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This essay is the third in a five-part series, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Part two can be found here, part four can be found here.
Part III: Frankenstein
And so we expect the project of overweening self-creation to be a botched job. Frankenstein’s ambitions serve only to make him ugly: pale and sick, obsessed and withdrawn. He is moving not in the direction of aliveness but of death. It is not desire exactly that is leading him on, but a sort of entropic necessity that has taken him over completely. This is what Freud called the “death drive,” desire that has been killed off and then raised from the dead. And so we can read the monster as a stand-in for this compulsively ambitious part of Frankenstein: for the project of self-creation gone wrong.
But there is another way of reading the monster, one that brings us back more specifically to the problem of growing up. In telling Walton his story, Frankenstein devotes much of it to his perfect family and childhood: “no creature could have more tender parents.” Yet his first adult act is to unleash on the world a being who becomes focused on annihilating this family. While this is going on, Frankenstein lives in denial: he has nervous breakdowns, he goes on what are essentially outdoorsy vacations, he plans a marriage, and generally he does everything he can to put off solving an urgent problem that demands immediate attention. This is a problem that has a very clear-cut solution, which is to satisfy the creature’s demand that Frankenstein provide him with a mate. That is something that Frankenstein at firsts procrastinates—as too technically difficult without a two-year research trip—and then ultimately refuses to do. This refusal is based on the hard-to-believe rationalization that the long-term fate of humanity—if a species of such monster were to multiply—worries him more than the fate of his family, who are being murdered in the here-and-now.
Consequently, it is hard not to see in the monster Frankenstein’s wish to be rid of his family, unwittingly unleashed on the world. Indeed, Frankenstein refers to himself as “the true murderer,” and is wracked with guilt, even as he fails to act. Without Walton’s framing narrative to corroborate the creature’s existence, we might think of Frankenstein, who has all the hallmarks of an unreliable narrator, as a serial-murdering madman presenting us with his psychotic, guilt-alleviating delusion. This reading of the monster coheres well with our first, because it reflects a classic tension between domesticity and ambition, one reflected in Frankenstein’s loss of interest in human contact during his obsessive monster-making, and one that he reflects upon at length—ultimately warning us against any pursuit that interferes with the “tranquility” of one’s “domestic affections.”
But beyond this tension, perhaps Frankenstein’s childhood is less perfect than he thinks. He presents it, after all, as the key to understanding his ambition, “the birth of that passion which afterwards ruled my destiny.” The monster was created in him before he created it: “Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin.” On Frankenstein’s account, the cause of all his problems is the finding of a book by the sixteenth-century occultist Cornelius Agrippa, one that gave him a passion for a strange hybrid of the supernatural and the scientific. But more telling is the alternating pattern of family bereavements and restorations. His father fails to find a wife when younger, but in his declining years saves and marries the impoverished, much-younger daughter of a ruined, recently deceased friend. Frankenstein’s mother, stifled in her wish to have a daughter, in turn adopts the daughter of impoverished Italian peasants, who themselves had adopted her after she had been orphaned from nobility. This girl, Elizabeth, is presented to young Victor as a gift, an adopted sister who is destined to be his future wife. Years later, his mother will die after contracting scarlet fever from Elizabeth as she nurses her back to health. On her deathbed, she asks Elizabeth both to take over the role of mother to the family, and to become wife to Victor.
This theme of incest is no accident, and not just because the union of biological brother and sister might result in monstrous offspring. When I say that Frankenstein’s childhood might not be as perfect as he thinks, I mean that it is too perfect: his parents might be so beneficent and self-sacrificing—the “creators of all the many delights” rather than “tyrants to rule our lot”—that the task of maturation becomes more difficult. No one could have had a happier childhood, Frankenstein tells us, and he feels sorry for more ordinary families. But the problem with believing one has a perfect family is taking one’s leave of it. The more seductive the family scene, the harder it is to grow up.
Actual growing up is not about the completion of our desires, but about loss: it requires giving up the comparative perfection inherent in even very flawed infantile situations, in which others essentially cater to one’s needs. The incestuous situation is one in which the boundaries that facilitate individuation and detachment from the family are poorly formed: this is the point of Frankenstein’s taking note that his parents were not rulers. The less sanguine implication is that his parents perhaps did not provide enough rules, enough boundaries: in the same sentence he calls them the spirits of “kindness and indulgence,” which similarly leaves us wondering if they were too indulgent. The differences in his parents’ ages is another way of highlighting familial fluidity, as is the adoption of Elizabeth and the de facto adoption of Frankenstein’s best friend, Clerval. The final straw is the stunning fact that he is slated to marry his adopted sister.
