Contents Index

Frankenstein as Mystery Play

Judith Wilt

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), 31-48

{31} It is an artful dodge of Mary Shelley's to have moved the English Gothic out of the God-haunted Mediterranean into the Swiss republic. Eventually, the Gothic setting will move boldly to Dr. Jekyll's London and Mina Harker's Whitby (before departing again with Wells for outer space). In the early nineteenth century, however, Switzerland, with just a quick foray into Scotland, is as close as the Gothic can be allowed to come. With the change of scene, one set of apparent accidentals also seems to have been discarded, the Walpole-Radcliffe machinery of Church and Sin, Angel and Devil. In 1810, Percy Shelley still delights in the old trappings: even when Zastrozzi, with "a smile of contemptuous atheism," proclaims his belief in "the non-existence of a Deity,"1 he does so in the traditional setting. By 1816, however, Shelley has written Queen Mab and contemplates Jupiter's overthrow in Prometheus Unbound. Writing her Gothic tale in the same new day, Mary Shelley decides not to talk about God (Adam's "Maker" appears merely in the epigraph from Paradise Lost on her novel's title page). God seems dead in the Gothic, and priestcraft even eliminated as an enemy.

Still, for an atheist, the palimpsest of Bible stories contrived for Frankenstein is suspiciously thick. Satan, Cain and Judas, Abraham, Adam and Christ, and the thousand names of the unnameable God, jostle in the figures of Victor Frankenstein and his creature like ghosts in a haunted house. Literally, their name is Legion. Shelley's protagonists wear themselves out trying to manage the spiritual archetypes laid over them by the great Christian poets -- wear themselves and each other down to emaciation. If each is his {32} own haunted body, they are also each other's Gadarene swine, fleeing with the poisoned identities exorcised out into them. Of course, this kind of vocabulary comes from reading Paradise Lost "as a true history," from believing that you face not a stitchery of bone and flesh but "a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived" [1.4.3].2 The absence of God is celebrated in the presence of metaphor. For Mary Shelley, it would seem, a poetic-Christian-literary baggage is only useful to describe the otherwise inexplicable excesses of the human soul.

Still, Shelley's book derives its special force not from eccentricity but from an eerie familiarity with an astonishing variety of contexts. And one of these contexts is exactly the God-haunted English Gothic tradition. Frankenstein is of a piece with Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796) and James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), in a tradition that is painfully acting out under the nose of the Enlightenment a long line of expunged doctrines -- Justification, Creation, Damnation -- and unspeakable sacraments -- Holy Orders, Confession, Communion. A tradition, unmistakably, from Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1765) to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), the Mystery Play of the Romantic mind. We thought the Gothicists were hiding something in all that incense and chapelgloom, mitres, crosses, hosts and hoods, wimples and prayers. And they hid it, Watson, where it is hardest to find, in the most obvious place: on the surface.


Classic English Gothic took shape in the 1750s and 60s, after a hundred years of Enlightened Anglican revision of the Puritan Counter-Reformation, after a hundred years of safe but dull parliamentary and party rule had almost wiped out the memory of Divine Right tyrants, Anglican and Puritan. Not for another sixty years or so, until Scott's and Hogg's mad Covenanters, would the specifically English roots of the Gothic fascination with tyrannical religious establishments and distended God-men become clear. And not until Bram Stoker had to bring a Belgian scientist-saint with a satchelful of Sacred Wafer to counter the evil Transylvanian {33} Power that was making bloodpies out of healthily unsuperstitious Anglicans did the shamed yearning for the Great Old Faith, preemptive, terrible and beautiful, get openly acknowledged. Transposed in its first phase to Mediterranean Catholicism and the drama there of formation, reformation, and counterreformation, the Gothic fascination took hold. Coyly posing as antiquarian editor of a dusty text found in an old North Catholic family's library, Walpole speculates that The Castle of Otranto might have been a tool of the Counter-Reformation, "to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions." It was the Religious Question again; it was even the Theological Question.

It was even, I want to argue, the Trinitarian Question, the deep-structured subject of the English Gothic Mystery, the attempt to explore and explain the flight of a parental mind out of itself into what Frankenstein's Creature will gropingly call "the series" of its being.3 As both Frankenstein and his Creature will discover, this flight involves a double peril. If the flight is successful, each member in the series is diminished; if the flight is not successful, neither movement nor growth is possible. The struggle of Frankenstein and his Creature, the Father and the Son, is in this context powerfully arresting and inconclusive. Nightmare waits on both sides: diminishment leads finally to non-being, yet the failure to extend brings the horrors of paralysis and inward diminution.

