Contents Index

Frankenstein and Comedy

Philip Stevick

In The Endurance of "Frankenstein": Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: Univ. of California Press, 1979), 221-39.

{221} There was something playful, no doubt, about the circumstances during the wet summer in which Frankenstein was bargained for and conceived, but there is also no doubt that the book is as utterly serious in intent as it is utterly serious in execution. If we speak of irony in connection with Frankenstein, what we mean is the tendency of the novel to organize itself around some fairly predictable quirks of fate. We do not use the word irony of the verbal texture of the book, because there is no feigning, no indiscretion, no undercutting, no mocking of forms, no doubleness, no play. Other novels that strike us as serious, those of Hardy for example, will allow a small interlude to "relieve" the relentless seriousness of the execution, a rustic or fool who momentarily diverts us with his incomprehension of the unfolding tragedy. There are no such episodes in Frankenstein, and the movement of its action is as serious as its verbal texture. Moreover, the import of the book, its significance as a cultural event and as a continuing influence in the imaginations of so many readers and other artists who have followed it, are all deeply serious, complicated, awesome to contemplate, and not at all ridiculous. Having said this once, I will find it necessary to say it again. Because it does not stay said, in the face of a fact more overwhelming than the seriousness of the book, namely its capacity to provoke laughter.

Say "Frankenstein" to anybody (well, almost anybody) and he (or she) laughs. What he (or she) laughs at, of course, are largely the burlesque associations that have come to surround the idea of the book. So many parodic possibilities have accumulated around the Monster that these are what one thinks of first. Films are made in parody of other Frankenstein films. Nightclub comics remind us that the Monster had a bolt in his neck and sutures on his forehead.

{222} Small children who have never seen the Boris Karloff film version asked to "do Frankenstein," will walk, arms outstretched, legs stiff, brow menacing, finally convulsed with laughter. If the laughter were merely an impertinent and irrelevant association attaching to a serious text, we could dismiss it as an unfortunate accretion distorting a classic work, of interest to the social historian and the collector of folk fads but not to the literary critic. But, whether we think so or not, our laughter is rooted in certain aspects of Mary Shelley's text. And it is the nature of that problematic comedy, existing in a wholly serious work, that I wish to define. For in defining it one discovers a clear continuity between Mary Shelley's text and a class of works, among them some of the greatest in all of prose fiction, that also generate simultaneously mythic seriousness and uncomfortable laughter. And in defining it one further finds that the comedy can only be understood by defining the experience both of reading Frankenstein, and books like it, and of remembering Frankenstein, and books like it.

One experiences the comic aspects of Frankenstein in different ways according to one's distance from the book. Before the fact, one tends to expect the book to be, in some respects, funny. It seems likely that such an expectation is a mid-twentieth-century phenomenon and that no reader before, say, the nineteen-thirties had any such expectation. As one actually reads the book, it seems rarely, perhaps never, funny; scarcely anyone laughs at Frankenstein page by page. After the fact, the book is often comic, as one remembers certain set pieces, as one tries to retell them, or as one tries to translate the action of the book into another form. The amusement one feels, in fact, is directly proportionate to one's distance from the reading. One remembers events as being amusing that, in the reading, one did not find amusing at all; and the less perfectly one remembers them, the more amusing they become.

Perhaps the best way of keeping in mind the quality I am beginning to define is to consider the peculiar contrasts that Frankenstein contains -- of energy and torpor, movement and rest, obsessive frenzy and virtually pathological detachment. They are strange and amazing contrasts that bear directly on the reader's response. But such contrasts are not unique to Frankenstein. Odysseus, man of action, trickster, archetypal hero, is caught, again and again, in postures of immobility that are, at once, distressing for the reader, deeply significant, highly charged with mythic power, and, in {223} retrospect, in some perverse and eccentric sense, amusing. Gulliver, man mountain, puller of armadas and pisser on castles, is caught, again and again, in postures of immobility that are likewise distressing to the reader, significant, mythically powerful, and, in retrospect, funny. In the twentieth century, Kafka serves up appropriate parallels and analogues from the modern imagination of the strange and haunting alternation between willing to do, doing, and being unable to do. This is a rhythm especially common to that class of works described below, a class with Frankenstein at its center. For if one sees Frankenstein, and one's responses to it, not as being atypical and sui generis but centrally characteristic of a very distinguished kind, then Frankenstein becomes both more intelligible and more aesthetically defensible.


