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"My Accursed Origin": The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein

Marc A. Rubenstein

Studies in Romanticism, 15 (Spring, 1976), 165-94

{165} THE primal scene imagery in Frankenstein is pervasive and unmistakable. The scene of the monster's reanimation speaks for itself, but the spirit of primal scene observation penetrates into the very structure of the novel and becomes part of a more deeply hidden search for the mother. One of Freud's earliest thoughts about the importance of the primal scene provides a useful perspective on the connection between the sexual excitement of the primal scene and the fascination with origins. He took note of the "architecture" of the fantasies, in adults, which derived from primal scene memories of childhood.1

In this early view of fantasy as a defense, he referred to them as "psychical outworks constructed to bar the way to these memories." At the same time, he was impressed by structural and functional aspects of these fantasies which seemed to serve synthesizing, or adaptive, ends as well as defensive ones. "Phantasies serve the purpose of refining the memories, of sublimating them. They are built up out of things that have been heard about and then subsequently turned to account; thus they combine things that have been experienced and things that have been heard about past events (from the history of parents and ancestors) and things seen by the subject himself." He is, perhaps, anticipating later observations about the genesis and function of the family romance, but his emphasis on the spatial arrangement of fantasy and its relationship to the reworking of personal myth is particularly useful in considering Mary Shelley and what she did with the impressions she had of her dead mother as they evolved over the years of her youth.

Frankenstein, for all its exclusion of women, is -- among other things -- a parable of motherhood. If the novel's status as a myth of procreation does not itself suggest the element of motherhood, one should at least know that Mary Shelley was eighteen and the mother of a six month old child when she began writing her story. {166} Her own mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, had set an example of simultaneous child care and literary production; Mary Shelley's accomplishment is no less impressive, and its significance arouses our curiosity.2

Briefly, I propose an approach to the novel through its organization, its narrative structure, in order to achieve a fresh perspective on its meaning for Mary Shelley -- and for us. This will make it much easier to see the maternal imagery which runs through the story and to locate that aspect of the story's significance in the author's life. Further, it will free us somewhat from the controversy which has persisted from the very beginning over the author's status as a mere "passive reflection" of her circumstances, "her brain . . . magnetized" by Shelley.3

Nothing Mary Shelley wrote as a more mature woman ever quite captured the imagination the way Frankenstein did, although most of her later work enjoyed some success in her own time. She herself created the impression that Shelley and Byron were, au fond, responsible for the story. There is no question that Shelley was the better stylist. His imagery may be particularly in evidence in the final pages of Frankenstein, where he seems to have been unusually {167} active in making manuscript corrections.4 Moreover, the first view of the monster -- one of the novel's most impressive moments -- seems directly derived from Shelley. Yet, even this apparent "indebtedness" to a man's imagination is itself part of the novel's texture, and thus, as I hope to show, a reflection of the very problem of motherhood Mary Shelley was attempting to express in the novel.

She was the daughter of an outspoken feminist who had died giving her birth. The specialness of these origins is perhaps the key to the novel. Still an unformed adolescent in many ways when she began Frankenstein, she was already a mother and author before she had established a fully coherent sense of identity as either.

Her identification with her mother was at best a conflicting and troublesome sense of destiny, with which she never fully made her peace. Her mother's legacy, after all, was one not just of unusual achievement but also of suffering for having dared too much. Mary Wollstonecraft was not just famous, she was notorious. She believed that women had a right to the development of their minds and to the control of their bodies; to an extent unusual in her times, and perhaps in ours, she practiced what she preached. We will observe the author's preoccupation with her mother's sexuality and the problem it raised for her in Frankenstein.5

{168} There is one additional factor to be kept in mind as we try to see Mary Shelley's ideas about motherhood in terms of her novel. Her first child had died shortly after birth, fifteen months before she began writing Frankenstein. It was a sobering and, for a time, very depressing event for her. The entire novel -- she called it "my hideous progeny" -- may be viewed as a guilty restitution of the lost baby. This child, born prematurely, and dead after two weeks, was apparently erased from conscious memory soon after. Her characterization of Frankenstein as "the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words which found no true echo in my heart," by referring so specifically to the misfortunes occurring only after she wrote the novel, makes plain both the denial of the death of the baby, which had occurred beforehand, and the apparent equation of baby and book. For Mary Shelley, authorship and motherhood were equivalent aspects of the same urge toward realization and expression of the self. As such, they were the inheritors, and in a way, the victims of what Mary Shelley took to be her mother's legacy. There was, for her, conflicted fusion of creativity with forbidden sexual forwardness and masculine prerogatives.

At The Center

At the center of Frankenstein there is a curious disturbance of the narrative which illuminates some of the novel's unusual complexity and digressiveness. The central portion of the novel is a prolonged speech by the monster lasting fully six chapters. It seems wildly irrelevant. Ostensibly, it is the monster's justification of his murder of Frankenstein's younger brother, little William. But the author permits the monster an improbable series of digressions as he relates how he has passed the months since he wandered away from Frankenstein's laboratory on the day of his birth.

The monster had become hopelessly lost in his fascination with a family he had been spying upon. He begins to tell Frankenstein the details of their past as though it were as important as his own. They, in turn, are equally entranced by the past of a visitor -- a young woman alternately referred to as "Safie," or the "Arabian." Safie's story, in turn, contains the past of still someone else -- her mother -- but before the monster relates it to Frankenstein, the narrative undergoes the peculiar disruption we have mentioned.

Precisely like the patient in psychoanalysis whose flow of associations is suddenly disturbed by a self-conscious awareness of the listening analyst, the monster dramatically turns to the silent {169} Frankenstein who, until that moment, has seemed to merge passively with the reader. Referring to some letters which Safie had written to her fiancé, the monster says, "I have copies of these letters. . . . Before I depart I will give them to you; they will prove the truth of my tale" [2.6.3]. Since Safie's adventures could not have the remotest interest for Frankenstein, the monster's seizing upon her letters to prove the authenticity of his story strikes us as peculiar and unnecessary.

What is developing beneath the surface is made clear in the very next paragraph which takes us to the emotional, not to say the geographic, center of the novel. We read:

Safie related that her mother was a Christian Arab, seized and made a slave by the Turks; recommended by her beauty, she had won the heart of the father of Safie, who married her. The young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion and taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet. This lady died; but her lessons were indelibly impressed on the mind of Safie. . . .6 [2.6.3]
This is surely a cartoon, distorted but recognizable, of the author's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. Safie's mother, though dead, has "taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect and independence of spirit forbidden the female." She is, for all practical purposes, the author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women." Confirmation that Mary Shelley was thinking of her mother is supplied shortly after.

As the monster completes the story of the family's life in the cottage, he picks up the thread of his own adventures, but as he does, there is once again a disturbance in the flow of narration. For the second time, he addresses himself directly to Frankenstein and again it introduces the matter of a written document. The monster has finished describing the impact made on him by Paradise Lost and how, like an Adam disappointed in his relationship to God, he found in Satan "a fitter emblem of my creation" [2.7.4]. He again speaks directly to Frankenstein, returning to the {170} issue of his creation and abandonment with which he had begun his long discourse:

Soon after my arrival in the hovel, I discovered some papers in the pocket of the dress which I had taken from your laboratory. . . . I began to study them with diligence. It was your journal of the four months that preceded my creation. You minutely described in these papers every step you took in the progress of your work; this history was mingled with accounts of domestic occurrences. You, doubtless, recollect the papers. Here they are. Every thing is related in them which bears reference to my accursed origin; behold the tale of that series of disgusting circumstances which produced it is set in view; the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person is given in language which painted your own horrors and rendered mine indelible. I sickened as I read. . . [2.7.4]
It is a remarkable reference to the author's life. Mary Shelley is indirectly betraying a fascination with her own conception, for what the monster really refers to are the love letters Mary Wollstonecraft wrote to Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin, during the first four months of their relationship in 1796.

