Contents Index

"Faust and Frankenstein"

Roger Shattuck

In Forbidden Knowledge from Prometheus to Pornography (New York: St Martin's Press, 1996), 79-100

{79} Our second great myth without origins in antiquity con- {80} cerns the restless middle-aged doctor-adventurer: Faust. Written versions of this legend do not reach so far back into the Middle Ages as those of the Grail legend. The story of the learned doctor who sells his soul to the devil in order to obtain supernatural powers shares with the chivalric tales a strong emphasis on the quest motif. Some scholars trace the learned-doctor theme back to Prometheus or to the powerful magician Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-24. But Faust's authentic origins lie in popular medieval stories and puppet plays about gaining knowledge from the devil. They seem to have converged on the historical figure Johann Faust, a scholar and charlatan in black magic who lived around 1500. But not until 1587 did Johann Spiess publish the first written version of the Faust story. In that chapbook, the learned doctor signs a pact in blood. He cedes his soul to Mephistopheles, the devil's messenger, at the end of twenty-four years, during which Mephistopheles "shall learn me [magic] and fulfill my desires in all things." Such a simple-minded plot indirectly expresses the Renaissance spirit of exploration as it moved north and the defiant spirit of the Protestant Reformation as it moved south.

For reasons not immediately apparent, all versions of the Faust story appear to be fragmentary and confused.[1] The powerful appeal of the situation never works itself out into a unified and convincing action. The story has attracted many writers; not even Goethe gave it a workable, definitive form. In Marlowe's earlier Doctor Faustus (1593), the character wants to be able to fly and become invisible, to be emperor of the world and a deity. A full complement of clowns, comic devils, and a Pope bamboozled by magic tricks turn the middle scenes into slapstick. The fifth act reduces Faust's final moments to moral allegory as stereotyped as Pilgrim's Progress. Weak-willed Faust wishes "I had never read book," and he has to listen to Mephistopheles' preachments: "Fools that must laugh on earth will weep in hell." Marlowe's still-medieval play stands closer to Ubu Roi than to high tragedy or to the anxieties of modern identity.

{81} After Marlowe came a spate of puppet plays in the marketplaces of Europe, exhibiting Faust catapulted at the end into the yawning jaws of hell. Audiences loved the lurid stage effects. It was the German dramatist Lessing, an unrelenting critic of French classicism and a champion of Shakespeare, who in the middle of the eighteenth century conceived the change that removed Faust from the Middle Ages and placed him squarely in the modern world. Though all but fragments of Lessing's Faust drama have been lost, we know that in his version Faust is not damned for his pact with the devil: He is saved.

That shift showed Goethe the way. Working in spurts throughout his lifetime, Goethe grafted Faust onto the Job story and produced a play so extended and episodic that the unity of dramatic action has been lost. It is rarely staged in a complete version; adaptations for opera amputate entire sections. When we reach the end of the play, we can attach only dubious moral and symbolic meaning to the fact that the sinner and playboy of the Western world is finally saved -- because of his "striving." What, then, is Faust striving to achieve? In Goethe's version, as in earlier ones, we cannot readily find a scene in which Faust's nobility rises above his egoism. He has few redeeming qualities. In the newly introduced Gretchen episode, he is responsible for four homicides. The villain of the puppet plays has accomplished little to earn God's favor and final salvation.

I believe that we are drawn to this "tragedy," as Goethe called it, because it is chock-full of comedy. However, its publication in installments did not block the development of the legend in other directions by other authors. Halfway between Faust I (1808) and Faust II (1833), there appeared in London an anonymous novel called Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). It soon lost its anonymity. In that remarkable book conceived when she was nineteen, Mary Shelley assimilated a wide range of classical and modern myths, from Prometheus to Milton's Satan to Locke's tabula rasa. Most importantly, she takes aim at the Faustian motif of "the serpent sting" of knowledge. There are many reasons to read these two books together.

2. Two Conflicting Versions

{82} The twenty-five scenes of Goethe's Faust I, without further division into acts or sections, fall roughly into three sequences: abdication and changed allegiance; seduction of Gretchen and betrayal; flight and remorse. In the late midlife crisis of the opening scene, Faust puts aside all his attachments -- book learning, language itself as a path to knowledge, his high status in the community, his links to the institution of the university - - in order to do a deal with the Devil's agent. Having cursed everything from fame to family, from money to faith, he seeks and fleetingly finds pure pleasure, the rush of experience for experience's sake. To Gretchen's question about his religious beliefs, Faust has a revealing answer.
Fill your heart to overflowing,
and when you feel profoundest bliss
then call it what you will:
Good fortune! Heart! Love! or God!
I have no name for it!
Feeling is all;
the name is sound and smoke,
beclouding Heaven's glow.

