), p. 166, makes a similar point.

3. Ibid., p. 163.

4. On body and mind in Frankenstein, cf. Kiely, p. 166.

5. E.g., p. 156, which seems to me completely unconvincing. "I compassionated him, and sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred." Similarly, p. 237, Walton: "Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome yet appalling hideousness."

6. Perhaps one cannot finally see the monster in Frankenstein because he is oneself (i.e., the narrator), that insistent, wheedling voice that comes from further inside than inside. (This implies that Mary Shelley is herself the monster.)

In Poe, too, there is the theme of trying to make the monstrous self invisible (walling it up). The "Black Cat," of course, finally does betray the narrator. Cf. n. 7, below.

7. Cf. Seymour Kellerman, An Iconography of the Kafkaesque (unpublished dissertation, SUNYAB, 1973). In the chapter on "Die Verwandlung," Kellerman describes a dream in which the narrator is unable to look an incestuous monster in the face, because the narrator would then be recognized as the monster himself (i.e., the dreamer). Cf. Christopher Small, Ariel Like a Harpy (London, 1972), p. 331: "but in the last situation, when metaphor vanishes, it is not possible to reject him [the monster], for he is no longer separate, he is quite simply ourselves."

8. It is perhaps at this point that Arthur Efron's comment casts most light on the chapter: "You really seem to be teaching two ways of seeing the monster, and the second supersedes the first. The first is what he seems to be, logically. The second is what he is experienced as, irreducibly."

9. For a different approach to the fire and ice theme in Frankenstein, see James Rieger, The Mutiny Within (New York, 1967), pp. 81-89.

10. "Language (and its product, the speaking subject) needs, at a certain point, to be taken over by the 'hollow body' of a creator supposedly external to the system, assuming origins and infinity as something outside the text, functioning in the margins, immobile . . ." Logiques (Paris, 1968), p. 265.

11. Mary Shelley was, in her own way, exploring the problem that Nietzsche was later to try so hard to solve: how to escape from a zero-one logic that makes every quantity imply an absence and every assertion a negation. Cf. text preceding n. 10, ch. 8 below.

12. Cf. ch. 6, above, "Nathanael versus the author"; here it is the reader who effects the reconciliation. Doubling is almost a literary form in itself, requiring a particular kind of response on the reader's part for its fulfillment, and could constitute a distinct subject in Stanley Fish's "transactional criticism."

13. See Terrence des Pres, "The Survivor," Encounter 37 (September, 1971):3-19.

14. London, 1826; III:132, 180.