Contents Index

Frankenstein and the Godlike Science of Letters

Peter McInerney

Genre, 13 (Winter 1980), 455-75

Books are better guides to knowledge than experience.
Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster
British Romantic poetry and prose are often as much concerned with the way a story is told -- with who tells it, how, and under what circumstances -- as with telling the story. Wordsworth's The Prelude is a long preface which stands as a main performance. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage discusses itself almost as much as Harold or his journey. Sartor Resartus takes great pains to edit itself, and says so regularly. These works dramatize their creators' acts of creating them. The development of the novel since Pamela is a heritage of self-conscious storytelling, especially, of course, in the case of Tristram Shandy. But that segment of the history of the nineteenth-century novel comprised of stories about Faustian-Satans -- about the great macabre obsessives -- displays the most deliberate concern with telling how their stories are told. Melmoth the Wanderer, Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and Dracula all emphasize the identities, methods, and means of their narrators, and make their narrative gestures crucial dimensions of the stories they tell. The strange circumstances surrounding strange stories are made significant. In Frankenstein, the novel's legacy of interest in explaining itself mixes with Romanticism's concentration on the creating performance, and with its frequent fascination with the overreaching character. Yet beginning with Frankenstein's second reader, Mary Shelley's husband Percy, the novel's interest in explaining how it has come to be a text has been overlooked. Its careful management of the character of the narrator Robert Walton, and his movement among the forms of epistolary, journalistic, autobiographical, and biographical narration sustain the {456} novel's progress. But this movement does more than accomplish the purpose of telling the story. It is an indispensable part of Frankenstein's meaning, and completes it. Frankenstein's story about storytelling is thematically important.

But this story is invisible if a reader neglects the novel's play with its fictions about its genre. These fictions state that Frankenstein is not a fiction at all. The book is written by Robert Walton, explorer, and contains his autobiography, together with the biographies of Victor Frankenstein, scientist, and of the Monster he made. It grew from Walton's letters to his sister, from his journal, and from transcripts of interviews he conducted with Victor and the Monster. The specific conventions of letter-writing, journal-keeping, and interview are for the most part preserved, as indicated by the various dates of entries and editorial comment by Walton about the stages of his manuscript. Walton's function as the author of Frankenstein may appear to be a perfunctory fictional device. Readers acknowledge it to explain the better-than-Boswellian stenography of Victor's and the Monster's speeches, or the anachronisms of a text which dates its conclusion before the eighteenth century, but includes allusions to and citations from poetry published in 1816. However, we do Shelley's artistry a disservice, and deform the meaning of the novel, if we think of these details as apparent flaws and attribute them to her nodding youthfulness. For such details are not defects but traces of multiple creative acts. And they are materials for a sophisticated narrative procedure which coordinates these acts, preserving them as a composite text or palimpsest, and making them meaningful.1

Francis Hart's distinction between "the emergent narrative patterns of the recovered life" of autobiography, and "the dramatic patterns of the evolving act of recovery,"2 can illustrate how narrative patterns of quests by each of the novel's three heroes for self-knowledge, community, and fame emerge in Walton's (fictional) autobiography. But so do the dramatic patterns of self-scrutiny emerge from their "autobiographical acts"3 of writing or reading or talking about such quests. The text even dramatizes Walton's creative actions of collecting and editing its parts -- the letters and journals by various hands, the annotated bibliographies, recreated conversations, and extended depositions. Thus it is perversely appropriate that the name of the novel has been transferred to its Monster,4 for both share the same identity as compositions from disjecta membra. Frankenstein is a reconstructed text of tissues grafted from the {457} bodies of European books about the creation of man. As Elizabeth Bruss observes, "The 'story' the autobiography tells is never seamless": this is especially pertinent to Frankenstein, since the seams or sutures which hold the novel's parts in place show in its body, just as they do in the Monster's.

Already an awareness of Frankenstein's fictions of genre reveals instructive analogies. Walton's book is like Frankenstein's Monster, and both Walton and Victor are creators of creations. But such an awareness can also deepen understanding of the novel's major theme, which concerns a secular, scientific restatement of Milton's theodicy in Paradise Lost. Since Percy Shelley, commentators have rushed past Frankenstein's generic qualities. They have limited their interpretations of the novel's stories about relationships between a "creator" and his "creation" (97)6 by focusing only one of them: the "macarabesque"7 of Victor and the "Frankenstein Monster." Our fascination with the Faustian "creator" Frankenstein, who calls himself "the miserable origin and author" (96) of the "creation" children call Frankenstein, has blinded us to Robert Walton's dramatic and narrative roles in the fiction. We have neglected his status as the surviving British ship's captain (we would not if this were Conrad) -- the first of three major heroes, and at last, the only one who avoids a tragical life and a tormented death. And we have overlooked Walton's significance as the "creator" and "origin and author" of his autobiographical sea story, the literary "creation" Frankenstein which makes possible the survival of his own, Victor's, and the Monster's stories. Shelley's reasons for choosing an epigraph from Book X (743-45) of Paradise Lost become clear if we accept Walton's functions. It is taken from Adam's speech to his Creator-Author after the Fall:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? (3)
The speech is part of Adam's autobiography, and its rhetorical circumstances introduce the novel's preoccupation with the creator/creation relationship. But the epigraph also puts in play Milton's vision of this relationship as a problem of authority or authorship.8 Our oversight of Walton's narrative distorts Shelley's profound revision of Milton's myth of creation, for it abolishes the dimensions of the creator/creation stories which establish and comment on the relationships among Walton, Victor, and the Monster. And our oversight of Walton's dramatic role as author prevents us from recognizing that one of the crucial subjects of {458} their stories has to do with literary rather than anatomical creation, with authoring an autobiography. Frankenstein represents three interconnected spiritual autobiographies of characters who create themselves as an explorer, a scientist, and a revenger. But it also represents their autobiographical acts of authoring their own lives, both in actions and words.