(3451-58; tr. Peter Salm)
This modern Job figure is willing to call his sensuous bliss his God, a clear declaration of hedonism. In the biblical Job, such blasphemy would have immediately removed God's favor; in Goethe's play, Gretchen observes mildly that there's something awry in his confession, and the scene moves on. The innocent-seeming Gretchen romance, punctuated with delicately lyrical moments, leads to a succession of disasters from which Faust walks away -- or flies away when Gretchen is saved after her death. Bliss and feeling overcome all scruples.

Faust's rejection of conventional rewards in order to seek for the intensity of experience is framed in a series of three portals through which one enters the work. The dedication in effect recommits the book to Goethe's own youthful imagination, whose spirit world he {83} comes upon twenty years later in manuscripts he put aside. The "Prelude in the Theater" insistently tells the reader or spectator through the nonclassical personage of the Clown (Lustige Person) to expect a complex mixture of truth and error.

We must present a drama of this type!
Reach for the fullness of a human life!
We all live it, but few live knowingly;
if you but touch it, it will fascinate.

(166-69; tr. Peter Salm, modified)
After this manifesto of a working theater director, the "Prologue in Heaven" descends abruptly from the Archangels' lofty celebration of the Lord's created universe (243-70) into a jocular exchange between the jester-trickster Mephistopheles and the enormously tolerant Lord himself. The Lord even welcomes Mephistopheles' impertinent bet that he can corrupt Faust, for the Lord states that it may take a rogue (Schalk) to goad human beings out of their apathy. Every critic from Schiller on down has had to deal with the enormous shifts of tone and mood in the play. Goethe himself spoke of "serious jests."

Should we take Faust I seriously? Mephistopheles' constant jocularity keeps us guessing. And the "Prologue in Heaven" initiates an elaborate metaphysical riddle, bordering on a joke, adapted from the Old Testament. Job: Why do the godly suffer? Faust: Why are the ungodly saved?

It is difficult to say how far the hedonism of Faust reflects Goethe's life and times. In this extensive work, his genius rises easily above ready-made categories like classic and romantic, science and poetry, spiritual and demonic, social and individual, tragic and comic. At the tightly organized Weimar court, Goethe committed himself to statecraft, to running a theater, to scientific research, and to a substantial array of friends and admirers. In comparison, the character Faust looks like a loner lost in unfamiliar territory. As the French Revolution engulfed Europe in turmoil, Goethe seemed to move toward more lofty accomplishments. But Goethe, the unchallenged founder of modern German literature, {84} stayed loyal through thick and thin to this jagged play about estrangement and dissatisfaction with life. It would not let him go. Yet Faust, the striver and overreacher who is spared his punishment, remains in great part a literary and cultural enigma.

On the other hand, the circumstances of Mary Shelley's life offer clear pointers about why she wrote her first novel, and how she could finish it in a year at such a young age. She lived her earliest years with famous people admired by many for their genius, their high ideals, and their presumably rewarding lives. But her widowed father, William Godwin, was a notorious socialist whose utilitarian morality induced him to write that in a fire he would save a treasured book before a member of his own family. He hardly knew how to take care of his daughter. She knew her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died in childbirth, only by the stories of her dedication to feminism, revolutionary causes, and friends in need. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the stereotype of the Romantic poet, carried Mary off at seventeen to the Continent without marrying her, to live for a time in the irregular household of another Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Surrounded by illegitimate births and infant deaths, they subsisted on high ideals to remake the world through liberation and revolution. The men in the group were intent upon achieving glory through their genius; other concerns must not stand in their way. Still in her teens, Mary surrendered a part of her being to this heady life, for which the rest of the world might well envy her. She was the ultimate Romantic groupie. But she also perceived so vividly the vanity and selfishness of this existence that she produced a narrative account of it already halfway to myth. One may well find Frankenstein in many passages an ill-written and exaggerated novel. But its remarkable narrative structure holds in place a story whose pertinence to the history of Western civilization has grown from the day it appeared. Whereas Faust has the appeal of an eternal enigma, Frankenstein has the sting of a slap in the face to the author's own kith and kin.

