Patriarchal Fantasy and the Fecal Child in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and its Adaptations
John Rieder, University of Hawaii at Manoa
The Freudian unconscious is situated at that point, where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong.
—Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 22
Frankenstein's dream, like all dreams, can only be told by the one who has woken up from it. Between a dream and its telling there always looms the chasm between sleeping and waking, and the telling can only approximate or appropriate one state of being or one vision of things by and for another. Victor Frankenstein wakes from dream to reality twice in the creation scene of Frankenstein. Upon seeing his creature come to life, he tells us, "the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart" (59). Shortly thereafter, Frankenstein falls asleep, dreams that his kiss transforms Elizabeth into his mother's corpse, and wakes to find the creature looking at him. This time, instead of contradicting the dream's "beauty," the creature seems to repeat and corroborate its horrifying significance. Any reading of Frankenstein's dream must also be a reading of this double awakening's play of discontinuity and repetition.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has come to occupy a place in literary history that might well be compared to the moment of awakening from a dream. Her novel has become a kind of nodal point connecting biblical, classical, Miltonic, and popular versions of the story of the fabrication of human life by a male creator. Moreover, Shelley's novel both connects these texts and marks a crucial break between the earlier and the post-Shelleyan ones, because Shelley's novel alters the relation between the natural and the paternal that is central to all versions. The divine fabrication of human life in Genesis and Paradise Lost becomes an all-too-human accomplishment in the workshop of Victor Frankenstein. The nature/culture opposition thereafter remains one of the main stakes in adaptations of Shelley's novel, which sometimes reassert the primacy of the natural order by turning Frankenstein's act into blasphemy or a transgression of fatally determined boundaries, and at other times make it increasingly difficult to untangle the natural human from the manmade one.
The novel's representation of the paternal is of course implicated in this drawing and redrawing of the boundaries of nature. Shelley's subversion or parody of the biblical creation myth probably strikes most modern readers less as an estrangement of natural order than as a kind of awakening to it—that is, a way of exposing or emphasizing the prior symbolic violence of attributing the birth of the first human to a father rather than a mother. The Frankenstein story's denaturalizing of conventional gender roles reverberates in any number of its adaptations—e.g. The Rocky Horror Show, the campier elements of Bride of Frankenstein, or the entire genre of science-fiction "gender benders." The problem of gender has been even more central to the academic criticism devoted to Shelley's novel, as in the recurring questions of whether the monster represents a male or female subject position, or of how Victor Frankenstein's labors allude to Mary Shelley's own traumatic experiences with childbirth, or of what sort of Oedipal or negative-Oedipal conflict the relation of Victor to his creature enacts. Shelley's displacement of the paternal disturbs the entire web of gender and familial identities, and both popular adaptations and criticism of the novel continue to explore and exploit the effects of this disturbance.
It is not surprising, given its destabilization of gender, its weird family romance, and the concurrence of these themes with a revisionary treatment of the emergence of culture from nature, that there have been so many psychoanalytic readings of Frankenstein. But the very plenitude of psychoanalytic interpretation of the novel itself invites further analysis. What is the meaning of their seemingly interminable proliferation? Perhaps Frankenstein points to a place in our literary and cultural traditions "where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong." A rupture between cause and effect is both the crux of its fable and the dominant motif of its reception. Most popular adaptations of the story seem to take as its main feature what Benjamin would have called the story's counsel ("The Storyteller"), the wisdom that overreaching ambition recoils upon the subject. Eve, Prometheus, Pandora, and Frankenstein all try to usurp upon divine authority and all suffer the consequences. What will be argued here, however, is that the story's fascination lies not in its counsel but in that radically different power Benjamin attributed to the lyrics of Baudelaire: Frankenstein and its adaptations are "traumatophilic" ("Remarks on Baudelaire"). Placing the counsel against overreaching at the center of the fable, in fact, is a way of avoiding its traumatic content even while the act of repeating the story testifies to the trauma's undiminished power. Shelley's story enters literary and cultural history like an event that is insistently remembered but just as insistently revised.