It must remain a matter of conjecture that Mary read the correspondence between her mother and father. We know that these letters remained among her father's private papers following her mother's death and did not revert to her until Godwin's death in 1836.7 However, Mary was a tireless and persistent necrophile when {171} it came to her mother. Since she spent a good deal of time in her father's library, it is likely that she searched among his papers for traces of Mary Wollstonecraft, if indeed Godwin had not simply shown her the letters. (Walton's interest in exploration is traced on the novel's second page to "good Uncle Thomas's library" [Letter 1.3] where he became "passionately fond of reading . . . day and night.")

These letters could not help but stir a young girl's erotic fantasies, and they correspond exactly with the monster's indignant reaction to the discovery of "the journal of the four months which preceeded my creation" [2.7.4]. The courtship between Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft began in earnest in July 1796, and was soon sexual.

Mary would have read, in a letter from her mother to Godwin on September 29, 1796: "I shall be with you at five. . . . Mais, à notre retour, rien que philosophie. Mon cher ami. Êtes-vous bien fâché? Mon bien-aimé -- moi aussi, cependant la semaine approchant. Do you understand me --" [But, when we come back, just philosophical talk, my dear friend. Are you angry? My beloved. Me too, however next week . . .]. Even a very young girl would have recognized the regret over the interruption of a satisfying sexual relationship because of a menstrual period -- perhaps one of the "disgusting circumstances" [2.7.4] referred to by the monster. This would have placed the next menstrual period in late October and a probable period of fertility in mid-November.

An utterly charming note from her mother for November 10, 1796, suggests the "domestic occurrences" [2.7.4] of which the monster spoke:

I send you the household linen -- I am not sure that I did not feel a sensation of pleasure at thus acting the part of a wife, though you have so little respect for the character. There is such a magic in affection that I have been more gratified by your clasping your hands round my arm, in company, than I could have been by all the adoration in the world, tho' I am a woman -- and to mount a step higher in the scale of vanity, an author. I shall call toward one o'clock not to deprive the world of your bright thoughts, this exhilarating day.
On November 13, 1796, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote to Godwin:
If the felicity of last night has had the same effect on your health as on my countenance, you have no cause to lament your failure of resolution: for I have seldom seen so much live fire running about my features as this morning when recollections -- very dear, called forth the blush of pleasure, as I adjusted my hair.
{172} The modern Prometheus plays with fire and conceives the author. Since she was born nine months later, Mary may have believed that she had come upon the scene of her own beginnings. It is perhaps her reading of this letter which intrudes upon the narrative flaw perceived at the novel's center.

Many years after Frankenstein was published, Mary Shelley said that she had begun writing the novel with the scene of the monster's reanimation which had appeared to her overnight in a "waking dream": "On the morrow [she wrote in the 1831 preface to the third edition of Frankenstein] I announced that I had thought of a story [her italics]. I began that day with the words, It was on a dreary night of November" [1.4.1], making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream." Here she refers to the beginning of Chapter Four (in the original First Edition, Chapter Five in the more familiar Third Edition) and the memorable description of the monster being brought to life in Frankenstein's laboratory. It is a scene separated by many chapters from the monster's description of Safie's mother, the Turkish concubine who sounds so much like Mary Wollstonecraft, and from his confrontation with Frankenstein over the journal of his creation; but its meaning to Mary Shelley becomes obvious. The "dreary day of November" may allude, in fact, to the moment of her own conception.

The Surrounding Fantasies

The novel's unusual narrative structure is well-known but not sufficiently appreciated. It is a series of concentric rings of narration, each enclosing the next. Three of these rings, or narrative frames, are easily recognized as the voices of the novel's three narrators: Walton, whose account of his encounter with Frankenstein near the North Pole opens and closes the novel; Frankenstein, who tells his tale to Walton; and the monster, whose story is within Frankenstein's.

In fact, a good many more such "frames" can be discerned. One is immediately apparent before the novel proper begins. A superscript to the first page indicates that we are reading a letter "to Mrs. Saville, England" [Letter 1.1]. The entire story is contained within letters and journals Walton sends to his sister. Mrs. Saville never intrudes upon the story. Just as Mary Shelley described herself writing Frankenstein by "making only a transcript" of a dream, Mrs. Saville evidently is making "only a transcript" of her brother's documents. {173} Her presence is implied. She is a "devout but nearly silent listener" (as Mary Shelley described herself, listening to Byron and Shelley on the night before her famous dream), the passive but enveloping and transmuting persona of the author herself creating the novel's outermost narrative circle. The monster's narrative, with its divagations into the lives of the DeLaceys (the family he had observed), and of Safie and her mother, contains still more circles of narration, forming the "geographic" center of the novel.

Remote as they seem from the "center," where the monster tells his story, the peripheral structures correspond closely with it. The entire novel is itself a collection of letters and journal entries, in precise analogy with the monster's excited preoccupation with Safie's love letters and the journal of his creation. The very sense of Mrs. Saville reading her brother's letters corresponds closely with the monster's spying, through a chink in the wall, on the DeLacey family.8

The novel is marked by its frequent shifts in narrative focus, yet each movement to a new narrator curiously repeats and re-establishes what had gone before. Each narrator undergoes a characteristic oscillation between activity and passivity. The participant in one tale becomes the observer -- or listener or recorder -- of the next. It is, apparently, an endlessly repeated enactment of primal scene observation, transliterated into the very structure of the novel. The act of observation, passive in one sense, becomes covertly and symbolically active in another: the observed scene becomes an enclosing, even womb-like, container in which a story is, variously, developed, preserved, and passed on. Story-telling becomes a vicarious pregnancy.

These narrative frames recede toward an implied central point. {174} It is there, of course, we discover the author's mother, preserved forever at the "pole." This structure of concentric narrative rings implies the circumpolar geography which Walton is exploring at the novel's beginning and end. While it is unlikely that Mary Shelley explicitly meant to emulate a map of the world, seen from the pole, in the design of her novel, it is possible that her underlying preoccupation with the themes of exploration and the quest for knowledge impressed itself on the novel's structure in the same way as primal scene observation, which could itself be considered a form of exploration.

