Contents Index

Haunted Presence: Frankenstein

S. L. Varnado

Chapter 4 of Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction (Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1987), 42-59

{42} A curious feature of many supernatural tales -- one already remarked on -- is their apparent lack of clear, distinct moral values. Often in such tales, the person who encounters the supernatural agent appears to do so by the merest chance and without conscious choice. The protagonist seems inadvertently to have crossed an invisible boundary or terminus, and in consequence he finds himself involved in a confrontation with supernatural reality. Because choices are not involved, these stories often appear to lack moral content; yet the reader often feels that some obscure value elements are present.

A brief example should clarify this point. In M. R. James's classic ghost story, "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad," a mild-mannered, innocuous professor named Parkins, on a golfing holiday in East Anglia, stumbles by chance upon an ancient, long-buried preceptory that had once belonged to the medieval Order of Templars. Poking about the ruins, Parkins discovers an old pipe or whistle, which he carries back to his hotel. Out of mere curiosity, he cleans {43} the pipe off, instinctively puts it to his lips, and blows a few notes.

Throughout the story, Parkins is depicted as a thoroughly upright, decent individual. His main characteristic is a certain skepticism with regard to the preternatural. Although this is not depicted as a moral fault, the thrust of the story is to show the inadequacy of this view and the difficulties that can arise from it. Parkins is warned by a friend who has some experience with the occult that such objects as the whistle may be a source of danger -- a warning Parkins ignores -- with the result that he summons up (or "whistles up") a particularly loathsome, preternatural visitant from whom he escapes only with great difficulty. The ultimate effect of this incident is to produce in Parkins a new and rather humble respect for things that lie "beyond mortal ken."

The interesting feature of "Oh, Whistle" is that, while no ethical questions in the usual sense are raised, certain indistinct value elements do seem to he present. For instance, in the course of the narrative, Parkins's attitude changes from one of skepticism toward the unseen to one approximating belief, as though the author were issuing vague warnings against Parkins's rigid positivism. And, whereas the events of the story obviously are fictional, the reader experiences a faint recognition of a reality lurking in the background.

The problem is that the moral factors involved in such stories seem to bear little relation to the usual "rational" values one finds in such writers as George Eliot, Thackeray, Flaubert, and other realists. In fact, to the degree that modern critics have paid any attention at all to supernatural literature, the question of its moral value has been a troubling one. Later, when studying the work of Edgar Allan Poe, we will find that one of the major charges brought against his work is that it is "morally empty." Indeed, the {44} modern critical school, while fully equipped to deal with extremely subtle and unconventional values, is not prepared to analyze values that lie beyond the rational. Even Freudian analysis fails at this point, as one can discover by reading Freud's essay "The Uncanny," in which he argues that supernatural fear arises from fear of the dead.1 It might just as reasonably be argued that fear of the dead -- the most harmless of creatures -- arises from fear of the supernatural.

The problem of axiological, or moral, elements in numinous literature becomes crucial in the work we next turn to: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). On the surface Frankenstein seems to offer a series of typical nineteenth-century romantic values, values derived from the author's unconventional, revolutionary philosophy.2 A closer reading, however, suggests that these supposed values are contradicted by the main events of the novel.

The Romantic values are voiced by Victor Frankenstein himself in a number of places, as well as by the monster he creates. In long declamatory passages he expounds on such themes as the injustice of society, the inequality of wealth, and the need for change. It appears at times that Mary Shelley is merely expressing the radical philosophy she absorbed from her father William Godwin and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. Frankenstein, an advocate of science and progress, hopes to alleviate the ills of mankind by making a momentous scientific discovery. The monster, sounding at times like a disciple of Rousseau, sets forth with utopian bombast the possibilities of a good society, if only the conventional "evils" of mankind can be eliminated. Superstition, ignorance, intolerance, and inequality seem to be the targets of this typical nineteenth-century protest.3