M. H. Abrams has taught us to learn about Romantic literature by examining endings.9 We can mark the ending of Frankenstein's "dramatic patterns" at the seam of Walton's intercalary inscription: "WALTON, in continuation" (206). As in Coleridge's great "Rime" or Wordsworth's Prelude, at Frankenstein's ending we are returned to its beginning, with Walton writing to his sister, and to himself. The (fictional) editorial inscription marks much of the preceding narrative as Victor's composition, and distinguishes what follows as Walton's. But unless we read it as part of a dramatic pattern, this curious switch of authority appears anomalous. For we read at the beginning, before Victor's narrative had begun, that Walton would write the whole transcript of Victor's story:
I have resolved every night, when I am not engaged, to record, as nearly as possible in his own words, what he has related during the day. If I should be engaged, I will at least make notes. (25)
If this switch were an error or a weakness, it is doubtful whether at this point Shelley's text would have survived her husband's blue pencil or her own good judgment. The apparent anomaly is explained when Walton, writing "in continuation" of Victor's autobiographical deposition, informs us that Victor has revised the record he transcribed:
Frankenstein discovered that I made notes concerning his history: he asked to see them, and then himself corrected and augmented them in many places; but principally in giving the life and spirit to the conversations he held with his enemy. "Since you have preserved my narration," said he, "I would not that a mutilated one should go down to posterity." (207)
Certainly Victor is interested in legislating "posterity"'s opinion of his career. As Patricia Spacks has pointed out, "Autobiographies . . . rely on a rhetoric of self-explanation, shading often toward self-justification.10 Victor's autobiographical act is a self-creation, a "becoming alive (bio) to oneself (auto)," as Jeffrey Mehlman puts it.11 And it is a "becoming alive" to others: it manipulates signs (graphy) to create a text. But {459} Victor's anxiety about a "mutilated" narration is moreover symptomatic of his tortured experience as the creator of the Monster, "a thing," he says, "such as not even Dante could have conceived" (53). His allusion identifies his previous performance as a creator with the poet's, and compares his creation with Dante's poem. Victor makes this alignment of the doubled ideas of creator/creation, author/text explicit when he confesses he has been "the author of unalterable evils" (87). Revising Walton's transcript by writing "life and spirit" into it, Victor recapitulates his infusion of "a spark of being into the lifeless thing" (52) he had authored earlier. His autobiographical text is a surrogate for his monstrous creation. As he "composes his shattered feelings to peace and death" (208), Victor tries to amend the corruption of his career as a creator-author by composing a well-designed autobiography.

Both Victor and Walton have tried to create "glory" (12, 34) for themselves through the sciences of medical or geographical discovery. The ending of Frankenstein shows us that both have forsaken their respective sciences for what the Monster calls a "a godlike science" (107), "the science of words or letters" (105). Each recognizes that his ambition jeopardizes others -- in Victor's case, it makes "the very existences of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror" (163). Both Victor and Walton turn to autobiographical acts of self-discovery through the use of what again the Monster is reserved to call "the paper signs for speech" (109). Each tries to salvage himself from the failure of his creation by becoming a collaborative author of a text which will "go down to posterity" as a manual of the hazards of egomaniacal creation.

Our neglect of Walton's role has distorted not only Frankenstein's ending but its beginning. One contributing cause is its cinematic treatment, which has never acknowledged that the story begins with Walton writing to his sister, Mrs. Saville, from a seascape and shipboard setting. In The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the sequel to his successful Frankenstein (1931), James Whale gestured toward the story's occasion. As The Bride begins, we see a nervous Percy Shelley, a jaunty Byron, and a demure Mary Shelley in a Villa Diodati-like drawing room, where Mary captures the attention of the supercilious males with a "continuation" of Whale's previous treatment of her novel. The detail is of course illegitimate, for there is no sequel by Shelley. Whale staged and filmed a transposed version of Shelley's account, in her 1831 Preface, of the ghost-story project which gave rise to Frankenstein's composition.12 But Whale's interest in the circumstances of authority surrounding Victor's {460} story -- however wrong-headed -- was rightly motivated. Any future "true story" production must adapt the fiction's own account of its occasion -- its story of its creators and creation. I will focus it here in order to argue that Walton's progress from explorer to author is a crucial feature of the novel's "modern" myth of creation.

Excluding the 1818 Preface written by Percy Shelley, Frankenstein begins as an epistolary novel:

To Mrs. Saville, England

St. Petersburg, Dec. 11th, 17--.

