Contents Index

Frankenstein's Monster and Its Romantic Relatives: Problems of Knowledge in English Romanticism

L. J. Swingle

Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 16 (Spring, 1973): 51-65.

{51} Mary Shelley's transformation of Gothic terror into a study in problems of knowledge makes her novel Frankenstein an important work of Romantic literature. Mary Shelley presents Frankenstein's monster as an unknown quantity. Significantly, it has no name: it is called conflicting things in the course of the novel. Arguing with Frankenstein, the monster calls itself simply a "creature'; according to its tale, cottagers it once aided called it a 'good spirit." Frankenstein himself calls it, among other things, "Abhorred monster! fiend that thou art!"1 Whether the human mind can know what the monster really is, most crucially, whether the monster can be trusted or not, is placed in question in Frankenstein, and, in exploring this, Mary Shelley pursues one of the dominant concerns of English Romanticism, the question of the human mind's ability to grasp the essential natures of things.


One need not assume that Frankenstein's monster is the novel's unjustly treated innocent victim and that we are supposed to believe its claims. The error underlying such an assumption is the familiar one of reading a literary work as an expression of what one thinks one knows about its author's beliefs. The monster expresses ideas that may appear to be Romantic doctrines and, hence, Mary Shelley's doctrines. It insists to Frankenstein, "I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous" (p. 100); or, "My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal" (p. 147). In short, the monster sounds like a popular biography's version of Rousseau or Godwin. Accordingly, a reader may decide or merely take for granted that Mary Shelley is using the monster to advance her doctrines. Thus one critic writes that the monster's tale "might well be called 'The Education of a Natural Man' (albeit an 'artificial' natural man), the author's assumption being man's innate goodness and, voicing Godwin and Shelley the failure of existing institutions to sustain him"2

{52} The monster's assertions may or may not express doctrines that Mary Shelley as an individual believes, but this is incidental to her concern. In Frankenstein she is using doctrines to examine the barriers that exist between different centers of consciousness, not using those consciousnesses as ventriloquists' dummies for advancing doctrines. Thus she rejects an omniscient narrator in favor of what approaches a series of interlocked dramatic monologues, that is, a tale within a tale within still a third tale; and she places familiar doctrines of her time in the mouth of one dramatic character who uses them as an argument to gain what he wants from another dramatic character, while the latter insists that the former cannot be trusted.

The notion that the monster is advancing Mary Shelley's doctrines for reader consumption leads to a distorted experience of the novel because it commonly produces the corollary that, since the monster speaks for the author, then whatever the monster says must be true. Thus, for example, one reader tells us (and others presuppose) that the monster is "essentially benevolent."3 The only evidence for this is that the monster says so.

One encounters other Curious slips in reading the novel that have critical consequences. For example, one critic speaks of the monster's suicide at the end of Frankenstein.4 But the monster does not commit suicide. It says it intends to do so, and then it disappears. The difference is of some critical importance.

Had the monster committed suicide "on stage" before witnesses, then this act would have tended to define its true nature. It would have suggested that the monster did not have some fiendish plan to destroy mankind; at least, it would have established that here at the end the plan was laid aside. Further, announcement followed by fulfillment of the intent to commit suicide would have at least tended to suggest that one could trust the monster's word; and this knowledge would reverberate back through the novel, influencing our judgment about its earlier assertions. This in turn would tend to invalidate Frankenstein's rejection of the monster. But such clarifying of distinctions between the true and the false is precisely what Mary Shelley avoids in Frankenstein

All that the reader, Frankenstein, and Walton ever know of the monster comes from two sources: first, evidence of the senses, the monster's physical appearance, and those of its actions witnessed by others or testified to by evidence corroborated by others; and second, the monster's words. And the crucial critical point is that the portraits of the monster derived from these two sources conflict.