Frankenstein deploys an array of machinery as complex as Faust's to draw us into its story. The subtitle makes a hugely ambitious claim by presenting the novel's hero as "the Modern Prometheus." The epigraph rings in a stark quotation from Adam in Paradise Lost to describe the abandonment felt by the creature whom Dr. Frank- {85} enstein galvanizes horribly into life.[2] In the original anonymous edition of 1818, the dedication to William Godwin, which led many to believe that Percy Bysshe Shelley had written the book, was followed by an unsigned preface, which Percy did write for Mary. "I have endeavoured to preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature, while I have not scrupled to innovate upon their combinations" [Preface 1]. Writing in the person of Mary, Percy is affirming the exploratory side of the story, presented as an experiment in human nature that observes, like Poe's stories and modern science fiction, basic psychological principles. Then a set of letters by Walton to his sister in England describes both his own expedition toward the North Pole and his encounter in the Arctic waste with Frankenstein, a fellow scientist in pursuit of glory through great enterprise. Finally, the exhausted Frankenstein narrates to Walton his lengthy story of creating a living monster out of cadavers. At the center, embedded in Frankenstein's tale, one comes upon the monster's story, told on a spectacular glacier high in the Alps. The effect of all this narrative nesting is to ensure that the mother story is taken in dead earnest. This godless universe, provided nevertheless with spirits and demons and all the elevating effects of the sublime in nature, provokes not a single intentional smile or laugh to attenuate the murders of four people close to Frankenstein by his own creature.

Let me restate the two actions. Having achieved high social and intellectual status in life, Faust abandons it for doubtful accomplishments as romantic lover and fantasy traveler. Across three continents, he practices impatience with himself, with Mephistopheles, with all creation. Young and unknown, Frankenstein seeks fame, the only salvation offered in his faithless world. He throws himself into the fanatic attempt to create human life, an act traditionally limited to a god figure. By succeeding, he damns himself. Frankenstein also is responsible for four homicides. "Learn from me," {86} he tells Walton, "how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow" [1.3.4]. But Frankenstein hardly means what he says.

Despite the differences in dramatic outcome and in pervading tone, these two tales of metaphysical adventure turn out to be the most effective and lasting versions of a single myth: the learned doctor discontent with his lot and seeking release into superhuman life.

3. Scenes from Faust

To a remarkable degree, the opening scenes in Faust's study recapitulate the first two parts of Descartes' Discourse on Method. Descartes tells us how he abandoned the study of literature, mathematics, theology, philosophy, law, medicine, and rhetoric for more practical knowledge to be gained from travel, experience, and common sense. Faust tells us that he has an advanced degree in all those fields. The difference between the two stories lies in their timing, in where they pick tip the thread of the action. We come upon Faust in his study just when he is impatiently trying to break out of his musty learning in order to seek a life of action. We come upon Descartes just as he settles back into his study (poêle) after years of soldiering and travel. What Descartes describes as being behind him forms not a bad summary of what still lies ahead of Faust. Three hundred years later, these sentences retain a trenchant timeliness.
I completely abandoned the study of literature. Deciding to seek only that knowledge I could find in myself or in the great book of the world, I devoted the rest of my youth to travel, to visiting foreign courts and armies, to frequenting people of diverse characters and conditions, to accumulating varied experiences, to testing myself in whatever encounters came my way, and at all times to reflecting profitably on these events. For it seemed to me that I would discover much more truth in the reasonings of men about what they know directly, men who will bear the consequences if they make a bad {87} decision, than in the reasonings of a scholar in his study, who produces speculations without application and without consequence to him, accept perhaps the vanity he finds in their remoteness from common sense. . . .

(Discourse on Method, Part One)
Descartes could be speaking for Faust at the opening of Goethe's play. Then, with Mephistopheles as tour guide and tutor, Faust flies off to seek the practical knowledge and experience of the ways of the world from which he has sheltered himself. Unlike Descartes, Faust never returns to his study to take stock of what he has learned. His experiences and enterprises go on and on. Death alone can close the structure of the play.

Any museumgoer knows that a common subject in Renaissance painting is Saint Jerome in his study. He is depicted in his monastic cell, with books, cross, and death's head. Like Marlowe, Goethe chose Faust's study as the principal scene for his intellectual drama, to which the Gretchen story forms an awkward yet appealing appendage. Having dismissed all traditional fields of study in the first scene and invoked any nearby spirits in the second scene, outdoors, Faust discovers that a spirit (in the form of a poodle) has followed him back into his study. After comic conjurations, Mephistopheles stands before him "dressed as a travelling scholar" -- that is, as Faust's parodic double. Faust is the one to propose "a pact," as if he already knew the particulars of his own myth from earlier sources. Mephistopheles stalls; his attendant spirits put Faust to sleep so that this lesser Lucifer can consult with higher authority.

When Mephistopheles returns, Faust is in a foul mood and curses "all the things that now entice my soul" (1587). The curse includes the very faculty of imagination: "The god that lives within my bosom" (1566) and that drives him away from dusty books to seek the sublime. All the discussion here is both very abstract (unless convincingly staged) and improbable as a prelude to the big moment. It takes a spirit chorus to talk Faust back down to tractability so that Mephistopheles can deal with him. By declining any conventional offer of gold, girls, and glory (1679-87) Faust rejects the historical quid pro quo of a soul exchanged for a period of magical bliss. Instead, Faust proposes a wager.