The efforts of theologians to imagine the mind of God as extending without diminishing are thus highly instructive. In a world made corruptly various by the variousness of the old gods, "the fathers" of the early Christian centuries wrestled for the pure will in one preemptive Being, while allowing force, nature, and "person" to two others, the Son and the Holy Ghost. "Special place" was allowed for another holy being, a subordinate but crafty spirit,4 as {34} she would have to have been, the Virgin Mother. In its reach for the nature of God, the Trinitarian intuition has a great deal of nobility, even ecstasy about it. Separateness which exist for the sharp joy of choosing communion again at every second in a seamless intense serenity -- these are the God in the old Christian language, or perhaps, as theologian Mary Daly has recently proposed in Beyond God the Father, this is what is involved in the verb "to God." The dynamic of this institution is not so much a dying to live, but the less abstract though more mysterious paradox of kenosis, the emptying out to be filled up. The Father pours himself out into the Son, the Son, knowing himself separate, makes the astonishing choice to curve that stream of Being back toward the progenitor; that choice separates as person, as Holy Ghost, and reflects through all matter that same curve outward with perfect confidence that the final destination is inward. Thus the emptier is always filled, the spring never runs dry. There is no heat-death threatened in this universe; even the exchanges of energy take place without loss for they are not really exchanges, body to body, but numinous participations in a world without end.

We remember that ideal. But we remember too that woman was excluded from the formal orthodox formulations of the ideal to a subordinate and crafty place, where she becomes demonic. And we remember that a great battle was fought over the first thousand Christian years to establish that orthodox unbearable balance for God and a Church both One and Catholic. The Holy Ghost is not to be separated but "proceeds" from the Father and the Son, filioque; the Son is not to be separated, not even in his human dimension, but in every aspect and moment is with and from the and to the Father and the Holy Ghost, "begotten, not made," not the maker. All angles of the Godhead are "consubstantial," as the formula had it -- the formula imposed upon a divided Council at Nicaea by the Godfather of the Church, Constantine. God is a communion, man is a community; if anyone dwell too long, fascinated on the moment of separation, let that one be, in the world of the ultimate curse, anathema, that is, separated.

{35} In a universe shaped by the curve of God out into consubstantial Personhood everything that moves moves together: in the words of the theologian Teilhard de Chardin taken up in a modern Gothic work by Flannery O'Connor, everything that rises must converge. In such a universe, dread has the shape of an unmoving point, or a point whose movement affirms a straight line. In such a universe, freedom is a long curve, slavery an obsessed straight line against all the energies of Being. Dreadful, but fascinating: against the whole outward upward inward sweep, to travel straight to the edge of the curve and leap off, to find Damnation. A contemporary poet, trying to account for his interest in the Gothic, pounces on this insight: "But Ambrosio is the point: the point is to conduct a remarkable man utterly to damnation. It is surprising after all, how long it takes -- how difficult it is -- to be certain of damnation."5 This is John Berryman on Lewis's The Monk, ten years before the poet killed and resurrected himself in The Dream Songs ("Noises from underground made gibber some / others collected & dug Henry up"), and twenty-two years before he leapt off the edge into the Mississippi ("insomnia-plagued, with a shovel / digging like mad, Lazarus with a plan / to get his own back, a plan, a stratagem / no newsman will unravel").

The Gothic treats of the Separated One, his search to be sure of Damnation. And it might be argued that the central tradition of the English novel, F. R. Leavis's Great Tradition of moral seriousness, was begotten from it by heretics who want to allow the Separated One his or her mission in the outward curve, allow it, and then, if possible, rescue the missionary. For as Gothic fiction shows unmistakably, and Trinitarian theology implies, the most intense moral life is always lived at the edge of separation or the edge of recommunion. The terrors of the Separated One are always more moving and more instructive than the terrors of the outraged community; and the progress, as Berryman called it, of the self-separated one, the Gothic hero-villain, is even more significant, in terms of human awareness, than the progress, or rather the standfastness, of the one separated by circumstance, the Gothic "victim," the orphan, the bastard, above all, the woman. Separated he may be (usually it is he), but still, in the affirmation Conrad's Marlow makes, he is "one of us," though he confirms his separation by {36} walking "away from the living woman [usually it is a woman] towards some shadowy ideal of conduct," as Lord Jim does in the last paragraph of Conrad's novel.