The Search for the Mother in the Hyperborean Myth

To know that Mary Shelley's mother died giving birth to her, and that she herself lost her first child two weeks after it was born, is to know much about the origins of Frankenstein. One senses intuitively the source of the great movement of yearning and searching with respect to lost motherhood which pervades the novel, even without any additional information about the emotional life of the author which would more reliably sustain an assumption that she is "looking" for these "lost objects." This search for the mother is already apparent in the first passages of the novel cast in the form of a "hyperborean" fantasy which resonates throughout the novel. On the first page, Walton writes to his sister of his intended voyage:
As I walk in the streets of Petersburgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves, and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling? This breeze, which has travel led from the regions towards which I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes. Inspirited by this wind of promise, my daydreams become more fervent and vivid. I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is forever visible, its broad disk just skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendor. There -- for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in preceding navigators -- there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. . . . What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle. . . . I shall satiate my ardent curiosity.
The final image has a phallic cast but it is not so much the womb that is sought in the sexual sense, but the maternal heartland: {175} Walton seeks the fantasied mother locked within the ice. It is a hyperborean fantasy of the maternal paradise beyond the frozen north, and, at the same time, a special vision in which the coldness of death has been transmuted into a land of ice that is not cold. The search for the Pole coincides then with a search for the lost mother. Walton's conviction that the Pole is a land of "eternal light" where "snow and frost are banished" is a momentary lapse into wishful thinking, but one which exerts a powerful tug on the imagination. As Walton points out, his belief is supported, beyond all probability, by the reports of contemporary explorers who had reason to believe an open water passage to the Pole might be found.9 From that level of speculation to the imaginative conviction that the Pole itself was the seat of a warm land was not far. Within several years, John Cleves Symmes was to form his "Hollow Earth" movement in the United States, and Edgar Allan Poe would write Arthur Gordon Pym and Ms. Found in a Bottle, both conceiving of a tropical Antarctica. The hyperborean myth in the opening paragraphs of Frankenstein hinges on such a fantasy, a "sun . . . forever visible." We sense the striving after the paradisiacal illusion of endless maternal warmth and bounty.

Walton, temperate, reasonable and modern, never reaches the Pole. It is Frankenstein and the monster who will find their apotheosis there, the monster in particular realizing Walton's vision of the "warm" Pole by immolating himself there. Monster and maker are finally reunited. The two merge into the ice-mother at the Pole. As we have noticed, the novel itself has its "Pole" at the center of its narrative structure, again embodied in a setting of maternal warmth, the Turkish harem where Safie's mother languished. Each of these narratives literally takes place "on ice" -- Walton and Frankenstein in the warm ship's cabin locked in an {176} Arctic ice-floe, and the monster in his warm cabin high on an alpine glacier -- impressing us more with the persistence and unity of the author's thought, and its secret reference to the maternal search.

There is an implied pun, well hidden within the story, which makes this point with marvelous succinctness. Although it is not named in the novel, the glacier where the monster has been waiting teo tell Frankenstein his story is unmistakably La Mer de Glace.10

The Creation of the Monster

From the perspective of its narrative organization, this analysis of the novel has one particularly unexpected result. Its most famous scene (and almost a myth in its own terms), the animation of Frankenstein's composite corpse, is reduced to a relatively minor position. It becomes part of the periphery that surrounds the central scene of the mother and retells in a particularly pointed way a fantasy of procreation and of primal scene observation. There may be something useful in this downgrading, since it permits some distance to be taken from a scene that is so familiar. Its mythic position in our culture has all but cut it off from the context of the novel. This famous episode, in all its fascination, has perhaps served more as a defense against meaning than as an expression of meaning itself. The image of the reanimated monster is so arresting, particularly when rendered visually, that it tends to obscure the very sources of its fascination.

Perhaps there is a warning in this not to take the scene too literally. Mary Shelley clearly suggested, after all, that the thought, "perhaps a corpse would be reanimated . . . perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured" [Introduction 9], was implanted in her by the discussion she overheard between Byron and Shelley.11 {177} There is no problem in establishing the rightful place of this idea in Mary Shelley's imaginative life (though this would require a separate study), but her disingenuousness on this score is a fascinating issue in itself. If the opening pages of Chapter Four (Chapter Five in the Third Edition [1831]) are approached from the point of view of her disclaimer of originality it can be discerned that the entire episode of the monster's animation is as much a "manufacture of component parts" as the monster himself.

The stage is set in Chapter Three (Chapter Four in the Third Edition). Frankenstein has already spun out the series of motherless family romances which form the substance of his past. As a premonition of the punishment which will follow his forbidden, Promethean quest for knowledge, his mother dies as he is about to leave for the university. Following completion of his formal studies, he attempts to discover no less than "whence . . . did the principle of life proceed?" [1.3.3]. He soon reduces the problem to the issue which lies at the heart of all mysteries: "To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death" [1.3.3]. He is thus forced -- like the adolescent author, passing her afternoons at her mother's grave -- "to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses" [1.3.3]. He is successful and he remarks on the uniqueness of his destiny, "I was surprised . . . that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret" [1.3.3].

At this point there occurs another of those perturbations of the narrative which signal a special preoccupation of the author. A cryptic allusion is made to the Arabian who had been buried with the dead and found a passage to life, aided only by one glimmering and seemingly ineffectual light" [1.3.4]; and then Frankenstein, who until that moment seemed to have forgotten the listening Walton as he addressed himself directly to the reader, turns to Walton to say, "I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted: that cannot be. . ." [1.3.4]. "The Arabian" in this passage alludes to the fifth voyage of Sinbad, in the Arabian Nights, where "Sinbad, buried by virtue of an unfortunate local custom with his dead wife, became -- like Frankenstein -- a ghoul before he eventually found his way out of the funeral vault. We recognize in this allusion, and in the narrative disturbance which follows it, an anticipation of the later scene in which Safie, another "Arabian," appears. It is Safie, we have suggested, who seems to point to the "mother" at the structural center of the novel.

Indeed, motherhood has been introduced; the "secret" is the {178} manufacture of a baby. "I began the creation of a human being. . . . As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved . . . to make the being of gigantic stature. . . . I pursued nature to her hiding places" [1.3.5]. The pursuit leads to a place which bears a remarkable resemblance to a woman's reproductive anatomy: "In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation" [1.3.6]. The enfolding, circular narratives of the novel have found their vivid, precise, and literal rendering in the architecture of Frankenstein's laboratory. It is, as is the entire novel, a womb.

Frankenstein is well aware of the fascination of his secret, that it is "the most interesting part of my tale" [1.3.8], and that he is reluctant to reveal it. He will, of course, go on to describe the monster's birth at the beginning of the next chapter, but he reserves to himself the secret of how he did it. This, "a sight to dream of, not to tell" [Coleridge, "Christabel," 253].

Mary Shelley took great pains to disclaim any role for her own imagination in what follows. In 1831, describing the book she had written as a "young girl," in 1816, she was establishing her title as author. But, she is ambiguous even in this: "At first I thought but of a few pages, of a short tale, but Shelley urged me to develop the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world. From this declaration, I must except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was entirely written by him" [Introduction 12].

What did she refer to when she spoke of incitement? She had already given several examples, perhaps unintended, in the 1831 Introduction. "I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print" [Introduction 1], she wrote, ". . . My husband, however, was from the first very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage and enroll myself on the page of fame. He was forever inciting me to obtain literary reputation" [Introduction 4]. She went on to describe the setting in which Frankenstein was conceived -- the rainy holiday she, Shelley, and Byron passed in June of 1816, near Geneva. The occasional movie version of Frankenstein which has incorporated her account into the story proper has, I suspect, correctly interpreted its significance; it functions, in effect, as still another circle of fantasy narrative surrounding and enclosing the entire story. What she wrote is almost as well-known as the novel (indeed, it has been {179} regularly printed with it since 1831). Because of the bad weather, the vacationers read a French edition of some ghost stories. Byron said, "We will each write a ghost story" [Introduction 6], and she found herself unaccountably inhibited.

