Contents Index

Making a Monster

Anne K. Mellor

Chapter 2 of Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988), pp. 38-51

{38} Mary Shelley's waking nightmare on June 16, 1816, inspired one of the most powerful horror stories of Western civilization. It can claim the status of a myth, so profoundly resonant in its implications for our comprehension of our selves and our place in the world that it has become, at least in its barest outline, a trope of everyday life. Of course, both the media and the average person in the street have mistakenly assigned the name of Frankenstein not to the maker of the monster but to his creature. But as we shall see, this "mistake" actually derives from an intuitively correct reading of the novel. Frankenstein is our culture's most penetrating literary analysis of the psychology of modern "scientific" man, of the dangers inherent in scientific research, and of the exploitation of nature and of the female implicit in a technological society. So deeply does it probe the collective cultural psyche of the modern era that it deserves to be called a myth, on a par with the most telling stories of Greek and Norse gods and goddesses.

But Mary Shelley's myth is unique, both in content and in origin. Frankenstein invents the story of a man's single-handed creation of a living being from dead matter. All other creation myths, even that of the Jewish golem,1 depend on female participation or some form of divine intervention (either directly or instrumentally through magical rituals or the utterance of holy names or sacred letters). The idea of an entirely man-made monster is Mary Shelley's own. And this myth of a man-made monster can be derived from a single, datable event: the waking dream of a specific eighteen-year-old girl on June 16, 1816.2 Moreover, Mary Shelley created her myth single-handedly. All other myths of the western or eastern worlds, whether of Dracula, Tarzan, {39} Superman or more traditional religious systems, derive from folklore or communal ritual practices.

As myth, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for all its resonance, has hardly been well explored. While the film industry has exploited and popularized the more salient dimensions of the story, it has ignored the complexity of Mary Shelley's invention -- in particular, it has overlooked the significance of the making and unmaking of the female monster. Before Ellen Moers's ground-breaking discussion of Frankenstein in The New York Review of Books in 1973, literary scholars and critics had for the most part discussed Mary Shelley's career merely as an appendage to her husband's, dismissing Frankenstein as a badly written children's book even though far more people were familiar with her novel than with Percy Shelley's poetry. Feminist critics have, of course, noted the injustice of this; in the last fifteen years they have begun to explore the multi-layered significance of Frankenstein.3 In the discussion that follows, I shall look at the novel from several different perspectives -- feminist, biographical, psychological, textual, historical, and philosophical. I wish to assess the many ways in which Frankenstein portrays the consequences of the failure of the family, the damage wrought when the mother -- or a nurturant parental love -- is absent.

I have throughout referred to the manuscript and to the first (1818) edition of Frankenstein, since these present a more coherent literary vision generated from the most immediate psychological and social experiences of the author. The most often reprinted second edition of 1831 was substantively revised by Mary Shelley in an attempt to interpolate a later and in some ways contradictory concept of nature and the human will, a concept produced by the traumatic deaths of her husband and children. The three versions of Frankenstein -- manuscript, 1818 edition, and 1831 edition -- constitute a text-in-process whose stages differ as much as do the various texts of Wordsworth's Prelude, albeit for different reasons.

Perhaps I should explain why Frankenstein receives a more extended discussion in this book than do Mary Shelley's other novels. Not only is this novel Shelley's most famous, most complex, and most culturally resonant, but it was also written at a time in her life -- before the deaths of her children, Clara Everina and William, and her husband -- when her imagination was free to explore and articulate the profound ambivalences in her relationship with Percy Shelley. Her later novels suffer from her obsessive need to idealize her husband and the bourgeois family, the results of which are overly sentimental rhetoric and implausible plot-resolutions. Nonetheless, as I shall try to show, these later novels are fascinating for the ways in which they reveal {40} the development of Mary Shelley's thought and undermine the very ideals they purport to affirm.