The novel indicates at the outset that it is a collection of documents by classifying its initial text as a letter, printing what we read as an address, and instancing place and date of writing. The novel poses as an authentic history. Yet this epistolary fiction is designed to accomplish more than the "illusion of authenticity."13 It signifies the human drama of Walton's separation from his sister by the Baltic and North Seas. And it marks not only the will for communication across this distance, but also the very much fictive human conviction that "paper signs for speech" are almost heard as they are written. Walton acts from this conviction as he writes the first words of his letter: "You will rejoice to hear" (9).

Walton writes that he arrived "yesterday; and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare, and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking" (9). We need only to recall the distance that separates the writer from his sister to suspect that Walton's punctuality is really a means for giving immediate assurance to himself. Though we do not detect any agitation on Walton's part as he begins his letter, later he writes that the reflections his writing has stimulated have calmed him:

These reflections have dispelled the agitation with which I began my letter, and I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates my heart to heaven; for nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose, -- a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye. (10-11)
As Walton reads what he has written, the "point" he has put to his second paragraph of self-explanation has focused his self.14 Harold Toliver has written that epistolary narration "allows confidants to declare their inmost schemes," and that it is "especially useful as a method of setting forth interior feelings as they emerge into action and rhetorical {461} postures."15 But the thrust of Walton's letter-writing -- his epistolary autobiographical act -- is directed at himself. In Roy Pascal's words, "The purpose of true autobiography must be 'Selbstbesinnung,' a search for one's inner standing."16 By an autobiographical act of writing, Walton attempts to communicate relief to himself. For him letter-writing is a communication therapy that yields positive reinforcement of his ego.

Walton undertakes a search for his inner standing by making a full review of his past life. As he writes in the present he searches in the past for grounds of meaning.17 His first letter gives an account of his apprenticeship as a sailor, but this material is less important than the background reasons why his expedition was "the favorite dream of my early years" (11). Reading and writing made him the creature who reads what he writes from St. Petersburg. As a child he "read with ardour" narratives of voyages of discovery in his Uncle Thomas's library. In imitation of their authors, he resolved to go to sea. Later he "pursued" poetry, and then determined to write it (11). In both cases, Walton tried to create himself in the image of his authors. This is an important and paradigmatic aetiology of motives, for Victor and the Monster evidence this same disposition and history.

Walton's reading had encouraged him to enact or live out the literature he read, and to prepare to write it. But in each instance he has suffered a prohibition. His father's "dying injunction" forbidding him to go to sea, and his "failure" to earn as a poet "a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated" (11), obstructed his youthful ambitions for authority. Walton explains that the independence afforded by his father's death and an inherited fortune allowed him to disobey his father and to set out on a voyage of discovery. When he writes that he hopes to "tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man" (10), readers should be alert to the augury of his metaphor. For Walton's passion to discover a scene for original exploration is out-weighed and predicted by his frustrated search for authorial ability and a scene of writing.18

More than three months separate Walton's first letter from his second of March 28th. Prevented by "frost and snow" from sailing out of the port of Archangel, and in a gloomy state of mind brought on by inaction, he discusses the drawbacks of letter-writing, and the superiority of speech. Complaining of his lack of a friend, Walton admits that "I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the {462} communication of feeling" (13). A friend would serve him better than the discipline of writing (unheard) words, giving "(as the painters call it) keeping" to his day dreams, helping him "to regulate my mind" (14). Walton's letters are written during moments of intense feeling, and if his writing sometimes soothes, at other times it irritates him and makes him complain about its limitations (15). But despite these objections, his own writing and that of others remain important to him. In this letter Walton's language seems unsatisfactory, but nevertheless, by writing it he urges his sister to respond in kind:

Continue to write to me by every opportunity: I may receive your letters (though the chance is very doubtful) on some occasions when I need them most to support my spirits. (15-16)
Walton's letters suggest that the act of writing and the words in letters are a means of making contact, not only with an absent person, but also with oneself.

Walton writes one more letter to his sister in July after meeting a merchantman at sea on its homeward voyage to England. This final letter, written a significant nine months after the first -- with no prospect of speedy delivery or reply -- shows him to have retreated from his previous despair about the power of writing to communicate. A strange accident has happened, and "although it is very probable that you will see me before these papers come into your possession," he writes that he "cannot forbear recording it. . . ." In the copy of Frankenstein she corrected and presented to Mrs. Thomas in 1823, Shelley added ". . . in writing." In this fourth and final letter, Walton has matter that will "make a figure in a letter." The strange accident he mentions is his meeting with Victor at the North Pole, and his sight of the Monster. Victor had thought that the memory of his misfortunes "should die with me," but he names Walton "friend" and decides to let his story live. Walton welcomes Victor's friendship, and as we have seen, plans to transcribe the narrative Victor unfolds:

I have resolved every night, when I am not engaged, to record, as nearly as possible in his own words, what he has related during the day. . . . This manuscript will doubtless afford you the greatest pleasure: but to me, who know him, and who hear it from his own lips, with what interest and sympathy I shall read it in some future day! (25)
Walton's reservations about the value of writing have disappeared with the arrival of an interesting subject. In this letter he begins to refer to his {463} papers as "my journal" (21, 22), and he deliberately takes up the role of author that formerly was prohibited or unattainable. Journals are an important variety of autobiographical exercise in the late eighteenth century and before,19 so we can speculate that, as Walton copies Victor's autobiography, he imagines that he is not only writing his friend's biography, but his own autobiography too. We can also recognize that the autobiography he has written and published (again, given Frankenstein's fictions), has been read "in some future day," because poetry published in the future by Coleridge and Percy Shelley and others has been incorporated.

