|This essay was
written and submitted by Ruth Bushi, who is currently working on her Masters
at the University of Durham. She can be contacted at R.R.M.Bushi@durham.ac.uk
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
can be read as an allegory for the creative act of authorship. Victor Frankenstein,
the 'modern Prometheus' seeks to attain the knowledge of the Gods, to enter
the sphere of the creator rather than the created. Like the Author, too,
he apes the ultimate creative act; he transgresses in trying to move into
the feminine arena of childbirth.
Myths of divine creation
are themselves part of the historical process that seeks to de-throne the
feminine; this is the history of Art, itself at first denied to women as
an outlet of self-expression. It is a process recorded in Art itself, in
stories like that of Prometheus. Prometheus in earlier myths stole fire
from the Gods (analogous to the author at his craft). Later he was credited
not just as Man's benefactor but as his creator. Man creates God through
myth so as to have a power to will towards.
At this point text,
analogy, and reality twist upon each other. As Victor moves into the female
space of the womb, an act of creation aped by the Gods in mythology and
religion, Mary Shelley as author moves into the male domain of art, aping
the creative power of the Gods.
as an analogy for Art can be more fruitful if done within the framework
of Oscar Wilde's essay, 'The Decay of Lying', in which the author argues
that the artist creates the world and not just imitates it: this will conclude
At the meal between
mortals and the Gods at Mecone, Prometheus tricked Zeus into accepting
the bones over the choicest entrails. Man was punished by the denial of
fire; Prometheus again defied the Gods in stealing it. As punishment, he
was chained to a cliff, and Zeus sent an eagle daily to peck at his liver.
In the dramatisation by Aeschylus, Zeus is depicted as a tyrant who would
kill all mankind; Prometheus is defiant against tyranny: 'let him raise/
my body high and dash it whirling down/ to murky Tartarus. He cannot make
me die.' (Cassell Dictionary of Classical Mythology 338) In later
versions of the myth, Prometheus in some way becomes the creator of Man,
fashioning him out of mud. After the great flood, Prometheus' son and daughter-in-law
were the only survivors, and re-propagated the sexes.
The concept of Frankenstein
was created in part in the summer of 1816, through Lord Byron's literary
challenge, inclement weather, and a nightmare. Literary sources included
Lost and Ovid's Metamorphoses, which the Shelleys read the year
before. Thus the idea for a story based on the Prometheus myth, and of
the baseness of the condition of existence without God seems intentional,
and engendered by these sources.
The novel reflects
a climate in which literary worship of the divine was to an extent forsaken
in favour of the awe-inspiring wonder of Nature; the concept of the sublime
was in itself a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The Romantic
Movement saw a concerted effort to return to superstition and excess of
imagination. It was marked by a Gothic 'revival' and the birth of science
fiction in Shelley's text, and by the deification of the Natural world,
and Man himself.
with a narrative that in some ways mirrors the tale it tells. Robert Walton's
polar expedition is, like Frankenstein's, a search for the unknown and
amidst the breathtaking beauty of the natural world:
I may there
discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; and may regulate
a thousand celestial observations, that require only this voyage to render
their seeming eccentricities consistent for ever. I shall satiate my ardent
curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited…these
are my enticements… Frankenstein 10
The enticements, in fact,
are firmly rooted in potential glory. What Walton desires is to 'obtain
a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated'
(Frankenstein 11). He too wants to share in the cultural deification
of authorship; in his youth he to had been a poet, in later life he substitutes
the hopes of fresh discovery as supplementary to creation. The deification
of authorship in both these forms is aggregated in his reaction to Victor
Frankenstein as a 'divine wanderer' (Frankenstein 24). The adjective
is a reference to Frankenstein's grace in misery, his unabated ability
to appreciate the wonder of Nature; at this point Walton is unaware of
the divine aspirations that his patient has in fact attained.
makes the analogy of exploration and writing, 'The world was to me a secret
which I desired to discover; to her [Elizabeth] it was a vacancy, which
she sought to people with imaginations of her own.' (Frankenstein
30) The divide is not so great; Victor also populates his world with the
creation of his imagination.
The deification of
science as described in Shelley's work, depends upon the defiance of God.
Victor is at first charmed by natural science because of the grand dreams
of its masters in seeking power and immortality; he is able to study modern
chemistry after attending M. Waldman's lecture: '[These modern masters]
penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding
places. They ascend into the heavens…' (Frankenstein 42). In succumbing
to Waldman's lecture, Frankenstein does not become his student, but his
disciple. Wilde called Science the history of failed religions; more than
this it is in itself a kind of religion-substitute, favoured by rationalists,
and for the Romantics reflective of a artistic climate unable to rely on
the benevolence of God. And yet, despite an absence of God, there is still
a lack of free will, or at least a reliance on 'bad faith'. Frankenstein
feels his meeting with Waldman fixes his destiny; inexorable fate also
condemns him to pursue the monster to the arctic.
