Frankenstein's Dream

Frankenstein's Cinematic Dream

Marc Redfield, Claremont Graduate University

I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there. . . . The truth is I don't know much. For example my mother's death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don't know. Perhaps they haven't buried her yet. In any case I have her room. I sleep in her bed. I piss and shit in her pot. I have taken her place. I must resemble her more and more. All I need now is a son. Perhaps I have one somewhere. . . .

—Samuel Beckett, Molloy
  1. What novel has been negated and preserved—recreated and reanimated—by twentieth-century cinema more fantastically than Frankenstein? And what can be made of this cultural event? Can a reading of Mary Shelley’s novel help us understand its cinematic career; and can the Frankenstein film phenomenon help us read the novel? I take up these questions without any intention of doing them justice in a conventional sense. By one count more than two hundred films have been inspired by Frankenstein over the last seventy years (Heffernan 136, citing Forry, 127); my commentary will restrict itself to James Whale’s important film of 1931, which I shall risk treating as an exemplary act of cinematic appropriation. At stake in what follows is a reading of a certain monstrousness of vision and figuration: a monstrousness that both the novel and Whale’s film in different ways exploit, evade, and allegorize. This allegory of monstrous vision, furthermore, can ultimately be extended to the cinematic and pop culture Frankenstein phenomenon, which can then be read as a small, symptomatic wrinkle in the techno-aesthetic manifold of modern consumer culture: a trace, like the Dracula tradition with which it overlaps, of technoculture’s profound inability to say for sure what it means to be human, or what it is to be alive or dead. I wish finally to suggest that this disturbance in and of media technology is already legible in Shelley’s 1818 novel, and that the novel provides us with a powerful critique of the illusions of transparency and self-mastery that technoculture propagates about itself.


  2. Let me start with a few observations about Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, a film that left such a profound mark on popular culture as to drive Shelley’s novel into highbrow obscurity. Unlike much of the literate population of the United States or elsewhere, readers of an essay in Romantic Circles may be expected to know well that practically nothing of Shelley’s text except the main conceit—the frenzied scientist animating a body made out of corpses—survived the transition to screenplay. In Whale’s film, the frame narrative with Walton disappears, as does the monster’s narrrative; the locale moves from Geneva to a vaguely German setting (presumably Ingolstadt); and Victor’s father becomes a "baron," which is to say a paterfamilias Hollywood style, who rules over his small town and worries about his son’s postponed marriage. Even the names of the main characters shift around, as though Whale and his writers had so absorbed the Gothic principle of doubling and secret sharing that they were driven to perform compulsive substitutions.[1] (Victor is now "Henry" Frankenstein; Henry Clerval becomes "Victor Moritz"—his patronymic borrowed from the servant Justine Moritz, who has no role in the screenplay. Only Elizabeth remains—nominally—Elizabeth. Popular culture will, of course, take this substitutive principle one step further in dubbing the monster "Frankenstein."). The film will have a happy ending, insofar as Henry gets his Elizabeth, who has survived the monster’s bedroom assault; the monster, for his part, perishes in flames after a brief and rather undermotivated career in crime (trying clumsily, it seems, to play a game, he throws a young girl—a substitute for the novel’s William—into a lake; a little later, for reasons unexplained, he invades Baron Frankenstein’s manor to attack Elizabeth, and then flees to the hills, where a search party armed with torches and dogs eventually traps and burns him in an abandoned windmill). In short, Shelley’s novel and Whale’s film are so different that it would be of small interest to compare them, were it not for the central, haunting figure of the monster and his making: a textual site dense enough to make legible a certain entanglement of novel and film, on a plane that has little to do with questions of a film’s fidelity to a novel’s plot or atmosphere, or, conversely, of a nineteenth-century novel’s ability to convey what we ordinarily call "cinematic" effects.