On the one hand, we have the fact that the monster is subject to outbursts of terrible rage, the fact that it does kill people, and the fact of its horrible {53} physical appearance, especially the "ghastly grin" (p. 169) that so frightens Frankenstein and leads him to feverishly destroy his work on the monster's mate. On the other hand we have what the monster says, its insistence that all the seeming negative evidence is misleading and that it is essentially benevolent. It says it killed only out of misery and frustration and that, granted its desires, it would cease to kill. It says it helped some cottagers and that it made unsuccessful attempts to be benevolent toward other human beings. It says that its horrible appearance is not the outward manifestation of a horrible inner nature and a fiendish plan but merely a function of man's peculiarly human means of sensing: "the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union" (p. 145). And to support all this, all it can or does do is swear elaborate oaths that it speaks truly: "I swear to you, by the earth which I inhabit, and by you that made me" (p. 147); and again, "'I swear,' he cried, 'by the sun, and by the blue sky of Heaven, and by the fire of love that burns my heart' " (p. 148).

The only other evidences to support the monster's claim to benevolence are its first actions, when it argues, it had not yet been corrupted by ill usage at the hands of human beings. But here Mary Shelley is careful to keep this evidence from revealing anything certain about the monster:

He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. (p. 58)
The description is quite ambiguous, and the rest of the novel's action pivots on the crisis of Frankenstein's reading of that ambiguity. It is important to note, though, that Frankenstein did not recognize an ambiguity in the monster's actions. Awakened from a troubled sleep to find a horrible thing looming over him, he reacted on impulse and escaped. Only afterwards is he told by the monster that he was wrong, that it had not meant him wrong.

Finally, the monster appeals for absolute belief: "Believe me Frankenstein" (p. 100). The drama this creates carries religious overtones. Can Frankenstein lay aside all the seeming evidence of his senses and embrace pure belief, giving himself up to the monster's word? But Mary Shelley gives this a vital twist, a turning of the screw: the question is not really whether Frankenstein can do so, but whether he should do so. It may be that the monster is the saviorlike figure Frankenstein intended to create; but it is equally possible, so far as Frankenstein knows, that the monster is a fiend. Frankenstein does know, after all, that the monster can destroy men. He has only its word that, granted its desires, it will not do so. Frankenstein is trapped in a crisis of decision: by denying the monster, Frankenstein has supposedly created its destructive acts, and further denial will result in further destruction; but if he {54} accepts the monster's word and creates a mate for it, may he not be thereby simply multiplying the monster's destructive power? Or, if not that, perhaps this monster-mate will itself become independent and begin wreaking destruction on its own: "I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate" (p. 165). The key words here are "ignorant" and "might." How is Frankenstein to know how to act?

The focus of Frankenstein is on this problem of knowing. As Frankenstein muses at one point in his youthful scientific studies, "It seemed to me as if nothing would or could ever be known" (p. 41). The question is not the truth or falsity of things in themselves. The monster may be benevolent, just as it says it is. The question is whether human consciousness can recognize that truth or falsity. Mary Shelley is concerned with whether man can judge rightly, and more important whether he can know he has judged rightly.

It is significant that she makes her reader as well as her novel's characters face this question. By structuring the novel as she does, with Walton's tale, in the form of a series of letters to his sister, framing the tales of Frankenstein and the monster, Mary Shelley draws the reader into the novel's world. In effect, the reader becomes Walton's sister reading the letters. Thus, entering the drama, the reader is encouraged to leave behind his own world of known truths and falsehoods and to experience the world as the novel's characters experience it. He witnesses the characters determining how to act, confronting the consequences of their decisions, seeking to defend or attack the justice of those decisions. He is made privy both to the conflicting claims to truth and justice and to the evidence offered in their support. And because of this, he is made to see not only that the conflicting claims to justice are not resolved, but that they cannot be resolved in terms of the evidence and experience given in the novel.

The monster always claims it is worthy of trust and that its treatment has been unjust: "I, the miserable and the abandoned. am an abortion, to be spumed at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice" (p. 222). Frankenstein at one point wavers, moved by the monster's eloquent pleading for a mate: "I was moved. I shuddered when I thought of the possible consequences of my consent; but I felt that there was some justice in his argument" (p. 146). But his terrible doubts about those "possible consequences" and his glimpse of the monster's "ghastly grin" as it peers in a window at him as he works are enough, finally, to convince him the monster cannot be trusted; and then to the end he claims, "I feel myself justified in desiring the death of my adversary" (p. 217). The problem of rendering judgment falls to Walton. The dying Frankenstein attempts to pass on to Walton his quest for the monster's destruction; but at the last moment he admits that Walton had best think the {55} evidence through for himself: "But the consideration of these points, and the well balancing of what you may esteem your duties, I leave to you; my judgment and ideas are already disturbed by the near approach of death" (p. 217). Walton then listens to the monster's argument and is for a moment moved, just as Frankenstein had been. But then, remembering Frankenstein's warning about the monster's powers of persuasion, he too rejects the monster. Now right judgment is in question with Walton himself. Like Frankenstein, he is caught up in a dubious quest, and so he thinks of Frankenstein as his friend. Hence, his decision to trust Frankenstein rather than the monster. But the important point here is that Walton has no more solid grounds for deciding than Frankenstein himself did. The reader recognizes this because, involved in the drama, he himself knows as much of the evidence as the characters do and no more than they do.