As Victor Frankenstein does. The ideal and its shadow are familiar mysteries in Frankenstein, and familiar too is the place of celebration. As the Gothic has its classic plots, so it has its characteristic space, the haunted castle, as Eino Railo calls it, "the centre of suspense," the "hidden chamber where the terrifying element is housed."6 In eighteenth-century Gothic novels it is the mystically tenanted chapel with its activating priest; in the nineteenth century it is the laboratory. Victor Frankenstein raises his hands over the mortal scraps on his table and calls down into them the ideal. There is in the ordinary celebration of this mystery always a space between the altar and the chapel; the priest is both dangerously separated from the community and together with it.

But it makes all the difference in the circling story of Victor Frankenstein that there is no community present at his Mass, not even an altar boy.7 The priest is separated but together, son and brother to the congregation that calls him father, child to the Power he calls upon, brother to the Person who emerges in the mortal scraps from and with and to the Father. Without the presence of the community somewhere behind, this dynamic is lost, and a terrible simple doomful Transference occurs in the would-be priest. Choose to play God and the Deity points out that the position is already occupied.

He who separates himself completely as Victor Frankenstein did from the curve of the community, from the marrying-begetting, giving over life to the new generation, dying in his turn -- he is by that wish a murderer and in the Gothic he gets, horribly, what he wishes for. It is an economical universe: if he wants immortality, all the life in the world, he is doomed to take it away from others. It is one thing to take it away from his mother; in the natural order he may do that, if his son may take it away from him in turn. But Victor, utterly fixed in outrage and guilt when he looks upon the death of his mother, expects to keep death at bay by reversing her example, by withholding life from his child, who would take it away.

{37} It is a mistake to be too far misled by Victor's apparently unselfish wish to become "the father of a new race of beings." Like Walpole's Manfred, who calls in sly desperation for "more sons" when the family sin strikes his son dead, he is not so spontaneously generous with life as he seems. Look instead to these fathers' attitudes towards their daughters, objects of horror and lust to them, custodians of life barred from the father's control by the oldest of patriarchal taboos. Manfred does not want his daughter, and finally kills her; Frankenstein looks at his daughter/creature lying unanimated on the table, recognizes that she, unpredictable and uncontrollable, will take both the son/creature and the new race out of his power, and destroys her. With Ann Radcliffe's famous monk Schedoni, it was his brother and his brother's wife and almost his daughter; with Lewis's Ambrosio, it was his mother and sister, living their share of the familial life and by accident or design, by agent or by hand, killed and emptied of it so that the preempting father may live, may forsake his real nature as son/brother, may avoid his real Trinitarian choice to curve his life-share back to the Father.

Victor Frankenstein is a compendium of all these Gothic dooms and Mysteries. From childhood he knew himself "the idol" of an aged father and a young mother whose special tenderness to him sprang from "the deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which the had given life" (p. 34). When he was five he was "given" an adopted sister, Elizabeth Lavenza: "my mother had said playfully, 'it was a pretty present for my Victor.' . . . I, with childish seriousness, interpreted her words literally" (pp. 35-36). In school he was "indifferent to my schoolfellows in general," but he selected one friend, Henry Clerval, whose interest in "the moral relations of things," politics, culture, social adventure, complemented Victor's own lack of interest in these things and left him free to pursue that "curiosity about the secrets of heaven and earth" which is among the "earliest sensations" he can remember. Perhaps his deepest, and indeed most sensual memory, is the outrage he felt at the death of his mother. Death, "that most irreparable evil," seems to his questing mind the key to the significant secret of life: "to examine the causes of life we must first have recourse to death" (p. 51). Anatomy is a "not sufficient" resource; the boy spends "days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses" (p. 52). In the grisly study of worm and waste, of rot and decay, he is checked by no natural or supernatural repugnance, having had a {38} thoroughly republican pragmatic education: "my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors" (p. 51). To be free of supernatural of philosophical speculation is to regard death simply as a disease, and life as a cure, a material quantity waiting to be isolated.