If the region Walton voyages to is not "a land never before imprinted" -- the Monster and Victor have set foot on it before him -- Walton's accidental acquaintance supplies him with conversation, friendship, and an opportunity to grow in "knowledge and wisdom" (24). But most important, his record of his friendship with Victor will enable him to "imprint" his own life, and to fulfill his yearning for authorship. Walton's satisfaction "in some future day" will be due in part to the fact that he has written the spoken words he will read. In Walton's account then, the actions of speaking, reading, and writing chart the rhythms of his life. As he speaks and writes and reads, he creates himself, and he is created. Walton's movement from failed author to explorer to successful author is a drama we can witness by observing the ways he uses language,20 and searches for "community" (95) even before Victor's story begins. Walton's drama is a comedy, not a tragedy like the others, and it is a controlling feature of the novel's creator/creation theme. Later we will consider how Walton engages a crisis that tests his growth in self-knowledge. Now I want to examine how acts of communication and the quest for authority are similarly significant in Victor's and the Monster's autobiographical acts, yet tragically unsuccessful.

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Victor begins his narration with biographical data and a sketch of his family circle. He says he is "drawing a picture of my early days" (32). This is the same painterly metaphor for self-display that Walton had used, and the Monster also employs it (142, 158). This metaphor captures the dual purpose of autobiographical acts: self-display is balanced by a desire for self-regard. It identifies self-conception and -exploration as artificed performances for others, but it points out that the subject self is part of the audience. To make his verbal self-portrait accurate, Victor says he must turn from pleasant recollections of child- {464} hood to aetiology, and "not omit to record those events which led, by insensible steps to my after tale of misery. . . ." The text betrays Victor's revision of Walton's transcript, for the verb "record" indicates his action of writing down or putting on record. Shelley tried to emphasize this change from speech transcript to written composition -- and Victor's self-conscious artistry -- when she revised "state" to "relate" in another place: "I desire therefore, in this narration to state (relate) those facts. . ." (32). This emphasis is important, for it suggests Shelley's determination to maintain the drama of the text's composition, and to cast Victor's role as author into sharper relief.

Like Walton's, Victor's initial aetiology of motives consists of an annotated bibliography, a report of reading: he searches his reading to compose a picture of himself. At thirteen he is exhilarated by "a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa," but his father's prohibition of such study, and the disinterest of his future bride Elizabeth, block his wish "to communicate," and force him "to pursue my studies alone" (34), outside the family "community." This reception moves him to "procure"the whole works of Agrippa, and also Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus (32-33). The writers he reads become his "favorite authors" (34), creators with him of the creation that is himself. Victor's early experience of the tyranny that can be exercised by a creator over a creation -- in this case, by his father over him -- is a profound one. The father's tyranny is seen by the son as an abuse of authority, and leads to the displacement of the father and the substitution of other "authors." When the elder Frankenstein carefully explains the facts of electricity which refute Victor's new "authors," paternal attention does as much as intellectual persuasion to restore him to authority. The father has for the time being fulfilled his responsibilities as creator to his creation by providing for communication and "community."

This contest between authorities in Victor's early life is repeated when he arrives at Ingolstadt to study science.21 A previous attempt was a failure because he was uninitiated, and heard "terms to which I could affix no idea" (36). This echo of the third book of Locke's Essay -- which Shelley studied even on her wedding day22 -- implicates Locke's analysis of the problematics of communication.23 At Ingolstadt, Victor visits M. Krempe to learn how to affix right ideas to chemistry's words, and gauges Krempe's administration of authority. Krempe "wrote down a list of several books," but young Victor is repelled by him, and will not go to hear "that conceited little fellow deliver sentences out of a pulpit" {465} (41). He rejects Krempe's offer to create him as an informed reader of the language of natural philosophy, because Krempe's "conceit" does not permit "community." M. Waldman's authority as a creator is more welcome. Victor attends his lecture, and applauds his "panegyric upon modern chemistry, the terms of which I shall never forget" (42). Waldman will help him "to give new names" to natural phenomena, and he too writes down "a list of books" (43). Communication takes place, and community is established, because Waldman's exercise of authority is judicious and compassionate. Victor responds well to the provision of community he will later deny his own creation. Like Walton, whose words he echoes verbatim, he "read with ardour" (45) writings whose authors are models for his future career as a creator-author of a text never before imprinted.

Victor's reading and the unique writing he learns to perform enable him to become the author of a "miserable monster" who parodies his design for creation and glory. Soon after he has brought the "being" to life and abandoned him, the Monster finds him and pathetically tries to communicate: "His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds" (53). Unlike Krempe or Waldman, Victor does not offer a reading list or instruction in giving the right names to things. Shelley chooses to portray Victor's failure to perform the duties he owes to his creation by focusing on the issue of communication and community. Especially against the background of his own fastidious examinations of a creator's authority, Victor's irresponsibility is a tyrannous conceit, and a clear violation of the duties of a creator to his creation, of a father to his son. The Monster sulks and disappears, and Victor contracts an illness from which he is nursed by his friend Clerval. As he convalesces, Victor asks how he can repay him. Clerval replies that he should perform an autobiographical act, that he should paint a self-portrait. "Compose yourself," he says; "your father and cousin would be very happy if they received a letter from you in your own handwriting" (58). Elizabeth repeats this request for a letter "in your own handwriting" (59). She knows that the act of writing can be therapeutic, for like Walton writing to his sister, she has "written myself into good spirits. . . ." She urges Victor to do the same: "write yourself, and make your father and all of us happy; or -- I cannot bear to think of the other side of the question; my tears already flow" (62). Though he does not make a complete explanation of the circumstances of his illness, or of his long-term failure to correspond, he finds that he can "write himself' into health. He restores himself by restoring communication and community with his family.