This is why it is important to keep accurately in mind just how the noveI ends. Walton lets the monster go without asking himself, as Frankenstein would have, whether the monster speaks truly -- whether in fact it will carry out its Phoenix-like suicide or whether it merely seeks to escape pursuit, now that its chance to secure a mate is lost. In the novel's final phrase, the monster loses itself "in darkness and distance," and in these words can be traced also the loss of any chance to encounter some solid, unambiguous or unchallenged evidence of the monster's true nature.

By means of multiple first-person narration, the balancing of unresolved conflicting claims to truth and justice, and ambiguous primary evidence, Mary Shelley prevents the reader from knowing the monster. By so doing, I believe, she heightens her novel's significance, transforming it from a fairly simple moral tract into something approaching tragedy. If we ourselves knew that the monster were true and benevolent, Frankenstein would tend to become what some readers have tried to make it, a "moral fable."5 Our sense of moral judgment generated by this would focus, I suppose, upon one of two quantities. We might see the novel as a condemnation of advanced or extreme scientific speculation in general, which is, in fact, what the Frankenstein-myth has come to mean to the popular mind. Or we might condemn Frankenstein's peculiar moral weaknesses, for example, his "moral error, his failure to love."6 But Mary Shelley makes it very hard to fix upon an easy object of condemnation. Shelley himself warns the reader in the Preface he wrote to his wife's novel: ". . . nor is any inference justly to be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind" (p. 14).7 It {56} is a mark of the novel's maturity that its terrible events cannot be made to yield easy precepts.

. It is worth noting that the novel's particular kind of tragic vision is one proper for the concerns of the Romantic period. The tragedy is not grounded in tension between opposing moral obligations or in tension between moral obligation and desire; it arises out of tension between opposing claims about what is true. This fact offers a means of placing Mary Shelley's novel in the literary context of the Romantic period.


Frankenstein's monster belongs to a family of strange creatures often encountered in Romantic literature. Like Blake's Tyger, Shelley's Alastor, and Keats's Belle Dame. But it is also akin to other humanlike creatures in the literature Wordsworth's Idiot Boy or his Old Soldier in Book IV of The Prelude. Coleridge's Mariner and Keats's Porphyro of "The Eve of St. Agnes." Consider Wordsworth's description of his encounter with the Old Soldier:
All else was still;
No living thing appeared in earth or air,
And save the flowing water's peaceful voice,
Sound there was none -- but lo! an uncouth shape,
Shown by a sudden turning of the road
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . He was of stature tall,
A span above man's common measure, tall,
Stiff, lank, and upright; a more meagre man
Was never seen before by night or day.
Long were his arms, pallid his hands; his mouth
Looked ghastly in the moonlight.

(Prelude, IV, 384-396; 1850 version)

This could be a verse introduction to Frankenstein's monster, but for the reference to "man." Wordsworth gives us here a character who at first seems monstrous but who later proves most human, generating a mixed reaction of awe and pity. With Porphyro in "The Eve of St. Agnes," Keats reverses the pattern. There we find a figure who, at first, seems to fit common human categories of admiration. Porphyro is the young lover, Romeo on quest: "Meantime, across the moors, / Had come young Porphyro, with heart on fire / For Madeline" (11. 74-76). But as the poem develops and the mythic-religious suggestions become insistent, we are made to wonder whether Porphyro is what he appears to be: "Sweet lady, let her pray, and sleep, and dream / Alone with her good angels, far apart / From wicked men like thee. Go,. go! -- I deem / Thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem" {57} ll. 141-144).8 And at the end he takes Madeline out into an "elfin-storm."