When we take a closer look, however, we find an underlying conflict between the rhetoric of the book and the events of the story. In his enthusiasm for science and his utopian desire to aid humanity, Frankenstein thinks of himself as a benefactor of mankind. He feels no compunction as he {45} conducts the gruesome task of collecting parts for the monster's body, then animating his creation. No sooner does the monster take its first breath than Frankenstein feels a sense of moral revulsion toward the creature. He feels loathing and disgust for the monster, an antipathy that increases as the story continues. Frankenstein views the ill fortune that dogs his steps through the novel as retribution for his act of creation. "I felt," he says, "as if I had committed some great crime, the consciousness of which haunted me. I was guiltless, but I had indeed drawn down a horrible curse upon my head, mortal as that of crime."4

This ambiguous note extends to the monster. At one moment spouting utopian fustian, while at the next, committing horrifying atrocities, he suggests a degree of moral ambivalence, as though Mary Shelley were not certain of the idea she wished to convey. Such moral puzzles have been largely ignored by critics, due, no doubt, to the novel's massive power and psychological momentum.5 Anyone reading it for the first time will almost certainly be swept forward by its thrilling incidents, originality of conception, and profound numinous impulse. Its young author created a group of archetypes that have fascinated people for a century and a half and that will almost certainly continue to fascinate future generations. In other words, despite its apparent moral ambivalence, the novel contains a profound sense of underlying moral unity.6

It is at this point, and in search of answers to this problem, that we return briefly to Otto's ideas on numinous values. The subject is discussed in a chapter from The Idea of the Holy entitled "The Holy as a Category of Value." The numinous, Otto reminds his reader, begins as a sense of "creature-feeling" that the percipient experiences when encountering the sacred. This "creature-feeling" is described as a sense of "dis-valuation" before that which is infinitely superior to the percipient. As examples of this phenomenon, Otto cites passages from the Bible. In the Old {46} Testament is found Isaiah's cry: "I am a man of unclean lips and dwell among a people of unclean lips"; and from the New Testament, Peter's exclamation to Jesus: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, Oh Lord." In both instances, Otto contends, the feeling response

is not based on deliberation, nor does it follow any rule, but breaks . . . palpitant from the soul -- like a direct reflex movement at the stimulation of the numinous. It does not spring from the consciousness of some committed transgression, but rather is an immediate datum given with the feeling of the numen; it proceeds to "disvalue" together with the self, the tribe to which the person belongs, and indeed, together with that, all existence in general.7
This feeling of "dis-valuation" is not based on a sense of personal wrongdoing but rather on a sense of one's profaneness. The individual's very existence as a creature is "disvalued" before the absolute value of the numen. Accompanying the sense of dis-valuation, however, is another feeling, one centered on the numinous object itself. This is a sense of appreciation of the value of the numinous object: "a unique kind of category diametrically contrary to 'the profane,' the category of 'the holy' which is proper to the numen alone, but to it in an absolute degree." To this numinous object the traditional response has always been, "Tu solus sanctus." The sanctus is not merely "perfect" or "beautiful" or "sublime" or "good"; rather, "it is the positive numinous value or worth, and to it corresponds on the side of the creature a numinous disvalue or 'unworth.'"8

Proper terms for this sense of supreme valuation are the Greek semnós and the Latin augustus. The sense of numinous value and its corresponding sense of disvalue are especially prominent in the more primitive religions of mankind, but the feeling has not disappeared altogether from the more advanced religions. As the feeling develops, {47} it partakes of moral categories, yet retains its autonomous character. The fully developed concept of "sin," in fact, emerges only when the feeling of numinous disvalue is transferred to and centered in moral delinquency. In his later Religious Essays, Otto clarified this idea to some extent:

In the beginning, sin lies in an entirely different realm from the bad. In the early stages of the development of these ideas, sin and the religious "impurity" which result from it need not invade moral values in the least, and may yet lie with terrible weight upon the spirit. . . . In its essence it is a negligent or intentional slight to a numinous object -- of whatever kind; and in this sense it is a violation of the unique objective value of the august or semnós in any of its manifestations.9
Whatever theoretical objections might be raised against Otto's theory of numinous value, its phenomenological reality seems beyond question, as evidenced by many examples from anthropology and religious history. One well-known authority in the field of religious history, R. R. Marett, has studied a similar phenomenon among natives of the Pacific Islands, and concludes that
Science, then, may adopt mana as a general category to designate the positive aspect of the supernatural, or sacred, or whatever we are to call that order of miraculous happenings which, for the concrete experience, if not usually for the abstract thought of the savage, is marked off perceptibly from the order of ordinary happenings. Tabu, on the other hand, may serve to designate its negative aspect. That is to say, negatively, the supernatural is tabu, not lightly approached, because positively, it is mana, instinct with power above the ordinary.10
With Otto's concept of numinous value in mind, we now turn to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and attempt to analyze {48} the peculiar moral problem discussed earlier. I shall try to show that Mary Shelley uses the concepts of the sacred and the profane to repudiate a central myth of the nineteenth century: the all-sufficiency of man when he cuts himself loose from tradition and relies on science and raw rationality. Frankenstein was one of the first works to dramatize this theme.

Like many of his later progeny, Frankenstein is perhaps the first of many "mad scientists" in literature -- men who look for salvation to the sheerly rational (in Otto's sense of the term). Thus he is quite similar to what Eliade calls "desacralized" man. According to Eliade, the universe of modern man has lost its cosmological significance. It is opaque, inert, mute: "it transmits no message, it holds no cipher."11 In like manner, modern "nonreligious" man's body has lost all spiritual significance. External nature as well as human nature has been progressively secularized, the result being what Eliade views as "profane man." To acquire power and control, modern man has "desacralized the world in which his ancestors lived."12

This process of desacralization is clearly depicted in the early chapters of the novel, where we see the youthful protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, set out on the somewhat callow pursuit of "the mysteries of heaven and earth."13 Encountering the writings of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus, he is led into a search for the philosophers' stone and the elixir of life. Pursuit of these spurious goals (Frankenstein later calls them "chimeras") is undertaken with worthy motives: Frankenstein hopes to "banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death."14 One cannot help noting a certain rash, even profane, quality about his early aspirations. For example, the writers who influence Frankenstein in his course of study were, with the exception of Albertus Magnus, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pseudo-scientists who today are regarded as charlatans. Relying on a {49} methodology that was half-scientific, half-occult, they sought to acquire by profane means a knowledge traditionally considered the domain of religion. Like the older Gnostics and alchemists, they pursued goals which, if successful, would have revealed the forbidden secrets of life itself.

The role of these pseudo-scientists is commented on by C. S. Lewis in a passage that throws light on Frankenstein:

I have described as a "magician's bargain" that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. . . . The serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. . . . In Paracelsus the characters of magician and scientist are combined. No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements, not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth; but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighborhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price. . . .15
Whether or not one agrees entirely with Lewis, it seems clear that his interpretation of the origin of modern science finds an embodiment in Frankenstein. In the portion of the novel that takes place at the University of Ingolstadt, Frankenstein comes to realize that he can attain his goal of discovering the intimate secrets of life only by a more practical methodology. Two of his professors at the university, Kempe and Waldman, assure him that the fantastic spec- {50} ulations of Agrippa and Paracelsus are worthless but that the goal of power can be attained by patient study, hard work, and an empirical approach to science. "The modern masters," Waldman tells him, "promise very little. They know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. . . . They have acquired new and almost unlimited power."16 These words kindle in Victor Frankenstein a wild ambition. He will combine the goals of the magician with the methods of science. Such a goal is not evil in the conventional sense of the word; rather, it is profane. Frankenstein's limited view of reality leads him to undertake a truncated form of creation that parodies the sacred.

As the subtitle of the book suggests, Frankenstein is "the modern Prometheus." Obviously, however, the version of the myth Mary Shelley has in mind is not that of Prometheus the fire-bringer but rather Prometheus plasticator, in which the Titan is the creator of mankind.17 The epigraph from Paradise Lost reinforces this idea. The words of Adam -- "Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man?" -- hint that Frankenstein is to be thought of as a creator, but a creator-manqué. His creation, devoid of sacred significance, is at one with the desacralizing tendency Eliade attributes to modern post-religious man.