She dwells at some length on her "blank incapability of invention." "'Have you thought of a story,' I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative" [Introduction 7]. Her mortification is of course relative, as she well knew in 1831, for of this group of famous people she alone created an enduring story. There may have been some passing wish to scant the achievement of John William Polidori, who had been present at the time as Byron's physician. Polidori later took Byron's fragment, written on that occasion, and enlarged it into a book, The Vampire, which, for the short time it was believed to have been written by Byron, had a success rivaling that of Frankenstein.

Like her claim that she would not put herself forward without being pushed, her protestation of incapability may mask a certain spirit of rivalry. Her assertion that she was asked "each morning" if she had thought of a story is puzzling, however. It appears to relate to the eventual discovery of her story in a dream, but it is surprising that she would have us believe that Byron and Shelley, serious and professional writers, would have confused the waking task of writing with the involuntary activity of the imagination that takes place overnight.

There is another possibility. Mary Shelley unquestionably equated "thinking of a story" (she italicized the expression throughout the Introduction) with producing a baby -- she referred to it as "my hideous progeny . . . the offspring of happy days" [Introduction 12] -- so that we are justified in imagining that the spirit of inhibition she attaches to the writing of her story derives from the sexual sphere. If the sense of the question she was asked were "Have you conceived?", we would better understand its relationship to nighttime activities. This impression is supported by her description of how the inhibition was overcome.

She turned first to a theory of creativity: "Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances but cannot bring into being the substance itself." Then, in the spirit of true psychoanalytic free-association, she said, with respect to the working of her imagination, "we are continually reminded of . . . Columbus {180} and his egg. Invention consists in . . . fashioning ideas suggested to it" [Introduction 8]. Her thought touches briefly on a fertile man and then returns to the conviction that, for her, the imagination can only create with what has been put in it. It is a passive theory, one which derives from Erasmus Darwin's theory of the woman's role in procreation.

"Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life. . . . They talked of Dr. Darwin . . . who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. . . . Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated . . . perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth" [Introduction 8]. She is describing the overheard conversation to which she attributes the dream of that evening in which the Frankenstein story appeared to her. At the same time she was weaving among these thoughts Darwin's theory of sexual reproduction, in which the woman is essentially passive, providing a womb to nourish the embryon actively implanted by the man. For Darwin, as described in his Zoonomia, the woman's influence over the formation of the conceptus in her womb was at best a distant reflection of her emotional and imaginative life; it was through the imagination of the male, particularly what was on his mind at the moment of ejaculation, that the characteristics of the fetus were determined.12

{181} She is trying to draw for us a picture of her imagination as a passive womb, inseminated by those titans of romantic poetry, Byron and Shelley: "Night waned . . . the witching hour had gone by . . . I did not sleep; nor could I be said to think. . . . My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me." She attempts to disclaim responsibility for the fantasy of conception and birth which she then had; her insistence on the passivity of her imagination is incessant, reflecting great conflict over taking too active a role in the creative process, whether writing or making a baby. Her famous "waking-dream" in fact portrays a man who does the job, single handed:

. . . images [she wrote in the 1831 Introduction] . . . arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw -- with shut eyes, but acute mental vision -- I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. . . [Inroduction 10].13
She means to imply, in one ambiguous statement, that it was her idea and that it was not: if this scene is the product of her imagination, she can be accused of no more than stitching together the ideas suggested to her by Byron and Shelley. She had overcome her inhibition:
I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow. On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words It was on a dreary night of November, making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream. [Her italics] [Introduction 11]
The moment she describes is the opening of Chapter Four. The {182} author's "dream" is narrated from within by one of its participants, Victor Frankenstein:
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain patter Ed dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when . . . I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. [1.4.1]
The ideas of reanimation had a legitimate and unique place in her own fantasy life, but it may be characteristic of her that she would prefer to hide her own originality within someone else's imagination. The vivid, and virtually explicit, sexuality of the scene might well inspire this form of defensive distancing. It is as though she wishes to proclaim: "It is my dream, but I was, for one thing, only an observer and transcriber of it and, for another, the imagery is only borrowed."

The same formula is followed in the second paragraph of Chapter Five, where the monster is first described and Frankenstein begins to recognize, a bit belatedly, the horror of what he has done:

His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivel led complexion and straight black lips. [1.4.1]
This description seems borrowed from a passage written by Shelley to announce Mary's first pregnancy in the journal he and Mary had been keeping since their elopement two years before. On October 7, 1814, Mary had gone to bed early while Shelley stayed up talking with her stepsister, Jane. Shelley, a connoisseur of ghostly happenings, steered the conversation toward the supernatural in the early hours of the morning and the impressionable Jane compliantly responded with an hysterical seizure:
. . . her countenance was distorted by horrible dismay -- it beamed with a whiteness that seemed almost like light; her lips and cheeks were one deadly hue; the skin of her face and forehead was drawn into innumerable wrinkles -- the lineaments of terror that could not be contained; her hair came prominent and erect; her eyes were wide and staring; drawn almost from the sockets by {183} the convulsion of the muscles; the eyelids were forced in, and the eyeballs, without any relief, seemed as if they had been newly inserted, in ghastly sport, in the sockets of a lifeless head. . . . I informed her of Mary's pregnancy.
Shelley's hope that this announcement would calm Jane down was vain; her "horrors" began again.
Our candles burned low; we feared they would not last until daylight. Just as the dawn was struggling with moonlight, Jane remarked in me that unutterable expression which had affected her with so much horror before; she described it as expressing a mixture of deep sadness and conscious power over her. I covered my face with my hands and spoke to her in the most studied gentleness. It was ineffectual; her horror and agony increased even to the most dreadful convulsions. She shrieked and writhed on the floor. I ran to Mary. . . . (Journal, October 7, 1814)
The parallel is unmistakable. One doesn't know whether to be more impressed by the complexities of Shelley's relationship with Jane or with the mastery of the prose with which he rendered this piece of midnight stage craft, but it is a matter of Mary silently taking something in (as her own laconic journal entry of the next day suggests, Journal, October 8, 1814) and making use of it when the occasion arose. Shelley made of Jane's face a kind of composite corpse, "eyeballs . . . newly inserted . . . in the sockets of a lifeless head," to which the monster's " watery eyes . . . the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set" [1.4.1] may readily be compared. Similarly, Jane's "dreadful convulsions," so clearly a hysterical sexual response to the announcement of Mary's pregnancy, may be considered one of the progenitors of the monster's "convulsive motion" as it came to life. (Jane, who was with the vacationers, was at a comparable point in a pregnancy of her own when Mary began writing Frankenstein. One wonders how much that contributed to the apparent return in Mary's thoughts to the passage in her journal Shelley had written.)