The event most loaded with value in Frankenstein, most problematic in one's response to it, is, of course, the moment of creation. Before the fact, one thinks of mad scientists with bulging eyes, crackling and badly controlled electrical charges, the table, the covering sheet, the monster, the uncertainty, the blinking eyes, the attempt to rise. It is all rather baroque, almost alchemical, in its prescientific intricacy, its bubbling tubes, its smoking retorts. The passage, however, is very different from our imagination of it, both in detail and tone.
It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishments 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 pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.1
Nobody would be so arrogant as to say what response is appropriate to that passage, but it is certainly not laughter.

For one thing, Mary Shelley has no interest in scientific {224} technique. She diverts our attention elsewhere, to the rain, the time, the light, and the attendant emotions. We may find the techniques of biological creation amusing, but we supply those techniques; they are not in Mary Shelley's text. For another thing, at the moment of creation the monster is not actually rendered but only implied. We may find the image of the patchwork monster amusing, but again it is we who supply the image. We may also look for a participant, an assistant, someone perverse enough to share in the experiment and able to register for us his anticipation. But in the text, Frankenstein is alone (and, as Judith Wilt argues above, it is thematically crucial that he be alone).

One characteristic of the passage, however, not at all comic in the reading, is amusing as we remember and reconstruct it in reflection. Moreover, unlike those other associations which we unfairly bring to the text, it is an aspect of the action that is really in the text. Victor calls his creation a "lifeless thing," an object. His phrase carries connotations of disdain, which are, of course, not random and uncontrolled connotations but are here, as at other points in the book, Victor's consistent view of his masterpiece. Having made the creature, Victor doesn't like it very well, indeed is repelled by it, a response underlined by the "yellow eye" of the next sentence, from which the conclusion follows that Victor Frankenstein, overreacher, nineteenth-century Anglo-Germanic Faust, fallen angel, Ancient Mariner, autodidact, player at God, modern Prometheus, is not very good at his trade.

Consider the surrounding details. Rather than imparting life to a plausible corpse, Frankenstein has assembled anatomical parts so as to make a creature eight feet tall. No thought of the social problems of an eight foot creature crosses his mind. During the period of the experiment, he visibly disintegrates, becoming obsessive and compulsive, moved by thoughts of the creation of a new race grateful to him for its creation -- yet he speaks of his work as horrible, filthy, and loathsome. As he recounts this period, he lapses into lyricism on the passing seasons (he is nearly two years at his work), interjects platitudes and facile praises of domesticity, and finally has to be reminded by his implied reader to keep to the subject. At last he imparts life and sees, apparently for the very first time, that the creature's skin does not fit its frame, that its eyes are watery and its lips are black. He leaves the room for his bedchamber, {225} where he paces the floor, distraught and nearly delirious, while the creature rises from the table and walks away. But Frankenstein sees one last glimpse of him; the monster beckons and smiles but Frankenstein, immobilized, cannot respond. Frankenstein, in short, is a failure, not in a grand and tragic manner but in a manner closer to low comedy, bumbling, inattentive, inept, and ineffectual. Yet he does not seem so line by line, and it would take a large measure of cynicism to read those pages with sustained laughter.

In works of any period there are passages that we laugh at in which the implicit intention is comic but the execution is serious, for example, those portions of Gulliver's Travels in which Gulliver's comic opacity is played off against his flat and uncomprehending style. (Gulliver's Travels, in fact, strikingly parallels Frankenstein in several ways, with its seriocomic juxtapositions of size and in its contrasts of energy, motion, and potency with failure, confinement, and stasis.) In works of any period there are also passages we laugh at in which the implicit intention is serious but the execution is comic: the banter of Lear's fool. And there are, lastly, works we laugh at even though both the intention and the execution are serious, such as the poems in The Stuffed Owl. Mary Shelley's book has affinities with all three of these modes. But, despite affinities with other kinds of writing in which some kind of radical disjunction occurs between elements of seriousness and elements of the comic, Frankenstein, I would suggest, occupies a peculiar kind of subgenre, characterized by dream-like mechanisms and by much rather directly rendered psychic material, and also by a tension so unsettling as to confound our sense of how to feel about it. Understanding the place of Frankenstein in such a subgenre does much to explain the amazing diversity of its many reincarnations, versions differing precisely in the degree to which they ask us to take the narrative seriously. (It is not irrelevant in thinking about that subgenre to recall that the two great bodies of narrative materials which Freud used as means for describing the contours of the unconscious were dreams and jokes, that he was variously disturbed and intrigued by the fact that the two bear remarkable formal and functional similarities to each other.)

