While reading your tale of a grotesque but sentient creature who, in an unorthodox experiment, is endowed with the spark of life by the young scientist Victor Frankenstein, I found myself in search of the female perspective you might have left hidden behind one of the most popular books written by a woman in the 19th century.
I soon came to the conclusion that looking for a critical female perspective would only lead me to a dismembered corpse devoid of possible animation by light. Yours is a birth-tale without a mother: Frankenstein is the man who, in his hybris, usurps the female role, and is therefore punished. Morevoer, all the protagonists are male, and their deepest attachments are to other males. The women, on the other hand, are depicted as passive, gentle, devoid of inner experience or desire; they are either the audience or the victims of male recklessness. The series of concentric narrative circles, which gives form to your novel’s structure, comprises three men who narrate, in first person, their stories.
Robert Walton’s epistolary communication with his sister, Mrs. Margaret Saville, envelops the entire tale: it is part of an outer frame structure, within which, like Russian dolls giving birth to each other, other narratives unfold in layers, as if they were being slowly peeled off from each other. Walton’s letters give place to Frankenstein’s narrative of his creation, told to Walton in flashback. Within Frankenstein’s narrative, at the heart of the book, we have a third story, told to him by the Creature He Created, The Thing Without A Name, the monster. Inside the Creature’s narrative, we have the story of the De Lacey family, as well as references to Paradise Lost. At the end, Walton’s narrative closes the frame around Victor’s final account: the successive stories are both contained in each other, and the containers of one another. Your book can well be described as the story of the experience of writing the book itself, the layered process of giving birth to a series of stories stitched to each other, a patchwork, as was the creation of the monster himself, the creature who is to be found in the heart of those stories.
The women in the novel are never given a voice, and all of them follow a common pattern: self-effacing, self-sacrificing, helpless women who suffer in silence, and then die. Caroline Beaufort dies; Justine is executed; Elizabeth is murdered; Mrs. Margaret Saville never writes any reply to her brother’s letters. We have an Adam and even Satan himself, but we have no Eve in this tale. Or does it?
The biblical symbolism of the outcast plays a central role in your book. Much like Adam was expelled from the Garden of Eden, so the creature, neglected by his creator, is doomed into living as an exile, turned away from civilization, driven into the wilderness. If, in the biblical account, Eve is to blame for having been desired, in your book the desire to know is Frankenstein’s tempting sin: you managed to exchange a woman for a monster. Much like Satan, Frankenstein is the fallen Angel who attempted to be the God of his own creation.
As with the biblical tale, eroticism is at the heart of your protagonist search for knowledge and subsequent fall. Victor’s obsession to bring the dead back to life first emerged after his mother’s death.After Frankenstein’s creation of the monster, the scientist suffers a vivid form of postpartum nightmare, in which he embraces the body of his fiancée and childhood crush, Elizabeth, as it is about to turn into the corpse of his dead mother. When Frankenstein suddenly wakes up from this nightmare, he sees his creature. In a tale of oedipal rivalry, Frankenstein’s latently incestuous relationship with Elizabeth is turned into the forbidden relationship with his mother, and finally with into his never ending quest for his monster.
Not only Oedipus, but also the myths of Prometheus and Narcissus are present in your novel. Prometheus made a being in the image of the gods that could have a spirit breathed into it. Because he took back the fire from Zeus to give to man, Prometheus was then punished: each day an eagle would peck out his liver, only for the liver to regrow the next day. As Prometheus, Frankenstein, who had rebelled against the laws of nature, is punished by having to constantly renew the quest for the monster he created, and by being bound to this monster, as Prometheus was to a rock.
The term “Modern Prometheus”, which figures in you novel’s subtitle, was coined by Immanuel Kant in reference to Benjamin Franklin and his experiments with electricity – which suggests the spark of life that animated the monster was also of electric nature. Moreover,the monster’s first experience with fire conveys the dual quality of knowledge: it creates light and warmth, but it can also harm the one who touches it. The reference to fire also brings to mind the myth of Prometheus, who gave the knowledge of fire to humanity and was severely punished for it.