The profanity of this creation is hinted at in the account of Frankenstein's discovery of the principle of animation.18 "To examine the causes of life," he says,

we must first have recourse to death. . . . In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life.
{51} Since all feeling for the numinous and the sacred was deliberately omitted from his childhood experience, his conception of life and death is purely scientific and rational. The sacred mysteries of existence -- frightening in some aspects but also ennobling -- are beyond his interest. "Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of human feelings."19

Although at the time filled with "delight and rapture," Frankenstein learns in retrospect that some essential element of human nature was missing from his strange preoccupation. He cautions his auditor: "Learn from me . . . 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].

Realization of the profanity of his experiments has come to him in later years. He speaks of it as an "employment loathsome in itself, but which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination." The quest had "swallowed up every habit of my nature" [1.3.7]. In fact, as the account of his creation continues, his vocabulary begins to echo the sacred-profane terminology used by Otto:

who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave and tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? . . . I collected bones from charnel houses and disturbed with profane fingers the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell at the top of the house . . . I kept my workshops of filthy creation. [1.3.6]
The sense of revulsion that Frankenstein experiences as his work continues reaches a climax in the scene where he succeeds in animating the monster. In this instance -- and, indeed, in every sequence in which the monster appears -- {52} Mary Shelley suggests the sacred-profane theme by means of a recurring symbol pattern in which the beautiful is contrasted with the ugly and the real with the counterfeit. Particular symbols within the pattern are the moon, water, inclement weather, and a series of natural objects which might otherwise be beautiful but are rendered repulsive by the pale, sickly hues in which they are described:
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. . . . 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.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful -- Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black limbs. [1.4.1]

At this point Frankenstein fully realizes the unhallowed nature of his creation. "Now that I had finished," he says, "the beauty of the dream vanished and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart." Rushing from the laboratory and into his bedchamber, he falls into a fitful sleep, only to be awakened by the cold touch of the creature's hand. At this point, the "dim and yellow light of the moon" enters the chamber and Frankenstein sees "the wretch -- the miserable monster whom I had created." The thing opens its {53} jaws and murmurs inarticulately; "a grin wrinkled his cheeks" [1.4.2]. Frankenstein flees into the night and wanders about as a cold rain falls on him. Finally, as the wet dawn breaks, he sees "the church of Ingolstadt, its white steeple and clock, which indicated the sixth hour" [1.4.3].

In these passages we see symbolic associations with the theme of the sacred versus the profane. The monster's features, though individually beautiful, are hideous when taken as a whole. His eyes -- "pale yellow" and "watery" -- are associated with the "dim yellow light of the moon" and the cold rain that beats on the window. The moon, a sort of "lesser light of creation," is in fact symbolically a simulacrum of the sun, just as the monster is a counterfeit of true life. Frankenstein has violated the sacred nature of reality, and in consequence his creation breathes an eerie quality of unreality: pale colors, moonlight, water. The effect is reinforced by the monster's inarticulate murmurs, his blundering movements and wrinkled grin -- a parody of a true smile.

These symbolic associations with the sacred and the profane cast light on Frankenstein's violent alteration of feeling. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Christopher Small comments on the question without solving it. "There is a problem here," he states,

proverbially described but not elucidated: why should good intentions lead to hell? Neither the moral schemes of Godwin or Milton can solve it. . . . Mary Shelley did not solve it either, for it is, of course, the sort of puzzle incapable of solution by any formula. . . . Mary introduces what looks like a moral confusion.20
The problem stated by Small is not, however, insoluble.21 The supposed moral confusion disappears in the light of Rudolf Otto's theory of sacred and profane values. Although {54} Frankenstein begins his quest for the mystery of life from the highest motives, he now acts without regard for sacred reality. He has short-circuited the divine creativity. Looking back at the train of circumstances that led to the creation of the monster, he says: "I wished to procrastinate . . . all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed."22 The quest for a wholly rational object, pursued without the mediating influence of the affections or a sense of the sacred, has resulted in the profane. He has slighted the numinous object and plunged into an abyss of mere duration. In this regard there is perhaps a touch of symbolism in the description of the steeple and clock that Frankenstein sees on the morning after his experiment: the clock suggesting the endless, empty profanity of mere time and the church steeple throwing up visions of the sacred.