Paul Zweig describes the impotence of the characters in Walpole's Castle of Otranto, "their inability to make anything happen at all."

This failure, I would argue, is the principal theme of Otranto. All of its human characters have a genius for ineptitude. When decisive acts are called for, they lunge about and make a mess of things. The children hurry enthusiastically toward disaster like rabbits into a headlight. The fathers -- Manfred, the monk Jerome, Frederick the good knight -- are bunglers. Hippolyte, the mother, is so desperately obedient that she seems to call down her husband's abuse, and deserve it.2
Zweig takes very seriously the mythic power that seems to have been set in motion by Walpole's strange and artless book. Yet as he summarizes the characteristic action of the book, his diction becomes, almost as if against his will, quite comic: "lunge about and make a mess of things," "like rabbits into a headlight," "bunglers," "desperately obedient."

Zweig's view of Otranto is not the conventional one; yet it seems, both in its argument and its tone, irrefutable. And, looked at with Zweig's eyes, Otranto is transformed into an analogue of Frankenstein. Although both books are artistically flawed, a direct response to their quality as objects of finished art seems if not irrelevant at least secondary. In both books a strange tension exists between their psychic power (Walpole himself reported that Otranto originated in a dream and that its early composition was rather like automatic writing) and the nature of an action so ineffectual and bumbling as to be comic at some remove from the experience of reading.

Nineteenth-century American fiction offers many variants of that basic narrative situation, works often with a strained or crude or "operatic" quality about them, carrying a heavy freight of psychic baggage, in which the action is easily reducible to repeated frustrations and ritual failures, the tone at all points utterly serious, the action in its outlines perversely comic. Poe wrote such tales, as did Hawthorne. In The American Notebooks Hawthorne's ideas for his fiction read like pure prototypes of the comic impulse, waiting to be fleshed out with solemn prose: "A person to be writing a tale, and to find that it shapes itself against his intentions; that the characters act otherwise than he thought; that unforeseen events occur; and a catastrophe occurs which he strives in vain to avert. It might shadow forth his own fate -- he having made himself one of the {227} personages."3 Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener is perhaps the best known and most artistically successful example; a desperate and depressing story of ritual nihilism, in which Melville obviously invested large amounts of his own anxieties and artistic motives, Bartleby is, for all that, quite comic. (Try telling the story of Bartleby aloud to anyone who does not know it.)

The supreme example, for the twentieth-century imagination, of this narrative situation is the fiction of Kafka, in which humor lies just beneath the surface of the flat, underplayed style and the grim desperation of his narratives. Max Brod recalls:

When Kafka read aloud, this humor became particularly clear. Thus, for example, we friends of his laughed quite immoderately when he first let us hear the first chapter of The Trial. And he himself laughed so much that there were moments when he couldn't read any further. Astonishing enough when you think of the fearful earnestness of this chapter. But that is how it was.4
The Metamorphosis, more concentrated than The Trial, is, as more than one commentator has observed, at once harrowing, almost intolerable in its psychic power, and a very funny story about a man who, though transformed into a giant insect, still worries that he might miss his train.


What I wish to put together, then, is a group of fictional works, with Frankenstein at the center, in which the basic events not only are detached from the everyday concerns of the reader but also possess a heightened and distorted quality, especially pronounced because of their lack of causal sufficiency and by the characters' inability to effect the consequences they strive for.5 Such events and {228} such works remind us of the events of our own dream life, our dreams, in retrospect, often seeming to us both portentous and nonsensical, terrifying and silly. More particularly, the unity that connects these literary forms can be found in the last stage of Freud's (and others') description of the dream process, namely that waking stage known as "secondary elaboration," in which the recollection of the dream, which, as it was dreamed, was necessarily illogical, causally discontinuous, absurd, and fragmentary, is arranged, made sequential, and fleshed out with a kind of narrative logic that makes the telling of it tolerable to the waking, conscious mind.