{466} But Victor's repair of his correspondence does not go far enough. He does not include an accounting of the "being" he has authored. Earlier in his narration Victor had recalled his father's statement that any interruption in his correspondence would be regarded as "a proof that your other duties are equally neglected" (50). Among these other duties is the obligation to measure the spiritual distances he travels every day, to perform the duty of self-inspection he owes to himself.24 In other words, his father viewed the failure to maintain correspondence as a symptom of moral turpitude, and he characterized the act of writing as a trial or litmus test of guilt. In fact the Monster's status as a specimen of Victor's "own handwriting" -- his condition as a bloody, slimy, stinking text -- confirms his father's prophetic statement: the Monster is "a proof," an imprint, of his neglected duties to others and himself.

Victor continues his convalescence by reading "the works of the orientalists" (64) and listening to Clerval's recitation of poetry. But his recovery is barely complete when he receives a letter from his father that informs him his brother William has been murdered. As Victor reads the letter he finds that his father has considered how anxious he would be: "even now your eye skims over the page, to seek the words which are to convey to you horrible tidings" (66). What Victor reads is a report of the Monster's writing, for his father writes that "the print of the murderer's finger" (67) was on dead William's neck. Victor's failure to teach his creation to speak names has moved the Monster to the horrible act of writing his grotesque signature in revenge. Victor's guilty act of authorship recoils upon others around him, and makes him an irresponsible speaker. Fearing for himself, he resolves to "remain silent" (73) about what he knows. Even the example of Elizabeth asking to be "allowed to speak" (79) in defense of Justine at her trail for William's murder does not move him to speak the truth that will save her and condemn himself. Victor has power to affix the right names to the finger marks which the Monster has printed on William's neck, but chooses instead to recapitulate the rude and merciless version of authorship performed by the Monster. Victor becomes the author of another mutilated text: due to his silence, Justine's life "was to be obliterated," and her beauty "obliterated" too (77; my emphasis). The rope abrasions which destroy the living, beautiful character of Justine and mark her neck will register the hand of Victor, and constitute his signing of her death warrant.

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{467} Shelley's repetition of these dramatic patterns in the Monster's autobiography makes their contribution plainer and more compelling. Sometimes these patterns are sustained with histrionic force. For instance, in his description of his ascent of Montanvert after Justine's trial, Victor states/relates that "the slightest sound, such as even speaking in a loud voice, produces a concussion of air sufficient to draw destruction upon the head of the speaker" (92). His anxiety proves to be warranted, and his estimate of the effect of the speaking voice confirmed, because an avalanche of retributive tragedy is set off by the raging exclamations of hypocritical hatred he shouts at the Monster he encounters at the summit. The Monster appeals for communication and "community" by defining their intimate and inescapable relation: "you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us" (94). Victor wants to silence the Monster, for if he consents to hear he will acknowledge his authorship: "I will not hear you. There can be no community between you and me; we are enemies" (95). But the Monster persists, and adroitly introduces an argument to which his creator can not be deaf:
"But hear me. The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they may be, to speak in their own defence before they are condemned. Listen to me, Frankenstein." (96)
The Monster's argument recalls Victor's culpability in Justine's execution, for she had enjoyed this privilege at her trial. Victor is impelled to acknowledge authorship:
"Why do you call to my remembrance circumstances of which I shudder to reflect, that I have been the miserable origin and author? Cursed be the day, abhorred devil, in which you first saw light! Cursed (although I curse myself) be the hands that formed you! You have made me wretched beyond expression. You have left me no power." (96)
Victor uses the Miltonic epithet "author" -- which can refer to God or to Satan, the creator-author of Sin and Death -- to indicate the creator/ creation relation between them. Yet his confession that he is "beyond expression," and that the Monster has left him "no power" testifies to the instability of his status as creator. The Monster threatens to reverse their relation by becoming Victor's author, and so make Victor his creation:
{468} Hear my tale. . . . On you it rests, whether I quit for ever the neighbourhood of man, and lead a harmless life, or become the scourge of your fellow-creatures, and the author of your own speedy ruin." (96)
During this conversation the power of the Monster's avalanche-like voice is hypostasized. He cancels his ghastly appearance, relieving his creator from looking at him, by placing his hand before Victor's eyes: "Still thou canst listen to me, and grant me thy compassion" (96). The power of the Monster's speaking voice persuades Victor to hear his words and for the first time to feel "what the duties of a creator towards his creature were" (97), and he consents to listen to his creation's autobiography.