What, despite their differences, unites all these figures is that they are what we may call Strangers. They come from outside the bounds of man's ordinary experience; and like Porphyro entering the castle from the moors, they impinge upon the structure of common human concerns, values, ways of thinking and doing, and present a challenge to its adequacy and/or validity. The Stranger appears, bearing what may be either temptation or salvation, challenging the human mind either to reject its accustomed structures in favor of contrary ones or to embrace the contraries and so form a new, enlarged mental world.

The fundamental question posed by the Stranger concerns the human mind's ability to know things. A thing may not be what it seems to be; in fact, it may be quite the opposite of what it seems to be. From an earlier world, we have a poem like George Herbert's "The Collar," for example, in which the mere "Methought I heard one calling, Child!" is sufficient to produce the acquiescing, "And I replied, My Lord." But in the Romantics' world, the mind asks first whether Voices crying "Child!" can be trusted.

The Romantics' fascination with the Stranger-figure is a function of their basic concern with the problem of knowledge. The young Keats musing to his friend Bailey is a familiar illustration: "I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning -- and yet it must be -- Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections[?]"9 The problem is that if these "objections" are not laid aside, they seem to generate irresolvable problems such as Wordsworth encountered when he tried to sort out the tangled moral questions posed by the French Revolution and a Godwinian rationalism: "Dragging all precepts, judgments, maxims, creeds / Like culprits to the bar," he succeeded only in becoming "Sick, wearied out with contrarieties" and "Yielded up moral questions in despair" (Prelude, XI, 293-305; 1850 version). As Blake writes in the first "Memorable Fancy" of his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?" What troubles the Romantics is their recognition that the traditional grounds of Knowledge are far from certain. Thus they repeatedly present the Stranger, {58} reminding us, first, that we may not really know what we think we know, and, second, that things may therefore be the opposite of what they seem.

This generalization demands modification, of course, when we begin thinking about particular Romantic writers, though here we have to speak about tendencies in their thinking rather than fixed positions, since their works chronicle a struggle toward stable convictions rather than an unfolding of preexistent systems of belief.

The first generation of Romantics tends to hold not simply that things may be the opposite of what they seem but that they are so, and that this reality is ultimately discoverable by the human mind. This is especially true of their earlier writings, and the belief is intimately related to their revolutionary sympathies in politics. Men have been deluded: what they have been persuaded or have persuaded themselves to consider good is actually evil; important, unimportant; true, false -- and vice versa. Thus the drama of their Strangers is commonly a movement from the apparently negative (to use the broadest possible term) to a revelation of the actually positive. Thus we have Wordsworth's transvaluations of the Idiot Boy and of his various figures from the yeoman and beggar classes, Coleridge's of the Nightingale and the Young Ass, Blake's inversions of Angels and Devils.

The second-generation Romantics flirt with the notion of experience as a test of validity. One remembers, for example, Keats's statement that "axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses."10 But this generation is, on the whole, much more skeptical about what can be learned from experience. It tends to think that things may not be, in fact probably are not, what they seem; but human beings cannot experience enough or see deeply enough to know what in fact they really are. Thus, if the first generation of Romantics tends to seek out how much can be known in spite of epistemological problems, the second generation tends to emphasize how much man cannot know.11 Byron is the great and obvious example here. Shelley asserts in "Lift Not the Painted Veil" that peering behind the veil of what "those who live / Call life" reveals not the true nature of things but only "Fear / And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave / Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear." The persona describes "a Spirit that strove / For truth, and like the Preacher found it not." In Prometheus Unbound Demogorgon tells Asia that "the deep truth is imageless" (Act II, iv, 116). In the final lines of "Mont Blanc," conceived in the same summer as Frankenstein, Shelley musingly addresses the mountain, "And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind's imaginings / {59} Silence and solitude were vacancy?" (ll. 142-144). We are very close to Frankenstein here, with its monster's insistence to Frankenstein that "the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union" (p. 145).