The classic description of the process of secondary elaboration occurs in Freud, who quotes Havelock Ellis with amusement and approval: "'As a matter of fact, we might even imagine the sleeping consciousness as saying to itself: "Here comes our master, Waking Consciousness, who attaches such mighty importance to reason and logic and so forth. Quick! gather things up, put them in order -- any order will do -- before he enters to take possession."'"6 The writing of most prose fiction, of course, is analogous not to the telling of dreams but to the telling of remembered events from one's conscious past. The much smaller body of prose fiction (and a significant body of narrative and lyric poetry) that is analogous to the telling of dreams carries with it both the compulsiveness and the indeterminacy of the relating of dreams in experience; the Ancient Mariner is model both for the compulsiveness of the teller and the oddity of the rhetoric, for whom is it that one tells one's dreams to? And what is the appropriate tone?

Literature created out of dream images can either leave the dream images with much of the absurdity intact or transform them into "made," "told," fully "elaborated" works, still with some aspects of the dream work exposed, such as its detachment from empirical reality and its unabashed symbolism, but with the illogic and absurdity neutralized. In prose fiction, dream allegories of the past such as Pilgrim's Progress or visionary fantasies of the future like H. G. Wells's The Time Machine are examples of entirely different aesthetic motives, united only by the common effort to superimpose a maximum of conscious control on a body of dream-like {229} images. We could isolate individual passages in either Bunyan's book or Wells's as legitimately dream-like, but neither work reads at all like a dream being told. At the other extreme, Rabelais is full of passages that read rather like unmediated dream scenes, told with a minimum exercise of the elaborative mechanisms; and in modern literature the "Nighttown" episode in Ulysses is the best known and most sustained example of a passage that allows the primal dream material to stand, in all of its irrational power.

At some midpoint between these extremes are those forms I am attempting to describe, in which the secondary elaboration is incomplete, part of the conscious mediation left undone, some of the illogic left unrationalized, some of the absurdity left intact, as if the author, as dreamer, wished to leave the strangeness of the dream largely unchanged by deliberately withholding some of the art. The result is a story that risks seeming ridiculous for the sake of preserving a measure of the psychic authority of the dream work that gave the initial impetus to the creation of the work.

Most of Poe's stories obviously had their origins in dream work or in images comparable to and derivative of dreams. But their syntax is conventional, the order of events is intelligible, sufficient gestures are made toward the explanation of motive, the criteria for inclusion of images and events are implicitly clear, and Poe's desired effect can be inferred from the finished story -- which is to say that the fragmentary silliness and the arbitrary illogic of the primal materials with which Poe begins are written out in the interests of a unified art story. "The Pit and the Pendulum" is a bad dream, but the reading of it conveys not the "feel" of a dream but rather that of waking experience. Melville's dream (or daydream) of a nihilistic clerk, on the other hand, allows itself a lesser degree of secondary elaboration. The result is a narrative which, though it takes place in the world of business instead of a dark and solitary room, has much more the "feel" of a dream.

Dreams, to be sure, are dreams and stories, stories. Yet every literary form "imitates," at some remove, a preliterary mode of experience. Our view of the conventions of a given work may be too limited if we take it as being only one of a large and amorphous class of roughly similar literary works. On the contrary, our sense of the given work is sharpened if we think of it in its context of other works that we may agree to call novels and romance but that, in a narrower sense, adapt to a highly specific literary purpose {230} some of the impulses and structures of dream. To link Mary Shelley's book with Kafka's work does, inadvertently, dignify and make it more apparently modern, but it also makes its assumptions and conventions more clear and more aesthetically justifiable.

So Frankenstein, like early Gothic before it, like Kafka after it, and like a multitude of works of various periods, such as Melville's Bartleby, makes itself out of dream images told, but not fully elaborated, into rational and sequential art. The result is a narrative vehicle which allows a large measure of self-exposure, terror, pathos, and psychic pain to coexist with much absurdity, apparent ineptitude, silliness, and the risk that the whole enterprise will be brushed aside by the reader as making no claims on his mature scrutiny.


Rescued from the ice, Victor Frankenstein consents to tell his story to Walton. "Prepare to hear of occurrences which are usually deemed marvellous," he says. "Were we among the tamer scenes of nature, I might fear to encounter your unbelief, perhaps your ridicule; but many things will appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions, which would provoke the laughter of those unacquainted with the ever-varied powers of nature" (p. 30). Precisely: we, of course, are not in the Arctic ice fields when we read Mary Shelley's book but settled quietly at home. That Frankenstein's revelations do not provoke laughter from Walton is due not only to Walton's physical situation, his fervent seriousness and the consequent seriousness of the style, but also to his sharing the psychological stress of Frankenstein, a dreamer condemned to tell his dreams, unable to "elaborate" them into coherent rationality, knowing that the telling of the narratives that issue from his wishes and fears will expose him, try our patience, make himself at times into a low-comic butt rather than the hero he imagines himself to be.