With the third paragraph, Mary Shelley turned once more to the imagination of still another man to express her thought. For the first time Frankenstein recognizes the sheer horror of what he has done; the moral repugnance of his act is embodied for him in the grotesque ugliness of the being he has created. He chooses to escape the whole matter by falling asleep:

. . . I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. . . . [B]ut now that I had finished, the beauty of {184} the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. [1.4.2]
The 1831 Introduction makes clear that we are to view this development as part of the continuing "waking dream" and at the same time spells out the thought behind the wish to sleep: "His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade, that this thing . . . would subside into dead matter, and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life" [Introduction 10]. Frankenstein, filicide in his heart, finally falls asleep and dreams. In his dream he encounters his fiancée:
Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. [1.4.2]
It is a troubling dream, more dream-like certainly than the waking dream" in which it resides (and seems to parody, since both deal with quasi-acts of love which lead to a breach in the boundary between life and death). The comments from the 1831 Introduction make virtually explicit its expression of Faustian guilt and retribution. Its significance to Mary, as a nightmare of sexual guilt, is suggested by an event which she does not mention in the 1831 account. Within a day or two of her first efforts at writing Frankenstein, she was present when Byron recited Coleridge's Christabel. John William Polidori, Byron's travelling companion and physician recorded the event in his diary on June 18, 1816:
. . . Twelve o'clock really began to talk ghostly. Byron repeated some verses of Coleridge's Christabel, of the witch's breast; when silence ensued, and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle. Threw water in his face and after gave him ether. He was looking at Mrs. Shelley, and suddenly thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which taking hold of his mind, horrified him.14
{185} Shelley's frightened and guilty behavior may have provided, at least superficially, the model for Frankenstein's agitation after the monster had been brought to life and abandoned. Further, Shelley's outburst, in the context of the midnight "ghostly talk," would have inevitably reminded Mary of Jane's flamboyant midnight hysteria two years before, when Shelley had "ghosted" her by way of announcing Mary's pregnancy.

Shelley's "horrors" were apparently precipitated, in this ghostly ambience, by Byron's recitation of Christabel. It is Coleridge to whom Mary turned as she constructed Frankenstein's nightmare. The lines of the "witch's breast" which Byron recited (probably from memory) were:

Beholds her bosom and half her side,
Hideous, deformed, and pale of hue --
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
And she is to sleep by Christabel! ["Christabel," 252]15
The scene suggested in Coleridge's lines involves Christabel, "the lovely lady . . . whom her father loved so well" [23-24]who, like Mary, has lost her mother at birth, and Geraldine, an equally beautiful but mysterious woman who has appeared like an apparition outside the castle that evening. The dream-like and transitory vision of Geraldine's hideously deformed breast may suggest, in Cole -- {186} ridge's uncompleted poem, that she is some manner of witch, perhaps connected with the ghost of Christabel's mother whose shrouded figure hovers about. The mother had announced on her death bed that she would return when her daughter married, and indeed Christabel is engaged. There is an implication that a ghostly, homosexual initiation is to take place, as Geraldine is represented simultaneously as a defiant, possessive lover, "This hour is mine!" [210], and as a gently protective maternal guardian, "Still and mild, as a mother with her child" [299].

Shelley's hallucination of the "eyes instead of nipples," with its quality of maternal reproach, suggests the conflicted behavior of which he was capable at the time of pregnancy and childbirth, as Mary was only too painfully aware. In transmuting Coleridge's lines into Frankenstein's nightmare Mary captured the essence of her own conflict. The dead mother, hideous and ghostly, returns at the moment of symbolic inauguration of creative and sexual life to take the lost child in her arms and to return with her to the grave. The mother's return, the fulfillment at a certain level of an old wish, is precipitated by the child's daring to aspire to motherhood and becomes instead a punishment for audacity and rivalry.

When Mary had Frankenstein flee into sleep, in the hope that the monster "would subside into dead matter," she provided him with a nightmare directly modeled on Byron's reading of Coleridge's lines . . . livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms. . ." ["1.4.2].

The scene described by Polidori is one which Mary evidently regarded with intent but passive interest. She took it in and then, several days later, allowed it to reappear as she wrote. It became still another sexual fantasy of procreation to which she relates as a hidden or silent observer.

"Mrs. Shelley looking philosophically upon this interesting scene" is virtually paradigmatic as a characterization of Mary Shelley with respect to the crucial moments of her adolescent emotional life and, particularly, to her stance as author vis-a-vis the most intense scenes in Frankenstein.16

The Search for the Mother and the Primal Scene

{187} It is a special form of irony that the feminist's daughter would write a parable of motherhood entirely in terms of men. The novel's heritage of masculine creation -- in The Book of Genesis, in Paradise Lost, and, of course, in The Myth of Prometheus -- is plain enough, but the exclusion of women from Frankenstein seems a direct rebuke of Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein is a male God breathing life into his inert Adam, bringing him singlehanded into a world where women are an afterthought.

Yet, for all the disclaimers, Frankenstein is a woman's book. Mary Shelley is the animator and progenitor of her story; if it is a retelling of Prometheus, it does so by recasting the legend in terms of conception, pregnancy, and birth. The monster, as abandoned baby, is the voice of a mother's conscience (perhaps heralding the guilty conflict of modern women between child-rearing and professional ambitions). The mother and the problems of motherhood are never far from hand in the novel, even if they are highly disguised or seem to recede into the very design of the story.

Like any adolescent girl attempting to consolidate her identity as a fecund and sexual woman, Mary was "searching" for the mother of her origins -- a process of unconscious return to the mother through resurrection of early fantasy and memory about her. Despite a certain precocious air of gravity and maturity, Mary Shelley was still very much an adolescent when she wrote Frankenstein. The tumultuous events of two years before -- an elopement and two illegitimate pregnancies -- were hardly behind her, though it is likely that the memory of them was undergoing active repression and revision. By the Spring of 1816, her life had a temporary quality of relative stability and calm; her second child, William, had survived childbirth in January and the pleasure of caring for him, despite a period of intense depression, contributed to her general sense of well-being as she began the composition of Frankenstein. William helped efface from conscious thought the memory of the death the year before of the unnamed newborn baby girl. She was in a position of sufficient strength and tranquility to complete the mourning of her baby's death and complete some of the postponed psychic work of adolescent development. In particular, she was coming to terms with her conflicted identification with the fantasy of her dead mother.

The importance to her of this mother she could know only in fantasy is suggested by the problematic nature of the mothering {188} she actually received in her first years. Mary Wollstonecraft died giving birth to her, and her father marriedMary Jane Clairmont when she was three.17 The general significance of primal scene fantasies and of the myth of her origins can readily be imagined in terms of the probable narcissistic injury her father's remarriage, and the subsequent birth of her half-brother William, constituted for her: her earliest sexual curiosity may have been aroused at a time of sharply heightened jealous rivalry and narcissistic vulnerability. In her later years her status as the only daughter of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft was unquestionably part of her unique heritage. The spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft was probably part of Mary's earliest awareness of the world. Her father spent the first years of her life collecting and publishing her mother's papers; family friends had known Mary Wollstonecraft and must often have commented on her; even perfect strangers were apt to express curiosity about the fate of the great feminist's daughter.

Her first ideas about Mary Wollstonecraft were probably highly idealized, colored by a certain spirit of sainthood and martyrdom which existed in the Godwin house because of her mother's fame and untimely death. Author, social reformer, philosopher, traveller, wife, mother, and, ultimately, heavenly body -- these would have been the stuff of the earliest impressions. Years later, when Shelley had met the daughter, he referred to the memory of the mother as "a setting planet mild," probably capturing the soft and saddened tone of idealization with which Mary grew up thinking about her mother. However much of a fantasy this vision of her mother might have been, it served as a form of narcissistic retrenchment, a bastion against the insults and envies of Oedipal disappointment on the one side, and an invulnerable anchor on the other for the entitlement she felt to a unique and noble destiny of her own. She wished to identify herself with this mythic vision of Mary Wollstonecraft as perfect mother, faultless author, and creature of destiny. Something of this wish, and of the hidden ambiv- {189} alence which interfered with it, is to be seen in the romantically idealized rendering of Frankenstein's mother.