The process of revision, then, is like the retelling of a dream, and therefore compelled to repeat the chasm or rupture of awakening. I am bearing in mind, here, Lacan's famous reinterpretation of one of the dreams first told in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. In the dream, a father's recently deceased child appears to him and speaks the haunting words, "Father, can't you see that I'm burning?" The dreamer wakes to find that a fire is indeed burning in the next room, where a fallen candle has set fire to the cloth covering the child's corpse (Standard Edition [SE] 5:509-10). While Freud says that the dream itself is constructed in order to keep the dreamer from awakening to the reality in the next room, Lacan adds that the dreamer's awakening is precisely a flight from the unbearable, traumatic reality that repeats itself in the dream: "How can we fail to see that awakening works in two directions—and that the awakening that re-situates us in a constituted and represented reality carries out two tasks?" (Four Fundamental Concepts 57-60). In bringing psychoanalysis to bear (again) on the reading of Frankenstein, then, I am proposing to put at stake both the repetition of Victor Frankenstein's traumatic awakenings in the novel and the process of reading and writing that catches up the story's trauma and won't let go of it. The object of interpretation is not Mary Shelley's psyche or even the coherent intention of her novel but rather that collective fascination or collective fantasy that gives the novel its unusual place in literary and cultural history. This essay proposes to read Frankenstein as if it had inflicted a wound upon the social body that the retellings try to close, and yet the energy of the retellings radiates from their failure to do so.
Let us begin with Victor Frankenstein's first traumatic awakening at the moment when the creature opens its dull yellow eyes and stirs convulsively to life. Frankenstein had desired this event, he says, "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" (59). What motivates this instantaneous transformation of desire into disgust? The way anticipation crumbles into horror could allude to Mary Shelley's feelings about the short-lived infant daughter she bore in February, 1815. The creature's coming to life recalls not so much the child's birth as a dream recorded in Mary's journal shortly after the infant's death: "that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived" (Journal 39). The novel records Frankenstein's awakening from a similarly happy, impossible dream. The difference is that Victor's fantasy of childbirth yields to waking nightmare not because his waking reality contradicts it, but rather as the very result of the fantasy's being fulfilled. It is not the frustration of his desire but its realization that disgusts him.
The relation between desire and disgust here points toward another allusion close at hand that involves an awakening from happy dream to nightmarish reality. More than one reader has connected Frankenstein's revulsion for his creature to the moment in P. B. Shelley's Alastor when the Poet wakes from his dream to find the world rendered empty and meaningless by the absence of the Poet's dream vision. Margaret Homans uses this comparison to connect Victor's disappointment to the structure of the "male romantic economy" of desire: "The romantic quest is always doomed, for it secretly resists its own fulfillment: although the hero of Alastor quests for his dream maiden and dies of not finding her, his encounter with the Indian maid makes it clear that embodiment is itself an obstacle to desire, or more precisely, its termination" ("Circumvention of the Maternal" 147). According to Homans, what dooms the romantic quest is the fact that its desire is fundamentally narcissistic, a method of defending oneself against the absence (or in Victor's case the death) of the mother. Any embodiment of the desire painfully intrudes upon and disrupts its basis in narcissistic fantasy. This male romantic economy in turn duplicates the more general fate of desire described by Lacan. Thus Victor's "breathless horror and disgust" register the inevitable failure of any real object to fulfill the fantastic demand for what Lacan calls the "cause of desire" ("Signification of the Phallus," 287).
Victor is certainly narcissistic, but Homans's reading of his disgust does not account very well for one of its most crucial features. Not only Victor but everyone who looks at the creature shares his immediate loathing for it. Yet no one else who sees the monster is grieving for Victor's mother or has shared in the dreams or desires that predicate Victor's repulsion at their embodiment. In order to accept Homans's reading, one would have to say that Victor's Oedipal desire ("the predicament of Frankenstein, as of the hero of Alastor, is that of the son in Lacan's revision of the Oedipal crisis" [Homans 148]) functions as a kind of generalized social background in the rest of the novel. For the fact that the creature is universally recognizable implies that he embodies something intrinsic to the society's identity, and the fact that the creature is immediately repulsive to all implies that he embodies an aspect of the social fantasy that ought never to have shown itself. Although it does not disturb Victor's meager sense of the reality of others when everyone else acts as if the meaning of the creature were simply identical with his private nightmare (indeed he never seems to imagine for a moment that it would not be so), a less solipsistic reader should wonder why the creature is not merely a disappointment to Victor's narcissism, but a scandal to the entire social framework.