Even before he encounters Frankenstein Walton is unable to supply the waking mind's reasons for the dream-like voyage he so obsessively undertakes. "I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a {231} little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river" (p. 16). Walton's learning and his heroic passions coexist with a child-like, prerational fantasy life; the images of his inner life are unabashedly untransformed by the conscious mind, leaving him exposed and unsteady, our response to him uncertain. His greatest anxiety, on starting out, is that he has no friend, a startling confession of his human and dream-like image of his own self in society. Why he has no intimate friend, and what difference it now makes that he does not, are difficult to explain, which is to say that the primal imagery once again is only partly transformed by the logic of the waking narrative. As with Frankenstein's creation of the Monster, no reader laughs at Walton's analogy of his voyage with a child's expedition or his complaint of friendlessness. But, in retrospect, one realizes how exposed he has left himself, and how absurd, a polar explorer seen as little boy lost.

Victor's own narration moves quickly into his quest for knowledge and scientific mastery in a sequence that partakes of the stucture and tone of the frame comments of Walton. At the age of thirteen Victor comes across a volume of Cornelius Agrippa, which fascinates him, although his father pronounces it "sad trash" (p. 39). Undeterred, he procures the works of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, which he reads with delight and enthusiasm. In due course, he leaves for the university at Ingolstadt, where he seeks out Professor Krempe, a crabbed and ugly little man, to whom he discloses his interest in natural philosophy. What has he read? asks Professor Krempe. It is like a dream and a joke. We wait for the line. Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, poor Frankenstein replies. The professor erupts. "'Every minute . . . every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems and useless names. Good God! in what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies, which you have so greedily imbibed, are a thousand years old, and as musty as they are ancient? I little expected, in this enlightened and scientific age, to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus. My dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew"' (p. 46).

It is funny and not funny, the poor fool who has given years of his life to the wrong books. Its analogue in dream life is the nightmare of all travelers, to be in a country for which one's phrase book is in the wrong language and all one's well-meaning attempts at {232} civility only offend the locals because one has mastered the wrong customs. Nothing in the logic of Mary Shelley's narrative could have compelled her to imagine ritual humiliations for Victor Frankenstein in his progress toward scientific mastery, nothing except the feeling that it was somehow right to invest his learning both with nightmare inefficacy and comic failure.

The Monster is created and abandoned. William is murdered; Justine is tried, convicted, and executed. Victor endures it all as if entranced, immobilized, guilty of both murders because he is guilty of having made and abandoned their murderer; he is obliged, furthermore, to tell it all to us. After a time, Frankenstein and his Monster are reunited and the Monster begins his own narration. He describes his "infancy," his solitary misery, and his first terrifying experience with people. He soon begins to observe the De Lacey family, from whom he learns their manners and customs, their wishes and fears, their language and their very moral sensibilities.

It is an extraordinary posture he assumes, hunched unseen in the shed near the De Laceys' cottage for some months, rarely venturing forth, his eye fixed on a chink in the wall of the cottage. It is, in fact, an act of prolonged voyeurism, in which the whole of his consciousness is filled with his view of, and his speculations on, the people who move in and out of that visual frame. The events within that visual frame have, necessarily, a hallucinatory aspect. "Through this crevice a small room was visible, whitewashed and clean, but very bare of furniture. In one corner, near a small fire sat an old man, leaning his head on his hands in a disconsolate attitude. The young girl was occupied in arranging the cottage; but presently she took something out a drawer, which employed her hands, and she sat down beside the old man, who, taking up an instrument, began to play, and to produce sounds sweeter than the voice of the thrush or the nightingale" (p. 108). Again, the passage gives a double effect, of psychic intensity in the reading of it and of faint ridiculousness when it is remembered, the immobilized inefficacy of the Monster, the suggestion of perversity in an act of voyeurism extended through an entire winter, the helplessness of the teller, who must relate his absurd experience.

