Contents Index

Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Intertextuality of Mountains

Fred V. Randel

Studies in Romanticism, 24 (Spring 1985), 515-32

{515} Among Jane Harrison' less noticed legacies to literary studies was her revision of Victorian assumptions about the cultural meaning of mountains. While Ruskin had celebrated them as signposts of transcendence and the prestigious Alpine Club treated them as the playground of male adventuresomeness,1 Harrison regarded them as a symbolic field in which the rival perspectives of male and female dominance struggled near the dawn of western culture and struggle still. By weaving into her studies of ancient Greek religion a contrast between the familiar version of mythology attached to Mount Olympus and an earlier and in some respects superior way of thinking attached to the Mountain-Mother, she placed mountains within a revealing context of social differentiation and conflict. Olympianism is, for Harrison, the invention of a patriarchal society; it exalts a Father-God, a rational worship, and a monogamous marriage, and it reduces females to subservience. The Mountain-Mother, by contrast, is the product of a matriarchal society; it exalts a female fertility-goddess, treats males as subordinate deities or worshippers, and emphasizes "mystical and orgiastic" practices.2 A signet ring found in Crete provides a visual image of the Mountain-Mother: her conical skirt is identical with the upper portion of a mountain, her waist tapers to the peak, and her upper anatomy crowns the mountain with a form that elicits from an attendant male an ecstatic gesture of worship. This female mountain-goddess, according to Harrison, not only preceded Zeus in religious history, but also contributed mightily to the profoundest de- {516} velopment of Greek religion in Orphism. Thus, the priority and authority of the female mountain are defended against the claims of a male tradition firmly ensconced in conventional classical scholarship and English academic life, as well as in the broader, male-dominated, late nineteenth-century culture, which encompasses patriarchal religion and mountaineering. Accordingly, her autobiography moves within a few pages from her discovery of the Mountain-Mother to her withering estimate of one of the sacred places of Victorian mountain-mania in a passage that almost incidentally stands the Freudian conception of penis-envy on its head, or jaw:
The Matterhorn is, to me, one of the ugliest objects in all nature, like nothing on earth but a colossal extracted fang turned upside down, but all the same, every night during the season, the terrace of the Riffel Alp's Hotel is crowded with archdeacons gazing raptly at the Matterhorn and praising God for the beauties of His handiwork.3
The sexes' battle over the meaning of mountains has, for Harrison, a modern as well as ancient history.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is, among other things, a brilliant but unacknowledged victory within this contentious history. The book's important links with the literature of mountains have begun to be recognized; however, the persistence of the Ruskinian descriptive model, even among critics whose evaluative norms lie elsewhere, has obscured Mary Shelley's daring yet sagacious and remarkably coherent achievement. George Levine's "High and Low: Ruskin and the Novelists" quotes Ruskin at his most mystical and then interprets and generalizes: "Here the end is not connection with humanity but a transcendence of it, and this seems to me a natural consequence of authentic worship of the immensities of the Alps." In a seeming truism that Jane Harrison would have repudiated, Levine declares: "The heights are where society is not." A literature with a passion for mountains must be, from this point of view, either otherworldly or divided against itself, and Levine finds Mary Shelley's book fascinating and culturally central precisely because it is unable to resolve "the enormous attractiveness of the Alpine, the monstrous, the Frankensteinian" with "the yearning for domesticity and organic connection."4 Frankenstein, thus, can be praised for its symp- {517} tomatic and prophetic muddle: its incorporation of the romantic mysticism of mountains and its anticipation of the Victorian fiction of lowland domesticity which is Levine's chief subject. But a reading of Frankenstein and some of its antecedents from a Harrisonian rather than Ruskinian perspective promises to be more appreciative of the book's interest in mountains, as well as its feminism, romanticism, and greatness as a work of art.

When the eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley began Frankenstein among the Alps in the summer of 1816, a use of mountains approaching Ruskin's was already a conspicuous and highly conventionalized part of her literary environment. Coleridge and Wordsworth, like Milton, had recreated for their own time a version of the Bible's mountaintop theophanies. Yet the writers closest to her were the challengers of this tradition, the precursors of some of the ingredients in Harrison's critical revisionism. Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were turning the literary conventions -- especially, in the summer of 1816 in Geneva, the mountain-images -- of Milton, Coleridge, and Wordsworth into weapons of rivalry and debate; and Mary Shelley aspired to join this debate by becoming a literary creator and vindicator of the imagination of woman, as her mother Mary Wollstonecraft had once responded to debates about the rights of man by writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Mountains were a meeting place for these contexts in the book which Mary Shelley made -- the symbolic field by which the alternatives inscribed in the texts around her could be assimilated, criticized or adapted, and reformed in her own image. Mary Shelley's target was not, as in Harrison's case, a tradition of classical scholarship rooted in Olympian mythology; rather it was a phase of English poetry rooted in the Bible. Yet each of these female writers used one segment of the western cultural tradition as a synecdoche for the patriarchal values pervading her own society.