It would appear, however, that Keats is closer to Mary Shelley's interests in Frankenstein. He is fond of the pattern we find in Frankenstein, encounters between different kinds of consciousnesses. While Keats writes poems of the mind's encounter with an Urn or a Nightingale, he also traces the meetings between the mind and a Belle Dame, a Porphyro, and a Lamia. These Strangers appear and lead the mind into new realms of thought and action: the Knight-at-Arms lifts La Belle Dame to his horse and "nothing else saw all day long"; Porphyro leads Madeline from her northern castle on a journey, so he tells her, to a home in the south; Lycius rejects his scholars' company for the enchanted palace of sensuous life with Lamia. The pattern of reversal seems almost Blakean, but Keats keeps us from knowing whether this inversion is a movement from negative to positive or the reverse.

To achieve this suspension of knowledge, Keats uses some of the same devices we encounter in Frankenstein: description of action that may be interpreted in contradictory ways (La Belle Dame "look'd at me as she did love"); conflicting assertions about the Stranger's intentions (Angela's accusation, "A cruel man and impious thou art" [1. 140], set off against Porphyro's oath, "I will not harm her, by all saints I swear" [1.145], and his later plea for trust to Madeline, ". . . if thou think'st well / To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel" [11. 341-342]); and basic questions about the Stranger's true nature (Lamia's statement that she "was a woman" and would have "once more / A woman's shape" [11. 117-118] leaves us uncertain whether she remains essentially a serpent hidden by woman's form, and this uncertainty becomes the poem's dominant tension because of the conflicting positions taken by the poem's narrator, by Lycius, and by Apollonius). Then, having generated these tensions, Keats preserves rather than resolves them. In "La Belle Dame" and "Lamia" he accomplishes this by aborting the relationship between the Stranger and human consciousness through the intrusions of the Knight's dream and Apollonius's killing accusation; by so doing, he causes the curtain to fall on the action without letting us see what evil result, if any, would have been born from that relationship. In "St. Agnes" Porphyro successfully persuades Madeline to trust him, and then he disappears with her into the storm; this leaves us to recognize that what we have witnessed may be either an elaborate seduction or a salvation, and that our chance to discover which lies lost in the storm Porphyro leads Madeline into. Is that storm what Porphyro says it is, "an elfin-storm from faery land, / Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed" (11. 343-344), or is it only a "boon indeed" for the fulfillment of Porphyro's uncertain intentions? Madeline trusts Porphyro, having been persuaded by his eloquence; but the reader is made to recognize that one cannot know whether Porphyro ought to be trusted or not.

{60} In this, we have a mirror-image of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Frankenstein does not trust the monster, refusing to be persuaded by his eloquence; but the reader is made to recognize that one cannot know but what the monster ought to have been trusted. The answer lies hidden in the monster's loss "in darkness and distance," which parallels the covering storm of Keats's poem. As with Porphyro and other typical second-generation Romantic Strangers, the monster's true nature is never revealed. Although the mind experiences the monster to the extent of hearing its speech, seeing its appearance, and observing at least some of its actions, this experiencing is not sufficient to yield knowledge. In fact, experience serves to render more complex the question of the monster's nature and to confuse the attempt to decide whether the creature can be trusted. Like other Romantics of her generation, Mary Shelley shows that experience may multiply rather than answer questions.

A number of qualities, however, distinguish Frankenstein from many of the other works we have mentioned, and these qualities give the novel a claim to special attention. Mary Shelley intensifies the drama of human consciousness created by the Stranger by placing it in a context of extreme and broadly inclusive consequences. In Frankenstein, the question is no longer a limited one of personal consequences, as it is with Keats's Madeline. Instead, Frankenstein's and later Walton's response to the monster's pleas have potential life-and-death significance for all men. Frankenstein himself comes to recognize this terrible burden, and it contributes both to the agony of his doubt and, finally, to his claim that he was justified in denying the monster: "My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature" (p. 217).

In addition to intensifying the potential consequences of decision, Mary Shelley also immeasurably complicates the problem of deciding. She does this by introducing the concept of process or Becoming into the decision- making process. When one asks about the true nature of a Stranger, one is looking for the fixed, essential Being of the creature. We may be mistaken about what the Tyger is or what Porphyro is, but we are never encouraged to consider that these creatures may not remain static throughout our struggles to know them. But in Frankenstein Being yields to Becoming, "is" yields to "was," "is at the moment," and "will be"; and the attempt to know the Stranger's true nature becomes finally an attempt to know what the creature will be in the future, and whether it will remain that way. The monster admits that it is now fiendish and not the benevolent, gentle creature it once was; it insists that it will be benevolent and good again. The effect of this is to render inconclusive all potential evidence in time present and to force the mind to confront the infinite and changing possibilities of what might be in time future. {61} Frankenstein thus worries that his second creation "might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate" (p. 165: italics mine).