  3. Of all the changes Whale and his writers made, arguably the most significant was their reimagination of the creature as seeable, and the making of the creature as a visual experience, though it is also true that in giving Shelley’s novel this cinematic twist, they were not simply contradicting it. In the novel, we recall, the creature is a monster precisely and only to the extent that he is glimpsed. His voice, though rough and discordant, acceptably simulates a human voice—indeed, as critics have frequently observed, the creature is a master rhetorician and storyteller, despite the foreignness of the language, or languages, into which he is thrown.[2] As a visual experience, however, he is unbearable: he is a phobic object, a dark sun at which the human eye cannot stand to look directly. In the famous opening paragraph of the novel’s fourth chapter, Victor, like the kid who hates kreplach in the old Jewish joke, flinches away when his fully animated creation looks back at him, opening its "dull, yellow eye" (34); William, Victor’s brother and the creature’s first victim, behaves similarly ("As soon as he beheld my form," the monster tells us, "he placed his hands before his eyes, and uttered a shrill scream" [96]), as does Walton ("I shut my eyes involuntarily. . . . I approached this tremendous being; I dared not again raise my looks upon his face, there was something so scaring and unearthly in his ugliness" [153]). The monster himself, blasted Eve that he is, cannot bear the sight of himself ("how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!" [76]). James Heffernan claims that "film versions of Frankenstein prompt us to rethink [the creature’s] monstrosity in terms of visualization" (136); he is right, but the particular sense in which he is right can only be seized if we keep in mind that the novel has already defined the creature’s monstrousness precisely as visual.

  4. Some change of approach was no doubt encouraged by the medium of film itself, to the extent that a cinematic entity must usually meet the camera’s gaze in some fashion; but it is equally clear that Whale, steeped as he was in expressionist technique, could have done a great deal with shadow and indirection if he had wanted to suggest the monster’s monstrous unseeability. He chose another and seemingly—but I think only seemingly—opposite tack. Seeing, and the seeing of seeing, is announced as the film’s main theme by images of eyes that drift behind the opening credits—evocations, perhaps, of the novelistic monster’s dull, yellow eye, but also the signs of a peculiarly cinematic appropriation of what is now to be no more (and no less) that "the Frankenstein story." In this story the monster is stripped of voice and rendered up to the camera as the film’s most cherished visual experience. Whale furnishes the monster with something like a visual equivalent to the eloquence he possesses in Shelley’s novel: laced with shadows, emerging out of dark corners of the expressionist set, all knobs and scars and clomping boots, the monster is nonetheless by far the most human figure in this frequently shamelessly B-grade film. His voicelessness shores up the silent-film theatricality of his efforts to touch light when Frankenstein first exposes him to it (more on that in a moment), and grants extra power and poignancy to Boris Karloff’s angled, yearning, threatening, and at times (because of the angles and the rolled-back eyes) seemingly blinded face. Yet having said that we must also say—and it is here, I believe, that we begin to touch on a kind of "rethinking of monstrosity in terms of visualization" that cinema can provide—that despite Karloff’s subtle, haunting performance, despite the humanness, even at times the weird beauty of his monster, there is something about this character, this expressive body, that suggests how quickly it will be rendered iconic and self-parodic, and cartooned on breakfast cereal boxes.[3] This monster’s visibility is a cinematic visibility: the hypervisibility of an image in the age of mechanical reproduction.

  5. Before pursuing this line of thought further I should note that if one claims that the monster embodies "the cinematic" in Whale’s film, one is simply paying homage to the film’s own interpretive emphases. "Quite a good scene, isn’t it?" snarls Henry Frankenstein to the three onlookers—Elizabeth, Victor Moritz, Dr Waldman—who have barged into his lab at the critical moment, and are now in their seats, ready like the rest of us to enjoy the show. In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein labors in sick solitude, but in Whale’s film monster-making is a collective activity, involving a tyrannical director, an assistant, an audience, and a grand spectacle, the ur-scene of monster-movie tradition: the lab, the slab, the sheet-covered body rising heavenward amidst chains and pulleys, switches and coils, and great bursts of life-giving lightning. Hoisted up, the slab flickers with light exactly as if an old-fashioned projection bulb were being trained on it. And now it moves down; the sheet over the body is a teasing veil, for one of Karloff’s long, elegant hands hangs loose and exposed, and, as the camera moves in, begins to curl its fingers. Cinema has animated it, figuratively as well as literally. It is thus hardly an exaggeration to say that Whale self-consciously stages here a primal scene readable as cinema’s own.[4] Other carefully composed shots elsewhere in the film reinforce the lesson. I mentioned earlier the monster’s first introduction to light, which occurs a little after the animation scene, when Frankenstein, interested in viewing the effects of light on a creature that he has thus far kept (literally) in the dark, hauls on chains to open a skylight, so that a theatrically precise spotlight falls on Karloff. And near the end of the film Whale stages another almost coyly self-reflexive joke: Henry Frankenstein and his monster face each other in an abandoned windmill, separated by the mill’s large, wooden, slowly turning cogwheel; as the wheel turns, their faces flicker through its square reticulations—a brilliant evocation of the moving celluloid strip that allows cinema to animate bodies, which is to say, to be cinema per se.