Coleridge and Wordsworth had given mountaintops a new centrality and a renewed significance in the literature of Mary Shelley's time. The experience of standing high on an eminence is central to the first and last books of Wordsworth's The Excursion (1814), serving as a major {518} linkage between the Wanderer's youth and age, as well as between his natural wisdom and the Pastor's acknowledgment of biblical revelation. When the latter is inspired by an "elevated spot"'a panorama to speak of God's "law" and "holy book" and of "Christian Temples," he is drawing upon the chief biblical precedents for the mountaintop topos -- Mount Sinai, where Yahweh spoke and issued laws, and Mount Zion, where a temple perpetuated the legacy of his intervention in history.5 In Wordsworth and Coleridge the two biblical mountains are usually conflated and naturalized, with the principal value of the mountaintop epiphany being generalized into access to some kind of religious experience. Coleridge's "Reflections on having left a Place of Retirement" alludes to Zion even while its main interest is in finding the subjective equivalent for an encounter with the sacred: turning what the Old Testament treated as facts into thoughts, images, seemings experienced in the face of the panorama observed from the top of a "Mount sublime":
It seem'd like the Omnipresence! God, methought,
Had built him there a Temple: the whole World
Seem'd imag'd in its vast circumference.6
"Reflections" notices only visibilia among the sense perceptions available from the mountaintop, but Wordsworth normally follows a presentation of what can be seen from a summit with a comment about what can be heard. The shift in the last book of The Prelude from the sudden sight of the moon and "silent sea of hoary mist" to a sudden awareness of "the roar of waters" is now the most familiar instance, but the mountaintops of The Excursion, which was available to the Shelleys, rely on the same sequence of senses, especially in the Wanderer's shift of attention from "the gross and visible frame of things" to "the voice / Of {519} waters."7 This insistence on a deferral of sound, followed by its awesome impact, has biblical origins: the Transfiguration narratives in the Gospels move from the sight of a radiant Jesus on a mountain with Moses and Elijah to the sound of a voice speaking from a cloud and claiming Jesus as his beloved Son; Elijah likewise reached climactic wisdom on Mt. Horeb only when he heard what the King James Version translated as "a still small voice"; and, in the Exodus narratives that underlie both of these, many of the children of Israel saw manifestations of God on Mt. Sinai, but only Moses heard him speak.8 Both in The Prelude and in The Excursion the auditory stage of the mountaintop experience brings "communion" or the "power to commune" with "the invisible world."9

Coleridge's "Hymn Before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouni," a poem of special relevance to the Shelleys in 1816 when they visited the same scenes, situates its speaker in a vale among mountains, rather than on a mountaintop, and lets its antecedents in Judaeo-Christian tradition show through more explicitly, but otherwise shares the central action of the mountaintop poems already mentioned.10 A sublime experience of mountain scenery is interpreted as promoting "prayer" (l. 15), hymn-singing (l. 28), and "adoration" (l. 76) of an "Invisible" "God" (ll. 16, 69, 85). The poem begins by deferring sound, stressing instead the silence of Mont Blanc (ll. 5-7, 13) and the muteness of the poet (l. 26), but it develops into a celebration of the power of both to become audible and "Utter forth God" (l. 69). Just as the sequence of sensations hints of its indebtedness to the Sinai tradition, its political imagery -- identifying the mountain with a "kingly Spirit throned among the hills" (l. 81) -- draws upon Zion's function as the locus of Yahweh's kingship.

The Coleridgean and Wordsworthian revivification of the biblical mountaintop topos had been mediated by Milton, whose opening lines in Paradise Lost not only named Sinai and Zion but also claimed that a Protestant poet could surpass them through a process of internalization. The Holy Spirit, declares Milton in a critical allusion to Zion, "dost prefer / Before all temples the upright heart and pure."11 Instead of keeping Sinai and Zion, moreover, as the major pair of mountaintops in Paradise Lost, Milton builds on the connection in Isaiah (14:12-14) {520} between Lucifer and a northern mountain, in order to place in the foreground of his poem a heavenly and earthly set of ethically opposed pinnacles.12 In heaven, the "high mount of God" (V.643) or "holy hill" (V.604) or "sacred hill" (V.619), where the Father dwells and the Son is exalted, contrasts with the summit to which the rebellious Lucifer withdraws in the north:

High on a hill, far blazing, as a mount
Raised on a mount. . .
 . . . . . . . . . .
In imitation of that mount whereon
Messiah was declared in sight of heaven,
The Mountain of the Congregation called. . . .
An original mount of sacredness is parodied by a rebellious imitation, thus providing a heavenly prototype for the contrasting mountaintops of earth. The hill of Paradise is an eminence "Above all hills" (V.261), a sign of man's dominion on earth and his proximity to God, as well as the center of earthly fertility (IV.133-42). In contrast to it is Mount Niphates, Satan's landing point in the north, where he displays in seeming solitude his revulsion toward every source of life and his despair of any issue, his sterile hatred for the sun and its maker and his recognition that his every ascent is an abasement (III.739-42; IV.1-130). For the central biblical complementarity between Sinai in the south and Zion in the north, the latter memorializing the prior events at the former, Milton substitutes at the center of his poem a moral and metaphysical opposition, on earth as in heaven, between southern sacred mountains and northern demonic ones, the latter parodying the prior fullness of the former. A major effect of this pattern is to problematize the legacy of Zion itself. On one hand, Milton exalts the worth of its tradition of "sacred song" and declares his own commitment to it (III.26-32). On the other hand, he keeps finding idolatry on or about the sacred eminence: Moloch and Astoreth are worshipped there, even within the sanctuary of Jehovah (I.383-404, esp. 388; 437-46), and the Spirit invoked at the start of the poem prefers pure and upright hearts to more elaborate temples because the materialization and institutionalization of an interior sanctity tends towards idolatry. Without violating biblical precedent he {521} thus continues the interrogation of kingly and priestly Zion begun in the poem's opening lines, and he supplies Byron and Shelley with prototypes for their critique of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