Thus, despite his later denials of guilt, one must not assume that Frankenstein is blameless. Although he has not consciously transgressed a moral law, he nevertheless has violated the sacred values that cluster about the numinous object.23 The conquest of nature has been achieved at too high a cost. As Eliade puts it:

The reader will very soon realize that sacred and profane are two modes of being in the world, two existential situations assumed by man in the course of history. . . . In the last analysis, the sacred and profane modes of being depend upon different positions that man has conquered in the cosmos. . . .24
In the remainder of the novel Mary Shelley shows the result of this initial act of sacrilege working itself out in reality. Following his experiments in creating the monster, Frankenstein undergoes a mental breakdown. Later, upon returning to his home in Geneva, he learns of the murder of his younger brother and is convinced that the monster is the {55} murderer. In an attempt to compose himself, he takes a trip into the Alps and there once again confronts the monster, who has been living in a small hut.

The crucial tenth chapter of the novel, which describes this meeting, is of particular importance from our viewpoint, in that it represents a kind of microcosm of the numinous impulse of the story. In the region of the Montavert Glacier and within the shadow of Mont Blanc, Frankenstein begins his ascent. The magnificent scenery around him, sublime yet barren, enhances the sense of mysterium tremendum. "It is a scene terrifically desolate. In a thousand spots the traces of the winter avalanche may be perceived, where trees lie broken and strewed on the ground, some entirely destroyed, others bent, leaning upon the jutting rocks of the mountain or transversely upon other trees."25 As he reaches the ice field, "rising like the waves of a troubled sea," a mist descends. Looking upon this alien yet beautiful scene, Frankenstein experiences the sense of fascinans: "My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy; I exclaimed -- 'Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life.'" The enrapt sense of presence is abruptly dissipated when Frankenstein spies the huge shape of the monster bounding toward him across the glacier. The vision produces in him that sensation which Otto might describe as stupor ("I was troubled; a mist came over my eyes, and I felt a faintness seize me"). The awesome, daunting notes of the numinous are now uppermost.

I perceived, as the shape came nearer (sight tremendous and abhorred?) that it was the wretch whom I had created. . . . He approached; his countenance bespoke bitter anguish, combiners with disdain and malignity, while its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes.
{56} At this point, the contrast between sacred and profane reaches a climax. The unearthly beauty of the mountains, the barrenness of broken trees and rocks, and the alien quality of the frozen glacier set into faint vibration the harmony of contrasts in the numinous. This in turn is contrasted with the preternatural ugliness and horror of the monster, producing the sense of profanity that Otto termed "the negative numinous."

In the encounter between Frankenstein and the monster that follows, Mary Shelley intensifies the contrast by evoking a feeling of partial sympathy for the monster. As he describes to Frankenstein his wanderings and misadventures in the world of mankind, the monster projects a sense of his humanity but of a weird, blighted kind. Wounded by all who have seen him, an object of fear and loathing, he has come to hate all mankind; but he hastens to add that he is still capable of goodness: "I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous" [2.2.5].

Some have seen the monster's words as constituting the moral center of the novel. One of these readers was Mary's husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, who summed up his view thus: "Treat a person ill and he will become wicked."26 As I have suggested, however, the moral implications of the novel seem far less simplistic than this interpretation would indicate. First, the supposed benevolence of the monster is far from clear. In this, as well as later scenes, Mary Shelley suggests a note of sly malignity about the monster which belies his idealistic words. His face, we are told, displays "bitter anguish, combined with disdain and malignity" [2.2.3]. His "ghastly grin," the subtlety of his speech, and the unearthly rages of which he is capable ("his face was wrinkled into contortions too horrible for human eyes to behold" [2.9.2]) suggest a sinister quality. Even on the several occasions when Frankenstein is moved by pity, he still feels distrust.