From a feminist viewpoint, Frankenstein is a book about what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman. As such, the novel is profoundly concerned with natural as opposed to unnatural modes of production and reproduction. Ellen Moers first drew our attention to the novel's emphasis on birth and "the trauma of the after-birth."4 Since this is a novel about giving birth, let us begin with the question of origins, "the question," as Mary Shelley acknowledged in her Introduction to the revised edition of Frankenstein of 1831, "so very frequently asked me -- 'How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?'" [Introduction 1]. Mary Shelley then tells a story almost as well-known as the novel itself, of how she and Byron and Percy Shelley and Dr. Polidori, after reading ghost stories together one rainy evening near Geneva in June, 1816, agreed each to write an equally thrilling horror story; how she tried for days to think of a story, but failed; and finally, how one night after a discussion among Byron, Polidori, and Percy Shelley concerning galvanism and Erasmus Darwin's success in causing a piece of vermicelli to move voluntarily, she fell into a reverie or waking dream in which she saw "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together" and felt the terror he felt as the hideous corpse he had reanimated with a "spark of life" stood beside his bed, "looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes."5

Why did Mary Shelley have such a dream at this point in her life? Affectively, the dream evoked a powerful anxiety in her. Over fifteen years later, she claimed she could still see vividly the room to which she woke and feel "the thrill of fear" that ran through her. Why was she so frightened? Remember that Mary Shelley had given birth to a baby girl eighteen months earlier, a baby whose death two weeks later produced a recurrent dream: "Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby." Once again she was dreaming of reanimating a corpse by warming it with a "spark of life." And only six months before, Mary Shelley had given birth a second time, to William. She doubtless expected to be pregnant again in the near future; and indeed, she conceived her third child, Clara Everina, only six months later in December. Mary Shelley's reverie unleashed her deepest subconscious anxieties, the natural but no less powerful anxieties of a very young, frequently pregnant woman. Clearly, in her {41} dream, Mary Shelley lost her distanced, safely external view of "the pale student" -- she initially "saw" him kneeling beside his creation, just as she "saw" the "hideous phantasm" stir into life. Gradually her dream-work drew her into a closer identification with the student. Even as she watched him rush out of the room, she knew how he felt, shared his "terror" at his success and his "hope" that the thing would subside back into dead matter. At the end of her dream, nothing separates the dreamer from the student of unhallowed arts. Even though she continues to use the third person -- "he sleeps; he opens his eyes" -- she has become the student; she is looking up at the "yellow, watery, but speculative eyes" of the "horrid thing" [Introduction 10]. For only from inside the student's drawn bed-curtains could she see those eyes.

This dream economically fuses Mary Shelley's myriad anxieties about the processes of pregnancy, giving birth, and mothering. It gives shape to her deepest fears. What if my child is born deformed, a freak, a moron, a "hideous" thing? Could I still love it, or would I be horrified and wish it were dead again? What will happen if I can't love my child? Am I capable of raising a healthy, normal child? Will my child die (as my first baby did)? Could I wish my own child to die, to destroy itself? Could I kill it? Could it kill me (as I killed my mother, Mary Wollstonecraft)?

One reason Mary Shelley's story reverberates so strongly is because it articulates, perhaps for the first time in Western literature, the most powerfully felt anxieties of pregnancy. The experience of pregnancy is one that male writers have by necessity avoided; and before Mary Shelley, female writers had considered the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth as improper, even taboo, subjects to be discussed before a male or mixed audience. Mary Shelley's focus on the birth-process illuminates for a male readership hitherto unpublished female anxieties, fears, and concerns about the birth-process and its consequences. At the same time, her story reassures a female audience that such fears are shared by other women.

Mary Shelley's dream thus generates that dimension of the novel's plot which has been much discussed by feminist critics, Victor Frankenstein's total failure at parenting. For roughly nine months, while "winter, spring, and summer, passed away," he labours to give life to his child until, finally, on a dreary night in November, he observes its birth: "I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."6 But rather than clasping his newborn child to his breast in a nurturing maternal gesture, he rushes out of the room, repulsed by the abnormality of his creation. And when his child follows him to his bedroom, uttering inarticulate sounds of desire and affection, smiling at him, reaching out {42} to embrace him, Victor Frankenstein again flees in horror, abandoning his child completely.