{80} If ever I should tell the moment:
Oh, stay! You are so beautiful!
Then you may cast me into chains,
then shall I smile upon perdition!

Thus the traditional contract, which gave Faust nothing to do but to enjoy himself for twenty-four years, is changed into a competition to see who is the wilier.[3] A wager leaves Faust the possibility of winning, of having it both ways: both exploiting Mephistopheles supernatural powers and gaining final salvation following Lessing's version.

It is important to note that before the "end," far distant in both Faust's and Goethe's lives, Faust has essentially lost his wager at least twice. In the "Martha's Garden" scene, he contemplates his love for Gretchen as inexpressible.

. . . to give oneself completely and to feel
an ecstasy which must be everlasting!
Everlasting! -- for the end would be despair.
No -- no end! no end!

This would appear to be the Augenblick ("moment") snatched out of das Rauschen der Zeit ("the rush of time," "the stream of consciousness," [1754]), the moment of bliss to which Faust has wagered he will never submit completely. In Part Two he surrenders in similar ecstatic fashion to Helen (9381- 418). But somehow the march of events brushes by the wager that started the action. Neither Mephistopheles nor the Lord ever calls Faust on the bet he has lost. Thus Goethe collapses the Job story into a fiasco saved at the end only by a miracle.

{89} All editors identify the book of Job as the source of Mephistopheles' wager with the Lord. Too few editions point out that we also know where Goethe found the idea for the second wager.[4] In the fifth section of Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Rousseau evokes his idyllic life of solitude and idle meditation, of dolce far niente, on the Island of St. Pierre in a Swiss lake. Adrift in a skiff on the calm water, he accomplished no exploits, carried no glory. Instead, by a beautifully described process of renunciation, he attained "the feeling of existing at the simplest level." It soon becomes the most exalted level. Rousseau's reflections on this state of being mark an important and troubling moment in the spiritual history of the West.

Thus our earthly joys are almost without exception the creatures of a moment; I doubt whether any of us knows the meaning of lasting happiness. Even in our keenest pleasures there is scarcely a single moment of which the heart could truthfully say: "Would that this moment could last forever!" And how can we give the name of happiness to a fleeting state which leaves our hearts still empty and anxious, either regretting something that is past or desiring something that is yet to come?

(tr. Peter France, 89)
This yearning to surmount the flux of time and to eternalize the moment contains both a mystical and a blasphemous element. Rousseau acknowledges his hubris a few lines later: "What is the source of our happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own existence; as long as this state lasts we are self- sufficient like God" (90).

Goethe responded to Rousseau's aspirations to transcendence by having Faust refuse (with two exceptions) temptations to transcend time. He does not, as in Marlowe's version, sell his soul for two guaranteed decades of high living. He wagers that no feeling, no matter how profound, that no human attachment will ever lure him into loyalty. That stony-hearted principle allows Faust to try anything a few times, like an intellectual philanderer or a participant {90} in a sexology research experiment. He always moves on. Nothing is at stake beyond his own opulent survival.[5]

The moral of Faust's life and of Goethe's drama cannot be easily grasped. It lies deep in paradox and ambiguity. Faust clings to contingency yet wishes to rise above it. "Striving" looks both toward high aspirations and toward irresponsible opportunism. Faust covets divine status. By turning down Mephistopheles' usual blandishments and by insisting on an open-ended deal that gives him Mephisto's magic powers for as long as he remains unsatisfied, Faust tricks both Mephistopheles and the Lord into granting him higher status than mere mortality. "Oh, if I had wings," cries Faust in his prophetic "Sunset" Speech. Three scenes later, he is flying all over Europe and enjoying his "godlike course" (1081).

Even before Faust I was published in 1808, it was declared a masterpiece, the culminating work of Europe's most celebrated man of letters. The unplayable play seemed to subsume and surmount the social and artistic conflicts of that revolutionary era. Since Goethe continued working on it intermittently for two decades until his death, the unfinished play enjoyed the status of a monument in progress of world literature encompassing Romantic and classic impulses. In our time, a company of devoted actors performs the entire drama every few years at the Steiner Institute in the Swiss town of Dornach. The ritual takes several days. College students in many countries read Part I attentively. Several operas have drawn their scenario primarily from the Gretchen episode, Goethe's addition to the original story. The adjective Faustianhas passed into many languages.

Goethe's Faust deserves its many honors on two grounds. First, Goethe identified one of the great dramatic situations afflicting and driving human beings in the modern world. We strive without knowing adequately what we are striving for and we believe our {91} thirst for knowledge and experience is protected in high places. Apparently, the hunch about the Faust story came to Goethe as a twenty-four-year-old law student in Strasbourg. We do not know when he decided on the two major changes that transformed the archaic medieval plot of magic into a modern psychophilosophical myth -- namely, substituting an open wager for the twenty-four-year pact, and substituting salvation for damnation.