Neither is he checked in his charnel house excursions by that fellow-feeling with human and natural life by which Radcliffe and the Romantic poets dramatize the harmonic universal curve: "my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature. And the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends . . . whom I had not seen for so long a time" (p. 55). Cut off, self-separated, he "lost all soul or sensation but for one pursuit" whose goal, the benevolent and disinterested creation of life, seems from the start linked with a sinister dilation of himself: "A new species would bless me as its creator and source . . . . No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" (p. 54). Even the wish to so increase his consequence constitutes a profound separation, and "I shunned my fellow creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime" (p. 56).

When on that "dreary night of November" the conception is birthed, the bread and wine transubstantiated, love turns without warning to hatred, as it is wont to do in the Gothic: "I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation, but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart." He rejects and abandons his desire, his dilation of himself already criminally eight feet high. And the creation and rejection together bring on the novel's most significant dream. He is embracing his affianced Elizabeth -- she is a corpse, the corpse of his dead mother -- "and I saw the grave worms crawling in the folds of the flannel" (p. 58).

A Freudian might see in the whole progress of Frankenstein simply a wish to join his loved mother in the tomb; but the Gothic, as we have seen, adds an extra dimension, a profound resentment of the sources of one's being, especially the female sources, stemming from the desire to be one's own source and one's own goal, to stand fixed and to hold-in life. Thinking he has sought life in the embrace of death, Victor has in fact been seeking death in the embrace of life, seeking death to kill it like a virus. And his creature/son, his hold on immortality, his dilated self, deliberately made (not {39} begotten) too gigantic to be overturned in the going-out of time and matter, has this same nightmare in his make-up. Insofar as he is Frankenstein's avatar, the creature proceeds with dreamlike thoroughness to cut off in fact all those whom Frankenstein cut off from his affections while he fed his obsession -- his brother, his friends Justine and Clerval, eventually indirectly his father, and of course, preeminently, his "more than sister," his almost-wife, Elizabeth.

Insofar as he is his own being, first Adam, then Satan and then Cain, the creature reenacts the whole hopeless cycle. He cannot stand the state of separation. He knows he is the son, that his marrying and murdering-or-begetting impulse is a compensation mechanism for his real need to curve his being back to the father. But Frankenstein's fears and the creature's own deep resentments make full recommunion impossible. Since his memory constantly torments him with Frankenstein's rejection and with Frankenstein's ultimate responsibility for his being, and since he looks like what he is, the Separated One, perversely joined together, he can deceive no one, make no compromise or accommodation.

Nor can Frankenstein. Like Prospero, he finally acknowledges this thing of darkness his, even acknowledges this thing of darkness him: "my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave and forced to destroy all that was dear to me" (p. 77). But he cannot bring himself to actualize woman on any level: "Alas! to me the idea of the immediate union with my Elizabeth was one of horror and dismay . . . . Could I enter into a festival with this deadly weight yet hanging around my neck?" he mourns, ambiguously clutching his albatross (pp. 151-52). The drama is inexorably, as it has always been in the Gothic, between himself and himself, since he wants to keep himself fixed and immortal, yield no atom of his being back to death. This drama, which went under the name of hypocrisy in eighteenth-century Gothic, enters the nineteenth century as schizophrenia, the actual detachment of multipersonalities. In nineteenth-century Gothic the fragment of self that escapes and must be reabsorbed is not recognized as child, as it was in Walpole and Radcliffe, but as brother, as it is in Hogg's The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Mary Shelley's book, as it dramatizes both a kind of hypocrisy and a kind of schizophrenia in Victor's consciousness, both a {40} father-child and a brother-self relationship in the two center figures, stands right at the tipping point in Gothic presentation of this dilemma.

Consciously, both beings know they are in a battle for the one available quantum of existence, "bound by ties only dissolvable by the annihilation of one of us." It is above all Frankenstein who seeks to annihilate the creature, to take back his life. His indestructible self, even in the accomplishment of pursuits and torments upon his creator that double his own agony, keeps Frankenstein alive at all costs out of a powerful sense that he cannot sustain existence alone, that alone, despite his size, he is not quite real, cannot stand his ground. Locked together in a race to the North Pole, the one steady state on the compass, the two pass and sight and lose each other in a fury of malice and thwarted love. The father has looked upon himself and that look has begotten a son; the son has looked upon the father and that look which was, as both recognize, naturally holy and creative, is now an unholy ghost of utter destruction, decreation, the last term in the series of Mary Shelley's atheistic trinity. That Unholy Ghost is the real pursuer of both beings into the ice. Frankenstein dies, hounded. Looking at the corpse, the son in this trinity keens, in the Miltonic biblical cadence that marks all their exchanges: "in his murder my crimes are consummated; the miserable series of my being is wound to its close" (p. 219). "My work is nearly complete," he repeats to Frankenstein's friend, the explorer Walton: "neither yours nor any man's death is needed to consummate the series of my being and accomplish that which must be done, but it requires my own. Do not think that I shall be slow to perform this sacrifice" (p. 222).