In order to explain this odd consonance between the novel's social framework and Victor's psyche, we need first to look more carefully at the dissonance between them. This involves stepping back for a moment from the novel's traumatic moment and the motif of awakening from dreams to take stock of one of the novel's strangest qualities, Victor Frankenstein's profound stupidity. I have found that students, when asked to respond to Victor's decision to destroy the nearly-completed female companion for his creature, often wonder why Victor did not forestall his fears about proliferating a race of monsters by simply making the female sterile. Doesn't he know how? (How could he not?) Or is he simply blind to the possibility? The question gives rise to others. Why is it that the creature's request for a female companion seems to come as such a surprise to Victor? Could he have treasured the fantasy that "a new species would bless me as its creator and source"(55) without having ever planned to create females as well as males? Apparently Victor suffers from a remarkable deficiency of imagination when it comes to understanding or even contemplating the process of sexual reproduction. And of course his stupidity about Elizabeth is equally egregious, as becomes most obvious in his incredible failure to correctly understand the creature's threat to take his revenge on Victor on Victor's wedding night. Is it simply his patent narcissism that prevents him from understanding that the creature is threatening to attack Elizabeth, not Victor? Or is his narcissism only one aspect of an infantilism that leaves him generally befuddled about relations between men and women?
The creature's character is not determined by Frankenstein's ambitions or motives but rather by his creator's ignorance, bungling, and misrecognition of himself and all around him. Thus the whole problem of the way Oedipal conflict enters into the reading of the novel runs up against the rock of Victor's stupidity, which injects something grimly farcical into the tragic rivalry of Victor and his creature, something similar, as Phillip Stevick observed twenty years ago, to the comic quality of Kafka's narratives. Alphonse Frankenstein is not a very important character in this novel, certainly not the forbidding, rivalrous father some readers have made him out to be. Victor acts less like the father's rival than like someone who does not even understand that his father has a role in sexual reproduction. Thus, instead of impregnating a woman, Victor becomes a father by piecing together a body and, in a famously vague moment, "infus[ing] a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at [his] feet" (58). The vagueness here is crucial, because it follows closely that of Shelley's most important source: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" (Genesis 2:7). But as the creature says, Frankenstein is a grim parody of the Hebraic creator: "[God] made man after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of your's" (154).
What ties together Frankenstein's infantilism, the loathing the creature provokes, and the biblical and Miltonic account of creation? Perhaps the epithet the creature applies to himself points toward an answer. Frankenstein echoes his "filthy type" by describing him, shortly thereafter, as "the filthy mass that lived and moved" (175). The creature's filthiness associates him with an infantile sexual theory that accords well with Frankenstein's stupidity: "From the very first," says Freud in the Introductory Lectures, "children are at one in thinking that babies must be born through the bowel; they must make their appearance like lumps of faeces" (SE 16:319). A good deal of textual detail supports the notion that the creature consistently alludes to this asexual theory of birth. The creature's appearance, for instance, alludes to his excremental status. The near-transparent skin insufficiently separates the inside of the body from the outside, hinting at the noisome scandal of the feces' exteriorization of the body's interior processes. The wrinkled face and straight black lips horridly contrasted to the pearly white teeth refer to and short-circuit the oral-anal track. The creature's luxuriantly excremental hair crowns the portrait. Furthermore, Frankenstein's creative process itself, which strikes the creature as "odious," "disgusting," "loathsome" (154), suggests infantile play with feces. Frankenstein at first undervalues the work of modern chemists who "dabble in dirt," (47), but later he "dabble[s] among the unhallowed damps of the grave" (55) to prepare material for his "workshop of filthy creation" (56). When Victor agrees to start work again in order to fabricate the female companion, anal-sadistic hallucinations hound him: "I saw continually about me a multitude of filthy animals inflicting on me incessant torture" (178).]