Frankenstein's failure to mother his child results from an earlier failure of empathy. Throughout his experiment, Frankenstein never considers the possibility that his creature might not wish the existence he is about to receive. On the contrary, he blithely assumes that the creature will "bless" him and be filled with "gratitude" (49). Frankenstein's lack of imaginative identification with his creation, his lack of what Keats would have called "negative capability," causes him to make a critical mistake. In his rush to complete his experiment, and because "the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance," he resolves to make his creature "of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large" (49). He never once considers how such a giant will survive among normal human beings. Nor does he carefully contemplate the features of the creature he is making. "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 of 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 lips" (52). Frankenstein's inability to sympathize with his child, to care for or even to comprehend its basic needs, soon takes the extreme form of putative infanticide. After his next glimpse of his child, he confesses, "I gnashed my teeth, my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish that life which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed" (87).

Even after the creature reminds Frankenstein of his parental obligation to provide for his child -- "I ought to be thy Adam" (95) -- Frankenstein still fails to give him the human companionship, the Eve, the female creature, that he needs to achieve some sort of a normal life. The creature's consequent despair is registered in the epigraph which appears on the title page of each of the three volumes of the first edition. It is Adam's cry of misery at being punished for his freely chosen sin, a cry which -- given the creature's innocence -- reverberates more poignantly, and ironically, with each reappearance:

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

(Paradise Lost, X, 743-45)
Read rhetorically, these questions sharpen our sense of Frankenstein's {43} responsibility to his creature, and his culpable denial of that responsibility. They articulate the cry of an unfairly punished child: "I never asked to be born!"

Frankenstein's refusal to parent his child is both an impulsive emotional reaction and a deliberate decision. Even on his death-bed Frankenstein stubbornly insists that he has acted correctly. As he confesses to Walton:

During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards my fellow-creatures 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. He shewed unparalleled malignity and selfishness, in evil: he destroyed my friends; he devoted to destruction beings who possessed exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom; nor do I know where this thirst for vengeance may end. Miserable himself, that he may render no other wretched, he ought to die. (215)
Frankenstein's statement is a tissue of self-deception and rationalization. He never once considers whether the creature's "malignity" might have been prevented, as the creature himself repeatedly insists, by loving care in infancy; he never asks whether he was in any way responsible for the creature's development. He relies on a Benthamite utilitarian ethical calculus, the greatest good for the greatest number, without first demonstrating that the creature could not have benefited from the companionship of a female, and without proving that the female creature would have been more malignant than the male (as he claimed when he destroyed her partially finished form). And it never occurs to him that he might have created a female incapable of reproduction. Instead he assumes that the two creatures would share his egotistical desire to produce offspring who would bless and revere them. From the moment of the creature's birth, Frankenstein has rejected it as "demoniacal" (53) and heaped abuse upon it. Frankenstein represents a classic case of a battering parent who produces a battered child who in turn becomes a battering parent: the creature's first murder victim, we must remember, is a small child, whom he wished to adopt.

Throughout the novel, Frankenstein's callous disregard of his responsibility as the sole parent of his only child is contrasted to the examples of two loving fathers: Alphonse Frankenstein and Father De {44} Lacey. Both these fathers assiduously care for their motherless children, providing them with loving homes and moral guidance. "My father . . . watched me as a bird does its nestling," remarks Victor Frankenstein, in a passage deleted from the manuscript of the novel (at 183:33). No "More indulgent and less dictatorial parent" than Alphonse Frankenstein exists upon earth, acknowledges Victor (150). And Father De Lacey has a "countenance beaming with benevolence and love" (104). They construct what Lawrence Stone has described as the closed domestic nuclear family of the eighteenth century, which is organized around the principle of personal autonomy and bound together by strong affective ties.7 Such loving fathers as Alphonse Frankenstein and Father De Lacey are rewarded with the genuine gratitude of their children; Felix and Agatha even starve themselves that their father may eat. Mary Shelley promoted this ideal of the loving family in one of the creature's comments upon his reading:

Other lessons were impressed upon me even more deeply. I heard of the difference of sexes; of the birth and growth of children; how the father doated on the smiles of the infant, and the lively sallies of the older child; how all the life and cares of the mother were wrapt up in the previous charge; how the mind of youth expanded and gained knowledge; of brother, sister, and all the various relationships which bind one human being to another in mutual bonds. (116-17)
Shelley both anticipates and goes beyond Stone's model of the closed domestic nuclear family, however, by introducing a new element, an egalitarian definition of gender-roles within the bourgeois family. Notice that both the father and the mother are equally devoted to their children; that both boys and girls ("youth") are expected to receive an education; that the same bonds mutually bind persons of opposite gender. Shelley's ideological commitment to a mutually supportive, gender-free family functions in the novel as the ethical touchstone by which the behavior of Victor Frankenstein is found wanting.