The Monster's account of his development features the importance of the linguistic phenomena of human communication for "community." Shelley trots out the theory that language was acquired through imitation of animal sounds by making the Monster describe his earliest efforts to speak:

Sometimes I tried to imitate the pleasant songs of the birds, but was unable. Sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again (99).
During his residence at the De Lacy cottage as a voyeur and Satan-outside-Eden, the Monster acculturates his "own mode" of speech. At first he understands speech as the act of a person "Uttering a few sounds" (101), but his sensitivity to the music of the human voice alerts him to the circumstances of communication. Listening to Felix read aloud -- though at the time he "knew nothing of the science of words or letters" (105) -- he comes to recognize that Felix repeated "many of the same sounds when he read as when he talked" (109). As he hears more "articulate sounds" he learns the "godlike science" of the "mystery of their reference" (107). But since speech and reading occur within the domestic circle of the De Lacy household, the Monster perceives that some of their "reference" is to a social community, and he comes to regard these social acts as indispensable to his participation in the cottage's society. "Acquiring the art of language" (110) is a passport, he concludes, to acceptance. By means of it he can "picture" himself and perform as a social being: "I formed in my imagination a thousand pictures of presenting myself to them. . . . I imagined that . . . by my gentle demeanour and conciliating words, I should first win their favor, and afterwards their love" (110). The Monster can create himself as a {469} social creature, he hopes, by learning how to use language. The appearance of Safie, who is created a member of the De Lacy household through instruction in conversation and reading, promotes the Monster's mastery of "the science of letters" (114). His symbiotic growth in linguistic skill prompts him to think that he has created himself eligible for society.

Books found in "a leathern portmanteau" -- Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch's Lives, and Goethe's Sorrows of Werther (123) -- help the Monster, as Walton's and Victor's books had helped them, to pick an identity. As they had, the Monster "applied much personally to my own feelings and condition" (124). Yet also like Walton and Victor, the Monster has suffered prohibitions against his designs for self-creation. He discovers and reads Victor's journal account of his own creation,25 which assures him that he is a "blot" (116, 117), a mutilated text, "in language which painted your own horrors, and rendered mine ineffaceable." This reading forces upon him the recognition that he is "a filthy type" (126) -- a sign so deformed that he is unreadable, incommunicable -- and his rejection by the De Lacy family frustrates his plan for erasing and so recreating or "resetting" himself. This failure to talk himself into human community reduces him to inarticulate sounds: "I gave vent to my anguish in fearful howlings" (132). He decides to create himself as a version of Satan, a figure from his reading who mounted a rebellion against his creator-author, and grabbed for authority of his own. At this place Victor's recreation of the Monster's speech (or is it Walton's emendation years later?) includes his statement that he "bore a hell" (132) within himself. The echo of Satan's words in Book IV of Paradise Lost identifies the Monster with Victor, who had written earlier that he "bore a hell" within himself after abandoning Justine. The shared textual allusion collapses the creator/creation structure that encompassed and distinguished Victor and the Monster. Yet this moment is moreover an important instance of the novel's regular referral of the creator/creation topic to the issue of authority. Throughout Frankenstein, the act of creation is a concern that is subordinate to the issue or question or problem of authority. "Did I request thee, Maker . . .?" asks Adam in the epigraph: "did I solicit thee . . . ?" The call into being is never a reply for it can never be invited. The questions begin later, when it is too late.

The rest of Frankenstein secures the tensed ligature that joins the creation topic to the issue of authority. Past that indeterminate point where their resonances are established, they stand as parallel and reciprocal metaphors, generating meaning from contrast and fusion. This is {470} clear from the frequency with which Shelley exploits words and phrases that are terms for linguistic phenomena by making them support the narration of creator/creation vicissitudes. Victor's agreement to "compose a female" (147) involves him in another authorial action, here called a "sequel" (162). When the Monster comes to "mark" his progress, however, Victor writes that he "tore to pieces the thing" he agreed to author as if it were a body of manuscript pages. Again "shut out from intercourse" (116), the Monster retreats from human conventions of language and communication "with a howl of devilish despair and revenge" (164). Reduced to a savage roar, he prints his "filthy type" in "the black mark of fingers" (172) found on the dead Clerval's neck. Victor had seen that his refusal to author a companion who would enable the Monster to recreate himself through reproduction would give his "enemy" power to "sign my death-warrant" (166). But the Monster signs Clerval's instead, and still Victor remains silent, unable or perhaps unwilling to limit the Monster's scene of writing. He writes that fear chained my tongue" (182), but when Elizabeth is killed -- with the murderous mark" (193) imprinted on her neck -- he confesses at Geneva. His revenge oath at his family's tomb shows him to be reduced to the Monster's inarticulate and dangerous version of authority: "rage choaked my utterance" (200). Victor's account of his pursuit of the Monster evidences the reversal of authority between creator and creation. His account figures him as the reader of a text authored by the Monster, and characterizes him as his creature's creation. Victor "followed in his track" (200) across the globe. The Monster wrote a road map in the landscape to drive him on a pilgrimage of suffering: "he himself, who feared that if I lost all trace I should despair and die, often left some mark to guide me" (201). Leaving behind him "marks in writing on the barks of trees, or cut in stone," the Monster writes rude "inscriptions" (202). The Monster acts to "put . . . the seal" to his fate (188). Victor's neglect of the duties of a creator to his creation has forced him to yield authority. The Monster has indeed become the "author" (188) of Victor's ruin.