From this perspective, Frankenstein is a novel of high ambition. Victor Frankenstein's sense of his own specialness and chosen purpose -- "I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret. . . .[1.3.3] Some miracle might have produced it . . . [1.3.4]" -- was the expression of Mary Shelley's own conviction of unique destiny and creative potency as mother and as author. The writing of Frankenstein, which she carried on with quiet and persistent industry for the ten months from June 1816 to May 1817, was an act of firm purpose and intense ambition. Although we might marvel that she was able to do this while caring for an infant, while shepherding Shelley, and herself, past the stark guilt of his wife's suicide, while absorbing the suicide of her half-sister Fanny (the other daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose sense of destiny obviously was much different) and the illegitimate pregnancy of her step-sister Jane -- to touch on just a few of the features of a crowded year -- we must recognize in this essentially unwavering productivity (generally representative of her approach to novel writing in later years) its deeply entrenched meaning and purposiveness for her. The image she later tried to create of the "Darwinian" woman, passively responding to the governing activity of the male imagination, cannot be sustained in the face of the prolonged and lonely labor that her writing so obviously was. Despite disclaimers, despite a certain tendency to present herself as cat's-paw to Shelley's genius, the evidence of her firmness of purpose is inescapable. She felt destined to become an author, and Frankenstein was the instrument by which she accomplished that destiny.

However, Mary Shelley was not simply a writer whose ambition rested on hidden bedrock of narcissistic self-confidence. The exclusively masculine facade of Frankenstein and the horror and the retribution attached to the procreative act in the novel make plain the conflicted dimensions of her identification with her mother, and with being a mother and an author.

The image of Mary Wollstonecraft at the novel's center is expressive of the conflict: the mother, while superficially revered, is represented as defeated. She is depicted as a harem slave and, like all mothers in the novel, she is dead. Her daughter, on the other hand, is subtly androgynous: independent, determined, and liberated. The concentric circles of narration which help us to locate this image of the mother and comprehend her significance also {190} serve to isolate and entomb her. The mother is both degraded and feared.

For her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft was not simply an idealized figure. As she grew older, it became clear that her values, solidly nineteenth-century English middle-class, were at odds with her mother's, though even in the semi-privacy of her journal she was not entirely direct in her opposition to Mary Wollstonecraft:

. . . on some topics (especially with regards to my own sex), I am far from making up my mind. I believe we are sent here to educate ourselves, and that self-denial, and disappointment, and self-control, are a part of our education; that it is not by taking away all restraining law that our improvement is to be achieved. . . . If I have never written to vindicate the rights of women, I have ever befriended women when oppressed . . . those who love me hereafter know that I am not all to blame, nor merit the heavy accusations cast on me for not putting myself forward. l cannot do that; it is against my nature. As well cast me from a precipice and rail at me for not flying. (Journal, October 21, 1838)
The rejection of her mother and the insistence on her own inhibition with respect to forwardness is unambiguous. How far she had come from the elopement with Shelley, who loved her so much for what he had seen in her of her mother. One hears in this statement the same note of disclaimed responsibility that pervades the 1831 Introduction. Forwardness -- sexual, social, and creative -- was precisely the issue, and it had come to be equated with feared and rejected aspects of her mother, at least as she understood her through fantasy that was largely unconscious.

The love letters between Mary Wollstonecraft and her father, dealing so explicitly with her mother's sexual life, may represent another aspect of her conflict with her mother's forwardness. The letters would have been, of course, the measure of her father's disloyalty to her and, as such, would reflect Oedipal disappointment and defeat. They would also establish the mother as rival, profoundly disruptive of efforts to identify with her, and would be a vivid reminder that her mother's sexuality had led to the grave. The idealized fantasy of the mother has, as its darker underside, a ghostly rival with unlimited retributive powers to be unleashed upon those who would dare the same measure of sexual and procreative forwardness.

We have already taken note of the appearance of this ghost in Frankenstein's nightmare. When he had completed his labors and successfully brought the monster into the world, Frankenstein at -- {191} tempted to sleep. He was not only disappointed and repelled, he was depleted. His "post-partum depression" (actually very graphically described as a recognizable clinical condition on the following pages) is the first step toward his eventual death, from exhaustion and exposure, near the North Pole. In the larger terms of the novel's hyperborean metaphor of heat and cold, the creative act has drained him of his own vital warmth. He seeks renewal, dreaming of reunion with his mother to replenish his own depleted maternal resources. Fear of punishment for having trespassed, apparently upon the maternal prerogative of procreation, and the literal fact of his mother's death, make the dream a nightmare. Clearly, at that point in his dream, he fears that he will die in her embrace. (The passing view of the "fiancée," Elizabeth, who becomes the horrific dead mother as she is embraced is perhaps a momentary glimpse of Mary's adolescent fear for herself.) Upon awakening and seeing his monster -- his baby -- beckoning to him, Frankenstein flees, thus performing, then and only then, the symbolic and fatal act of abandonment upon which so much of the story hinges. He has seen the fate which ultimately awaits him at the Pole, the reunion with the ice-mother, and he attempts to save his own life by sacrificing the child.

Because of the novel's unique narrative design, we are able to see this act of abandonment from the "other side," from the perspective of the abandoned child, permitting yet another view of the feared mother. The monster was able to postpone his original sense of abandonment so long as he felt vicariously attached to the DeLacey family; he could fantasize that eventually they would love him. Inevitably he was disappointed: "When I reflected that they had spurned and deserted me, anger returned, a rage of anger. . . ." In an orgiastic scene, curiously related to the setting of the moon, he burned their cottage down. "A fierce wind . . . tore along like a mighty avalanche and produced a kind of insanity in my spirits, that burst all bounds of reason and reflection. I lighted the dry branch of a tree, and danced with fury around the devoted cottage, my eyes still fixed on the western horizon, the edge of which the moon nearly touched. . . . [I]t sunk, and with a loud scream I fired the straw. . ." [2.8.4].

We come with this to appreciate the great rage of jealous resentment which burns within the monster. Shortly after, he encounters the young brother of Frankenstein and, not surprisingly, murders him. "I gazed on my victim, and my heart swelled with {192} exultation and hellish triumph: clapping my hands, I exclaimed, 'I, too, can create desolation. . .'" [2.8.9] This might remind us that creativity is not always the sacrosanct life-force we would like to think it is. Indeed, the monster almost fancies himself an artist of destruction when he says, "My enemy is not impregnable [1823 <1831 Ed.> Edition: "invulnerable"]; this death will carry despair to him, and a thousand other miseries shall torment and destroy him."

It is at this point that Frankenstein's dead mother appears again. Still speaking of his first victim, little William, the monster says, "I saw something glittering on his breast. I took it; it was a portrait of a most lovely woman. In spite of my malignity, it softened and attracted me. For a few moments I gazed with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips; I remembered that I was forever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow; and that she whose resemblance I contemplated would, in regarding me, have changed that air of divine benignity to one expressive of disgust and affright. Can you wonder that such thoughts transported me with rage?" [2.8.10]

The image of the mother, beautiful this time, remains a malignantly destructive force. Driven by a species of bad conscience the monster attempts to deflect his guilt by implanting the incriminating portrait on an innocent young woman while she slept (an action entirely analogous to Frankenstein's flight from his nightmare and subsequent abandonment of the monster). In the general palimpsest spirit of autobiography which runs throughout the novel, we have no doubt that in the martyred Justine Moritz -- of whom it was said, "her mother could not endure her" -- we have glimpsed the author's identification with the monster and her need to displace her own guilt -- guilt which may have included the memory of murderous rage over the birth of her half-brother William.

