This is the second part of this feature on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Make sure you read part one first and you may wish to wait until all four parts are published.
This lost paradise that is the setting for the second Fall of a Modern Prometheus, is a world divided into itself. The rational human has supplanted his emotional soul as the social animal has gone within himself to explore the deepest questions of mortality and immortality. The explorer Walton has left behind his sister and society to answer the secrets of the north while Victor Frankenstein seeks the Philosopher’s Stone in his temple laboratory in Ingolstadt. Wilt dramatically unveils the scene: “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” (36). The explorer-priest Frankenstein can never be completely apart from that which connects him to humanity even as he soars above “the herd of common projectors” (286).
This public-private dichotomy or world divided plays the Promethean theme of the overreacher and rebel against Frankenstein’s purported “chief concern” or “the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection and the excellence of universal virtue” (xxiv). George Levine, exploring the text along with Kate Ellis’ “Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family,” argues that Percy Shelley’s claims (in the preface he wrote for the 1818 edition) are more than “a devious defense of a possibly offensive story”. Ellis, according to Levine, reads the text as “an attack on the very traditions of bourgeois society that it purports to be celebrating” (13-14). Victor is never satisfied with his domestic situation – by bourgeois standards, indeed, his relationship with his “sister”/lover might be perceived as something monstrous. Victor’s unquiet soul never seems at rest in the domestic garden of his family. Instead of domestic “bliss” Victor has chosen to go off and secretly create his own Monster.
So for Mary Shelley, as well as for her mother, this is another characteristic of a fallen humanity. Humanity is divided into the public and the private; intellect and emotion; the outward exploration of what lies within and the domesticity in the home that is the social ideal of bourgeois reach; and there is man and woman. Shelley’s introduction references History of the Inconstant Lover with a vision that is morbidly reflected in the novel – “When he thought to clasp the bride to whom he had pledged his vows, found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her whom he had deserted” (xv-xvi). Man had deserted woman and, as Daniel Cottom points out in “Frankenstein and the Monster of Representation”, “within the novel’s final retreat from the darker regions of creation there is the central figure of a woman who is partially made and then torn apart” (69). Walton’s vessel is purely masculine. Indeed, woman can not be represented in the public world “out there” and are “missing in the authorship of the monster” (Cottom 69).
Kate Ellis shows how the structure of Mary Shelley’s novel, “with its three concentric narratives, imposes on the linear unfolding of the plot” the separation of the “outer” world of male discovery and the “inner” world of female domesticity (124). Men and women move through these separate spheres of the public and the private until finally these worlds collide with the ferocity of the Monster or of Frankenstein mutilating his golem’s unfinished, monstrous concubine. Ellis notes that in this world, “’insiders’ cannot leave, or do so at their peril” and “’outsiders’ cannot enter; they are condemned to perpetual exile and deprivation, forbidden even from trying to create a domestic circle of their own” (137). By his own sequestering act, Victor becomes more and more estranged from his circle as he spirals deeper into his creation’s world.
There is no place for the angelic women in the novel as, indeed, none of them can survive it. Frankenstein’s mother martyrs herself for her adopted daughter, a framed Justine is unprotected by the impotent men of the house of Frankenstein and finds her pathetic end at the gibbet, and finally Elizabeth is throttled on her wedding bed by her new husband’s abomination. The violent collision of the primal beast without (or the subconscious within) invades the domestic household within (or the society without) and, as Levine concludes, “The threat of such intrusion is central to the meaning of the Frankenstein metaphor and brings us to the edge of the conception of civilization and its discontents”. For Levine, domestic affection imprisons the individual striving to break free so that in the end, “there is no peace” in either “a defective society or a rampant individualism” without a sort of compromise (14). Yet the story outside of the story seems to leave us without the hope of satisfactory compromise and clouds Walton’s return to society in a shroud of haunted dearth.
The shifting meanings of the Creature have become abortive life (301). The asexual union of man and lightening gives us the “incomplete Creature” for Paul Sherwin, “whose inside is hopelessly divided from his outside, is indeed a ‘filthy type’ of the modern Prometheus” (896). For George Levine, the book’s meanings “point centrally to the way ‘Frankenstein’ as a modern metaphor implies a conception of the divided self, the creator and his work at odds”. Inside our civilized selves, like “the Monster leering through the window at the horrified Victor and the murdered Elizabeth” is the “monstrous, destructive, and self-destructive energy” of the human animal (15). This is the hideous, nameless Monster without a mate, without a friend, and without a place, but it is also something fearful within ourselves.
This fallen world where the Monster roams, another of the Monster’s meanings, is a place where humanity had long been separated from its generative “primal unity” (Manson and Stewart 228). Long ago, in the primeval state, according to Woodard, humanity was connected with nature and “undifferentiated from it, in a thoughtless and perfect unity, unpuzzled and at home” (577). To Manson and Stewart “whatever creative force existed outside the individual and between all the human faculties” was lost as “human faculties became divided against themselves” (228). Humanity began to take sides, formulate something new, and the world was to “fragment into alien and unrelated forms” (Woodard 577).