One of Byron's poetical specialties during his months in Geneva in 1816 was the portrayal, as in "Prometheus," Manfred (I.ii; II.iii), and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto III (especially stanzas xlv and cv), of an alienated and defiant speaker on a mountaintop. Satan's hopelessness and hatred on Mt. Niphates become the burdened, often despairing, consciousness and the courageous rebellion of the Byronic hero in a parallel setting.13 In such passages Byron is responding to Wordsworth at least as much as to Milton: the "gladness and deep joy" which Wordsworth's Wanderer discerns from a mountaintop are opposed by the Byronic vision of

. . . the inexorable Heaven,
And the deaf tyranny of Fate,
The ruling principle of Hate. . . .14
Wordsworth's typical progression from sight to sound, the latter taking on religious overtones, finds its ironical revision when Childe Harold's Pilgrimage converts the visual stage into mere proximity to "clouds and snow" and "icy rocks" and then converts the auditory stage into the loud blowing of "Contending tempests" on the "naked head" of the climber (III.xlv; p. 215). As Byron and the Shelleys talked among the Swiss Alps, while Mary Shelley labored on Frankenstein, Byron was engaging in his own rivalry with Milton and Wordsworth through his manipulation of the mountaintop topos.

Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Mont Blanc," a product of the same sojourn, combines in a single mountain the generativity of Milton's hill of Paradise and the sterile destructiveness associated with his Mt. Niphates: it feeds "one majestic River, / The breath and blood of distant lands" (ll. 123-24), but it also holds a lifeless and murderous glacier, which is variously compared to "A city of death" (l. 105) and "snakes" (l. 101).15 Shelley's point is that this summit and the ultimate Power which it exemplifies are neither good nor evil but remain amorally outside the {522} Judaeo-Christian value-grid and the polarized Miltonic mountains which reiterate it. In addition, his poem repeatedly echoes Coleridge's "Hymn Before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouni," which it engages in a multi-level debate.16 Where Coleridge had employed the Sinai-imprinted sequence of silence, then sound, in order to derive Judaeo-Christian affirmations from an ice-covered land mass, Shelley's poem proceeds from sound (ll. 6, 11, 13, 24, 30-31, 33) to silence (ll. 135-137) in order to stress the mountain's recalcitrance to any verbal or doctrinal system. Paradoxically, this silence gives the mountain its only voice, which undoes not only the credos of Coleridge, but also the entire legacy of Sinai:

Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

(ll. 80-83)
The lines envision a new exegetical tradition in place of biblical interpretation and commentary, as well as a new conception of virtue in place of Judaeo-Christian moral norms.

Shelley's poem likewise addresses a problematics which is endemic to the mountaintop poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge and which provides Coleridge's "Hymn" with a major transition. The privacy of rapture before the sublime landscape overwhelms other considerations but then awakens thoughts about the preferability of participation in society. Coleridge's "Reflections on having left a Place of Retirement" is the locus classicus of such equivocation, with its shrill repudiation under the banner of social responsibility of a sublimity which it has just powerfully rendered.17 Coleridge's "Hymn" works with the same issue by developing from the solitude of "my Life and Life's own secret joy" (l. 20) and "secret ecstasy" (l. 26) (emphases added) at the sight of Mont Blanc to the treatment of the various natural objects in the scene as a {523} communality of worshippers who "all join my Hymn" (l. 28). Shelley's "secret springs" (l. 4), "secret throne" (l. 17), and "secret strength of things" (l. 139) (emphases added) in "Mont Blanc" echo the Coleridgean terminology. Yet Shelley attributes secrecy not merely to the self but especially to ultimate Power, thereby freeing human societies from divine prescription and enabling them to reconstitute themselves for purely human purposes. Secrecy thus redefined is, for Shelley, the key to public consequence.

A closely related dilemma in Coleridge and Wordsworth is the difficult assessment of the relative worth of passivity and activity. The impact of the sublime moment on the mountain for a time makes all thought of doing superfluous in comparison to merely being, but a second perspective, also incorporated into the texts, requires the value of action to be emphasized.18 In his "Hymn" Coleridge marks such a transition heavily:

Awake, my soul! not only passive praise
Thou owest! not alone these swelling tears,
Mute thanks and secret ecstasy! Awake,
Voice of sweet song! Awake my heart, awake!

(ll. 24-27)
Shelley answers this reveille by celebrating an imaginative activity which he associates with "the mightier world of sleep" (l. 55). Coleridge's characteristic recognition that the poet's verbalization mirrors and echoes the divine creative fiat (ll. 47-48) is carried a long step further by Shelley into the notion that man is the only verbalizer, the maker not the receiver of the Word. For Shelley, what makes the mountain awesome is finally that it leaves to man sole power to initiate verbal activity (ll. 142-44).