At that point in her life, Mary stood in the dual position of the monster and Frankenstein: looking backward, she was the abandoned, displaced child; looking forward, she was the new mother whose children might die or be the death of her. Either the outraged and murderous jealousy of the monster or the guilty destructiveness of Frankenstein suggests the aggressive and lethal side of the author's fear of "forwardness." It is as though to be involved in creation, let alone take the initiative in it, is to participate in a two-sided struggle where one party must die.

We cannot overlook the equation of forwardness and mascu- {193} linity. Probably Mary could indulge as an adolescent in a limited amount of expression of some of her masculine identifications, though she was extremely defensive even then about any outright accusation of masculinity in her thinking (see her letter to Shelley for October 7, 1817). She could, temporarily, benefit from the fluidity of fantasy and the flexibility of identifications which characterize that phase of life.

There is a hidden spirit of androgyny in her story. The creation of the monster might even be considered a hermaphroditic act. The monster himself seems transiently a woman in the throes of orgasm as Frankenstein applies "the instruments of life." In her imagination, for a brief period, Mary Shelley could freely be a man and a woman, and it may be from this direction that she began, unconsciously, to fear punishment. After Shelley's death, while she was still in her twenties, her character would take on its final stamp of cool, conservative, "feminine" reserve, as though the fear of death forced her, once and for all, to eradicate any trace of masculine forwardness from her outward being. Since she equated so much that was creative with the realm of "forwardness" it is not surprising that she was later to complain, when Shelley had died, that "my life continues its monotonous course within sterile banks" (Journal, October 19, 1822). His presence, and the possibility of a certain identification with him, must have been protective, as well as inspiring. Frankenstein, as an act of imaginative daring and "forwardness," was possible, further, because the fearsome aspects of creativity and motherhood had not yet fully coalesced for her at that adolescent point in life. We have noticed them gathering force, however, in this reading of the novel. Frankenstein's refusal to create a female monster, a decision which seals his fate, speaks powerfully to Mary's fear of the mother and of motherhood: ". . . obscure forebodings of evil . . . made my heart sicken in my bosom. . . . she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate" [3.3.1].

The pursuit of a coherent maternal identity was expressed and served by the unique structural organization of the novel. The "search for the mother" was not merely the expression of a longing. It was also an effort in the direction of self-definition, particularly in terms of sexuality. It is here that the dual implications of the narrative design become clearest; the search for the mother is cast in the form of primal scene observation. The quest for origins ("who made me, where did I come from?") inevitably leads to a {194} fantasy of observed parental sexual activity and perhaps a forbidden imaginative participation in it. In Frankenstein, the telling of a story -- the return to a beginning -- involves each narrator as both observer and actor.

The spirit of stories within stories, or dreams within dreams, which pervades the novel is also restitutive and protective. The lost baby is found through the writing of a book that is constructed like a pregnancy, the feared experience of motherhood is repeated in the relative safety of authorship, the dead mother is resurrected -- temporarily -- within the heart of the story. Finally, the most curious aspect of all: the author, in looking for her mother, has in a sense found herself, for she has literally conceived of her own conception and thus becomes her own "hideous progeny."18


1. Sigmund Freud, "Draft L," The Origins of Psychoanalysis, ed. Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris (New York: Basic Books, 1954).

2. Only a single commentator, Ellen Moers (The New York Review of Books, 21 March 1974, pp. 24-28) has dealt with this in any depth, referring to the novel as "a woman's myth making on . . . the trauma of afterbirth . . . a phantasmagoria of the nursery." Robert Kiely (The Romantic Novel in England [Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1972], p. 165) has taken note of the element of motherhood in Frankenstein's procreative act, though only in passing: "Frankenstein's crime against nature is a crime against womanhood. . . ." Curiously, there has been little specifically psychoanalytic investigation of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, and none which has examined the element of motherhood. Morton Kaplan and Robert Kloss (The Unspoken Motive [New York: Free Press, 1973]) attempted an examination from the perspective of the Oedipal conflict, but felt content to make their interpretation "in the light of male psychology." Douglas Bond (Psychiatric Annals, December, 1973) considered the Oedipal problem in Frankenstein in the light of Mary Shelley's relationship to her gelid father, but, by leaving out the issue of procreation, finished with an interpretation more appropriate to Mathilda (Mary Shelley's second novel, unpublished in her lifetime) than to Frankenstein.

3. Mario Praz (The Romantic Agony, 2nd ed. [New York: Oxford U. Press, 1970]) and Richard Garnett (Mary Shelley, Tales and Stories, Introduction [London, 1891]) from whom these derogatory quotes derive, are typical of those critics who, from the beginning, have been suspicious of Mary Shelley's capacity for originality.

4. James Rieger, Mary Shelley's modern editor and critic, has launched a serious attack on her claim to sole authorship of Frankenstein (Frankenstein, ed. James Rieger [Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1974], p. xviii). He suggests that the evidence of Shelley's notes and corrections in the original manuscript might well elevate him to the role of "minor collaborator."

5. From the vantage point of the post-revolutionary moral reaction that prevailed at the turn of the nineteenth century in England, death in childbirth may well have seemed a punishment that fit the crime of feminine forwardness. Claire Tomalin ("Aftermath and Debate," The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft [New York and London: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1974]) otters an interesting examination of the moral tone which surrounded the death of Mary Shelley's mother which would have directly colored her understanding of her mother's past. Tomalin states, for example, "Of these women who now took it upon themselves (after the death of Mary Wollstonecraft) to lay down standards for their own sex, one after another approached the question of women's rights, examined its various aspects, and retreated with expressions of disapproval or contempt; . . . apparently sensible and well-educated women . . . stressed the need for passivity in girls. . . ."

6. All references to the text of Frankenstein are from the First Edition of 1818 (Rieger, 1974). The cited passages are virtually identical with the text of the Third Edition of 1831, which has been the source of all popular editions from that time to the present. There is, however, considerable difference over-all between the two editions, and the reader is alerted to the fact that the more familiar version is the later one.

7. See Godwin and Mary, ed. Ralph M. Wardle (Lawrence: U. of Kansas Press, 1967). It is possible that Mary Shelley had made copies of these letters as a young girl (as the monster had done with Safie's letters to her fiance) which she took along with her when she eloped with Shelley. One of Shelley's biographers, Richard Holmes (Shelley, The Pursuit [London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974], p. 237) states unequivocally that this was the case, but the evidence is not clear. The material Mary took with her, which Holmes has reference to, is described by Shelley as "her own writings, letters from her father and her friends, and my letters" (Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones [Norman: U. of Oklahoma Press, 1947], in the entry dated August 2, 1814). The only specific reference to her mother's letters is in a letter to Shelley dated October 5, 1817 (The Letters of Mary Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones [Norman: U. of Oklahoma Press, 1944]); while making reference to her step-sister Jane's child by Byron, Mary writes, "I never see her without thinking of the expressions in my Mother's letters concerning Fanny." This could be a reference to her mother's correspondence with Godwin, but it is more likely an allusion to the letters to Gilbert Imlay, an earlier lover of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Fanny. These had been published by Godwin when Mary Shelley was still a little girl. My thesis that Mary had access to her mother's letters to Godwin remains entirely presumptive at this time -- logical and tantalizing, but unproven.