Second, Goethe poured out of himself a river of masterful German poetry in a variety of moods and verse forms. No major work of literature by a single hand attempts to mix so many different styles, a virtuoso accomplishment that has the consequence of rendering adequate translation close to impossible. The "Sunset" Speech (1064 ff.) builds into a full-throated Romantic ode to flight. Gretchen's song while undressing in her bedroom has passed into folklore like Shakespeare's songs. Here German and English come very close.

Es war ein Konig in Thule
Gar treu bis an das Grab,
Dem sterbend seine Buhle
Einen goldnen Becher gab.

There was a king in Thule,
Was faithful to the grave.
To him his dying lady
A golden goblet gave.

(2759-62, translation modified)
Faust and Mephistopheles joust and mock one another constantly in the popular, freely varying Knittelvers of archaic puppet plays. Compared to Paradise Lost, even considering the remarkable mood changes Milton could inject into his ten- syllable line, Goethe's twelve-thousand-line drama reads like a poetic variety show or a three-ring circus.

A powerful situation and dazzling verse demand our attention and our admiration. Nevertheless, as a play, as an episodic tale of a larger-than-life hero, Faust does not fulfill either Goethe's expec- {92} tations or ours. Faust scholarship has been loyal and enormously resourceful in interpreting the work. But for all its remarkable scenes and entertaining moments, Faust lacks the one unity we continue to look for: unity of action. Life, of course, does not usually happen to us in neat units called "actions," nor can we make it happen that way. But we seem to yearn for that coherent shaping of experience. In short conversational anecdotes, in great oral epics, and in the intensified timing of a short story, we have created for ourselves a sense of narrative movement and moral significance that has a discernible completeness of shape on the scale of human events. No culture has been discovered without its storytellers to record and recapitulate the life of the tribe. As complementary evidence of our yearning for coherent stories, all cultures have also produced some form of the cock-and-bull story, a nonsense version of events that improvises incidents without shape or direction. Such sheer contingency makes us laugh. Seeking originality, some modern and "postmodern" authors have turned toward this formlessness.

But even in Part Two, Faust is no cock-and-bull story. Goethe's immense play aspires to a unity it does not attain. By default, therefore, the play can be seen as belonging to several modern categories -- theater of the absurd, cinematic montage, and compulsive self-parody. These aspects of the play point forward toward Ibsen's Peer Gynt and Jarry's Ubu Roi. But we should not stray too far from Goethe's central project. The greatness of Faust lies more in its theme -- human greatness contains human weakness -- and in its dazzling poetry than in the way Goethe assembles its many parts.

Writing in 1795, when only fragments of Goethe's Faust had appeared, Friedrich von Schlegel praised the magnificence of the poetry and the "truth" of its philosophic content. Schlegel felt no qualms, even on fairly slender evidence, about comparing Goethe to Shakespeare. "Indeed, if Faust were to be completed, it would probably far surpass Hamlet. . . with which it seems to have a common purpose." To which I would respond that Goethe never really did complete his drama; he just kept adding to it. And if the "purpose" it shares with Hamlet concerns the difficult passage from thought into action, neither the wager motif nor Faust's ultimate salvation genuinely illuminates it. From the start, Goethe produced {93} a monument already in magnificent ruins, a modern Sphinx or Acropolis, a drama in progress for a lifetime and one that had to weather the constant buffeting of its creator's imagination. Born a classic, Faust comes to life in flashes, not as a whole.

But among stories of forbidden knowledge, Faust looms very large. In creating his modern hero, Goethe stands Adam on his head. Faust seeks knowledge beyond all bounds, beyond his portée. He breaks the Christian taboo on pagan magic. He scorns Descartes' judicious return to his study after gaining adequate experience of the world. And then Goethe asks us to believe that this privileged, self-indulgent scholar, not misled by the blandishments of any scheming Eve, should be forgiven, even praised, for his "striving." Here is our modern Adam, raised up to heaven by a chorus of angels for conduct more proud and defiant than what earned the original Adam banishment from Paradise.

Milton handled things differently. In an epic yet often down-to-earth retelling, he foresaw Adam's redemption through the Fortunate Fall without suspending his judgment or his punishment. Truth here has its consequences. Goethe, on the other hand, never frets about disobedience. He calmly usurps the Lord's role and reverses the verdict, quashes the sentence on his new Adam. Now the truth need have no consequences. For Faust, all is pardoned in advance.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, writing soon after Faust I appeared, rejected both Milton's Adam and Goethe's Adam. She imagined not only a new Adam as creature-monster driven to despair and depravity but also the Promethean hubris that led to his creation not by a god but by a presumptuous mortal. It is hard not to read her novel as a retort to Faust.