Further, there is the key factor of Frankenstein's doubt. Mary Shelley's novel is a study of the mind in the process of trying to come to terms with the Stranger. Frankenstein rejects the monster, then accepts it, then rejects it again; and we are made privy to his mind's struggle. Frankenstein is a drama of man's mind struggling with the awareness that the Stranger is a stranger and yet being forced, nevertheless, to deal with it as if it were a known quantity.

Finally, and most important, Frankenstein is distinct in that here the human mind does not merely encounter the Stranger; instead it creates it.


I think the effect of Frankenstein is to suggest that man is caught up in a vicious dilemma of mutually undesirable alternatives. Frankenstein creates his monster, so encounters the Stranger through his own efforts instead of simply coming upon it by accident or meeting it as a result of the Stranger's own mysterious designs. The Stranger, then, need not be encountered. The novel shows us what happens to those who do pursue the Stranger (Frankenstein who sets to work in his laboratory and Walton who sets out in his ship) and also what happens to those who do not. Neither alternative is pleasant.

Frankenstein's fiancée, Elizabeth, functions as a link between Frankenstein and Walton, who pursue the Stranger, and the rest of the novel's characters who do not. At one point in the novel, Elizabeth stumbles upon the notion that leads to the Stranger, when she struggles to explain why she "knows" the executed Justine (note Mary Shelley's pun) was innocent of William's murder:

But she was innocent. I know, I feel she was innocent; you are of the same opinion, and that confirms me. Alas! Victor, when falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness? I feel as if I were walking on the edge of a precipice, towards which thousands are crowding and endeavouring to plunge me into the abyss. (p. 93; italics mine)
Elizabeth glimpses the "abyss" in her perception that truth and falsehood may look alike. But significantly. she draws back from it, refusing to take the next and fatal step of trying to discover whether seeming truths are in fact falsehoods and vice versa. Instead, seeking a solid ground, she moves from the assertion of Justine's innocence (I know it) to a tentative. but inadequate support (I feel it) to an ultimate confirmation in the fact that Frankenstein shares her "opinion."

By clinging to shared opinion and calling it truth, Elizabeth retreats from Frankenstein's and Walton's determination to find out what is really true through direct experience in the objective world beyond the individual {62} consciousness. Thus she falls back to the attitude toward knowledge that Frankenstein's friend Clerval represents in the novel. Clerval is also, in a sense, a seeker after knowledge: "Clerval occupied himself, so to speak, with the moral relations of things" (p. 38). But this leads Clerval to pursue, not the nature of things Out There beyond the mind, but rather the creations of the mind itself, expressing what men think and have thought about the world. The young Clerval studies literature instead of science, and later at the university he studies languages. Significantly, when Clerval and Frankenstein visit London, Frankenstein busies himself collecting information necessary to create the monster's mate, but Clerval "desired the intercourse of the men of genius and talent who flourished at this time" (p. 157). There is irony here, because, unknown to Clerval, his own friend Frankenstein is one of these men of genius and talent. But this is Mary Shelley's point. Clerval's occupation with what the human mind thinks does not extend to questioning whether the mind's thoughts conform to what lies outside the mind. Thus Clerval, like Elizabeth (once she chooses opinion), can believe that he knows things. He can console Frankenstein after William's death: "The pang is over, his sufferings are at an end for ever. A sod covers his gentle form, and he knows no pain" (p. 74). Mary Shelley reminds us of the fragility of Clerval's assurance here by later having the monster, contemplating its proposed suicide, echo Clerval's consolation with an important qualification: "My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus" (p. 223; italics mine). Clerval is really a believer rather than a seeker after knowledge. But because of this, Clerval remains stable and happy -- until, of course, he is destroyed by the monster, a mystery of that objective world he has not taken into account in his studies.