For Byron and Shelley, as for Milton, mountains served as weapons of poetical and intellectual rivalry. A prophetic emblem of their revisionary battles was already given in Paradise Lost in several passages that derive from classical gigantomachy but turn into prospective oromachy or a strife of mountains. When Satan and his followers seemed to be winning the war in heaven, the loyal angels

. . . plucked the seated hills with all their load,
{524} Rocks, waters, woods, and by the shaggy tops
Up lifting bore them in their hands. . . .

Readers who observe their advance with "The bottom of the mountains upward turned" (VI.649) may share a little of their adversaries' "amaze" (VI.646) but need not share their "terror" (VI.647). Not only can late-comers fight back, like Satan and his followers, by tearing up "the neighbouring hills," "So hills amid the air encountered hills" (VI.663-64), but if there are sufficient artists among them, some may create new harmonies instead of the "Infernal noise" (VI.667) which, in heaven, required divine intervention to put a stop to it.


In Frankenstein Mary Shelley produced one such new harmony -- a book that reconstituted from a new vantage point the ingredients of the tradition just described. Milton's duality of a diabolical mountain and a divine one is assimilated early in the novel; it is one of a series of dualities that surround the book's central concern with sexual difference. Frankenstein visits the site of William's murder, glimpses the monster in a lightning storm, realizes for the first time that his own creation is the bringer of death, and watches this "filthy daemon" or "devil" climb to the top of a mountain:
I thought of pursuing the devil; but it would have been in vain, for another flash discovered him to me hanging among the rocks of the nearly perpendicular ascent of Mont Salêve, a hill that bounds Plainpalais on the south. He soon reached the summit, and disappeared.19
The divine mountain, on the other hand, is the setting of the ravine of Arve, which serves Frankenstein as another kind of escape route:
The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side -- the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around, spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence -- and I ceased to fear, or to bend before any being less {525} almighty than that which had created and ruled the elements, here displayed in their most terrific guise. (p. 94)
In both cases Frankenstein talks as a man who has just made contact with a supernatural being (whether "devil" or "Omnipotence") toward whom at least physically, he looks up. The first mountain, like Mt. Niphates, is associated with malevolent destructiveness, while the second kindles in the beholder a religious affirmation, which owes as much to Wordsworth and Coleridge as to Milton. First we learn what the place looks like ("overhung me on every side"), then what it sounds like ("the sound of the river raging"), and finally we are told, as in Coleridge's "Hymn," that it "spoke" about divinity. The opening of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," especially the phrase "Five years have past,"20 is echoed in Frankenstein's words introducing the setting: "I had visited it frequently during my boyhood. Six years had passed since then: I was a wreck -- but nought had changed in those savage and enduring scenes" (p. 94). Although neither Mary nor Percy Bysshe Shelley had visited the Mont Blanc region previously to July 1816, and neither associated its sights with childhood in journal and letter accounts of the trip, Frankenstein keeps coming across reminders of his "boyhood" (pp. 94, 95): his retrospectiveness is another Wordsworthian signature.21 In the midst of such a passage he refers to "maternal nature" (p. 95), a phrase which seems incongruous coming only a page after the sentence about the "terrific" evidences of "Omnipotence" in the mountains. Because Mary Shelley is here conflating her readings, and perhaps her misreadings, of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the landscape combines maternal and paternal qualities. Like the diabolical mountain earlier, it impresses on Frankenstein his own powerlessness, but now there is an emphasis on the filial role of the speaker, his inevitable passivity in the face of parental power. The sounds of the river act that night "as a lullaby" which brings him "oblivion" (p. 95), thus ending the chapter with an apt emphasis on his infantilism and escapism.22 The parallels {526} between Frankenstein, Coleridge, and Wordsworth implicate the poets in the character's self-limiting behavior. It is they who promote crippling nostalgia and child-like subservience, from Mary Shelley's point of view. It is their conception of mountains and of mountaintop sublimity which amounts to sheer blockage. A proto-Ruskinian version of mountain glory figures in Frankenstein only negatively, as her critical depiction of an alluring but regressive sensibility.

In the next chapter (ch. X) she introduces a mountaintop experience that holds a potential for enabling Frankenstein to grow up. The topography again focuses attention on opposed mountains: Montanvert, with its "somber" "pines" (p. 97), a mountain incorporating the greenness of fertility, and, on the other hand, "a bare perpendicular rock" which is the "opposite mountain" (p. 98). The Miltonic alternatives of generativity and sterility, now severed from a supernatural framework, stand starkly before us. Frankenstein resolves "to ascend to the summit of Montanvert," but he insists on going "without a guide" in order to preserve "the solitary grandeur of the scene" (p. 97). He "arrived at the top of the ascent" but soon crossed the glacier to the "opposite mountain" and climbed up its side to a point "exactly opposite" (p. 98) to Montanvert. His desired isolation is inscribed in the lifelessness and even the namelessness of this barren crag, where he promptly withdraws into "a recess of the rock" (p. 98). This mountain or "bare perpendicular rock" is nameless for another reason: Frankenstein's name itself puns upon it, suggesting an open or uncovered and aufrichtig rock, a rock set upright or erect.23 It is an emblem of his high-mindedness but even more of the solitary and sterile existence which has become his.