  6. If we then ask what such self-reflexivity means in such a context, we soon see the usefulness, I think, of the conceptual tools developed in Walter Benjamin’s classic essay on the "artwork in the age of its mechanical reproducibility." It is no coincidence that the idiom of this film’s self-reflexivity is indistinguishable from that of its cultural impact, for the film’s central pun—its teasing alignment of monster-making and movie-making—has in the end little to do with traditional aestheticism. No doubt Whale had his ambitions; but his cunning attention to his medium tends rather to uncover that dimension of cinema that drew Benjamin’s attention: its inherent reproducibility, which is to say its deep, if ambivalent, hostility to the "aura" of the artwork. Allegorizing itself, Frankenstein opens its offering of kitsch: the castle; the hunchbacked assistant; the abnormal brain; the slab, chains, vials, switches, and flickering electricity—everything is in place "elsewhere," having been, as it were, "always already" reproduced and parodied; all that Young Frankenstein or The Rocky Horror Picture Show will really add are the pleasures of knowing homage. Thus, though the act of seeing this endlessly, even comically reproduced monster seems at the furthest remove from the trauma described by Shelley’s novel, the monster’s hypervisibility bears the mark of a less obvious sort of shock: the "shock effect" (Chockwirkung), as Benjamin famously called it, of modernity as mechanical reproducibility.

  7. Yet it is also necessary to understand these scenes in Whale’s film as fantasies: fantasies of seeing the mechanisms of seeing—of mechanically reproducible seeing—itself. Lab and slab trope the lighting, the cables, the stage set, in short, everything that you do not see when you see a film:

    The shooting of a film, especially of a sound film, affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to a spectator a viewpoint which would exclude from the actual scene such extraneous accessories as camera equipment, lighting machinery, staff assistants, etc.—unless his eye were on a line parallel with the lens. . . . That is to say, in the studio the mechanical equipment [Apparatur] has penetrated so deeply into reality that its pure aspect freed from the foreign body of equipment is the result of a special procedure, namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted camera [Apparat] and the mounting of the shot together with other similar ones. The equipment-free [apparatfreie] aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become a blue flower in the land of technology. (Benjamin, German 495; English 232-33)

    Yet though the "equipment-free" gaze of the camera is the height of artifice, no self-reflexivity is adequate to this artifice. One can film (portions of) one’s own equipment as one shoots, but the camera and its supporting apparatus will never entirely be able to film itself filming. Such, however, is the fantasy animating the monster’s animation in Frankenstein. Even as it records its world as saturated with technology, the film dreams of a monstrous moment in which it could expose itself to itself, capture and possess itself for itself, and thus ward off the shock of its own self-replication, its mechanical self-differentiation and dissemination—in a word, its mediation. The cinematic Frankenstein monster, from Karloff’s version to the endless ranks of imitations, spinoffs and cartoons that followed it, ambivalently incorporates, as living-dead body, the "waning of the aura" refetishized as kitsch. As Jennifer Wicke has suggested of another undead cultural icon, Dracula, the monster provides "a stand-in for the uncanny procedures of modern life," which is also to say "an articulation of, a figuration for . . . mass culture" (Wicke, 473, 475). In the case of the Frankenstein monster, one could even add that his theatrical scars and prostheses and his awkward mechanical movements offer a displaced figure for the utter constructedness of cinematic vision—as though the record of angled shots, cutting, editing, etc. could be inscribed on a visible body. And if the monster’s career in the movies and in popular culture alerts us to the scope of the question concerning technics that (as I shall now argue) his creation already raises in Shelley’s novel, the novel, for its part, provides us with a powerful critique of the fantasy of self-seeing that inhabits and in a sense makes possible Whale’s film.