4. Scenes from Frankenstein

In an early episode of Faust II, Mephistopheles wanders into the laboratory of Wagner, Faust's former graduate assistant, now an advanced research scientist in genetics. At that very moment, Wagner succeeds in creating in a luminous, vibrating alembic the entity Homunculus, pure humanoid mind without a material body. {94} Goethe treats the miraculous incident as pure self-parody -- a miniature, disembodied Faust in a bottle seeking full being and mouthing such pseudo-Faustian lines as "Since I exist, I must be ever active" (6888). Homunculus calls Wagner "Papa" and Mephistopheles "Sir Cousin" and spies on Faust's erotic Leda dream. As if to underline the jokey aspect of the sequence, Goethe later suggested in a conversation with Eckermann (December 30, 1828) that Homunculus would make a good part for a ventriloquist. In Faust II, jest occupies far more surface area than earnest.

Written a decade earlier than Wagner's dabbling in genetic experiments, Frankenstein never jests and never forgets that the artificial production of life carries dire consequences. Immediately after Frankenstein has animated the "creature," the enterprise is given the epithets "catastrophe . . . horror," an operation bringing into being a "wretch . . . monster . . . daemonical corpse" (Chapter 5). Frankenstein flees to his bedchamber and dreams of Elizabeth, his foster sister and true love. In his embrace, she turns into the corpse of his dead mother, crawling with maggots. It is hard to avoid a symbolic interpretation: Frankenstein, hoping to achieve a scientific miracle deserving admiration, discovers that he has violated Mother Nature herself.

Goethe treats the creation of new life as an incidental joke; Shelley places it at the center of her story and sees it as a monstrous aberration. The contrast can be explained only in part by the differing lives and temperaments of an indulgent, aging survivor of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism and of a bookish young girl not duped by the men whose genius she admired. Goethe's comic incident would have revealed a tragic side to a teenage mother whose first child died eleven days after birth.

The incidents of Shelley's novel build inexorably toward the climax of intellectual ambition unmasked. It provides her grand finale. The all-too-human monster, who has tried earnestly, though implausibly, to socialize and educate himself, commits four horrible murders among those Frankenstein loves most. The monster flees into the Arctic wastes, pursued by Frankenstein. The action devolves into a grotesque contest in madness, self-glorification, and self-immolation. The dying Frankenstein shows great agitation as he speaks to Walton, the fanatic explorer who is trying to rescue him. "Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid {95} ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed" (Chapter 24). The self-challenging question and reversal of direction toward the end of the passage require a distinct pause and mark the reappearance of the fanatic scientist wanting to pass the torch. [6] Even in death, Dr. Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus, cannot lay aside the ambitious drives that have devastated his life.

Enter now the demon, or monster. In the four closing pages, he delivers a harangue to Walton over Frankenstein's corpse. The monster claims melodramatically to have suffered even more than Frankenstein, who lost all his dear ones by violent murder. "My agony was still superior" [Walton 17]. The demon will assemble an immense funeral pile on which to be consumed "triumphantly." His apotheosis is as grotesque as it is melodramatic. The battle to which these awful adversaries commit themselves is the struggle for glory, the driving male condition that inspired Mary Shelley to write the book in horror and in protest. The monster usurps the role of suffering Prometheus from the man who created him. Little wonder that in the resulting myth and in popular parlance, the name Frankenstein is often transferred from creator to creature.

5. Related Stories

Time sometimes reverses itself. The best spoof of Faust preceded it in the history of European literature rather than followed it. The other great anti-intellectual hero spent so much time pouring over books of chivalric lore that he was driven simultaneously insane and out into the world in quest of high adventures. Here is a light- {96} hearted version of forbidden knowledge. This learned doctor decided to become a knight. It takes Cervantes one short chapter to launch Don Quixote de la Mancha into the domain of realities crossed with fantasies. The fanfares and negotiations surrounding Faust's setting forth consume ten times the space. As soon as he gets out on the road, Don Quixote starts talking to himself and lets his nag Rocinante choose their path toward adventure. "Undoubtedly in days to come when the true history of my famous deeds [hechos] comes to light . . ." he muses. Cervantes has us laughing from the beginning over the preposterous exploits of the scholar turned adventurer.

That endlessly extensible episodic situation based on the conventions of chivalry anticipates the scene of Faust in his study, where he opens the New Testament to translate John 1: 1. For logos, he brushes aside successively word, mind, and power in order to settle on Don Quixote's hecho -- in German, die Tat; in English, deed. All three are substantives based on the infinitive to do. Had Don Quixote appeared after Faust, the literally crazy exploits of the knight of La Mancha would have been interpreted as a superb send-up of Faust's carryings-on with Gretchen and later with legendary figures from all history. Don Quixote starts out alone on his quest and is sometimes reduced to talking to himself and to reciting stories remembered from his books of chivalric lore. Only in Chapter Seven does he persuade a "hapless rustic" to become his squire by promising him an island to govern. Thus Sancho Panza fills the role of traveling companion, confidant, and remonstrator satirically symmetrical to that of Mephistopheles for Faust in his travels.