{57} Second, and more to the point, the monster evokes from everyone he encounters the feeling of mysterium combined with a sense of horror. "I compassionated him," Frankenstein says, "and sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened, and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred."27 A nebulous sense of evil (the negative numinous), along with the feeling of the uncanny, places the monster beyond the reach of human sympathy.

There is no imaginable way, the reader feels, that the monster can be integrated into society, no matter how well treated. The implications of Percy Bysshe Shelley's comment lead only to a sense of the ludicrous. By his original act of sacrilege, even if it was not wholly intentional, Frankenstein has produced a nightmare that must be destroyed.

As a result of their meeting, the monster extorts from Frankenstein a promise to create a mate for him. To carry out this second "creation," Frankenstein moves to a remote island in the Orkneys. The bleak, barren landscape of the scene forms a proper numinous background for the task at hand. "It was a place fitted for such work," he says, "being hardly more than a rock, whose high sides were continually beaten upon by the waves. The soil was barren. . . . On the whole island there were but three miserable huts, and one of these was vacant when I arrived" [3.2.6-3.2.7].

In one of these isolated cottages on the island, Frankenstein assembles his equipment and starts to work. As he proceeds, however, growing doubts intrude upon him, for this time he is at least partially aware of the profane implications of his task. "It was indeed a filthy process in which I was engaged. During my first experiment, a kind of enthusiastic frenzy had blinded me to the horror of my employment. . . . But now I went to it in cold blood, and my heart often sickened at the work of my hands" [3.2.8].

{58} On the night in which his work is completed, Frankenstein becomes fully aware of the sacrilege he is repealing when the monster himself arrives at his cottage and peers at him through the window. The description of this frightening scene makes use of the sacred-profane symbolism already noted, with the moon -- symbol of the false act of creation -- especially prominent. "I trembled and my heart failed within me when, looking up, I saw, by the light of the moon, the demon at the casement. A ghastly grin wrinkled his lips as he gazed on me" [3.3.2].

Frankenstein resolves not to repeat his mistake. "I thought with a sensation of madness of my promise of creating another like to him, and trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged. The wretch saw me destroy the creature . . . and, with a howl of devilish despair and revenge, withdrew." The following night, under a pale moon, Frankenstein sinks his equipment and the remains of this second creation in the sea. Meanwhile the monster visits him again, and, after flying into a rage, promises revenge: "I shall be with you on your wedding-night" [3.3.4]. The promise is soon redeemed. Frankenstein journeys to Italy, where the monster, true to his word, joins him, and on Frankenstein's wedding night, murders his bride.

The murderous mark of the fiend's grasp was on her neck, and the breath had ceased to issue from her lips. . . . While I still hung over her in the agony of despair, I happened to look up. The windows of the room had before been darkened, and I felt a kind of panic on seeing the dark yellow light of the moon illuminate the chamber. The shutters had been thrown back; and, with a sensation of horror not to be described, I saw at the open window a figure the most hideous and abhorred. A grin was on the face of the monster; he seemed to jeer, as with his fiendish finger he pointed towards the corpse of my wife. [3.6.3].
{59} The recurrent pattern of symbols (sacred versus profane) is used one last time. A few weeks later, Frankenstein goes to a nearby graveyard to mourn his lost bride. He vows to destroy the creature but is suddenly disturbed by a fiendish laugh that rings out. "I darted toward the spot from which the sound proceeded, but the devil eluded my grasp. Suddenly the broad disk of the moon arose and shone full upon his ghastly and distorted shape as he fled with more than mortal speed" [3.7.3].