This has a familiar holy ring, but we should remember that Paradise Lost impressed the creature (and, one presumes, both Shelleys) not as a heroic sacrifice story but as the story of a God "warring with his creatures." And indeed the reader of Milton's epic learns about two trinities. One is Holy, with an arguably Arian twist to its picture of a gaudily subservient, not very separated or choice-agonized Son, and a Spirit that "came forth spontaneous" to create the world at the moment when the Father most shone in the Son. Another is Unholy, remarkably imaged in Book II as Satan, Sin, and Death. In this trinity, the just rebelling Satan looked upon himself, and that look, that self-perception, half narcissistic love, half candid disgust, burst from the Father as a Daughter, Sin, not {41} Son. The two curved back toward each other again in stark narcissism, and that mutuality emerged as Death: Death, repeating the narcissism that is always half love half hate ("though more, it seems / inflam'd with lust than rage"), revisited the Daughter and produced the fearful hell hounds who also endlessly repeat the enraged Lust. This trinity's dramatic climax comes when Death and Satan meet at the gates of hell, Father and Unholy Ghost ready to slay one another until the mediating Word, Sin, convinces each to turn his hate and hunger outward, upon creation. At the end of the encounter, fighting has turned to fawning, and Death, the final inevitable term in the series of Satan's being, the Unholy Ghost, spirit of Decreation, emerges through the great Gate to breathe upon the new earth his invitation to return to eldest Night and Chaos, where all movement is either purposeless strife or blind purposeless rigidity.

No wonder Victor Frankenstein shrinks at the last moment from the animation of his Daughter, the next term in what has now turned into an Unholy series of his being. No wonder that the creature, looking upon that destroying Father, shifts permanently to that Unholy series, turned in a moment from Christ to Sin. He binds Frankenstein permanently to himself as Sin did Satan, by the murder of his wife, the closing off of any positive or normal terms of his being, and by the constant saving of his life, supplying him with food during his progress to the final frozen rest. The two Persons, first and second terms of the trinity, alternately holy and unholy on that long progress, lock regards, lock wills, seek to materialize a third Person. Will it be the Holy or the Unholy Ghost?

Something in the serenity and even nobility of the ending of the novel seems to promise the former, the creative spirit, brooding over northern waters and keeping alive in the explorer Walton and his men somehow both prudence and aspiration. Perhaps. But the content of the wish, the Word's word at the end, seems unequivocally Decreation, the invoking of the reign of Night and Chaos. Or his self-made funeral pyre the creature expects "light, feeling and sense will pass away . . . . my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds . . . . the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish' (p. 222).