Victor's promise to the Monster -- that he make him a mate -- proves impossible for him to keep and he gives up the enterprise, tearing up the partly assembled limbs, gathering up the pieces and {233} carrying them away so as not to frighten the peasants. It is a scene filled with diffuse anxiety and ritual frustration, comic in retrospect, the retrospective comedy defusing the anxiety with which the scene is charged. Then follows a passage as haunting and powerful as any in the book, in which Victor, swept ashore in Ireland, is greeted with surliness and hostility, surrounded by a menacing crowd, and led off to a scowling magistrate, protesting his innocence of some unnamed crime. The crime of which he is ultimately accused is the murder of Clerval, whose corpse he agonizedly recognizes. Ineffectual again, inarticulate, impotent, he sinks into convulsions and a long delirious fever. He describes his revival. "But I was doomed to live; and, in two months, found myself as awaking from a dream, in a prison, stretched out on a wretched bed, surrounded by gaolers, turnkeys, bolts, and all the miserable apparatus of a dungeon" (p. 177). This scene powerfully reminds the modern reader of Kafka and Joseph K. The relation between The Trial and Frankenstein thus becomes one of those Eliotesque or Borgesian situations in which a recent work inadvertently enlarges and complicates our understanding of a previous work. We cannot now will ourselves to be innocent of Kafka; and so Frankenstein's guilt must seem more awesome and mysterious because we can only read through our experience of Kafka. Furthermore, Frankenstein in that scene must suggest the additional parallel, that Joseph K., guilty of nothing yet guilty as charged, moved Kafka to laughter.

As Frankenstein is released from prison and the book works toward its close, he himself conflates his dreams with his waking life: "The past appeared to me in the light of a frightful dream; yet the vessel in which I was, and the wind that blew me from the detested shores of Ireland, and the sea which surrounded me, told me too forcibly that I was deceived by no vision" (p. 183); "during the day I was sustained and inspirited by the hope of night; for in sleep I saw my friends, my wife, and my beloved country" (p. 204). Elizabeth is murdered on their wedding night, and, resolute for the first time since he created the Monster, Frankenstein swears revenge. He kneels and calls on the ministers of vengeance to aid him in "my work," an invocation that is answered by a resounding laughter that seems to be at once the Monster's reply and a comic reverberation.

No reader of Frankenstein needs to be reminded of how the end {234} of Victor's narration to Walton becomes a kind of surrealism before its time. It is the supreme chase scene of the fiction of the first half of the nineteenth century, acted out on an Arctic terrain that becomes a lunar landscape, the ice fields of the mind.

But now, when I appeared almost within grasp of my foe, my hopes were suddenly extinguished, and I lost all traces of him more utterly than I had ever done before. A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split, and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished: in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice, that was continually lessening, and thus preparing for me a hideous death. [Pp. 207-208]
The episode is so terrible because it is so preposterous, the action gradually speeding forward like a movie projector out of control, the pursuer become victim, the final humiliation, the last bad dream, and the last ritual defeat. Adrift on a frozen sea, Frankenstein is rescued and invited to tell his tale, a many-sided invitation which asks at one and the same time, What high mimetic horrors brought you to that frozen sea? and, What low mimetic ineptitude caused you to be adrift on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean?


I suggested earlier that the rhythms of Frankenstein, especially its stylized alterations of movement and inertia, are very pertinent to our ambivalent response to the book. Every artistic effect in Frankenstein bears some relation to certain primal patterns of imagery and narration. So it is with the book's rhythms. Those rhythms are, indeed, the central formal means by which the primal psychological impulses out of which the novel obviously grew are given fictional expression.

Passages of stasis in literary works often have the capacity to move us at some basic psychological level. Although most of our lives is lived in stasis -- sleeping, eating, reading, sitting at a desk -- the image of a character immobilized for any period of time is a disturbing one, haunting, problematic, potentially comic. The first {235} book of Gulliver's Travels is rich and intricate, but surely the most affecting moment is the image of Gulliver immobilized, tied down on the beach. Bartleby, once again, also serves as an example of the ambivalent and psychologically potent effects of an immobilized character. It is a literary possibility carried to its farthest extreme in Oblomov.

A heightened sense of motion is, in a converse way, equally capable of evoking a strange and potent psychological response. A kinship between literary and dream images is obvious. Our most affecting dreams tend to be dreams of motion. We chase or are chased. We fall. We enter rooms. We arrive in strange towns. We swim, drive, fly. As for prose fiction, some of the most pointless and terrible moments in Candide are those passages in which the movement accelerates and the characters move in a kind of unwilling and farcical dance. It is a rhythm that Conrad was aware of; the storm scenes of his middle period are often invested with both a farcical excess of human movement and a horrifying hallucinatory power.