8. Notice also a certain complementarity between the highly sublimated affection which seems to exist between Walton and his sister and the benevolent tenderness which is described within the DeLacey family. We should note, if only in passing, the importance of brother-sister relationships within the novel. There is a curious approximation of this in the poem Shelley was working on at the same time Mary was writing Frankenstein. Ultimately published as The Revolt of Islam and somewhat cleansed of its explicit incestuous theme (in the initial version, Laon and Cythna) the piece dealt with the passionate love of a brother and sister who eventually share immolation, burnt at the stake for their revolutionary activities. (The monster, of course, seeks a death through immolation at the novel's end.) For an expanded discussion of this incest theme in Frankenstein see Jean de Palacio, Mary Shelley dans son Oeuvre (Paris: Editions Klincksieck, 1969), pp. 125-137.

9. See, for example, the Edinburgh Review, June 1818, where a review of a number of recent books relating to the North Pole and the northern waters begins with the thought: "For these two or three years past, the captains of ships employed in the Northern Whale Fishery have generally concurred in representing the Arctic Sea as of a sudden become almost open and accessible to the adventurous navigator. By the more speculative relators, it has been supposed that the vast icy barrier which, during many ages, had obstructed those forlorn regions, is at last, from some revolution of our globe, broken up and dispersed. The project of finding a north-west passage to Asia -- a project so often attempted, and so long abandoned -- has in consequence been again revived; and the more daring scheme of penetrating to the Pole itself, has likewise been seriously proposed."

10. The glacier is well-known and is clearly located in the novel through references to Chamonix, Mont Blanc, and the river Arve, of which it is the source. Mary Shelley visited La Mer de Glace a month after she began Frankenstein and took special note of it in her journal referring to it as "the most desolate place in the world." "Mother of ice" and "sea of ice" are, of course, homonymous in French -- "La Mère de Glace." Rieger has noticed the equation of ice and intellect (The Mutiny Within [New York: George Braziller, 1967], p. 85) and turns our attention toward that embodiment of cold reason, Mary's father William God win. Since Mary had no mother during her first three years, one wonders how much Godwin was the original "ice-mother" for her. We would be remiss not to direct attention to the role of Mary's father in her emotional and intellectual development.

11. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Introduction to the 3rd Ed. (1831); included in Rieger (1974), but also published with all popular versions of the novel.

12. For example, Erasmus Darwin wrote (Zoonomia, Dublin, 1794), "I would conclude, that though the imagination of the female may be supposed to affect the embryon . . . it does not appear how any sudden effect of imagination of the mother at the time of impregnation can produce any considerable change in the nutriment already laid up for the desired or expected embryon (I, 565). . . . I conclude, that the imagination of the male at the time of copulation, or at the time of the secretion of the semen, may so affect this secretion . . . as to cause the production of similarity of form and of features, with the distinction of sex; as the motions of the chisel of the turner imitate or correspond with those of the ideas of the artist (I, 569). . . . the real power of imagination, in the act of generation, belongs solely to the male" (I, 570). With respect to monsters, Darwin also thought that "monstrous births . . . which appear to be new conformations . . . may depend on the imagination of the male parent . . .(I, 566)." Mary would have also been familiar with the argument advanced in The Eumenides of Aeschylus concerning masculine primacy in procreation. There, tellingly, Apollo attempts to exonerate Orestes of the crime of matricide by demonstrating that there is no blood-tie between mother and child:

The mother is no parent of that which is called
Her child, but only nurse of the new-planted seed
That grows. The parent is he who mounts. A stranger she
Preserves a stranger's seed. . . .
Aeschylus, The Eumenides, Oresteia, trans. Richard Lattimore
(Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1953), ll. 558-661.
13. Christopher Small has expanded in great detail the ways in which Mary submerged herself in Shelley as she fashioned her novel (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth [Pittsburgh: U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1972], Ch. 5). Clearly, "the pale student of the unhallowed arts" suggests Shelley. As Small so aptly puts it, "If he is not Shelley he is a dream of Shelley" (p. 102).

14. The Diary of Dr. John William Polidori, ed. W. M. Rossetti (London: Elkin Matthews, 1911) [p. 128].

15. This is how the passage read at the time Mary heard Byron recite. In the ultimate published version Coleridge dropped the line, "Hideous, deformed, and pale of hue," and altered the last line to read, "O shield her, shield her, sweet Christabel!" In this way there is only the dreamlike hint, rather than the explicit vision, of Geraldine's witch character. Two-hundred lines further, the postponed description finally appears, "Again she saw that bosom old, again she saw that bosom cold" [457-58] strengthening the suggestion of something that has been dreamt but not told. Byron had seen the earlier manuscript the preceding autumn. Whether he had it, or a copy, with him at Villa Diodati, or simply recited it from memory is not clearly established. For the details of the manuscript familiar to Byron, see The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. H. Coleridge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), I, 213-214 and 224. The possible derivation of Frankenstein's nightmare in the Gothic themes and stories of Mary's time has been considered by Palacio, p. 105. Palacio seems dissatisfied, however, with his review of the sources and the significance of this dream: "L'utilité dans le roman n'apparaît pas immédiatement; la raison même en est peu claire, si l'on se refuse à toute interprétation psychoanalytique." A surprising outburst of indebtedness to Coleridge appears on the page after Frankenstein's nightmare, where Mary Shelley chose to use a verse from the Ancient Mariner and then give attribution for it in one of the novel's rare footnotes. One wonders how much this scholarly zeal reflects the unattributed influence of Coleridge on the preceding page.

16. Cited by Holmes (Shelley, p. 708), and written by Edward Williams when he described Shelley's bloody return from the scrape between the "Byron brigade" and an Italian militiaman in Pisa in 1822. It is to be found in Maria Gisborne and Edward E. Williams: Their Journal and Letters, ed. F. L. Jones (Norman: U. of Oklahoma Press, 1951), p. 137.

17. Her situation is mindful of that described by Anna Freud ("Adolescence," Psychoanalytic Study of the Child [New York: International U. Press, 1958], XIII, 266) with respect to certain orphaned children who are "deprived of a relationship to a stable mother figure in their first years. This lack of a mother fixation . . . constitutes a real danger to the whole inner coherence of the personality during adolescence. In these cases, adolescence is preceded frequently by a frantic search for a mother image; the internal possession and cathexis of such an image seems to be essential for the ensuing normal process of detaching libido from it for transfer to new objects, i.e., to sexual partners."

18. I am not alone in assigning this preoccupation about one's own conception to an author. Richard Ellman (Golden Codgers [New York and London: Oxford U. Press, 1973], p. 48) said of John Ruskin, who arbitrarily dated the "fall" of Venice to a specific day in 1418, "I venture to propose that the date so carefully selected was, putatively, four-hundred years to the day before his own conception -- that act so impossible for him to meditate on with equanimity." For this reference, as well as for the restrained and benevolent critical attention afforded me in the conceiving of this essay, I am deeply in the debt of Geoffrey Hartman.