  8. Unlike Whale’s film, of course, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein offers us little on which to feast our eyes as Victor amasses his forbidden knowledge and prepares for his grand experiment. The scenes leading up to the opening of the creature’s yellow eye are fast-paced but circumlocutory and abstract; even Victor’s graveyard experiences unfold in a somewhat distanced, formulaic idiom ("Now I was . . . forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses. . . . I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the brain" [30]). This Gothic mixture of luridness and obscurity has goaded critics into any number of painfully literal discussions of what Victor did and how. (Since his creature is both "about eight feet in height" and "proportionally large" [32], clearly he isn’t simply sewing together the limbs of five-foot-five-inch corpses. John Rieder proposes, sensibly enough, that we think of Victor’s monster-making as a kind of corporeal knitting or weaving). Eventually I want to circle back to consider more fully the visual metaphors by means of which Victor narrates his discovery of the secret of life ("I saw . . . I beheld . . . I saw"), but we may first jump-cut to the legendary opening of chapter four, which I think we may take as the novelistic equivalent to the primal scene of monster-making in Whale’s film:

    It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

    How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? His limbs were in proportion, and 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 luxuriancies 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.

    The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured; and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavoring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain: I slept indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep in horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window-shutters, I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited; where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpose to which I had so miserably given life.

    Oh! no mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed upon him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived. (34-35)

    I have quoted at length in order to recall as fully as possible a scene so overfamiliar to Romanticists that at least one eminent professional colleague seems to have confused it with the film it is not: when Marilyn Butler, in a putatively historicist account of Frankenstein’s relation to early nineteenth-century science, confidently tells us that Victor "uses a machine, reminiscent of a battery, to impart the spark of life" (307), we witness the enlivening of literature with props borrowed from the warehouse of the cinematic imaginary. (Butler offers her proof in a decisive though understandably unspecific footnote: "See the opening sentences, Frankenstein (1818), ch. 4." She presumably has in mind the phrase "instruments of life", possibly augmented by a phrase in Shelley's 1831 preface, "some powerful engine." Victor, unlike his Hollywood progeny, keeps his technological images carefully vague.) Certainly there are various ways to think of those opening sentences as cinematic. Heffernan, for instance, writes of Victor’s dream that the "sudden dissolving of one image [Elizabeth] into another [Victor’s dead mother] is ‘supremely cinematic,’ as [director Kenneth] Branagh has said of Frankenstein as a whole." And he notes as an attendant irony the fact that the nightmare scene has never, to his knowledge, been included in any film version of Frankenstein (Heffernan, 141). In part, one may speculate, this is because the film versions do not need it; they have their own primal scene, as it were. In any event I would suggest, somewhat following Heffernan’s lead, that we seek to discover the "cinematic" character of Shelley’s novel not simply in its visual cues, but in the relation between the narrative’s repetitive, even strained invocations of visual metaphor ("I beheld"; "I saw") and the proliferating acts of articulation and substitution that compose the text of Frankenstein.

  9. What that last phrase suggests is that the novel’s substitutive chains may be understood as its "technic": technic here meaning not the instrumental usefulness with which rhetoric has always been associated, but rather the globalized mobility of significance in an era of mechanical reproduction. One of the things we imply when we call a text Gothic is the hypercoded substitutability of its places, characters, signs, and desires: everything, in such a world, can and must always mean something else, with the result that everything is over- and under-legible, and, visually speaking, is in motion toward a "dissolve into" or "cut to" something else. Victor’s dream is in this respect exemplary. His Elizabeth dissolves into his dead mother and then into the waking dream of the animated monster, a chain of substitutions so overdetermined that critics never tire of discussing it, as witnessed by this special issue. And rightly so, for this scene has a claim to being the hallucinatory heart of Frankenstein. Not only is its final transition—from sleep to the sight of a seeing monster—the vision, if one credits Mary Shelley’s preface of 1831, out of which the novel grew; the specific transformations enacted by the dream also summarize the novel’s question concerning technology as one indissociable from matters of gender difference, desire, and maternity.