Suddenly his isolation is interrupted by the appearance of "the wretch whom I had created" (p. 99) ascending toward the height on which Frankenstein stands (p. 98). The encounter initiated at this point revises much in the tradition that we have examined. As usual, a creature has access to his creator on a mountain, but now man is the creator, and his {527} creature needs to climb to reach him. In this sense Chapter X presents us with the first thoroughly humanized mountain in the book and, arguably, in the tradition: all demonic and/or divine mountains recede to the status of ghosts. Moreover, the Coleridgean and Wordsworthian problematics concerning isolation/participation and passivity/activity are reenacted, with Frankenstein now confronted by the options of acknowledging or refusing to acknowledge a state of "community" (p. 100) between himself and his creature and of acting or refusing to act to relieve the latter's distress. The creature leads Frankenstein "across the ice" to "the hut upon the mountain" (p. 101), a location whose man-made structure implies a renewed link to society, while its "mountain," also described as "the opposite rock" (p. 102), is presumably some portion of Montanvert itself. The option of generativity, or making a spouse for the monster, can therefore be considered on the mountain of fertility.

As in Wordsworth's usual poetical treatment of mountaintops and in Coleridge's "Hymn," the deferral of sound, followed by its momentous presence, carries much of the meaning in this novel's central mountaintop experience.24 Frankenstein has never heard his creature speak until Chapter X, and his ability to respond to the latter's requests hinges largely upon whether he is swayed most by visual or auditory impressions. Repeatedly the creature appeals, "Listen to my tale. . . . hear me. . . . Listen to me, Frankenstein. . . . listen to me. . . . Hear my tale. . ." (p. 101). In a brilliant appropriation of the conventional romantic transition from sight to sound amidst mountain scenery, Mary Shelley has Frankenstein exclaim, "Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form" (p. 101), and then has the creature respond: "'Thus I relieve thee, my creator,' he said, and placed his hated hands before my eyes, which I flung from me with violence; 'thus I take from thee a sight which you abhor. Still thou canst listen to me, and grant me thy compassion'" (p. 101). A major component of the novel's structural power is its positioning of the reader in a sequence comparable to that thrust upon the title character. Up to Chapter X we have been denied access to the monster's words; we know of him only what others have seen and inferred. Now our visually based stereotypes are challenged by his own story told in his own words. Since Mary Shelley is here revising a literary topos that links the sight-sound transition to an encounter with divinity on a mountaintop, she prefaces the monster's narration {528} with the mountain scenes of Chapters IX and X and closes it with a renewed depiction of the same setting (pp. 148-49). The effect is to displace a religious experience with a sympathetic one: the locus of ultimate reality itself is shifted from the supernatural to the creaturely, but sound rather than sight remains the means of contacting its depths. "His words had a strange effect upon me," says Frankenstein immediately after the monster finishes speaking; "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" (p. 147). While moved by what he has heard, Frankenstein agrees to make a mate for the monster. He later changes his mind because retrospective reflection, the timid conventionalism which shadows Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquillity,"25 cannot bear so much reality. Frankenstein's final resistance to his own profoundest potential is nowhere so evident as in several of his last warnings to Walton about the Siren-like lure of the monster's voice: "He is eloquent and persuasive; and once his words had even power over my heart: but trust him not. His soul is as hellish as his form, full of treachery and fiend like malice. Hear him not. . ." (p. 209).

Frankenstein's relapse makes him an untrustworthy interpreter of mountain scenery. As he voyages across the lake after his wedding, he seizes upon another pair of opposed mountains but reads this doubleness, increasingly as the passage continues, in terms of the single lesson of obstructed energy:

We passed rapidly along: the sun was hot, but we were sheltered from its rays by a kind of canopy, while we enjoyed the beauty of the scene, sometimes on one side of the lake, where we saw Mont Saleve, the pleasant banks of Montalegre, and at a distance, surmounting all, the beautiful Mont Blanc, and the assemblage of snowy mountains that in vain endeavour to emulate her; sometimes coasting the opposite banks, we saw the mighty Jura opposing its dark side to the ambition that would quit its native country, and an almost insurmountable barrier to the invader who should wish to enslave it. (pp. 192-193)
Mont Blanc becomes a beautiful female who cannot be equalled by her surrounding brood, just as Jura becomes a mighty paternal blocker and protector. The observing self regresses toward childlike passivity and dependence, foredooming the marital relationship just established.