As she wrote out her novel, Mary Shelley distanced herself from her originating dream-identification with the anxious and rejecting parent and focused instead on the plight of the abandoned child. Increasingly she identified with the orphaned creature. The heart of this three-volume novel is the creature's account of his own development, which occupies all but thirty pages of the second volume of the first edition. And in this volume, Mary Shelley spoke most directly in her own voice: Percy Shelley's manuscript revisions are far less numerous in {45} Volume II than in Volumes I or III. As she described the creature's first experiences in the world and his desperate attempts to establish a bond of affection with the De Lacey family, Mary Shelley was clearly drawing on her own experiences of emotional isolation in the Godwin household. Specific links join the creature's life to Mary Shelley's own. The creature reads about his conception in the journal of lab reports he grabbed up as he fled from Victor Frankenstein's laboratory (125-26); Mary Shelley could have read about her own conception in Godwin's Diary (where he noted the nights on which he and Mary Wollstonecraft had sexual intercourse during their courtship with a "Chez moi" or a "Chez elle", including every night but two between December 20, 1796, and January 3, 1797). Both the creature and Mary Shelley read the same books. In the years before and during the composition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley read or reread the books found by the creature in an abandoned portmanteau -- Goethe's Werther, Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Romans, Volney's Ruins or, . . . the Revolutions of Empire, and Milton's Paradise Lost, as well as the poets the creature occasionally quotes, Coleridge and Byron.8 Moreover, as a motherless child and a woman in a patriarchal culture, Mary Shelley shared the creature's powerful sense of being born without an identity, without role-models to emulate, without a history.9 The creature utters a cri de coeur that was Mary Shelley's own: "Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them" (124).

What the creature does know is that a child deprived of a loving family becomes a monster. Again and again he insists that he was born good but compelled by others into evil: "I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend" (95). Granted a mate, he will become good again: "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" (143). Even after the destruction of all his hopes has condemned him to unremitting vengeance, the creature still insists, "I had feelings of affection, they were requited by detestation and scorn" (165).

The creature's argument is derived in part from Rousseau's Emile, which Mary Shelley read in 1816.10 Rousseau claimed that "God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil."11 He blamed the moral failings of children specifically upon the absence of a mother's love. Attacking mothers who refuse to nurse or care for their own children in early infancy, Rousseau insists, in a comment that self-servingly ignores a father's parental responsibilities (Rousseau abandoned his own children at the local orphanage):


Would you restore all men to their primal duties, begin with the mothers; the results will surprise you. Every evil follows in the train of this first sin; the whole moral order is disturbed, nature is quenched in every breast, the home becomes gloomy, the spectacle of a young family no longer stirs the husband's love and the stranger's reverence. (13)
Without mothering, without an early experience of a loving education, writes Rousseau in a statement that the creature's experience vividly confirms, "a man left to himself from birth would be more of a monster than the rest" (5).

Mary Shelley powerfully evoked the creature's psychic response to the conviction that he is destined to be forever an outcast, as alone as the Ancient Mariner on his wide, wide sea -- a horrifying spectacle that had haunted Mary Shelley's imagination since she heard Coleridge recite the poem in 1806. Again and again the creature cries out:

Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. (95)

I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I? (117)

Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was. . . . no Eve soothed my sorrows, or shared my thoughts; I was alone. (127)