One of the ways ambition goes wrong is that it becomes so steeped in such incestuous significance that it becomes impossible to moderate. On the one hand, one’s ambitions are supposed to lead to a familial leave-taking. We go from being the recipients of nurture, creatures—or created ones, the products of reproduction—in their paradigmatic, dependent forms, to reproductive entities. We focus on work and “productivity,” and perhaps on the production of our own families: we move from being creatures to creators. But sometimes ambition is also laden with the very opposite significance. Again, it might become not a way of growing up and leaving the family, but a way of remaining forever with it: of perfecting oneself in order to perfect one’s desires. Ideally, we leave a childhood Eden bequeathed with certain necessities, including, for instance, the ability to be parents to ourselves. If things have gone right, we have internalized certain maternal and paternal functions, the ability to nurture ourselves and others, and the ability to engage in the boundary-establishing act of saying “no” to ourselves and others. Absent that, we are in danger of overreaching, of wanting to leave Eden not merely with borrowed maternal abilities, but with mother herself: idolatrized and preserved in her fantasized bodily presence at all costs, even if that means dragging behind us her rotting corpse, forever holding out the hope that she can be resurrected with the right amount of electrical, wish-fulfilling vigor. Indeed, it is after the death of his mother that Victor becomes truly obsessed with being able to bring the dead to life. We return to the intersection of the Promethean and self-creating themes, but in this variation, with the monstrousness resulting not from trying to be one’s own God, but one’s own mother.
The occult is Frankenstein’s means of infusing his work with grandiose, transgressive significance. As such, it is a way of leaving his family behind without actually leaving himself out of the family.
In light of this, it is not difficult to interpret the dream that Frankenstein has shortly after bringing his creature to life, in which after he kisses Elizabeth she turns into the corpse of his dead mother. Elizabeth was incestuously designated to fulfill multiple roles for Victor—to be his sister, wife, and after his mother’s death, her replacement. She is a means by which to keep Victor’s desire within the family. The dream reminds him that this task—of preserving the family attachment in its original form forever—cannot succeed, but rather creates the monster of neurotic ambition. Overweening ambition is a workaround meant to force the issue of maturity in light of the seductive pull of the family, yet one that fails by attempting to replace it with the seductive pull of one’s own ego. To escape the intense gravitational field of his family, Frankenstein must recreate one within himself, preserving them there even as he seemingly leaves them in order to become a great man. So when Frankenstein lets the monster run around wreaking havoc, we might see this as a last-ditch attempt at truly individuating and leaving home. Tellingly, it is after his engagement to Elizabeth that he plans a two-year trip away from his family, one that he rationalizes as necessary to save the family, even as he leaves them unprotected against the whims of his creature.
Frankenstein believes that all his problems began with a happenstance exposure to the occult, one occasioned by his love of education, something also rooted in a parental liberality that left Frankenstein to his whims. The underlying truth to this notion is that the occult is the perfect stimulus for Frankenstein, in that it combines elements of both ambition and incest. On the one hand, it seems to be rooted in something like curiosity, and the desire merely to know the world. But as Frankenstein puts it, it has him wanting to “chase nature to her hiding places” and “penetrate into” nature’s “recesses.” Contrast this attitude to the many scenes of in which he enjoys the beauty of the natural world—a capacity he loses when he is focused on penetration. In the former, nature is familial and nurturing; in the latter, it is the object of conquest.
The occult is transgressive. It is proto-science—for example, astrology and alchemy —before its grandiose pretensions to prophecy and metamorphosis have been disappointed and reined in. At school, Frankenstein initially has no patience for contemporary natural science, because its ambitions are too modest, its realism too cloying. He solves this problem when he is inspired by a teacher to imagine that he can make the very ordinary, earthbound means of natural science produce extraordinary, supernatural results. This idea is not exactly out of step with modern science, for which the Baconian notion of overpowering nature is central. In this sense, the occult sciences are prescient in their ambitions, and the profound effects of the sciences on the world via technology make it not just investigative but poetic. Frankenstein’s hybridization involves fusing the occult to the scientific, as the means he discovers for animating the dead illustrates. Electricity is a feature of the natural world with laws that can be established by natural science. And yet it plausibly has other properties that transcend anything that can be accomplished naturally. The occult is Frankenstein’s means of infusing his work with grandiose, transgressive significance. As such, it is a way of leaving his family behind without actually leaving himself out of the family.
The problem of incest is a special case of a larger problem facing all creatures, which is that of influence. Being a creature means being the product of generative powers. These include the causes we associate with the natural sciences—embryological development, birth, and growth according to a genetically predetermined plan, along with the kind of individuality afforded by environmental happenstance. Being a creature means being, on one description, entirely determined by forces outside of us, and this predicament is not resolved if those forces include chance among them. Reflected upon, such circumstances undermine any fantasy of self-determination. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be another sort of creature—for instance, the sort of animal you see staring back at you from an exhibit, shaped wholly unlike you yet sharing your sentience—you’ve entered into the sort of consideration that highlights the extent to which we are trapped within our forms. You don’t have tentacles, or a beak, or a shell—but according to this thought experiment, you might have had. You might have been a wholly different creature, with a different set of capacities, more limited in some cases and more expansive in others. And you might have been a wholly different person—born to a different set of parents, a different country, and different formative circumstances—including the sort of chance encounters to which Frankenstein’s seduction by Cornelius Agrippa belongs. In smaller ways, you certainly would be different now but for the events of ten minutes ago, which changed your mind with creature-altering, ultimately creature-making, experiences. These biological, social, and cultural forces build us, animate us, and are always threatening to re-create us, to send us down a new path. They include, incidentally, technology, which by radically changing our environment alters us as well, possibly with monstrous effects. These forces are our creators, and there is always the question of whether we are happy with their parenting: whether something in our upbringing—the continual upbringing that is life and experience—went wrong, and created a monster. Finally, there is the larger question of whether we are happy with the predicament of being a creature at all, of being dependent on the whim of such forces. The predicament is entrapping, and part of the point of self-creation is to escape it.
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