This fractured world can only be defined by difference. Difference is what the Creature comes to represent and, because of his monstrousness, is how he must be defined. In the beginning, the cause of the De Laceys’ unhappiness eluded the Monster, until his education became more complete and he learned about “the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty, of rank, descent, and noble blood” (156). Gradually the artificial world that humanity created is exposed as something evil and malignant to the naïve outsider and after learning of this evil intermixed with the good, the Creature reveals, “my wonder ceased, and I turned away with disgust and loathing” (156, Pollin 101). As George Levine explains, “the notion that the world of men is itself ‘monstrous’ is a constant motif of the novel” (12). Clearly, it seems, it is this propensity of our society to differentiate and create monstrosities, often through categorizing and separating ourselves, that makes our world so “monstrous”.
The godlike act of creation is driven by an egotism that is meant to “separate and elevate” Victor from the rest of humanity (Manson and Stewart 238). To find his place in the world, Frankenstein believes he must become a messianic figure apart from the world. According to Sherwin, “putting together and dismembering are one” for Frankenstein and the Creature “lacks a phenomenological center” in the “absolute disjunction” of its parts. The Creature is a mirror of the creator who “is similarly unbalanced, a confused collectivity” (896). This disjointed imbalance permeates the entire novel as, indeed one can argue, it permeates the entire world that we have hobbled together.
The social networks of our civilization have created the hegemony of difference. The Creature, because of his hideousness and unnatural birth, is an outcast from this society. So horrible is he, in fact, even his creator must turn away in disgust (171). This then, is an important feature of the novel’s description of our fallen world. The world that humanity has created relies on these differences to define itself. Those within the social network have a place in the hierarchy of difference and those who can not be defined as belonging are cast aside as “the Other”. The nameless Monster is without place and an outsider before he becomes a rebellious criminal, or as Mary Shelley’s philosopher father would have stated, he was a criminal because society placed him there (Sutherland lec 29). Our societies are defined by difference and by the divisions we have created. Our societies continue to divide and differentiate so that individuals are placed by varying degrees outside of the spheres of acceptability. In the end, there are those outside of these spheres who have no place within these social networks, and that only can function as they are defined – as social rebels.
As the signs of the Monster shift, he comes to represent all of humanity displaced from its primordial center. This is a fallen humankind that has lost its place and is desperately seeking to find its way again. For Paul Sherwin, “Frankenstein is empowered, and at times disabled by the despair over the human condition, whose limits condemn the creator’s sublime quest to the status of an extravagant, desperate wish” (897). Fashioned together from pieces of lifeless flesh and jolted to life through an unearthly mysterious life-giving quality, the Monster roams the planet completely disconnected from the mystical essence that gave him life. He is disjointed and removed from himself and apart from the rest of humanity.
Isolation, at the heart of the human condition, is the final place of the explorer who has delved to the greatest depths of his soul. Here within, is where we meet the creature in all his ugliness. Isolation and loneliness is the mortal wound of a monster built with a human heart. Early on, the explorer Walton, pines for the friend whose absence becomes “a most severe evil” in a letter to his sister (10). With this hope deep in his heart, he has headed into the frozen arctic wastelands where, ironically, his last hope for comradeship resides. Mary Shelley’s epistolary framework for the novel helps to emphasize this utter alienation.
The Creature complains that “misery made me a fiend” and while Adam had Eve to share his thoughts, the Creature is alone, “miserably alone” (128, 172-3). Throughout the text, this is his constant drumbeat of sorrow. In exchange for a mate, he vows to conform to society’s desire for his ostracism. He laments, “I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me: and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him” (172-3). As Sherwin points out,
The Creature’s utmost desire is that another reciprocate his need for sympathetic relationship, and even after he becomes searingly conscious of his exclusion from the human community and begins to objectify the negativity he arouses in others, we recognize that his aggression is a by-product of disintegration, not an innate drive that has been cathartically unbound. (890)
Victor’s journey into the deepest secrets of the universe of solitude result in the creation of a being that is a manifestation of the darkest depths of Frankenstein’s self. It is something so private and hideous, that Victor can only manage to flee from it and abandon it to a pathetically lonesome existence. The Creature, like Victor’s subconscious, desires only to rectify his abandoned condition, and as he is repeatedly spurned at every turn, his aggression and vengeance is realized.
Despite his attempt to abandon the Creature, Victor can not actually rid himself of the demon that is his after all, and he is drawn down into his creation’s world. His secretive and unnatural experiments form the beginning of his isolation and as the Monster destroys Victor’s world, Victor becomes more and more the shadowy reflection of his creation and its despicable alienation. Victor walks about “like a restless spectre, separated from all it loved, and miserable in the separation” (227). The space between Frankenstein and those he loves and the society at large becomes “an insurmountable barrier” (211-2). By abandoning his creature, Victor has abandoned his materialized inner self. His efforts to put the genie back in the bottle, though, only serve to pull his form into alignment with the disjointed existence of his isolated and secretive self.
Hang on as this the second of four parts.