You novel also evokes the myth of Narcissus. When the monster gazes down at a pool of water, he is, like Narcissus, paralyzed by his reflection. Also Frankenstein, the monster’s Doppelgänger, has many elements of a narcissist: his grandiose sense of self-importance combined with fragile self-esteem; his fantasies of unlimited success; his exhibitionism; his enraged response to criticism; his mixture of self-love and self-hate; his social alienation and lack of empathy. The creator and the creature are doubles, they mirror each other – and mirrors are always dangerous to narcissists. Hunting and haunting one another, Frankenstein and its monster embody each other’s narcissistic rage; they impose to one another a monstrous identity; and, finally, their withheld empathy has a destructive undertone.
Besides serving as the confessor for both creator and creature, Walton can also be seen as Victor’s Doppelgänger: both are explorers, chasing after knowledge, a “country of eternal light”. Frankenstein, Walton and the monster are all deprived of what they most desire: “the want of a friend,” “the company of a man”. I would go further and say that the creature could also be your double, my dear.The monster is an exile and outcast, much like you yourself were in your youth, because of your relationship with Percy Shelley, who was by then still married to another woman. It’s difficult not to read the monster’s plea for being heard by its creator as mirroring your plea to be accepted by your father, who disapproved of your relationship.
The question of Frankenstein’s responsibility to the creature is one of the highlights of the book. As Victor refuses to publicly admit his mistake, his feelings of remorse and guilt turn into a narcissistic self-pity and comiseration. While Victor feels hatred for his creature, the monster is torn between vengefulness and compassion. While Frankenstein want to dismiss his creature, the monster longs for being allowed to tell his story: Victor is the only person with whom he is able to have a human connection.
Frankenstein refusal do assume responsability for his creation is reflected in his refusal to name it, which leads to its lack of identity. The monster is identified as “wretch”, “creature”, “monster”, “demon”, “devil”, “fiend”, “it”. When speaking to his creature, Victor calls it “vile insect”, “abhorred monster”, “abhorred devil”. The creature, on the other hand, refers to himself as “the Adam of his [Vicotr’s] labours”, someone who “would have” been “his Adam”, but becomes instead “his fallen angel.”
On a side note, I would like to know your inspiration for the protagonist’s name. Frankenstein means “stone of the Franks” in German, and there are many places here with this name: the Frankenstein Castle in Darmstadt (where an alchemist, Conrad Dippel, is said to have experimented with human bodies); the castle Frankenstein in Bad Salzungen; the municipality of Frankenstein in Saxony; the aristocratic House of Franckenstein from Franconia. Have you ever been to one of these places?
I have also read that a possible inspiration for your tale could have been the book Le Miroir des événemens actuels, ou la Belle au plus offrant (1790), by François-Félix Nogaret, about an inventor named Frankénsteïn who creates a life-sized automaton. Others say that the name Victor is inspired by Paradise Lost, by John Milton, where God is referred to as “the Victor”. By animating an inanimate corpse, Frankenstein is also playing God. I’ve also heard that Victor was a pen name of Percy Shelley’s, who also had once experimented with electricity…
But I digress. As you challenge the inevitability of progress and the faith in the ideals of the Enlightenment, I would like to ask you: what is Frankenstein’s major sin? Is it his hybris, his ambition to play God? Or is it his lack of empathy towards his creature, his inability to take responsability for his creation? I am under the impression these questions will follow me for a while.
About the book
- Penguin Classics, 2003, Paperback, 273 pages, Goodreads;
- Penguin Classics Clothbound, 2013, Hardcover, 273 pages, Goodreads;
Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library, 1992, Hardcover, 231 pages, Goodreads;
- First published anonymously in London in 1818;
- My rating: 5 stars
- This book was read for Frankenstein Read-Along, hosted by Dolce Bellezza and Nonsuch Book.