Frankenstein is, in some ways, a remarkably static book. The reader who expects a continuous and demonic energy will surely be disappointed by the amount of talk, those comparatively flat passages, sometimes lasting for many pages, where the suspense is dissipated and somebody explains. But the novel also contains some of the most memorable scenes of movement in all of prose fiction, each conspicuously dream-like. And those passages of stasis in Frankenstein are filled with a patterned and highly charged diction of movement, so that even when the characters are physically at rest, they often talk as if they were still in motion.

Here, for example, is Victor in motion:

It was completely dark when I arrived in the environs of Geneva; the gates of the town were already shut; and I was obliged to pass the night at Secheron, a village at the distance of half a league from the city. The sky was serene; and, as I was unable to rest, I resolved to visit the spot where my poor William had been murdered. As I could not pass through the town, I was obliged to cross the lake in a boat to arrive at Plainpalais. During this short voyage I saw the lightnings playing on the summit of Mont Blanc in the most beautiful figures. The storm appeared to approach rapidly; and, on landing, I ascended a low hill, that I might observe its progress. It advanced; the heavens were clouded, and I soon felt the rain coming slowly in large drops, but its violence quickly increased. [P. 75]
{236} It is an odd and affecting night scene, the solitary journey against a background of the gathering storm, as good an example as any of the dream-telling quality that permeates the book. But if we contrast this with passages in which no physical movement occurs, even in such periods of stasis, the verbs, the metaphors dead and alive, the whole stylistic texture evoke movement. In the fourth chapter, for example, Frankenstein begins his studies and describes his path to knowledge, his rapid progress, his pursuit of discoveries, going as far as others have gone before him, arriving at a point, being on the brink, being led to examine, arriving at the summit, obliterating his steps, finding a passage, leading Walton on, being borne onwards like a hurricane, pursuing his undertaking, pursuing nature to her hiding place, being urged forward by a resistless impulse, and so on.

The Monster, with a totally different stylistic range, also moves, and we see his account, and others', of his movement. When he and his creator end their conversation, the Monster leaves: "I saw him descend the mountain with greater speed than the flight of an eagle, and quickly lost him among the undulations of the sea of ice" (p. 148). And elsewhere, "I would have seized him; but he eluded me, and quitted the house with precipitation. In a few moments I saw him in his boat, which shot across the waters with an arrowy swiftness, and was soon lost amidst the waves" (p. 168).

Like his creator, the Monster's diction, when he describes himself, is full of movement; it characteristically alternates between tranquillity and action, real or imagined. "All, save I, were at rest or in enjoyment. I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me; and, finding myself unsympathised with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin" (p. 136). Or, a few paragraphs later, "These thoughts calmed me, and in the afternoon I sank into a profound sleep; but the fever of my blood did not allow me to be visited by peaceful dreams. The horrible scene of the preceding day was for ever acting before my eyes; the females were flying, and the enraged Felix tearing me from his father's feet" (p. 137). Basically gentle but endlessly menaced, betrayed, and provoked, the Monster moves, in his meditative self-narration, from stasis to violence.

The Monster, of course, walks, not only from town to town but {237} through the regions of the earth. Frankenstein not only walks; he rides, in a chaise, for example, and a cabriolet. Above all, he rides in boats. The passage in which he approaches Geneva alone in a boat was quoted above. Later he describes the period after the conviction of Justine. "Often, after the rest of the family had retired for the night, I took the boat, and passed many hours upon the water. Sometimes, with my sails set, I was carried by the wind; and sometimes, after rowing into the middle of the lake, I left the boat to pursue its own course, and gave way to my own miserable reflections" (p. 91). Frankenstein meets his creature, hears his narration, and returns to Geneva, where again he passes time in a "little boat." "At these moments I took refuge in the most perfect solitude. I passed whole days on the lake alone in a little boat, watching the clouds, and listening to the rippling of the waves, silent and listless" (p. 150). A few pages later, he voyages down the Rhine with Clerval, in the same mood of passive lassitude. He undertakes, then abandons, the construction of a mate for the Monster, and then moves toward the scene described earlier as especially Kafkaesque: the landing on the Irish shore, the accusation of a nonspecific crime. The transition to that encounter is, again, by a solitary passage by boat, with the clouds, the sky, the wind, and the overwhelming passivity. Freed from prison, he leaves Ireland for Havre-de-Grace. "It was midnight. I lay on the deck, looking at the stars, and listening to the dashing of the waves" (p. 183). On the day of his wedding, he and Elizabeth travel -- by boat -- with the same incantatory and obsessive effects: the wind, the mountains in the background, the waves, the hypnotic motion of the boat. From that point to the end of the book, the pursuit is as much by sea as by land; and however purposeful the pursuit, something of the dream-like quality of passage by ship is never entirely lost.