The alert reader will already have glimpsed another pair of elegantly disreputable characters lurking in the neighborhood -- Don Juan and his scalawag servant comb the landscape not for damsels in despair needing a knight's help, but for any woman vulnerable to a man's advances. No aura of dusty book learning clings to Don Juan. He is a man of duels and trysts and pursuits. But beyond that, he seems to elude our grasp by dodging in and out among the several masterpieces that have brought him to life. In Tirso de Molina's original El Burlador de Sevilla (1630), Don Juan is a madcap deceiver whose principal pleasure comes from having tricked one more woman (and usually one more husband) and whose defiance of convention does not arise from loss of religious faith. The {97} original Spanish drama with the stone statue of the Commander calling down God's wrath remains close to an auto sacramental, or miracle play.

Moliere's Don Juan (1665) presents a highly sophisticated modern scoundrel who requires a constant change of female diet to defeat boredom and whose pleasure is not in tricks but in metaphysical conquest. Da Ponte and Mozart simplified the story and gave increased importance to the female roles in Don Giovanni (1787). They produced not grand opera and not high tragedy, but a dramma giocoso, which portions out both tricks and miracles. Should we refer to Don Juan as Faust without University degrees? What does it mean that our Western literary tradition has selected these two selfish opportunists to celebrate in a series of major works? Where then does Don Quixote fit into the procession? What form of greatness of character or of moral vision is offered to us in these works?

The dissatisfied German doctor who deludes himself that he wants a life of action will never displace the nutty knight who truly loves and lives by his books of chivalry, or the irritable self-defeating Spanish womanizer. Still, there is one more common feature worth pointing out. All three figures are closely accompanied by a companion and foil whose role is both to serve and to mock. Like Plato's dialogues that flicker with Socratic irony and Proust's novel that sustains the no-nonsense crankiness of the servant Francoise through three thousand pages, these three stories embody their own parody and criticism. That fact represents a partial answer to the questions asked at the end of the preceding paragraph. Mephistopheles punctures Faust's bubbles of pride and Romantic sentimentality soon after they form, and in a few scenes he outshines his famous rival in the great wager. The two servants representing ordinary common sense for the two Dons become almost as bold as Mephistopheles. Each of these works provokes frequent laughter at the expense of its hero's extravagant ambition.

In contrast, Frankenstein offers not a single comic moment. The story's Romantic excesses, as in Safie's abduction story and the funeral pyre competition at the end, provoke impatience in the reader rather than guffaws. For all the complicated narrative through letters, transcribed stories, and stories within stories, Mary Shelley never makes a move to undermine the high seriousness of her bloodcurdling tale. Byron and Percy Shelley took it as some- {98} thing of a lark during the trying summer of 1816 in Switzerland to have a go at writing ghost stories. Mary remained stern and unyielding. Her judgment of the presumptuous and selfish actions of Frankenstein in creating and then abandoning a new form of life is nowhere softened in the novel. She minces no words to tell us that for all his striving, her Modern Prometheus deserves not the glory he seeks but the humiliating death he finds in the barren wastes of the Arctic.

The resolute moral stance of Frankenstein about observing our human limits can be seen now as exceptional. Other great modern works were proposing a relaxation of both classic and Christian moral traditions. Milton depicted the Garden of Eden as the scene not of a tragedy but of a Fortunate Fall. First Lessing and then Goethe transformed the figure of Faust from greedy charlatan into transcendental hero, linking the Enlightenment to Romanticism. This gradual attenuation of guilt also affects the story of Don Juan. In early versions, the stone statue of the Commander sends the unrepentant sinner to the tortures of Hell. When Romantics like Hoffmann and Grabbe and Kierkegaard got their hands on him, the Spanish lady-killer was recostumed for moral rehabilitation. Theophile Gautier made the simplest case by calling him the "Faust of love." Elsewhere, Gautier explained: "Don Juan goes not to Hell but to Paradise, for he sought true love." Salvation came flowing in from all sides, even if it meant rewriting the story and tidying up the leading man. The Romantics often did not seek harsh judgment of their scoundrel heroes.