  10. We need to pursue this thread briefly before returning to questions of vision and figuration, for the "seeing" of a body always at some point raises the specter of (the visibility of) sexual difference. Much of the last quarter-century’s writing about Frankenstein has explored in some fashion or other Victor’s usurpation of maternal power in the creation of his monster; less frequently noted is the paradox that a thoroughgoing unsettling of gender identities accompanies this insistent homology between the maternal and the technical. If Victor’s overreaching consists in—is exemplified by—the transformation of maternal productivity into mechanical reproducibility, his individualistic Prometheanism nonetheless finds itself displaced into and consumed by the Gothic substitutive chains that make the novel a dream-like array of doublings and mirrorings. What is it to be male, or a mother, or even a monster in a novel in which everyone is a double for everyone else?[5] One can start off with a transitive chain of seemingly male characters: Walton is Victor (the W doubling the V) and Victor is his creature; Victor is also Clerval (who like Walton "reanimates" Victor—in Clerval’s case, right after Victor has animated his creature [37-38]). Victor sees in Clerval as in Walton "the image of [his] former self" [109]), and Percy Shelley, it has been hypothesized, might have seen in Victor the image of his former self, given Victor’s youthful interest in necromancy and raising the dead [22]. Yet this chain of male characters also leads us toward the text’s nominally female roles: as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar noted many years ago, Victor must be read not just as a refiguration of Satan and Adam, but also of Eve (232), and of course the same holds for the creature (238-9). The creature discovers an ambivalent double in Safie, and a more lurid one in Justine (who calls herself a "monster" [56]) and Elizabeth (who, proleptically echoing Victor’s own self-condemnations, feels she has murdered William [72]). Upon the death of Victor’s mother, Elizabeth replaces her; and if Victor symbolically kills off his mother by usurping her reproductive powers, Elizabeth kills her off more directly by infecting her with scarlet fever—while Justine, again like Victor, seems in some figurative way responsible for the death of her own entire family (40-41).[6] Walton, meanwhile, in the feminized informality of his education ("my education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading" [8]) resembles both his sister Margaret, the epistelory addressee of the frame-novel, and Mary Shelley; and Mary Shelley, in her famous account of the dream that gave birth to Frankenstein in her 1831 preface, imagines herself as Victor, awakened by the gaze of his double—an account that, given the amplitude of our present medium, the Internet, might as well be examined in full:

    When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human edeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken . . . . He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his beside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

    I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still: the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story, —my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened!

    Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow." On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, It was on a dreary night of November, making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream. ("Introduction" to the 1831 Frankenstein, Shelley 171)

    And thus the novel is her "hideous progeny" (173). Shelley’s own anguished relation to and experience of mothering is inscribed in the textual chain; if Frankenstein can always be read "as the experience of writing Frankenstein," what this means, as Barbara Johnson puts it, is that "Mary, paradoxically enough, must [as the daughter of two famous writers] usurp the parental role and succeed in giving birth to herself on paper. Her declaration of existence as a writer must therefore figuratively repeat the matricide that her physical birth all too literally entailed" (249). In the novel that resulted from this predicament Johnson discerns an allegory of (female) autobiography as monstrosity: an allegory that offers "the painful message not of female monstrousness but of female contradictions" (250).

  11. One must add, however, that Frankenstein makes legible—indeed, underwrites to the point of making necessary—readings such as Johnson’s precisely by forcing us to understand gender and sexual difference as effects of reading. The usurpation and technologization of maternity may be an archaic male dream, but this is also to say, as Avital Ronell remarks in another context, that "technology in some way is always implicated in the feminine" (247), with the result that the more technically saturated the world is, the more unstable becomes the difference between the "male" and its feared and fantasized others. The challenge is to follow out the techno-textual exchanges and economies that generate yet also undermine the illusion of a stable binary opposition between a (male) subject and its (feminized) object. Frankenstein pushes us toward a double reading: on the one hand, in this textual universe of replications and replicants, there is seemingly nothing—not life, not death, not gender or sex or natural bodies, or by extension any natural process or state—that cannot be (monstrously) reproduced.[7] On the other hand, the novel’s plot offers a recuperative recursus: Victor’s refusal to make a female monster halts the technologization of the world precisely at the figurative site of the world’s technological violation—the mother’s body. Victor gives birth to his monster, but not to a monster who could in turn give birth. The doubleness of the technotext sharpens here: on the one hand, by choosing to interrupt his labor Victor nourishes the illusion that technology is the tool of a masterful (and sinful, and now repentent) subject; on the other hand, the sheer fact that he has a choice to make suggests that no area or aspect of the natural world is safe from technological penetration, and that Victor’s individual genius is finally beside the point (as he says right before dying, near the end of the novel, "I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed" [152]). The idea that Victor’s male ego can be held entirely responsible for the plot is, appropriately, Victor’s own idea. Statements such as "I, not in deed but in effect was the true murderer" (61) or "William, Justine, Henry—they all died by my hands" (128) are ethically valid only to the extent that they are legibly fantasmatic, narcissistic, and compensatory. Victor’s is a Gothic enactment of the illusion that Heidegger diagnoses as the self-concealment of modern technics: its fallacious mistaking of itself as the will-to-power of a subject over objects.