Gilbert and Gubar reiterate
the concept of textual creation as birth allegory: 'anyone who has read
Shakespeare's sonnets knows about this comparison of the child to the text
as a way of securing one's immortality.' (Waxman 15) In Shelley's text,
then, the author attempts not only a dissection of the (male) Soul as a
product of the Romantic age, but she also pushes forward the boundaries
of knowledge of 'feminine' creation.
the Natural order in moving into the feminine sphere in a physical capacity.
He creates around him a 'work-shop of filthy creation' (Frankenstein
50); this is the male womb of creation. His progress at this time is recorded
in the language of pregnancy:
After so much
time spent in painful labour, to arrive at once at the summit of my desires,
was the most gratifying consummation of my toils. But this discovery was
so great and so overwhelming, that all the steps by which I had been progressively
led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the result. Frankenstein
Moreover, as Waxman also
suggests, Frankenstein's creative experiment results in the doubling of
identity as happens during pregnancy; some critics have read the monster
as Victor's double, a symbol of both the goodness inherent in Man, and
his fated Fall from Grace. Frankenstein's initial motivation is feminine
in that it is benevolent, born of a wish to benefit mankind. Waxman calls
it the 'female realm of the Gift' (Waxman 19).
Finally, Victor attains
something of the feminine in achieving a new understanding of Life and
Death: Life and Death are as inseparable as two sides of the same piece
of paper. 'A pregnant woman usually intuits how close she is to death even
as she is carrying life and feeling the pulses of the creative process
in her own body' (Waxman 19); this can be juxtaposed against Frankenstein's
dream of his dead mother. The warning of the dream is impressed further
by an earlier description of natural creation: 'never did the fields bestow
a more plentiful harvest, or the vine yield a more luxuriant vintage: but
my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature.' (Frankenstein
50, emphasis added) Instead, he is rooting in charnel houses, forcing decaying
remains to cohere, to renew the vital principle.
creation ends in chaos and confusion; Victor is unprepared for the reality
that lies beyond socially imposed gender constraints. Women are inherently
maternal, and yet he notes, 'when I thought of him, I gnashed my teeth,
my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish that life
which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed.' (Frankenstein 87) Thus Frankenstein
seeks, in vain, the feminine arena of creativity; his actions also parody
the myths of divine creation.
The concept of God
as known in Christianity is present only implicitly in the text, for example
in that Frankenstein is compelled to make the monster in his own image
(thus begging the question, who is the real monster?) This is emphasised
through explicit reference to the gods of mythology, such as in the novel's
An explanation of this
is perhaps to be found more in the monster's tale than in Victor's, and
in its parallels with Paradise Lost. The comment that seems evident
in Frankenstein is that God has abandoned Man; the progression of
history sees Man abandon God in the Victorian era. 'Oh truly I am grateful
to thee my Creator for the gift of life, which was but pain, and thy tender
mercy which deserted me on life's threshold to suffer' (Frankenstein
114). The monster, then, is made a symbol for Man: his alienation from
his creator mirrors that which Victor himself feels in the torture of free
will, which through bad faith he interprets as inexorable destiny, and
evil at that.
The monster's tale
may itself be read as allegory, of a paradise not even gained. Agatha and
Felix would appear to be representations of Elizabeth and Victor. DeLacey
could either symbolise Victor's father, or perhaps the repressed merciful
aspect of Victor's character: God the Father rather than just the Creator.
Two parts of the text which can be compared with the latter would be firstly
the monster's parody of Victor's spiritual and moral blindness in covering
his eyes; secondly Felix's violent reception of the monster. 'Begone, vile
insect!' as Victor cries, 'or rather stay, that I may trample you to dust.'
(Frankenstein 94) The arrival of the Arabian marks one possible
conclusion to the monster's story, though one that remains unfulfilled.
The potential for creation
is not entirely denied to men. As the monster demonstrates, Man makes Man.
After Victor's literal creation, it is the literary creations of Goethe
and Milton which in turn fire the monster with virtuous feeling. His reception
by the DeLaceys develops his spiritual monstrosity: 'Many times I considered
Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I
viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within
me.' (Frankenstein 125)
At this stage he is
utterly alienated from his own Creator. He realises that he is wholly alone,
without mother, father, or friend; it is the condition of Man to live,
as Joseph Conrad wrote, as he dreams: alone.
monster himself seeks to share in Man's mimicry of creation through connection
with Others. He wants to be 'made' (affirmed, sexually and non-sexually)
by a female companion, and in turn wants to affirm his companion. He is
denied this supplementary womb by the 'No of the Father', and instead (un)makes
Elizabeth on her wedding night in lieu of Victor.
The only kind of creation
that the monster can achieve is out of line with the natural order. He
is gleeful when he kills William: 'I, too, can create desolation; my enemy
is not impregnable' (Frankenstein 139, emphasis added).
If God is absent in
the sublime wonder of Nature is a substitute; it produces in Victor feelings
of almost religious ecstasy: 'my heart, which was before sorrowful, now
swelled with something like joy' (Frankenstein 93). It is Nature,
the natural order, which Frankenstein seeks to subvert. As Shelley's text
is analogous to the Prometheus myth, there is a similar textual reflection
in Wilde's essay mourning 'The Decay of Lying'.