Here Mary Shelley unearthed her own buried feelings of parental abandonment and forced exile from her father. Her creature, disappointed in his long-cherished desire for a welcome from the De Lacey family, feels anger, then a desire for revenge, and finally a violent severing from all that is human, civilized, cultural. "I was like a wild beast that had broken the toils; destroying the objects that obstructed me, and ranging through the wood with a stag-like swiftness . . . All, save I, were at rest or in enjoyment: I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me" (132). Both the allusion to Milton's Satan and the image of a beast breaking out of harness focus her argument that a human being deprived of companionship, of nurturing, of mothering, is driven beyond the pale of humanity. The creature has crossed the barrier that separates the human from the bestial, the domesticated from the wild, the cooked from the raw. Symbolically, the creature turns his acculturated love-gifts of firewood back into raw fire by burning the De Lacey cottage to the ground while dancing round it, himself consumed in a frenzy of pure hatred and revenge.

Searching for his only legitimate parent, the creature encounters outside Geneva the five-year-old William Frankenstein. Once more thwarted in his desire for a family when the child refuses to accompany {47} him, his anger claims -- perhaps unintentionally -- its first human sacrifice. Here, as U. C. Knoepflmacher has suggested, Mary Shelley is uncovering her own repressed aggression.12 For it can be no accident that them creature's first victim is the exact image of her son William, named after his grandfather Godwin. Having felt rejected by her father, emotionally when he married Mary Jane Clairmont and overtly when she eloped with Percy Shelley, Mary had long repressed a hostility to Godwin that erupted in the murder of his namesake. It is actually his double namesake, since Godwin had given the name William to his own son, who was the favored child in the Godwin-Clairmont household, tenderly nicknamed Love-will by his doting mother. This murder thus raises to consciousness one of the most deeply buried fears energizing Mary Shelley's original dream: might I be capable of murdering my own flesh and blood? For William Frankenstein is a deliberate portrait of William Shelley: he has the same "lively blue eyes, dimpled cheeks, and endearing manners" (37), the same "dark eyelashes and curling hair" and propensity to take little wives (62), Louisa Biron being William Frankenstein's favorite playmate, where Allegra Byron was William Shelley's choice. The creature's calculated strangling of the blue-eyed, blond-haired, manly boy articulates both Mary Shelley's horrified recognition that she is capable of imagining the murder of her own child -- capable of infanticide itself -- and her instinctive revulsion against that act. As she suggests, a rejected and unmothered child can become a killer, especially the killer of its own parents, siblings, children. When the nuclear family fails to mother its offspring, it engenders homicidal monsters.

And yet, even without mothering, the creature manages to gain an education. Mary Shelley's allusion to Rousseau's theory of the natural man as a noble savage, born free but everywhere in chains and inevitably corrupted by society, focuses one of the minor concerns of the novel, its theory of education. In the great debate on the relative importance of nature versus nurture, on whether learning achievements should be attributed primarily to innate intelligence or to social environment, Mary Shelley was convinced that nurture is crucial. Her reading of Rousseau's Second Discourse had given her insight into the limitations of the natural man as well as the potential evils of civilization.13 Her creature is Rousseau's natural man, a creature no different from the animals, responding unconsciously to the needs of his flesh and the changing conditions of his environment. He feels pleasure at the sight of the moon, the warmth of the sun, the sounds of bird-song, the light and heat of fire; pain at the coldness of snow, the burning sensation of fire, the pangs of hunger and thirst. In the state of {48} nature, man is free and unselfconscious; insofar as he can gratify his primal desires easily, he is happy. For Frankenstein's creature, a dry hovel is "paradise, compared to the bleak forest, my former residence, the rain-dropping branches, and dank earth" (102). But as Rousseau also emphasized, especially in The Social Contract, the natural man lacks much: language, the capacity to think rationally, companionship and the affections that flow from it, a moral consciousness. Peering through the chinks of his hovel, Mary Shelley's creature rapidly discovers the limitations of the state of nature and the positive benefits of a civilization grounded on family life.