i v

In contrast to these two versions of authority, Walton's is benign and successful. This is dramatized conclusively by the letter he writes "in continuation" of Victor's narrative. Walton describes how his ship is surrounded by ice which threatens his expedition and the lives of his crewmen. This danger challenges Walton's ambition for "glory" and {471} tests his exercise of authority, because he can choose to sign their death warrant. He stands in the relation of a creator to his microcosmic crew, who beg him to act responsibly and turn back. This request is made in Victor's presence, and at first the dying scientist harangues the crew in a speech that echoes Ulysses's, for which Dante damned him in the Inferno. Victor urges them "not to return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows" (212). To at least one commentator, Victor's speech represents self-sacrificing courage. And it characterizes Walton as timid, for Walton makes his own speech agreeing to turn back.26 Such a reading is similar to those sentimentalizings of the Faustian character in other fiction, such as the endorsement of Heathcliff's "love" for Catherine (though that "love" destroys her, him, and threatens to destroy others), or the celebration of Ahab's monomania (though Ahab destroys a whole boat load of men, excepting Ishmael). These readings amount to worshippings of characters called devils.27 But it is precisely Victor's sort of Faustian authoritarianism, with its egomaniacal and callous abrogation of the duties of a creator to his creatures, which Frankenstein exposes and indicts. In fact, upon reflection after his recurrent flurry of egomania, even Victor recants his propagandizing for an inglorious and false heroism. In the last speech he makes, Victor admits that what he said may have been a mistake, "for I may still be misled by passion." "Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition" he tells Walton, but even as he dies, the lesson of his life before him, he pathetically suggests "another may succeed" (215) in becoming a god.

It is true that Victor's qualified endorsement of Walton's decision to turn back does not eliminate Walton's sense that he returns "ignorant and disappointed" (213). But keeping in mind the distance that separates this remark, which is made sometime late in the eighteenth century, and the publication of the text, about twenty years or more later, it is possible to imagine that Walton's feeling was only temporary. As he read his manuscript over, writing in allusions to blasted questers in Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" and Byron's Childe Harold, he indicated his comprehension of the lessons of Frankenstein's life. These indications are supported by what we must call the symbolic cosmogony of the text which has operated from the outset, supervising and informing the play of the creator/creation structure and the issue of authority and authorship The dates of Walton's nine-month long correspondence with his absent sister plot his life from the onset of winter through the height of {472} summer. And his steady movement north is countered by an abrupt reversal to the south. This seasonal cycle and the symbolism of terrestrial directions chart a metaphorical sequence of growth after spiritual death in the wintry north to rebirth and increasing maturity in the warm south.28

Though Victor tells Walton it is too late for him to begin again as a benign creator, to fulfill "My duties to my fellow creatures" (215), his exercise in autobiography helps him understand his errors. Retracing the "obliterated" (47) steps which led him to tragedy, Victor "composes his shattered feelings to peace and death" through the therapy of composing an account of his life, not from fragments of human corpses but on paper. It is not too late for Walton, for by auditing Victor's course in the perils of arrogant authority, he discovers it is later than he thinks. Thus Victor becomes the creator-author of the self-revelation Walton achieves through the discipline of acting as Victor's amanuensis and apologist. Roy Pascal has suggested that developments in autobiography have helped to turn much modern literature into "a spiritual experiment, a voyage of discovery that knows no conditions but the principle of exploration."29 As a result of hearing Victor's autobiography of his experiments in creation and authority, Walton alters his "voyage of discovery towards the northern pole" (20) -- if we may wrench Clerval's context but not his metaphor -- to "a voyage of discovery to the land of knowledge" (55). In the verses of Canto I of Byron's Don Juan (1818) we can find a motto for Walton's epiphany. For Walton's speech with Victor, and his writing and reading of Victor's narrative, teaches him that "voyages to the Poles, / Are ways to benefit mankind, as true, / Perhaps, as shooting them at Waterloo."30

There is evidence of Walton's attainment of maturity and wisdom at the novel's conclusion, when he encounters the Monster. His condemnation of "the frightful catalogue" (219) of the Monster's revenge may seem too draconian. But in fact Walton perceives the Monster's revenge as an imitation of Victor's role as a corrupt creator and illegitimate authority, and therefore his judgment is a just one. As we call over the composite catalogue of the autobiographies of Walton, Frankenstein, and the Monster, it is clear that Walton's variety of heroism is finally unique. His choice of the science of words or letters as a means to discover himself and illuminate the mysteries of life and death permits him to achieve the domestic circle of community forfeited by the Faustian heroism of Victor, and impossible for the Satanic heroism of the Monster. By {473} writing a book composed from the autobiographical parts of himself and his two acquaintances, Walton has demonstrated Ascham's axiom that books are better guides to knowledge than experience. But perhaps the most moving testimony to the pertinence of this axiom for Frankenstein is the implied drama of Shelley's creation of the novel. With assorted fragments of the whole body of literature about the myth of creation she has composed a work from disjecta membra. She, like Walton, has attained benevolent authority by remaining aware of the duties of a creator to a creation: from outside the three concentric circles of narrative, she urges the readers she creates with her writing to reject the vanity of egomaniacal human wishes. Through her own godlike science she recommends the creation of self-knowledge and human community from compassionating words.


1. M. K. Joseph, in his introduction to his edition of Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. x, says that the narrative is composed of "three concentric layers."