The scatological character of Frankenstein's creature also conforms to Shelley's religious—or should we say blasphemous—allusions. The most frequent epithet Frankenstein applies to the creature is "monster," but after this come "fiend" and "daemon" (Baldick 65). Since this identification of his creature as a devil precedes any possible moral judgment, the widespread and deep association of the European devil with scatological imagery suggests that Victor is here repeating a conventional set of terms in reaction to his startlingly fecal child (Brown 207-10). But the fecal child has divine implications as well. The scholar of comparative mythology, Alan Dundes, argues that the fantasy of birth by defecation figures recurrently and widely in male god creation myths, including the second chapter of Genesis ("Earth-Diver"). Thus the creature is not only a good Miltonist but also a keen-sighted folklorist when he compares his own status with that of the mudchild, Adam.
The religious allusion and the psychoanalytic hypothesis present the same problem at this point. When Jehovah looks at his handiwork he sees that it is good, and Freud tells us that children at the stage of development in question are far from feeling disgust at their own feces. On the contrary, they take pleasure in manipulating them and are apt to express pride and affection for these "children." Even though it would be normal adult behavior for Victor and everyone else to express disgust at the "mass of filth" he has produced, the reactions the creature provokes significantly exceed a normal level of repulsion. A partial explanation of this excess, at least, is that the reference of the whole situation to Genesis amplifies conventional disgust for feces into the intense loathing all onlookers exhibit towards the creature. This excessive affect marks precisely the cultural trauma enacted in Frankenstein. Reactions to the creature go beyond mere disgust because they also register a crisis in the articulation of the natural and the paternal: God is an impossible father, his mudchild Adam is an impossible son, and Frankenstein denaturalizes them, rendering their fantastic character scandalously obvious. And the novel does not merely expose the element of the fantastic in Jehovah's paternity, it also forces the myth's specific allegiance to the infantile theory of birth by defecation to declare itself. That declaration of allegiance in turn provokes a defensive, vehement repudiation of the fecal child. Thus Victor Frankenstein stands between Jehovah and the mad scientist, not so much mediating the two figures as locating a rupture between the "natural" basis of paternal authority laid down in Genesis and a version of quasi-paternal authority disrupted by its "unnatural" fascination with technical manipulation.
Perhaps we can reach toward a fuller understanding of the way Victor Frankenstein's private nightmare bears upon the social trauma creator and creature are both caught in, however, by setting Victor beside Freud's most charming exponent of infantile sexual theories, Little Hans. Near the end of Hans's case history the little theorist has a crucial series of conversations with his analyst father about Hans's imaginary children. Hans's fantasies of childcare involve defecation (SE 10:97), and his account of their origin identifies them as pieces of "lumf," the family's pet word for feces (SE 10:95). But the crucial moment that marks these conversations as signals of Hans's cure is his answer to the father's admonition, "You know quite well a boy can't have any children." Hans replies, "I know. I was their Mummy before, now I'm their Daddy" (SE 10:96; italics in original). In Freud's interpretation, Hans's reply marks his successful negotiation of the Oedipal crisis by means of identification with his father. Another way of putting this, however, is that it marks his final accession to the splitting of the human race into two classes, one possessing the penis and one lacking it. That is, his "cure" also coincides with his final break from another infantile sexual theory, his belief in the phallic mother (see SE 10:9-10).