The dilemma, then, seems to me to be this. The human mind can ignore the unsettling question of whether its thoughts conform to the nature of things. This question does not seem to occur to most men, not even to amateur scholars like Clerval. But if, as in Elizabeth's case, the question does occur, the mind can step back from the abyss it reveals by choosing to embrace the apparent safety of shared opinion. Thus man can preserve for himself a certain amount of happiness and stability. However, this safety is fragile: the monster destroys Innocents; William, Justine, and Elizabeth as well as Clerval fall prey to it. Thus, not only does the Innocent accept as necessary those burdens of his life that are customary but that may not be for that reason necessary, but he also renders himself helpless to guard against the results of other men's refusal to accept those burdens. Elizabeth's and Clerval's relationships to Frankenstein exhibit a sort of inverse parallel to Frankenstein's relationship to the monster. They both think they know Frankenstein: trusting him instead of becoming suspicious of his peculiar behavior, they do not seek to discover what accounts for it. Helpless in their lack of knowledge, they die without knowing what hit them.

{63} However, the alternative is equally or more disturbing. Walton functions in the novel to dissolve the particularity of Frankenstein's quest, showing that Mary Shelley's focus is not on the particular object quested for but rather on the kind of thinking that generates the questing, which Frankenstein and Walton share. Once it occurs to the mind that A might actually be Z (that instead of real bounds, life and death might be only "ideal bounds," as Frankenstein puts it [p. 54], or that the Pole might actually be delight rather than desolation, as Walton thinks), then the mind can act upon that notion and try to find out. It can leave the realm of traditional beliefs and shared opinion and try to enter the realm of certain knowledge. But that knowledge leads to a world of nightmare and death.

In tracing Frankenstein's and Walton's quests, Mary Shelley presents a modern version of the myth of transgression, offering a philosophically comprehensible reading of the mythic narrative of what results from sinning against the god-figure. Both Frankenstein and Walton are Prometheans striking out against Jupiter (things as man thinks they are, traditional and accepted structures of belief); they are also mankind presuming to reach out and grasp the fruit of the Tree. The problem Mary Shelley confronts here is the difficult one her husband Percy Shelley faced later in Prometheus Unbound: given a modern intellectual's world view that lacks the notion of an anthropomorphic God, how are we to understand the mythic concepts of a Jupiter chaining Prometheus or a God driving man from Eden as punishment for transgression? Her solution, like her husband's, is to create a purely mental drama of damnation, though the drama itself is quite different from her husband's. Mary Shelley seeks to show through Frankenstein and Walton that the mind's dangerous attempt to reach out beyond established boundaries may result in a sort of mental suicide. Seeking to escape the chains of mere belief, the mind can fall into an abyss in which it is incapable of functioning effectively. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.

In creating the monster, Frankenstein unwittingly exposes himself to the essential unknowableness of things; he discovers the human mind's inability to deduce truths about the essential nature of things from phenomenal data. The narrative of his attempt to deal with the monster chronicles the erosion of the mind's grounds for knowing things. First, Frankenstein flees from a horrible sensory experience; but the monster's eloquent argument creates doubt, suggesting to him that a horrible appearance may not indicate a horrible essential nature. Then in turn Frankenstein realizes that eloquent argument may not indicate an honest nature. Further, he comes to realize that what a thing is or seems to be at the present moment may not indicate what it will become in the future: Frankenstein himself experiences an abrupt and unexpected inversion of behavior from controlled purposefulness to helpless terror at the moment the monster first opens its eyes; and the monster insists {64} that what it was, is, and will be are different things. And then finally, in his last words to Walton, Frankenstein stumbles upon that ultimate perception destructive of the mind's ability to know. Having just advised Walton to "Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries," another possibility flashes into his mind: "Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed" (pp. 217-218). These are Frankenstein's last words, asserting still untarnished possibility in the face of the negative example of his own experience.

Frankenstein's key word is "may." By degrees he comes to recognize that the ground most men stand on when they think is not solid at all, and so we find him crying near the novel's close, "'Man,' I cried, 'how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom! Cease; you know not what it is you say' " (p. 201). The comfortable Is of the mind's supposed knowledge becomes in Frankenstein's experience May Be: no piece of evidence conclusively confirms or denies possibility. In one of the many fine touches in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley foreshadows this point in the opening paragraphs. Walton, ecstatic over his notion that the Pole may be other than what men think, exclaims, "What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?" (p. 16). Once man's mind bathes in "light," it realizes that, so far as it knows, anything may be true, but all things are not true.