Apparently, it required a woman to inventory the destruction caused by the quest for knowledge and glory carried to excess, and to invent the counterplot to Faust. The Lord does not intervene to save Frankenstein; Mary Shelley's judgment is keener and more courageous than Goethe's cosmic leniency. Born and raised in the most notorious literary household of her day and believing that she embodied the spiritual heritage of Juliet and Desdemona, Mary Shelley threw herself at seventeen into a histrionic life surrounded by poets and geniuses. Three years later, in her first book, she was able to assess with lucid severity the compulsions of fame and glory that drove her companions and infected her. We have not yet exhausted her remarkable fiction that flies in the face of the Romantic and utopian themes that spawned it. Through its complex structure {99} of narrative frames and embedded stories, Frankenstein maintains a sturdy- enough unity of purpose and action to give an ironic twist to the constantly invoked words glory and honour. Ten pages before the end, Walton says of the dying Frankenstein, "He seems to feel his own worth and the greatness of his fall" [Walton 2]. By this time, we know how much salt to add. Shelley has not deployed any battalions of angels to carry him off. This is no Fortunate Fall. No one can redeem the destruction Frankenstein has left behind him.

The numerous progeny of these two matching stories about wanting to know too much tells us that the motif of forbidden knowledge remains with us in multiple forms. Faust and Frankenstein together appear to have spawned a line of tales about doubles, Doppelgangers, locked in a struggle to destroy each other. Poe's "William Wilson" (1839) prepares the way for R. L. Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and for Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). The three tales carry a strong dose of horror because they have turned the Faust-Frankenstein story inward. The protagonists summon an evil spirit not out of the surrounding environment but from inside themselves. A repressed portion of their character haunts them. Thus they come to know too much about their hidden being and can no longer believe in their own integrity. They can only squirm. None is saved.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, similar stories of forbidden knowledge proliferate faster than I can track them. Hawthorne centered two of his most obsessive tales on closely related themes. In "The Birthmark," a fanatic scientist discovers how to remove the tiny flaw in his wife's ideal beauty -- and thus kills her. Ethan Brand, in the story that bears his name, seeks to know the unpardonable sin. He finds it less in the fiendish but undisclosed "psychological experiment" he carries out on a girl whose soul is destroyed than in the intellectual pride of his enterprise and within his own heart. The theme of destructive knowledge crops up again in "Rappaccini's Daughter," in The Blithdale Romance (1852), and in practically everything Hawthorne wrote. Thomas Mann tried to get a whole new grip on the Faust legend through the demonic forces of music and sexual thralldom in Doctor Faustus (1947). There is no slackening in our own anguished times. I detect a powerful Faustian strain in one of the most ambitious of {100} Woody Allen's films, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Having learned from his Machiavellian or Mephistophelian brother that the woman threatening to ruin his life can simply be rubbed out, a successful eye doctor cannot resist the temptation to act on that knowledge. Ultimately, he is neither saved nor damned. He survives his guilty feelings and speaks at the end in telltale Faustian terms of the need to "keep trying."

The many Hollywood sequels to Frankenstein have manipulated the man-made monster situation in ways that cast the scientist in a particularly unfavorable light. All written and filmed works in the immense category of science fiction have their roots in the ground prepared by Faust and Frankenstein with their opposing attitudes toward forbidden knowledge. Those two stories will stay with us for a long time.


[1.] Some of the confusion or ambiguity is carried in the name. In German, Faust means "fist," with conventional overtones of force, defiance, and ambition. The Latin Faustus means "the favored one," a form that can yield Prospero in English. It is instructive to read The Tempest as a modified Faust play.


"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? --"

(Paradise Lost, X, 743-45)
[3.] In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a guarantee of twenty-four more years to a mature man represented a substantial gift of longevity. Christopher Ricks has pointed out the importance of this element to Marlowe's Faust. By 1800, statistics and circumstances had probably changed enough to make life expectancy a less compelling consideration for Goethe's hero.

[4.] A good discussion appears in Chapter Four of Jane K. Brown, Goethe's Faust

[5.] So described, Faust's attitude of self-gratification resembles that of many characters in the novels of a French author writing during the same revolutionary period. One could read the heinous episodes of the Marquis de Sade's Juliette as a violently dehumanized caricature of Faust. Having made a semiwager to outshine and outperform her virtuous sister, Justine, Juliette conquers Europe by abandoning all constraints, all scruples, and all feelings. And the gods favor her triumph by destroying her victimized sister with a symbolic bolt of lightning. I shall deal further with Sade in Chapter VII.

[6.] Stephen Jay Gould has recently argued that Dr. Frankenstein's motivations as a scientist "are entirely idealistic" but that he failed to "undertake the duty of any creator or parent" to assume responsibility for his offspring [in Natural History (July 1994)]. The second proposition is unimpeachable. In making the first, Gould fails to perceive how carefully Shelley describes Frankenstein's brief moment of idealism (Chapter 4) yielding to the "frantic impulse" of hubris and egoism.