Even though she depicts Frankenstein's creature as Rousseau's natural man, even though she echoes Rousseau's Emile at critical points, she does not endorse Rousseau's view that the simple gratification of human passions will lead to virtuous behavior. Her account of the creature's mental and moral development is more closely allied to the epistemological and pedagogical theories of David Hartley and John Locke. The associationist David Hartley argued that early sensative experiences determine adult behavior, and the rationalist John Locke concurred that natural man is neither innately good nor innately evil, but rather a white paper or blank slate upon which sensations write impressions that then become ideas or conscious experience. The creature's moral development closely parallels the paradigm that Hartley laid out in his Observations of Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations (1749)14 and follows the theories that Locke propounded first in 1690 in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (which Mary Shelley read in 1816) and later in the more pragmatically oriented Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). The creature first experiences purely physical and undifferentiated sensations of light, darkness, heat, cold, hunger, pain and pleasure; this is the earliest period of infancy when "no distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused" (98). Gradually, the creature learns to distinguish his sensations and thus his "mind received every day additional ideas" (99). At the same time he learns the causes of his feelings of pain or pleasure and how to produce the effects he desires by obtaining clothing, shelter, food and fire. The creature's education is completed in just the way Locke advocates, by providing him with examples of moral and intellectual virtue. As Locke insisted:

Of all the ways whereby children are to be instructed, and their manners formed, the plainest, easiest, and most efficacious, is to set before their eyes the examples of those things that you would have them do or avoid. . . . Virtues and vices can by no words be so {49} plainly set before their understandings as the actions of other men will show them.15
When the creature stares through the chink in the wall of his hovel into the adjoining cottage, he sees before him a living illustration of benevolence, affection, industry, thrift, and natural justice in the actions of the De Lacey family. The De Laceys embody Mary Shelley's ideal of the egalitarian family -- with one important exception: they lack a mother. The De Laceys not only stimulate the creature's emotions and arouse his desire to do good to others (which takes the form of gathering firewood for them), but also introduce him to the concept and function of a spoken and written language. Here adopting a referential theory of language, in which sounds or words are conceived as pointing to objects or mental states, Mary Shelley traces the creature's linguistic development from his earliest acquisition of nouns and proper names through his grasp of abstractions to his ability to speak, read, and finally write, the latter processes enabled by his overhearing Safie's French lessons in the next room and by his acquisition of a private library. While Locke's insistence that children learn best from examples now seems commonplace, Peter Gay has rightly reminded us that Locke was the first educator to recognize that human rationality and the capacity for self-discipline evolve gradually in the growing child and that the subject-matter to be learned must be adapted to the differential capacities of children at different stages of development.16

The creature learns from sensations and examples; what he learns is determined by his environment. The De Lacey family provides a lesson in almost perfect virtue, grounded in the private domestic affections, together with a treatise on social and human injustice as practiced in the public realm by the law courts of France and Safie's ungrateful Turkish father. The creature's knowledge of human vice and virtue is further enlarged by his reading. From Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Romans he learns the nature of heroism and public virtue and civic justice; from Volney's Ruins, or A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires he learns the contrasting nature of political corruption and the causes of the decline of civilizations; from Milton's Paradise Lost he learns the origins of human good and evil and the roles of the sexes; and from Goethe's Werther he learns the range of human emotions, from domestic love to suicidal despair, as well as the rhetoric in which to articulate not only ideas but feelings.

The creature's excellent education, which includes moral lessons garnered from the two books Locke thought essential, Aesop's Fables and the Bible, is implicitly contrasted to the faulty education received {50} by Victor Frankenstein. While Alphonse Frankenstein initially followed Godwin's pedagogical precepts -- he inspired his children to learn in a noncompetitive atmosphere by encouraging their voluntary desire to please others and by giving them practical goals (one learns a foreign language in order to read the interesting books in that tongue) -- he failed to monitor sufficiently closely the books that Victor Frankenstein actual[ly] read. Instead of the Bible, Aesop, and Robinson Crusoe recommended by Godwin, Locke, and Rousseau, Victor devoured the misleading alchemical treatises of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus, books which encouraged, not an awareness of human folly and injustice, but rather a hubristic desire for human omnipotence, for the gaining of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life.