Decreation, the pulling apart, laying asleep, washing away of body, soul, and consciousness, is a Gothic AntiMystery vividly dramatized in novel after novel, one that rules more strongly than {42} the Creation mystery, the Awakening moment. The exquisite, the unbearable Awakeness that characterizes the citizens of the Gothic world, that makes them see and hear the Ghosts that we do not, gives way in the central citizen, the Gothic hero-villain, to a recognition, willing or unwilling, of Decreation, the falling asleep. This intense susceptibility is Ann Radcliffe's special province of character; pursuer and pursued share it. The sentimental hero is distinguished by it and the Gothic hero-villain by his profound attempt to deny it. Sensation bombards consciousness unmercifully in her novels in a universe with strong resemblances to Lawrence's. The hero-villain's consciousness grapples with its own moods and in a fury of bitterness pronounces the human condition intolerable, human nature evil and changeable, morally laughable. For him "hardihood" is the only possible value, a good word of Radcliffe's to express that standing fast in the rain of contradictory emotions, the wish to be the immovable object among the irresistible forces which follow the universal curve, change the mind and change the matter. In the eyes of his victims, and this by the crafty convention of the Gothic is usually the initial stance of the reader, the hero-villain seems to be the irresistible force, the master of plot, sweeping obstacles out of his way in the dash for power. Yet the twist inward that all good Gothic fiction makes, inward from the terrors or the threatened victim or community to the terrors of the monster, always shows us from his standpoint a universe sweeping him away, sucking at his ground, his identity, his meaningfulness, his "consequence." And the dilation of his power, the solidifying of his consequence, the building of himself eight feet tall, is a struggle to hold ground, to stay in place in a cosmos which moves. The brilliant transfixing eye of the Gothic hero-villain is only secondarily a search and destroy apparatus; essentially it is attempting to pin the world in place. The simple lesson of the Gothic, then, is a lesson for the Gothic hero, with whose terrors we are always brought to identify. The lesson is that eat power, eat people, extend your desires as you may, you cannot grow big enough to avoid being rolled away around the curve. One's only hope in such a universe is clearly to move from ultimate faith in (preemption of) the Creation Mystery, to ultimate ground in the Resurrection mystery, a move which the Gothic hero-villain resists with a wonderful tragic stubbornness dramatized most memorably, and most subtly, in Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).

{43} Radcliffe's murdering Confessor Monk Schedoni makes a good try at standing still; like Iago, he attempts not to change when his fortune changes and he carries some of his secrets and some of his motivations with him, so that even when he is rolled away, a rather disturbing blank is left. For the lesson made literal, dark and chilling, we can look to the end of another monk, Lewis's Ambrosio. This man too has an intimation of greatness and an even more powerful sensation of instability and shrinkage: he also has -- handy Gothic machine -- an androgynous demon to taunt him with nursing unacted desires. In rage, in lust, in hate, he must flesh out each desire as its baby shape is revealed to him, and finally, ripe to bursting with hypocrisy, matricide, incest, rape and blasphemy, and huge with despair, he falls, "rolled from precipice to precipice," is broken down by rocks and picked apart by birds, dissolved by sun and air, his substance eaten by insects and washed into the sand and the sea "on the seventh day" of his Decreation.

Something like that is envisioned by Frankenstein's creature, an entry into Night and Chaos, extinction without rage, though Resurrection lurks around the edges of his consciousness: "my spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus" (p. 223).


Frankenstein is a deeply complex and somewhat ambiguous mélange of analogies that play more or less heavily at different moments. It will not do to regard Victor Frankenstein simply as mad scientist,8 for he also has crucial existences as cloistered monk, as flawed God, as anti-husband. Readers of Romantic poetry who come to look more closely at the author of this remarkable story are now recognizing in Frankenstein a variation on the Shelleyan doomed seeker, an Alastor who refuses all comfort in the community, vile stuporous mass that it is, to seek his vision of ideal beauty with such passion that the actual loving figure of the Indian maiden beside him becomes the illusion, and the abstract illusion the reality. Or like the poet of "Epipsychidion," a man who seeks as a lover not an autonomous human being but his imagined double self, that "soul fled out of my soul" which he dreams of taking {44} apart from the world into a tower on an island, where he and his recovered soul will melt back together again in a creation (love) that sounds much more like a decreation, first of the other being, then of the single soul:
In one another's substance finding food. . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . 
One hope within two wills, one will beneath
Two overshadowing minds, one life, one death,
One Heaven, one Hell, one immortality,
And one Annihilation.

[lines 580, 584-87]
These are Shelleyan decreation poems, written in the same span that saw the great creation, or rather Resurrection Mystery, of Prometheus Unbound. Frankenstein was written in 1816 and partakes of the same ecstatic despair before the old aesthetic paradox -- the poet sets out to create an image of beauty and instead looses into the world, soul out of my soul, an image of death. The poet masters himself in the arduous making of the poem, but the poem, once free, is masterless. And vulnerable. Frightened critics may turn on the artwork and attempt to kill it, or spurn it as (let us say) "a loose baggy monster." Or the poem may turn harsh and tear human nature. And in the general emotional conflagration, poet and artifact may lock together in a miserable destroying bond that leaves no room for the living woman, who is the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft after all, and hence no anxious bourgeoise, but who would still quite like to be a wife.