The final scenes of the book, chronicling Frankenstein's pursuit of the monster, serve as a numinous coda to the preceding strange events. Deliberately leaving a trail behind him, the monster heads north, followed by his obsessed creator. "Amidst the wilds of Tartary and Russia, although he still evaded me, I have ever followed in his track. . . . The snows descended on my head, and I saw the print of the huge step on the white plain." As Frankenstein and the monster move north into the polar region, the scenery becomes wilder, reinforcing the element of mysterium: "Immense and rugged mountains of ice often barred up my passage, and I often heard the thunder of the sea."28 Frankenstein catches intermittent glimpses of the monster, who nevertheless manages to elude him every time. At last, almost dead from exhaustion, Frankenstein is taken aboard a ship chartered by a Captain Walton, who is exploring the region. Frankenstein relates his strange tale to Walton, then dies. In the final scene, the monster enters the cabin of the ship, mourns his dead creator, and departs, telling Walton that he intends to immolate himself in a funeral pyre.

Thus the story is resolved in the only feasible way: both the creator and the creation perish. The profanity Frankenstein inadvertently unleashed has been obliterated. The sacred channels of life run pure again, and Frankenstein's mysterious guilt has been atoned.


1. Sigmund Freud, The Complete Psychological Works, trans. and ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth, 1955), vol. 17, pp. 241-43.

2. "Frankenstein is as much a philosophical novel and a vehicle of humanitarian propaganda as it is a novel of terror." Frederick S. Frank, "The Gothic Romance: 1762-1820," in Horror Literature: A Collection and Reference Guide, ed. Marshall B. Tynn (New York: Bowker, 1981), p. 150.

3. For a comment on the influence of Shelley, Godwin, Rousseau, and other Romantic theorists, see Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 155-57.

4. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 162.

5. "Frankenstein's tragedy stems not from Promethean excess, but from his own moral failure to love. He abhorred his creature, became terrified of it, and fled his responsibilities." Harold Bloom, "Frankenstein or the New Prometheus," Partisan Review, 32 (1965), pp. 613-14.

6. A good discussion of the artistry and power of the book is found in Lowry Nelson, Jr., "Night Thoughts on the Gothic Novel," Yale Review 52 (1962), pp. 236-57.

7. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 50.

8. Ibid., p. 51.

9. Rudolf Otto, Religious Essays, trans. Brian Lunn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), p. 3.

10. Marett The Threshold of Religion, (New York: Methuen, 1914), p. 99.

11. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (New York Macmillan, 1957), p. 178.

12. Ibid., p. 204.

13. Shelley, Frankenstein, p. 37.

14. Shelley, Frankenstein, p. 40.

15. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: MacMillan, 1967), pp. 87-89.

16. Shelley, Frankenstein, pp. 47-48.

17. Christoper Small makes some interesting suggestions as to where Mary Shelley may have encountered this version of the legend. See his Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973), pp. 48-59.

18. Samuel Holmes Vasbinder has collected information concerning Mary Shelley's scientific knowledge. See his Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984). In Billion Year Spree (New York: Doubleday, 1973), pp. 7-39, Brian W. Aldiss attempts to make a case for Mary Shelley as "the first writer of science fiction."

19. Shelley, Frankenstein; this and the following three quotations are to pp. 51-59.

20. Small, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, p. 66.

21. L. J. Swingle argues that Frankenstein is a victim the essential unknowableness of things; he discovers the human mind's inability to deduce truth about the essential nature of things from phenomenal data." See his "Frankenstein's Monster and Its Romantic Relatives: Problems of Knowledge in English Romanticism," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 15.1 (Spring, 1973), pp. 51-65.

22. Shelley, Frankenstein, p. 55.

23. P. D. Fleck attributes Frankenstein's guilt to selfishness. "It was the immoderate way in which Frankenstein sought to give shape to his dream that caused his destruction and the destruction of the dream." See "Mary Shelley's Notes to Shelley's Poems and Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism 6 (1967), pp. 226-54.

24. Eliade, Sacred and the Profane, pp. 14-15.

25. Shelley, Frankenstein; this and the following quotations are to pp. 97-103.

26. Quoted in Small, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, p. 63.

27. Shelley, Frankenstein, this and the following quotations are to pp. 145-203.

28. Ibid., pp. 203, 207. For an interesting interpretation of the mountain scenery of the novel, see Linda Bayer-Berenbaum, The Gothic Imagination: Expansion in Gothic Literature and Art (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982), pp. 139-42.