For Wilde, the magnificence
of Nature, which can inspire such awe in Victor, is not a factor: 'Out
of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One's individuality absolutely
leaves one.' (Wilde 215) So Nature would appear to 'unmake' one; it is
Art that affirms us, and indeed creates the world. Frankenstein's monster
is partly made by literature: 'As I read,' he remarks, '…I applied much
personally to my own feelings and conditions.' (Frankenstein 124)
If writing is supplementary to the speech of the authors, ultimately it
is still the case that human connection creates personality: Man makes
In his essay, Wilde
reiterates the principle of Art that views the artist as God; 'Nature is
no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is our brain
that she quickens to life.' (Wilde 232) Nature, then, is a very poor muse
that the artist improves through defamiliarisation: 'people see fogs not
because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them
the mysterious loveliness of such effects.' (Wilde 232) Moreover, Art is
made feminine by the male tradition; once again it is feminine creativity
that is overthrown.
Art begins by creating
the brown fog of London: thereafter people begin to see the fog in actuality.
Hence it is not even a case of defamiliarisation that Wilde is proposing.
So, Life imitates Art. Artists, Wilde asserts, create a type, and Life
tries to reproduce it in popular form. An example would be notions of femininity
as a result of the image of Woman in Art. Wilde writes, 'the world has
become sad because a puppet [Hamlet] was once melancholy.' (Wilde 230)
Eventually, fictions replace reality, such as the example the author gives
in his essay, of a Man seeking to find the 'Japan' of oriental art: eventually
he must concede as a searching for the irretrievable.
Art is Power, and the
Artist is made all-powerful. Moreover, Wilde's aesthetics also support
the idea of an artistic elite. Art (ornate falsehood) is achieved only
through study and devotion: it is not for the common, 'uneducated' man
to practice, or to wield power. Artists, furthermore, should not seek to
revert to realism: to do so produces work that is 'vulgar, common and uninteresting.'
The apex of Wilde's
argument is that Art is the product of beautiful falsehoods. This assertion
can be read as affirmative of the concepts of the Romantic era and the
Gothic revival, of worlds peopled with the creations of wild imagination.
'Art begins as abstract decoration with purely imaginative and pleasurable
work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent' (Wilde 225): this surely
is true of Frankenstein.
Read in light of 'The
Decay of Lying', Frankenstein on another level illustrates the 'divinity'
of authorship. Art, Wilde said, is superior to Nature because the former
constantly evolves new techniques; new ways of seeing new worlds. Hence
consider Shelley's work as the product of an age rebelling against the
traditions of the last, the Enlightenment. Finally, 'Art talks of nothing
but itself…' (Wilde 234); Frankenstein, like the myth of Prometheus
is not symbolic of any age, it is these ages which are symbols of Art.
Thus, to discuss Frankenstein is to discuss, at a tangent, Paradise
Lost, Ovid's Metamorphoses as well as Wilde's essay.
As well as codified
symbols woven into the text, Shelley's act of authorship further emphasises
the Artist's relationship to divinity. Victor's miraculous creation, his
renewal of life, is literary wish-fulfilment. In To the Lighthouse,
Woolf exorcises the memories of her dead parents; she lays them to rest,
textually. Through Frankenstein, Shelley plays out a desire to resurrect.
Victor's lessons of Life and Death are born of Mary Wollstonecraft's death
in childbirth. As he metaphorically gives birth, he dreams of Shelley's,
dead mother. (Unnatural) childbirth also eventually kills Victor.
The historical process
is one of rebellion and succession. Texts can also be part of this process;
such is the case with Frankenstein. Man overthrows the Gods, as
Prometheus, and later, in a different sense, the intellectuals of the Victorian
and Modernist periods did. Frankenstein usurps the divine role; he is in
turn made slave by his creation. Even within the narrative, there is a
battle for supremacy of voice: Waldman's tale is taken over by Frankenstein's
and in turn by that of the monster.
Since the success of
Shelley's novel, and the birth of the horror and science fiction genres,
and the affect it has likewise had on the film industry, the monster has
not only overthrown his monster, but has taken his name. In popular use,
particularly since the transition of the story to film, 'Frankenstein'
has often mistakenly been used to signify the monster. This transition
itself reflects the process of progression and substitution. As in the
case of the non-existent deerstalker that Conan-Doyle never wrote about,
celluloid representations have come to denote the essence, supposedly,
of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
March, Jenny. "Prometheus."
Cassell Dictionary of Classical Mythology. London: Cassell, 1998.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein:
Or the Modern Prometheus. 1818. Ed. James Reiger. Chicago: U of Chicago
Waxman, Barbara Fry.
"The Tragedy of the Promethean Overreacher as Woman." Papers on Language
and Literature 23 1 (1987): 14-26.
Wilde, Oscar. "The
Decay of Lying." Oscar Wilde. Ed. Isobel Murray. The Oxford Authors.
Oxford: OUP, 1989.
This essay was written
and submitted by Ruth Bushi, who is currently working on her Masters at
the University of Durham. She can be contacted at R.R.M.Bushi@durham.ac.uk