What unites all of these modes of action -- the Monster moving as if flying, Frankenstein pursuing truth by a vast family of travel metaphors, the monster driven to violence, Frankenstein carried along in his little boats -- is a common appearance of automation, both characters acting not out of deliberation and will but helplessly, out of energies they cannot control. Victor's characteristic movements in his boats are not propulsion. He rarely seems to row, or sail; rather, he drifts. The Monster, portrayed in films as slow and awkward, in the book moves with superhuman speed, without the {238} appearance of exertion. Both figures see themselves, and each other, as if they were figures in a dream. And both act out for us the archetypal situation of Bergsonian comic theory. They are automata, mechanized people, puppets, examples, as the operative phrase is customarily translated from Bergson, of "something mechanical encrusted on the living."7 The phrase, though perhaps oversimple, aptly suggests a last comic aspect of Mary Shelley's serious book.

The characters see themselves at moments of crisis as being without will, drifting, or impelled. Nothing, to them, could be more serious than this helplessness. And, as we read, nothing to us could be more appalling, the figures of both Frankenstein and his Monster being enormously full of potentiality of mind and body. Yet as the book recedes in the mind, the images of the two puppets remain, one of them drifting in a little boat, the other gliding up and down the Alps, both of them automata yet each moving at a different rate, like two clocks with pendulums of different lengths.

The perils of writing about how something happens to be funny are inescapable; the critical argument collapses for the reader who cannot agree that the book in question is, in fact, comic. The professional critics of Frankenstein, over the years, have treated the book as seriously as Mary Shelley did. But the common reader has responded to it, at least in the last three decades, with an uneasy awareness of the capacity of the book to arouse an extraordinarily wide range of responses, one of which is amusement. It is a situation that calls for a healthy Johnsonian respect for the common reader. One might imagine a debate between a century and a half of solemn professional critical response, on the one hand, and, on the other, a single "common reader." Our common reader, let us say, responds to the scene in which Frankenstein, mortally ill, starved, with only one dog left to pull him, asks Walton, just before he freezes into that block of ice, "Before I come aboard your vessel . . . will you please have the kindness to inform me whither you are bound?" It is the quintessential scene juxtaposing stasis and motion, characteristic of the dream-like narration. And it will strike the common reader, as anyone knows who has taught the book, as {239} oddly amusing, a reaction that is as honest, as true to the text, and as deserving of respect as the accumulated reactions of the critical tradition.

To describe the comic power contained in Frankenstein is not at all irreverent. There is a tradition within which Frankenstein unself-consciously stands on its own, a rich and eclectic mode that remains undisturbed by the coexistence of mythic seriousness, psychic authority, and laughter.


1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph (London, 1969), p. 57. Subsequent references are incorporated into the text.

2. The Adventurer (New York, 1974), pp. 174-76.

3. The American Notebooks, ed. Claude M. Simpson, Works, Centenary Edition (Columbus, Ohio, 1972), VIII:16.

4. Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography (New York, 1960), p. 178.

5. I have assembled works that are not exactly novels and stories, not exactly romances, not exactly dream allegories. The fact, in itself, that such works do not fit established genres has something to do with their power. Jonathan Culler asks, "Why are our most crucial and tantalizing experiences of literature located at the interstices of genres, in this region of non-genre literature?" and then speculates on the reasons why ("Towards a Theory of Non-Genre Literature," in Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow, ed. Raymond Federman [Chicago, 1975], pp. 255-62).

6. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, Modern Library edition (New York, 1938), p. 464.

7. Comedy: An Essay on Comedy by George Meredith and Laughter by Henri Bergson, introduction by Wylie Sypher (Garden City, N.Y., 1956), p. 84.