Mary Shelley's pedagogy, derived in large part from her father's espousal of Locke, emphasizes the role of the affections in the education of young children. Victor learns because he wishes to please his father, Elizabeth because she wishes to delight her aunt, the creature because he wishes to emulate and be accepted by the De Lacey family. Clearly an unloved child will not learn well -- the creature's education is effectively ended when the De Laceys abandon him. But how well does even a much-loved child learn? Victor Frankenstein was such, but his father's indulgence only encouraged his son's egotistical dreams of omnipotence. In this Mary Shelley reveals her nagging doubt whether even a supportive family can produce a virtuous adult. In the successes and failures of both the creature's and Frankenstein's education, Mary Shelley registered a pervasive maternal anxiety: even if I love and nurture my child, even if I provide the best education of which I am capable, I may still produce a monster -- and who is responsible for that?

Behind Mary Shelley's maternal anxieties lies a more general problem, the problem posed for her by Rousseau's writings. For Rousseau had made it clear that the movement away from the state of nature into the condition of civilization entails a loss of freedom, a frustration of desire, and an enclosure within the prisonhouse of language or what Lacan has called the symbolic order. Civilization produces as much discontent as content. In place of the natural man's instinctive harmony with his surroundings, society substitutes a system of conflicting economic interests and a struggle for individual mastery, an aggressive competition restrained by but not eliminated from Rousseau's favored constitutional democracy. For once the creature has left the state of nature and learned the language and laws of society, he has gained a self-consciousness that he can never lose, the consciousness of his own isolation:


I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were, high and unsullied descent united with riches. . . . but . . . I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endowed with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; . . . When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. . . .

I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known or felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat. (115-16)

Deprived of all human companionship, the creature can never recover from the disease of self-consciousness; for him, no escape, save death, is possible. In this context, the novel points up the irony implicit in Locke's most famous pedagogical maxim: "A sound mind in a sound body is a short but full description of a happy state in this world" (19). Exercise and good diet can produce the healthy body Locke found so conducive to the development of mental and moral capacities; but can the creature, born with a grotesquely oversized and unsound body, ever develop a sound mind? Or, in the terms posed for Shelley by David Hartley, can an unmothered child whose formative experiences are of pain rather than pleasure ever develop a rational intellect, a healthy moral sense, or a normal personality?


1. On the origin and nature of the golem, see Gershom G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Manheim (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), Chapt. 5; and Scholem's witty updating of the idea in his "The Golem of Prague and the Golem of Rehovot," in The Messianic Idea of Judaism (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), pp. 335-40.

2. This date is derived from Dr. Polidori's claim, on June 17, 1816, that "The ghost-stories are begun by all but me," in The Diary of Dr. John William Polidori, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London: Elkin Mathews, 1911), p. 125.

3. The major feminist readings of Frankenstein to date are those by Ellen Moers, in Literary Women (Garden City, New Jersey: Doubleday, 1976), pp. 91-99; Marc A. Rubenstein, "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism 15 (Spring 1976): 165-94; Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 213-47; Barbara Johnson, "My Monster/My Self," Diacritics 12 (1982): 2-10; Devon Hodges, "Frankenstein and the Feminine Subversion of the Novel," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 2 (Autumn 1983): 155-64; Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer -- Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), Chaps. 4-5; Mary Jacobus, "Is There a Woman in This Text?" New Literary History 14 (1982): 117-41; Burton Hatlin, "Milton, Mary Shelley and Partriarchy," in Rhetoric, Literature, and Interpretation, ed. Harry R. Garvin (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1983), pp. 19-47; Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word-Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), Chap. 5; and the essays by George Levine, U. C. Knoepflmacher, Judith Wilt, and Kate Ellis included in The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley and Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1979). For a complete bibliography of research on Frankenstein before 1983, see Frederick S. Frank, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: A Register of Research," Bulletin of Bibliography 40 (1983): 163-88.

4. Ellen Moers, "Female Gothic," in Literary Women, p. 93. This essay first appeared in The New York Review of Books on March 21, 1974.

5. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Introduction to Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (London: Colburn and Bentley; Standard Novels Edition, 1831), p. xi.

6. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mayor and Jones, 1818); all further references to Frankenstein, unless otherwise noted, will be to the only modern reprint of the first edition, edited by James Rieger (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974; reprinted, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), and will be cited by page number only in the text. These phrases occur on pages 51 and 52 of the Rieger text.