The effect of this realization is a sort of frenzy, almost a religious fanaticism. The mind becomes cut off from or, better, cuts itself off from all checks or deterrents from the world of phenomenal data because those data are inconclusive. If a given A might be Z, then might not all A's be Z's? Once the mind reaches this state and fixes upon some notion, no contrary datum can alter that fixation. We see this beginning to happen to Walton in the novel. He pushes on toward the Pole in spite of the ice that threatens to destroy him and his crew; and, forced to turn back, he returns, as he says,"ignorant and disappointed. It requires more philosophy than I possess, to bear this injustice with patience" (p. 215).12 Walton begins to argue over justice, mirroring Frankenstein's quarrels with the monster. Frankenstein, having actually touched and struggled with his quest, is further along the path of {65} mental destruction than Walton. He comes to conceive of himself as paralleling one of the "martyrs of old" (p. 200) and as possessing a "task enjoined by heaven" (p. 204). Appropriately enough: as a young man, to see a tree struck by lightning had been sufficient to change "the current" of Frankenstein's ideas (p. 40), but by the novel's concluding section Frankenstein has, significantly, "departed from land" (p. 206) on his fanatical quest for the monster's destruction. Once determined, no earthly voices can deter him from his mind's resolution. He is, in other words, a Prometheus who, setting out to free himself from enslavement to the mind's ideas, becomes bound to the rock of his own mind's ideas.


1 I have used the Oxford English Novels edition of Frankenstein, ed. with an introduction by M. K. Joseph (London, 1969); the quotations here are from p. 100, p. 115, and p. 99. Subsequent page references are given in the text.

2 Masao Miyoshi, The Divided Self (New York, 1969), p. 80; italics are mine.

3 Joseph, "Introduction," p. xi.

4 "Fire and frost join once more in the suicide that ends the novel." James Rieger, The Mutiny Within (New York, 1967), p. 87. 5 D. J. Palmer and R. E. Dowse, "'Frankenstein': A Moral Fable," The Listener, 68 (1962), 281.

6 Harold Bloom, "Frankenstein, or The New Prometheus." PR, 32 (1965) 614.

7 Muriel Spark, Child of Light (Hadleigh, England, 1951), finds it "curious" that Shelley wrote this, and then goes on to suggest it should not be taken seriously (p. 135). To the contrary, I think Shelley is being quite serious here.

8 My thinking about "St. Agnes" owes something to Jack Stillinger, "The Hoodwinking of Madeline: Skepticism in 'The Eve of St. Agnes,'" SP, 58 (1961), 533-555. On the Romantics' attitude toward knowledge in general, it is helpful to consult the following studies: Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience (New York, 1957); Christos E. Pulos, The Deep Truth: A Study of Shelley's Skepticism (Lincoln, Neb., 1954); Earl R. Wasserman, "The English Romantics: The Grounds of Knowledge," SIR, 4 (1964), 17-34; and D. G. James, Scepticism and Poetry (London, 1937).

9 Letter to Benjamin Bailey, 22 November 1817. Quoted from Hyder Edward Rollins, ed., The Letters of John Keats (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), I, 185.

10 Letter to J. H. Reynolds, 3 May 1818; Rollins, I, 279.

11 Coleridge is something of a bridge between the generations. In the earlier poetry and then later in the prose, he struggles toward certainty. But from "The Ancient Mariner" on, his poetry reminds one more of the second generation, with its emphasis on ambiguities and his fondness for words like "seems."

12 "Moral and Myth in Mrs Shelley's Frankenstein," K-SJ, 8 (l959), M. A. Goldberg suggests that "Walton and Frankenstein both sin, not against self or God, but against the moral and social order. Though both begin their pursuit with benevolent intentions, each discovers his error in assuming that knowledge is a higher good than love or sympathy, and that it can be independent of the fellow-feeling afforded by a compassionate society" (p 33) This is not quite true. Early in the novel, Frankenstein says something like this ("If the study to which you apply yourself . . . " [p. 56]); but toward the novel's end, he is urging Walton's sailors to push on through the ice, and at the very end he decides someone else might succeed at his own quest, even though he himself failed. And Walton does not learn anything; he turns back in protest, insisting he remains ignorant and wanting to go on. In other word, we have here a chronicle of increasing fanaticism.

University of Washington