  12. The Walpolean Gothic tradition, as read by critics such as Jerrold Hogle, may be taken as a decisive early manifestation of Western culture’s processing of itself as technoculture, as an era of mechanical replication: it is the Gothic’s "ungrounded fakery," Hogle writes, "its re-presentation of antiquated symbols largely emptied of their older meanings, that opens up a peculiar cultural space in which the horrors generated by early modern cultural changes . . . can be ‘thrown off’ or ‘thrown down and under’—‘abjected’ in the senses emphasized by Julia Kristeva. . . ." (178). The more visibly counterfeit the signs—including, to be sure, the signs of gendered identity—the more emphatic these gestures of abjection; and what is abjected in Gothic narrative is always in the first place a mother (or, better, a figure of the "maternal") who serves as a vehicle for the expulsion of the "least acceptable, most heterogenous aspects of human being in the early industrial era" (Hogle 179).[8] Or indeed, heterogenous aspects of modernity that shake the foundations of "human being" as the subject of its self-fashioned universe. Victor’s dream maps the terror of the dead and decomposing mother—the mother who, as it were, cannot ever quite die enough, cannot stop reappearing elsewhere—onto the vision of a techno-creature looking back at him, beyond his control as only another consciousness can be (the creature looks with speculative eyes, Mary Shelley adds in her account of her own dream-vision). And this loss of control inhabits the self, for the borders of the self become impossible to establish. Under this monstrous gaze the difference between dreaming and waking becomes as tenuous and vexed as that between monster and maker: the entire novel might easily be read as "Frankenstein’s dream," except for the fact that the identity of Frankenstein has become impossible to pin down. Walton, after all, dreams Frankenstein into existence, just as Frankenstein dreams up Clerval at an opportune moment (36); the word "dream" appears repeatedly in the text, as it might well given the uncanny repetitions forming its plot.[9] Everything becomes fungible when everything can be reproduced elsewhere; and if, in a universe of counterfeiting, the maternal body provides a figurative vehicle for the invocation and expulsion of anxieties about identity and meaning, the creature’s body—or rather, a certain aspect of the creature’s body: its visual unbearability—functions as a thematic focal point for these anxieties. We must now return to the lab and the slab, and ask why this should be so.

  13. What is a monster? Peter Brooks, noting the contrast between the monster’s eloquence and his unseeable body, suggests that in Frankenstein a monster is that which, visually or corporeally, "exceeds the very basis of classification, language itself" (218). Yet that claim needs nuancing. The text makes clear that the act of seeing is bound up with language: in the first place, with language as representation:

    How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? His limbs were in proportion, and 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 luxuriancies 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.

    The inability to see is an inability to "delineate": a persistent equation in the novel ("Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe," Walton says [152]). To see is to integrate visual data into forms accessible to understanding. Seeing is reading: hence the fundamental role of the aesthetic in epistemological philosophies such as Kant’s, and hence the burdened role of the human body in phenomenological or psychoanalytic discourses, where the body must provide fundamental shapes and surfaces for the production of meaning, yet must also serve as a screen or surface onto which the possibility of form is projected. Elsewhere I have discussed the importance and volatility of the figure of the body in aesthetic discourse (see Redfield, ch. 2); for present purposes it will suffice to note the emphatically aesthetic vocabulary with which Victor seeks to "delineate" his creature’s monstrosity. The creature’s limbs are in proportion, Victor tells us (though Walton will contradict this, claiming that the creature’s form is "distorted in its proportions" [152]). The creature’s features were selected as "beautiful" (though a couple of paragraphs later, as we saw in the extended quote above, Victor will tell us that he was "ugly" even before being animated). A Petrarchan, or even Byronic, catalogue of male beauties jars as a "horrid contrast" with eyes that match in yellowness their sockets and the body’s racially marked skin. We are intended to understand by all this, I think, that Victor cannot say why his creature is so terrible to see. The creature is monstrous in Kant’s sense of an object that "by its magnitude nullifies the purpose that constitutes its concept" (Kant, par. 26; 109; for an intesting analysis of Frankenstein that pursues this definition of monstrosity, see Freeman, 79-90). Something has gone wrong in the formation of form: Victor can build and animate a body but cannot grasp it as a body in an aesthetic perception.