7. Lawrence Stone, in The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), distinguishes three types of family structures: the Open Lineage Family, which he asserts was prevalent for the millennium prior to 1600 and characterized by its "permeability by outside influences" and "members' sense of loyalty to ancestors and to living kin" (p. 4); the Restricted Patriarchal Nuclear Family, which he argues came into dominance between 1530-1700 among the upper and middle classes, and in which the father assumed greater power and determined the nuclear family's particular loyalties to political and religious factions; and the Closed Domesticated Nuclear Family, which he says began to develop after 1640 and was "well established by 1750 in the key middle and upper sectors of English society." (8-9). It manifested four key features: "intensified affective bonding of the nuclear core at the expense of neighbors and kin; a strong sense of individual autonomy and the right to personal freedom in the pursuit of happiness; a weakening of the association of sexual pleasure with sin and guilt; and a growing desire for physical privacy" (p. 8). Alan MacFarlane (Love and Marriage in England, Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840 [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986]), Linda A. Pollock (Forgotten Children -- Parent-Child Relations From 1500-1900 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983]), and Randolph Trumbach (The Rise of the Egalitarian Family-Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England [New York, San Francisco, London: Academic Press, 1978]) have criticized Stone's models on the grounds that the Malthusian marriage-system and the affectional nuclear family existed well before the sixteenth century, but their arguments do not sufficiently take into account the documented changes that occurred within the British family during the modern period. Within the context of Stone's classifications, Victor Frankenstein's attempt to create a family or race entirely dependent upon him is an example of the Restricted Patriarchal Nuclear Family, in which the father is, as Stone comments, virtually "a legalized petty tyrant within the home" (p. 7). The Patriarchal Family was becoming more rather than less prevalent in nineteenth-century England under the impact of the industrial revolution and the rigid separation of the public (wage-earning) from the domestic (unwaged) spheres (see Heidi Hartmann, "Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex," in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah Eisenstein [New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1979], 206-47).

8. Mary Shelley's extensive reading program is documented in her Journal (ed. Frederick L. Jones [Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947]); these books are listed on pp. 47-49, with the exception of Volney's Ruins. For knowledge of Volney, she probably relied on Percy Shelley, who read the book in 1814 (Newman Ivey White, Shelley [London: Secker and Warburg, 1941; revised edition, 1947], pp. I:277, 292, 419). For the impact of Volney on Percy Shelley's "The Revolt of Islam," which he was working on during the composition of Frankenstein, see Kenneth Neill Cameron, Shelley -- The Golden Years (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 315.

9. Gilbert and Gubar have emphasized this point in The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 238, 247. See also Marcia Tillotson, "'A Forced Solitude': Mary Shelley and the Creation of Frankenstein's Monster," in The Female Gothic, ed. Juliann E. Fleenor (Montreal and London: Eden Press, 1983): 167-75.

10. Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones, p. 72. Claire Clairmont probably first introduced Mary Shelley to Emile, which she read during their trip back to England in September, 1814, (The Journals of Claire Clairmont 1814-1827, ed. Marion Kingston Stocking [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968], pp. 39-40).

11. Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile, trans. Barbara Foxley (New York: Dutton -- Everyman's Library, 1911; repr. 1963), p. 5. All future references to this Everyman edition are cited in the text.

12. U. C. Knoepflmacher, "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, pp. 88-119. William Veeder endorses this view in his Mary Shelley & Frankenstein -- The Fate of Androgyny (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 161-71.

13. For an illuminating discussion of Rousseau's writings in relation to Frankenstein, see Paul A. Cantor, Creature and Creator: Myth-making and English Romanticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 4-25, 119-28.

14. For an excellent discussion of the parallels between David Hartley's model of psychological development and the Creature's formative experiences, see Sue Weaver Schopf, "'Of what a strange nature is knowledge!': Hartleian Psychology and the Creature's Arrested Moral Sense in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," Romanticism Past and Present 5 (1981): 33-52.

15. John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, ed. Peter Gay (New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1964), p. 66.

16. John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, pp. 1-3.