{529} Frankenstein fails to escape the identity inscribed in his name: in the end he chooses the "bare perpendicular rock" (p. 98) over the mountain of generativity, and he closes his ears to the novel's most numinous voice. Despite the centrality within the books' structure of a setting dominated by the phallic presence of mountain-peaks, the title character finally proves his own sterility and his inadequacy as a parent. He refuses his offspring's appeals that he nurture and beget, and he pays the price of a marriage murderously interrupted before its consummation. He cannot move beyond what Mary Shelley lumps together as Wordsworthian regressiveness and Coleridgean guilt and depression.26

His tragedy is counterbalanced, however, in a movement of triumph which is incorporated into the novel's intertextuality and design. James Rieger's useful demonstration that the 1831 Introduction is suffused with factual errors should be supplemented by a recognition of its fictional anticipation (or, in the order of composition, its corroboration) of the book's larger fiction.27 The Introduction tells of Mary Shelley's emergence from seeming inferiority to male predecessors and already publishing contemporaries; it is, among other things, a celebration of a female's success in achieving a voice. The body of the novel similarly competes with male role models on their chosen ground -- in this case, a setting where mountains rise into the air. Refusing to permit anatomy to define the limits of mind, Mary Shelley contrives to show that she can do what males have done with such a topos, and in some respects she can do more. Her novel exuberantly unveils the infantilism latent in supernaturalism or sublime awe and passivity, and replaces enchanting dependence with a norm of psychosexual maturity and responsible parenthood. It is a tour de force of authorial potency, in a sense outperforming an illustrious male tradition at its own game.

Yet it also avoids conceding the primacy of traditionally masculine areas of experience and of the imagery which exalts them. To this end, the book posits a symbolic dualism within which mountains, despite their differences from one another, are merely a single alternative. Mary Shelley's novel balances its mountainous center with an at least equally generative locale nearer to its beginning. The "solitary chamber, or rather cell" in Ingolstadt where Frankenstein keeps his "workshop of filthy creation" (p. 55) is a birthplace in several senses. It is the scene of the monster's entrance into life and of Frankenstein's breakthrough into {530} the unique personal history which justifies the book's existence. Events which happened in that "room" (p. 57) came first, according to the 1831 Introduction (pp. 9-10), in the book's composition. So it is the site, in a sense, of Mary Shelley's own breakthrough into authorship -- an association underlined in the Introduction by her vivid recollection of where she conceived the idea for the novel, "the very room" with its "closed shutters" and the "white high Alps . . . beyond" (p. 10).

The novel unmistakably links Frankenstein's enclosed workplace to the female reproductive system but complicates the nature of the link. Strongly negative language, such as "filthy," "loathing," "horrid," "horror and disgust" (pp. 55 and 57), attend the book's presentation of this room and the birth which eventuates there. Why does a text that elsewhere vindicates the potential of the female here portray a female space and a birthing process as repulsive? The prevalent critical answers stress the confessional aspect of the novel: Mary Shelley is revealing how much depression, guilt, and anxiety frequently follow parturition; or she is recalling the special painfulness of her own life, especially her first infant's death and her famous mother's death as a result of Mary's own birth; or she is betraying her own unresolved conflicts over motherhood and the role of women.28 Such discussions have successfully established the pertinence of distinctively female experience to the events in Frankenstein's laboratory, but they have construed as an identification what is actually a more subtle relationship between the monster's genesis and a normal human birth, as well as between the room itself and a womb.

Frankenstein's "workshop of filthy creation" (p. 55) is a place of total isolation from any female presence. Located "at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase" (p. 55), it mimics features of femininity in a spot reserved for untouchable maleness. No woman ever enters it, and no mention is made of any contact between Frankenstein and a female during the time that he works there. His cessation of letter-writing, a form of literary activity long associated with females, contrasts with Walton's persistent composition of letters to his sister even during his exploration of the Arctic Ocean. Frankenstein's room is a place of specialization of personality: "I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit" (p. 54). Intellectual power, specifically his scientific project, occupies him {531} to the exclusion of his previous responsiveness to landscape, family, friend, and intended spouse. What he suppresses in himself are traits traditionally allied with femininity, and it is these absences which lead to his crucial blunders as a scientific projector. Having denied his aesthetic sensitivity, he slights the need for making a handsome, beautiful, or passably appealing creature. Having denied his sociability, he never considers how his creature will fit into a network of human beings or members of another species. Having denied his own sexuality, he fails to take account of how his offspring's sexual desires will be satisfied. The monster's very monstrosity is the mark and consequence of his severance from femininity. Frankenstein's workshop is filthy and loathsome precisely because it is not a female space, while its configuration and generativity signify the femininity that it has excluded. By an indirection that would do credit to a neoclassical satirist, Frankenstein here depicts its negations in order to imply its affirmations. The affirmations are considerable: (1) Femininity is a norm, not just a source. No mode of knowledge, no human activity, can be adequate which excludes it. Its status in this book, accordingly, is not merely confessional, but celebrative. (2) Males, as well as females, have access to it: both through external relationships and through internal balance. The anatomical boundary can be crossed. Frankenstein's essential misdeed is that he fails to cross it.