  14. This inability in turn has to do with the body’s being animate, or animated. Its animatedness is troped as the power to see, to look back; the eyes are the same color as the body framing the eyes. The creature’s body, in other words, is all eye—or his eye is all body: sheer materiality, as it were, looking back. Victor animated that eye; and though as we noted earlier the text offers us little concrete detail in its account of Victor’s discovery of the secret of "bestowing animation" (31), those paragraphs nonetheless bear close reading, since after its fashion the primal scene of monster-making turns out to be, in Shelley’s novel no less than in Whale’s film, an affair of illumination and lighting effects. Despite the dank and obscure surroundings in which Victor is forced to work, he "sees" processes and differences of life and death: "I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonder of the eye and brain....until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me . . . ." (30). Victor pauses here for an oath, an invocation of vision for the sake of vision: "Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens, than that which I now affirm is true" (30).[10] And then a peculiar blindness strikes from within this solar light:

    After so much time spent in painful labor, 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 overwhelming, that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the result. (31)

    There is, avant la lettre, a touch of The Triumph of Life about that second sentence: the light of discovery is "sudden" to the point of obliterating the temporality of its own genesis. The secret of life disrupts, to the point of destroying, the narrative of its appearance—effacing, one could say, the "seeing" of degradation and death that enabled life’s lightning-bolt triumph. Victor may think he is protecting Walton, but the truth is that he cannot share his "secret" (31), for he does not really possess it. It possesses him. Victor can animate a body that he cannot then conceptualize as a body because he is doing something he does not understand—or, better, his understanding and his act never catch up with each other: he knows the secret of life but what he does outstrips his knowing. The sign of this rupture between cognition and act is speed. "As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature" (31-32). The creature becomes, specifically, a monster (Kant again: a monster is an object that "by its magnitude nullifies the purpose that constitutes its concept") because Victor is on speed, hooked on and keyed to the temporality of technics.[11]

  15. If the light that breaks upon Victor animates him—monstrously, rendering him a zombie consumed by a hysterical labor of animation—this coincidence of light and (monstrous) life reinforces the interdependence between vision and language, seeing and sense-making. Animation in Frankenstein is everywhere, suggestive of a textual effect rather than of a single accomplishment of a mad scientist: Elizabeth is "lively and animated" (19); Victor is "animated" while animating his creature (30); the creature periodically receives supplemental "animation" by a "fiendish rage" (98). At the end of the novel, Victor is animated by his own rhetoric and little else: worn out from a speech to Walton’s crew in which he repeats his old error ("You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species"), he collapses, "sunk in languor, and almost deprived of life" (150). That language should give (and exhaust) life is no trivial conceit in a literary text; Walton writes, but Victor polishes the account to give it "life and spirit," and to prevent Walton from producing a "mutilated" narrative (146). Rhetorical animation, the text suggests, is the technical effectivity of language. And the creature’s monstrosity is that of the figure of personification that he literalizes. The catachresis of his animate body animates in turn the frenzied, apocalyptic plot of the novel, which repeats in the cadences of Gothic hysteria the monstrous process through which novels come alive. Frankenstein’s cinematic heritage helps us recognize that monstrosity as a dimension of technoshock, while the novel itself destroys any illusion that we can see seeing, or read reading. Modernity is the name we give to the ever-accelerating visibility and occlusion of this predicament. The monster’s yellow eye opens as the shutter of a camera that has never since stopped scanning our world, but with which we have long since developed ways of living, if living is what we still do in a world where life and death have become potential moments within an ongoing process of technological manipulation that has no end in sight.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit." Gesammelte Schriften Eds. Rolf Tiedemann and Herman Schweppenhäuser. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974. I.2, 435-508. Translated as "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968, 217-51.

Brooks, Peter. Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Butler, Marilyn. "Frankenstein and Radical Science." Shelley 302-12.

Derrida, Jacques. "No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven missiles, seven missives)." Diacritics, 14: 2 (1984), 20-31.