If Frankenstein as creator is of changing import, alternately Shelleyan resurrector and Blakean Nobodaddy, even more so is the creature. Machine and poem, son and brother, alter ego to Frankenstein, not as black is to white but as mirror is to man, or as imagination is to the whole being, the creature matches Frankenstein in his progress in a straight line across the curve to the edge of Damnation. Both beings, in their stature, their capacity to think and feel more intensely than the community, in the profound sense of original grace and gift that attends them and the equally profound intuition they both have of secret and original sin and burden, are the Gothic hero-villain as Walpole's Manfred described himself, the Man of Sorrows. Yet behind that phrase in the {45} Western Christian heritage stands another Person, of whom the Gothic hero is not a blasphemy but an appropriation. He too is a Son pursued and killed by the Father. Yet, as in the case of Manfred, it is not so much the Son who must be annihilated but the sin which the Son harbors. In the Christian vision of this second Adam the Father's Son remakes himself out of the sins of men, constructs a new being, as Frankenstein did, from the limbs and organs of criminals and vagrants. The creature, both apart from and together with his Father, recognizes his dependence and struggles against it, knowing that his father's will curves toward his death. At the end the creature decides to fulfill that will. He sets off to construct his funeral pyre partly to end his personal torment and to leave a world made cold by the absence of his creator, but also to fulfill the last wish of Frankenstein, that the creature, whose relationship to the human community if not to Frankenstein himself is now unambiguous hatred, remove that threat to the community:

Thou didst seek my extinction, that I might not cause greater wretchedness. I shall . . . consume to ashes this miserable frame, that its remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch who would create such another as I have been. [P. 223]
Thus at the end the creature leaves unsolved in himself the two important paradoxes of the novel. The community of feeling beings is so linked that when he causes wretchedness, to Frankenstein whom he knows or even to Justine whom he does not know, he experiences wretchedness. And when they cause him misery no exertion of will or reason, not even the anticipation of his own remorse, can keep him from returning misery to them -- he is "the slave of an impulse which I detested yet could not disobey" (p. 220). Yet both creature and creator, if they cannot disobey the impulse that irresistibly feeds their life, be it poisoned or nourishing, into the community, can also not resist the contrary impulse, to go apart, to seek truths where community is not, to do their greatest endeavors where men are not. This is Frankenstein at the beginning, holding his little community of family and friends in stasis, at a distance, while he pursues his object. And so he is at the end. He has in his pursuit/flight with the creature in the Arctic been succored by the explorer Walton, who also has as his object the conquest of the farthest material secrets, tracing a straight line up the {46} round earth. Like his creature after him, Frankenstein tells his tale as a warning to all who would travel too far out of the will and the touch of community; and looks forward to his death as the exemplary seal on that warning. Yet when the men of Walton's ship vote to turn back from the dangerous ice and gales, Frankenstein harangues them to continue, to "believe these vast mountains of ice are mole-hills which will vanish before the resolutions of men" (p. 213). The impulse to move out of community into the void, to make molehills out of mountains and vice versa, is alive in Frankenstein to the very end. Embodying that impulse the creature sets off into the north wastes in the novel's last sentence -- not wearily or reluctantly, he "springs" from the ship. He intends, he says, to go to extinction, or at least to sleep. Yet the novel does not show his extinction; that spirit is clearly still alive, part Holy part Unholy Ghost. And succeeding generations of the community, responding unerringly to Mary Shelley's real message, have brought him back, play by film by novel, to seek love, to be repulsed, to kill and be killed and remain unkillable.

He comes back to seek love, reaching out of the Decreation Mystery, the embrace of the living dead, beautiful and terrible staple of the Gothic, the annihilating love which is the sin against the Holy Ghost. Lawrence understood -- Lawrence whom Leavis elevated higher than Joyce in the Great Tradition both as a thinker and as a literary technician because "he can truly say that what he writes must be written from the depths of his religious experience."9 That same experience gives him language to penetrate the Gothic Tradition, to describe in his classic study of Edgar Allan Poe the sin of Poe's lovers and of all Gothic annihilating lovers, Victor Frankenstein and his creature included:

Moreover, they are 'love' stories . . . . Love is the mysterious vital attraction which draws things together, closer, closer together . . . . [The House of Usher] is lurid and melodramatic, but it is true. It is a ghastly psychological truth of what happens in the last stages of this beloved love, which cannot be separate, cannot be isolate, cannot listen in isolation to the isolate Holy Ghost. For it is the Holy Ghost we must live by. The next era is the era of the Holy Ghost. And the Holy Ghost speaks individually inside each individual; always, forever a ghost. There is no manifestation to the general {47} world . . . . The Ushers, brother and sister, betrayed the Holy Ghost in themselves . . . . They would love, they would merge, they would be as one thing. So they dragged each other down to death. For the Holy Ghost says you must not be as one thing with another being. Each must abide by itself, and correspond only within certain limits.10
To abide apart, yet correspond. Separate but consubstantial. Classic Gothic, the orthodox sublime, believes in correspondence, believes in love, strives against limits. It is one of the major "spines" of Romance and yet it is one of the most deeply conservative of the Romance genres, punishing first the community that declines to strive and then the striving being who preempts that function. Classic Gothic creates the Romance world of two opposite absolutes, but the special flavor of the Gothic, as Lawrence notes, is to show not the inevitability and stamina of duality, as Romance often does, but the vulnerability of it. Pace Lévi-Strauss, the bistructured world is radically unstable, it seeks collapse into oneness, or else seeks to generate a third term to marshall itself into unity, not oneness. That is why in the Christian Mystery the Trinity needs the Holy Ghost, that unseen triangulation point that makes "person" possible. That is what Lawrence means by the Holy Ghost, a third dimension with no manifestation to the general world that provides space to dwell in for beings who otherwise were simply points on a line infinitely collapsing. The Gothic describes the failure of its significant people to generate that triangulation point, listen to the Holy Ghost. Romance may show the duality, the opposite absolutes, still holding apart in tension, but Gothic Romance usually shows the merge-back-together.

Frankenstein shows all these actions. At the ultimate edge of miserable hostile merging the creature seeks to generate a third term in the duality, a woman with whom he can triangulate sufficient mental space to deal with Frankenstein. And Frankenstein tries to do this himself with Elizabeth. Then, jealous and doomed, each destroys the other's triangulation point, the other's Holy Ghost. Instinctively Mary Shelley seeks this same thing in her artistic structure, creating the explorer Walton to raise and then to {48} frustrate expectations of greater mental space within the novel. But though she can give Walton pertinence and even some complexity, she cannot give him weight enough to make that third dimension; so the novel tightens and tautens back into its destined shape, the Gothic Romance, the duality snapping back into merge and annihilation, "borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance." The Trinity was never achieved. The Mystery was Poe's Mystery, Decreation.


1. P. B. Shelley, Zastrozzi: A Romance, chap. 17; Eustace Chesser, Shelley and Zastrozzi (London, 1965), p. 156.

2. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. M. W. Joseph (New York, 1971), p. 58. All subsequent references given in the text are to this Oxford edition.

3. The "warm controversy between the theologians respecting the nature of God and his mode of acting and manifesting himself" occupies much of the book that inspires Frankenstein's Creature with such "strange feelings," M. Volney's The Ruins, Or, A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires. In chapter 21, on problems of "religious contradiction," Volney makes a remark that also would have interested the father-begotten creature: "after permitting the human species to damn themselves for four or five thousand years, this God of compassion ordered his well-beloved son engendered without a mother." These quotations are taken from the 1857 London edition of The Ruins, pp. 121, 102.

4. "A subordinate but crafty spirit" is M. G. Lewis's description of the demonic Mathilda in The Monk. Mathilda first reaches the doomed Monk's heart through her resemblance to a picture of the Virgin Mary that Ambrosio worships in his bedroom. P. B. Shelley's Matilda in Zastrozzi seems derived from Lewis's figure, while Mary Shelley's heroine in Mathilda is conceived as a Dantean figure, as Peter Scott points out on p. 185, below.

5. John Berryman, Introduction to The Monk (New York, 1952), p. 13.

6. Eino Railo, The Haunted Castle (New York, 1927), p. 171.

7. The "Igor" of cinematic fame is thus an invention absolutely counter to Mary Shelley's theme: Victor Frankenstein's creation is a solitary act.

8. As Brian Aldiss does both in his history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree (New York, 1973), and in Frankenstein Unbound (New York, 1973).

9. F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (New York, 1969), p. 125.

10. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York, 1954), p. 79. For a different connection between this work and Frankenstein, see George Levine's discussion on pp. 28-29, above.