His workshop's semantic role is to signify a momentous absence, rather than to signal an accomplished presence. It is not for Frankenstein, but rather for his creator, to attain a figuration of femaleness that radiates its own plenitude. The narrative structure of Frankenstein is such a figuration, declaring at once its complication and its completion. It consists of five successive narrations, with the first and fifth told by Walton, the second and fourth by Frankenstein, and the middle spoken in the monster's own words. Concentric circles surround an interior substance, which depends upon them for transmission to the reader: the monster's segment is quoted by Frankenstein, and his narration in turn is conveyed by Walton. On one level, this design is model led upon the anatomical shape and physiological function of the uterus.29 Within its life-sustaining enclosure, the monster-offspring's novelistic life and unique worth are sustained, fostered, and transmitted; he is the foetus and the voice at its center. This formal pattern implies an evaluative {532} norm: a standard of maternal generative and protective sufficiency in contrast with which Frankenstein's parental indifference, revulsion, and irresponsibility, his casual bungling and flight, are judged severely. On a second level, moreover, the circularity of the narrative structure insists upon the sexuality, as well as the maternity, of femaleness. At the circles' center is not only the monster's narration but also the mountain peak where it is spoken. This configuration, which is modelled upon a vagina enclosing a penis, is an emblem of accomplished interaction between a female author and a male literary tradition. It is at once another instance of the novel's intertextuality and the novel's representation of its own intertextuality. The power of the female imagination in Frankenstein is finally evidenced by its capacity to incorporate, equal, and complete a partial, sometimes immature, male tradition, rather than by its power to repeat Frankenstein's self-isolation within a room and intellectual tradition reserved for a single sex.

The obsessed scientist finishes his act of creation with "an anxiety that almost amounted to agony" (p. 57). But in spite of a recent critical emphasis on the book's "profound dejection," "anxious spirit," and self-lacerating "revelation of filthy femaleness,"30 Frankenstein is, I suggest, vigorously agonistic and synthesizing instead of agonized. It places itself before us as a work of bold rivalry and delighted self-affirmation, a fictional vindication of the imagination of woman to supplement A Vindication of the Rights of Woman written by Mary Shelley's mother in discursive prose. Philip Stevick is right to discover in Frankenstein an invitation to laughter, but it is worth adding that laughter's roots spring, in this case, not only from our need to negate what is clumsy, automatized, or nightmarish in the story, but also from our capacity to join sympathetically with author and text in a shared joie de vivre.31


1. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, IV (1856), available in The Works of John Ruskin, eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, VI (London: George Allen, 1904); David Robertson, "Mid-Victorians amongst the Alps," in Nature and the Victorian Imagination, eds. U. C. Knoepflmacher and G. B. Tennyson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U. of California Press, 1977), pp. 113-36.

2. Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903); 3rd ed. (1922; rpt. New York: Meridian Books, 1960), pp. 260-321, 496-98; Jane Harrison, "Mountain- Mother," Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (1908-1926; rpt. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961).

3. Jane Harrison, Reminiscences of a Student's Life (London: Hogarth Press,1925), pp.71-72, 75. Cf. p. 69. For her indebtedness to Freud, see her Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1921; rpt. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1962), p. xxiii.

4. George Levine, "High and Low: Ruskin and the Novelists," in Nature and the Victorian Imagination, pp. 137-52, esp. 141, 137, 147. Levine's The Realistic Imagination (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 24-35, 204-16, incorporates an assessment of the Frankenstein/mountains/Ruskin relationship similar to that in his earlier paper. The Ruskinian influence upon Marjorie Hope Nicolson's Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (1959; rpt. New York: Norton, 1963) is evident not only in the title (taken from the last two chapter headings in Ruskin's volume) but also in the ahistorical rationale for treating Wordsworth after Byron and Shelley as the climactic instance of the book's central thesis (p. 393).

5. William Wordsworth, The Excursion (London: Longman et al., 1814), pp. 13-14, 389-91, and esp. 413-16. The Prelude, which gave mountains a similar structural prominence, was unavailable to the second generation romantics. See Richard J. Clifford, S.J., The Cosmic Mountain in Canaan and the Old Testament (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1972) for a careful examination of the Old Testament treatment of the two complementary mountains and their analogies in the beliefs of other ancient Middle Eastern peoples.

6. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Poetical Works, ed. E. H. Coleridge (1912; rpt. London: Oxford U. Press, 1969), p. 107, 11, 43, 38-40. E. S. Shatter, "Kubla Khan" and The Fall of Jerusalem: The Mythological School in Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature 1770-1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1975) and Jerome J. McGann, "The Meaning of The Ancient Mariner," Critical Inquiry, 8 (Autumn 1981), 35-67, have recently demonstrated that a major goal of Coleridge's poetry and thought was to renew biblical meanings outside the Bible's historically specific framework.

7. Wordsworth, The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850, eds. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 461 (1850 version, Bk. XIV, ll. 40-42, S9); The Excursion, p. 390

8. Matt. 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36; I Kings 19:9-13; Exod. 20 and 24.

9. The Prelude, p. 464 (1805 version, Bk. XIII, ll. 104-105); The Excursion, p. 391.

10. Coleridge, Poetical Works, pp. 376-80.

11. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler (London: Longman, 1971), pp. 42-43 (Bk. 1, ll. 7-10, 17-18).

12. Fowler, pp. 300-301, notes Milton's indebtedness to the Isaiah text, and Paul Salmon, "The Site of Lucifer's Throne," Anglia, 8 I (1963), II 8-23, cites patristic authorities linking Lucifer to the north.

13. Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company (1961; rpt. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), pp. 263-64, interprets the second scene of Manfred as "a deliberate and critical parody" of Milton's portrayal of Satan on Mt. Niphates.

14. The Excursion, p. 13; Byron, Poetical Works, ed. Frederick Page and John Jump (1970; rpt. London: Oxford U. Press, 1975), p. 98 ("Prometheus," ll. 18-20).

15. Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), pp. 89-93.