Freeman, Barbara. The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women's Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Forry, Steven Earl, ed. Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of "Frankenstein" from Mary Shelley to the Present. Philadelphia: University of Pennyslvania Press, 1990.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. "Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve." Shelley 225-40.

Heffernan, James A. W. "Looking at the Monster: Frankenstein and Film." Critical Inquiry 24:1 (1997), 133-58.

Hansen, Mark. "'Not thus, after all, would life be given': Technesis, Technology, and the Parody of Romantic Poetics in Frankenstein." Studies in Romanticism 36:4 (1997), 575-609.

Hogle, Jerrold E. "Frankenstein as Neo-Gothic: From the Ghost of the Counterfeit to the Monster of Abjection." Romanticism, History, and the Possibilities of Genre: Re-Forming Literature 1789-1837. Ed. Tilottama Rajan and Julia M. Wright. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 176-210.

Johnson, Barbara. "My Monster/My Self." Shelley 241-50.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

Lipking, Lawrence. "Frankenstein, the True Story; or, Rousseau Judges Jean-Jacques." Shelley 313-32.

Marder, Elissa. "The Mother Tongue in Phèdre and Frankenstein." Yale French Studies, 76 (1989), 59-77.

Redfield, Marc. The Politics of Aesthetics: Nationalism, Gender, Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Ronell, Avital. Finitude's Score: Essays for the End of the Millennium. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Scott, Walter. "Review of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus." Edinburgh Magazine n.s. 2 (March 1818): 249-53.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Nineteenth Century Responses, Modern Criticism. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1996.

Whale, James, director. Frankenstein. With Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke. 1931.

Wicke, Jennifer. "Vampiric Typewriting: Dracula and its Media." ELH 59: 2 (1992): 467-93.


1 I refer here to "Whale's Frankenstein," but as James A. W. Heffernan rightly notes, "the genesis of this film exemplifies the way filmmaking disperses the notion of authorship" (135n10). See Heffernan's note for an informative summary of the complications: the screenplay, based on an American version of a 1927 London stage adaptation of Shelley's novel, is credited to two writers, and shaped in part by as many as four more; and at least one important scene—the scene in which the monster drowns the girl Maria—was, according to Heffernan, shaped by Boris Karloff's wishes rather than Whale's (Heffernan, 135-36n10; 145).

2 See here Marder on translation in the text: Walton speaks only English, so if the monster speaks to him at the end of the novel, he does so in a foreign language. Marder links this linguistic exile to the absence of the mother.

3 As hypervisible body, the movie monster can also at times appear less sexually complicated than his textual original—hence the Mel Brooks's parody in which the creature ends up in bed reading the Wall Street Journal, his monstrous body capable of awakening and satisfying the desires of Madeleine Kahn's Elisabeth.

4 In this respect as in all others, Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein pays canny tribute to its model. "This is where it all began," says the main character wonderingly, upon seeing the lab. Later, Igor draws a sketch of a sample monster and sets it swinging, and the camera fades to a hanging body—a fine, and finely parodic, recollection of the 1931 Frankenstein's troping of cinema as the animation and motion of (dead) bodies.

5 Lawrence Lipking acutely if somewhat irritably notes of the plethora of Frankenstein interpretations that these "readings seldom take the trouble to notice, let alone challenge each other" ("Is Frankenstein a story of homophobic paranoia? the repression of the proletariat? an abandoned woman? Collectively, the response of modern criticism has been, Why not?" [315, 314]). The text's densely overdetermined doublings and redoublings make this possible.

6 I expect that someone has long ago noted that Elizabeth's role is in some ways modeled on that of Lotte in Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther (one of the monster's favorite books): like Elizabeth, Lotte promises her mother on her (the mother's) deathbed to take her place: "In the quiet of evening, the shade of my mother always hovers round me, when I sit in the midst of her children, my children...." she tells Werther.

7 It is a nice detail, given the later use of an equivalent German word by Benjamin, that Walter Scott would write of the "shock" that Frankenstein gives to "some of our highest and most reverential feelings."

8 For an interesting account of Frankenstein as a "machine text" associable with the early Industrial Revolution, see Hansen.

9 Victor's scientific ("chemical") studies, for instance, closely repeat his fantastic ("alchemical" and "chimerical") childhood obsessions (21); both, of course, turn out to be versions of a desire to raise the dead.

10 The creature will later, appropriately, swear "by the sun" (100).

11 On speed and technology, see Derrida.

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July 2003