2. Francis Hart, "Notes for an Anatomy of Modern Autobiography," New Literary History, 1 (1970), 490.

3. Elizabeth Bruss, Autobiographical Acts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), passim.

4. For accounts of the Frankenstein legend see Donald L. Glut, The Frankenstein Legend (Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973); Martin Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976); and James Rieger, "Introduction," in Rieger, ed., Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1974).

5. Bruss, p. 164.

6. Numbers in parentheses are page references to James Rieger's edition of the 1818 text of Frankenstein.

7. Muriel Spark, Child of Light (Hadleigh, Essex: Tower Bridge Publications, 1951), p. 134. Shelley's review of his wife's novel is reprinted in David L. Clark, ed., Shelley's Prose (Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), pp. 307-08. See also the Preface to Frankenstein, written by Shelley, in Clark, pp. 306-07, or Rieger, pp. 6-8.

8. There are two major creator/creation relationships in Milton's poem. One has to do with God/Satan, or God/Adam, and the other with Satan/Sin and Satan/Death. There are thirteen instances of Milton's use of "Author" to name the creator in both major relationships, or in others. God is an "Author" (III, 374, VIII, 317), and Satan (II, 381; X, 236). Several times the poet calls God an "Author," once Michael calls Satan "Author," and once Eve refers to Adam as her "Author."

9. M. H. Abrams, "Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric," in Harold Bloom, ed., Romanticism and Consciousness (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970), pp. 201-29.

10. Patricia M. Spacks, Imagining a Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 313.

11. Jeffrey Mehlman, A Structural Study of Autobiography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), p. 14.

12. For a discussion of Whale's film, see Tropp, pp. 97-98. Rieger reprints Shelley's account in the 1831 Preface of the ghost story contest, pp. 222-29.

13. Bruss, p. 61.

14. Roy Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 59, writes that the object of autobiographical writing is "to come to terms with oneself."

15. Harold Tolliver, Animate Illusions (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), p. 138.

16. Pascal, p. 182.

17. Ibid., pp. 9, 11, 184.

18. Robert A. Fothergill, Private Chronicles: A Study of English Diaries (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), thinks that the usage of "diary" is indistinguishable from that of "journal" (p. 3), and that the diary is a "passionately cherished Book of the Self, the essential imprint of a man's being-in-the-world" (p. 43; my emphasis).

19. G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965); Paul Delany, British Autobiography in the Seventeenth Century (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969); Fothergill, and Bruss all suggest that diary and journal writing were often propaedeutics for the writing of autobiography.

20. Peter Brooks, "'Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts': Language, Nature, and Monstrosity," in George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds., The Endurance of Frankenstein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), p. 210, argues that there is a "thematization of language" in the novel.

21. Ingolstadt was associated with part of the legend of Faust. See H. G. Haile, The History of Doctor Johann Faustus (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), p. 4. When M. G. Lewis visited the Shelleys and Byron at Geneva in August 1816, he occasioned the ghost-story contest and discussed Goethe's work on Faust with the company. See Richard Holmes, Shelley, The Pursuit (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), p. 344.

22. Burton R. Pollin, "Philosophical and Literary Sources of Frankenstein," Comparative Literature, 17 (1965), 107.

23. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), Book 111. For discussion of Locke's importance concerning speculation about language, see Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment(Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p. 99, and The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 1, Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), p. 134; Hans Aarsleff, The Study of Language in England, 1780-1860 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 238 ff. Richard J. Dunn, "Narrative Distance in Frankenstein," Studies in the Novel, VI, [1974], 408-17), following Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), argues that "Frankenstein is concerned with a fragmenting society in which communication remains incomplete" (416). This position does not account for the "completion of communication" achieved between Walton and Victor.

24. G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography, p. 7: "the object of a diary -- to regard and weigh spiritually every episode in one's life -- presented itself as a duty, not an option." The same duty is enjoined by Frankenstein père.

25. For a brilliant psychoanalytical exploration of Shelley's composition of the novel which is centered upon a similar circumstance in Shelley's life, see Marc A. Rubenstein, "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism, 15 (1976), 165-94. Remarkably, this superior essay is unaccounted for in "Select Annotated Bibliography," Levine and Knoepflmacher eds., The Endurance of Frankenstein, pp. 327-- 31.

{475} 26. George Levine, "Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism," Novel, 6 (1973), 15, argues that the novel is "anti-heroic," and that Walton's decision to compassionate his crewmen makes him "a lesser man." Compare W. H. Auden's definition of the ethical hero as one "who knows more" than others, The Enchafed Flood (New York: Vintage Books, 1950), p. 95. Harold Bloom, "Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus," Partisan Review, 32 (1965), 611-18, also misconstrues Walton. M. A. Goldberg, "Moral and Myth in Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein," Keats-Shelley Journal, 8 (1959), 27-38, is an exception to the rule of ignoring or dismissing Walton's version of heroism.

27. See my comparison, "Satanic Conceits in Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights," Milton and the Romantics (Volume 4, 1980), 1-15.

28. For an analysis of these seasonal and geographical significances, see G. M. A. Hanfmann, The Seasons' Sarcophagus in Dunbarton Oaks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951), pp. 88-89, 124-25, 152-54, 189.

29. Pascal, p. 55.

30. Don Juan, Canto 1, stanza cxxxii.