16. Harold Bloom, Shelley's Mythmaking (1959; rpt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell U. Press, 1969), pp. 11-35, perceptively contrasts the two poems but denies that Shelley's echoes Coleridge's. Charles E. Robinson, "The Shelley Circle and Coleridge's The Friend," ELN, 8 (1971), 269-74, demonstrates the Shelleys' probable access to Coleridge's "Hymn" by 1816 through the poem's reprinting in No. 11 of The Friend. Ronald Tetreault, "Shelley and Byron Encounter the Sublime: Switzerland, 1816," Revue des Langues Vivantes, 41 (1975), 151-55, shows that "Mont Blanc" echoes Coleridge's "Hymn" and argues for the former's emphasis on imaginative autonomy as an alternative to Coleridgean positive thinking and Byronic negative thinking about nature and nature's God.

17. Coleridge, Poetical Works, pp. 106-8 (ll. 26-62).

18. Coleridge, "Reflections on having left a Place of Retirement," ll. 41-42; The Excursion, pp. 13-14. For a detailed discussion of the activity/passivity and sublime/social issues raised by romantic poems set on mountaintops, see Fred V. Randel, "The Mountaintops of English Romanticism," TSLL, 23 (1981), 294-323.

19. Mary W. Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. M. K. Joseph (London: Oxford U. Press, 1969), p. 76. Subsequent citations will be incorporated into the text. I have chosen this edition of the 1831 version over James Rieger's helpful edition of the 1818 version (1974; rpt. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1982) partly because I consider the later version to be artistically superior and partly because it enlarges and clarifies the novel's intertextual dimension.

20. Wordsworth, Poetical Works, II, 2nd ed., ed. E. de Selincourt (1952; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 259 (l. 1).

21. Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: U. of Oklahoma Press, 1947), pp.50-55; Percy Bysshe Shelley, Letters, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), I, 494-502, esp. 497: "I never knew I never imagined what mountains were before."

22. Cf. Walton's claim that he begins his Coleridge-inspired voyage of exploration "with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river" (pp. 16, 21). For a largely antithetical view of Frankenstein's relation to Wordsworth, see Mary Poovey, "My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and the Feminization of Romanticism," PMLA, 95 (1980), 332-47, esp. 335-36, which, however, does not discuss the Wordsworthian echoes mentioned above. Mary Shelley, according to Poovey, "ties the formation of personal identity to self-denial rather than to self-assertion, to a sort of perpetual childhood, entailing relational self-definition and dependence, rather than to the Wordsworthian model of adulthood, which involves self-confidence, freedom, and faith in the individualistic imaginative act." Tetreault, op. cit., pp. 148-49, likewise reads the novel as a warning against "proud ambition" but locates its norms in a classical/Christian traditionalism.

23. Peter Dale Scott, "Vital Artifice: Mary, Percy, and the Psychopolitical Integrity of Frankenstein," in The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, eds. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1979), pp. 194-95, notes that Frankenstein's "name is translatable as 'open rock,'" but does not connect this implication with the "bare perpendicular rock" opposite Montanvert.

24. Peter Brooks, "'Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts': Language, Nature, and Monstrosity" in The Endurance of Frankenstein, pp. 205-20, links the novel's contrast between sight and sound with Jacques Lacan's distinction between the imaginary and the symbolic but overlooks the poetic conventions underlying the same contrast.

25. Wordsworth's Literary Criticism, ed. W. J. B. Owen (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 85

26. Frankenstein quotes "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to convey his "sickness of fear" just after creating the monster (p. 59), and he again alludes to Coleridge's poem in explaining his reluctance to marry: "Could I enter into a festival with this deadly weight yet hanging round my neck, and bowing me to the ground?" (pp. 151-52).

27. James Rieger, The Mutiny Within (New York: George Braziller, 1967), pp. 237-47.

28. Ellen Moers, "Female Gothic," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, pp. 77-87 (originally published in 1974); Marc A. Rubenstein, "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism, 15 (1976), 165-94, esp. 178; Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1979), pp. 232-33.

29. Rubenstein, pp. 168-74, 178, accurately equates narrative structure and womb but identifies their innermost contents as Safie's mother and Mary Shelley's search for her own mother, thus interpreting the novel's governing perspective as that of a child glimpsing the primal scene.

30. Harold Bloom, "Afterword" to Frankenstein (New York: New American Library, 1965), p. 221; Paul Sherwin, "Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe," PMLA, 96 (1981), 884; Gilbert and Gubar, p. 246. Madwoman in the Attic, p. 239, applies the phrase "ceaselessly anxious" to the monster's "study of Paradise Lost," but it describes too the prevalent critical emphases concerning Frankenstein in Gilbert and Gubar themselves, Brooks, Poovey, Moers, Sherwin, and, as a major fountainhead of much of this recent criticism, Harold Bloom. Rubenstein, p. 189, however, balances a discussion of Mary Shelley's unresolved conflicts with a deserved tribute to her "high ambition," "firmness of purpose," and "unwavering productivity" during the sometimes harrowing months of the novel's composition.

31. Philip Stevick, "Frankenstein and Comedy," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, pp. 221-39. On the eighteenth-century and romantic development of sympathetic humor, see Stuart Tave, The Amiable Humorist (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1960).