Freud remarks about this belief that "Hans was a homosexual (as all children may well be), quite consistently with the fact, which must always be kept in mind, that he was acquainted with only one kind of genital organ—a genital organ like his own" (SE 10:110; italics in original). Hans believes his mother has a penis, and he believes that he himself can become a mother. At this stage of things, when his mother playfully threatens to "cut off" his "widdler" (his penis), he calmly replies that in that case he will have to widdle "with my bottom" (SE 10:8). The threat of castration provokes anxiety only from the moment his belief in the phallic mother is called into question, for only then would it "no longer be incredible that they could take his own widdler away, and, as it were, make him into a woman" (SE 10:36). The crucial point is not, however, the possibility or impossibility of castration. On the contrary, the crux of the matter is that "woman," in Freud's sentence, does not mean "Mummy" in the sense Hans was wont to use the term when he identified himself as the mother of his imaginary children. Instead it means "castrated." Thus the onset of Hans's castration anxiety coincides not only with a stricter differentiation of the functions of the anus and the penis, but also with a devaluation of femininity. Within Freud's narrative and therapeutic scheme, the passage from belief in the pre-Oedipal, phallic mother into full participation in the Oedipal crisis involves splitting humanity into those who have penises and those who have lost them, which means, those who can possess the mother (that is, be fathers) and those who can merely be possessed. Hans's cure, in turn, consists to a significant extent in embracing his father's and Freud's interpretation of "woman"—for Hans's mother, we should remember, insists that she really does have a "widdler" (SE 10:10).
What I've called the stupidity of Victor Frankenstein shares some broad areas of agreement with the theoretical speculations of Little Hans. Little Victor is similarly ignorant, or at least resistant, of the notion that boys can't have babies, and seems just as confused about the relation between genitalia and reproduction. Unlike Hans, however, Victor never clearly graduates into understanding and acceptance of his society's normative gender scheme. The moment of the creature's awakening, when Victor's dreams turn into disgust, does mark a transition between delight in the fecal child and quasi-normal disgust. But this passage is catastrophic and traumatic because Victor never really abandons the pre-Oedipal scheme so as to be able to adopt the normative one. He remains mired, instead, in the strange family economy of the Frankensteins. Victor's inability to understand the dynamics of sexual rivalry motivating the creature's wedding-night threat, for instance, is only one aspect of the odd absence of courtship in Victor's story. Where one might expect to find courtship, one finds instead the astounding generosity of the Frankenstein family, one that apparently overrides the prohibition against incest. The 1818 text blandly disguises the Frankenstein family economy as sentimentalized domesticity: "mutual affection engaged us all to comply with and obey the slightest desire of each other" (41). A literal reading of a sentence like this is borne out by Victor's projected, familially approved union with his cousin-sister Elizabeth, not to mention the addition of Caroline Beaufort to the Frankenstein family first as Alphonse's daughter, then as his wife—as if entering the family were the prerequisite for becoming a sexual partner. The family economy becomes more explicit in the 1831 text when, in an apparent effort to deflect the incestuousness of Victor and Elizabeth's relationship in the 1818 version, Shelley has Caroline explain the appearance of the now exogamous Elizabeth to young Victor as a gift from mother to son. Rather than Oedipal rivalry over sexual possession, the Frankenstein family operates an economy where giftgiving solidifies the worth and authority of the giver. Rivalry therefore does not take the form of jealousy (you possess what I want) but rather, as Klein says of the pre-Oedipal child, envy (you are what I am not, can give what I cannot).
What Victor's dilemma puts at stake, then, is not merely the allusion of the fecal child to Jehovan paternity, but a system of gender identification, an economy of possession and exchange, and the delineation of endogamous and exogamous relations within that system and economy. Gayle Rubin, laying Levi-Strauss's theory of kinship structures over Freud's and Lacan's theories of family romance, calls this set of functions a "sex-gender system" (159), and our placing Victor Frankenstein next to Little Hans makes it clear that Victor's "circumvention of the maternal" is in fact a stubborn resistance to the dominant sex-gender system's differentiation of maternity and paternity from one another. Victor misconstrues the creature's threat to Elizabeth because he continues to cling to this resistance. When he destroys the female creature, he bars the creature from entry into the sex-gender system and so succeeds in continuing to elude it himself. If Little Hans's cure consists in resolving his Oedipal crisis, Victor's private nightmare cannot be ended in this way because he never stops resisting the terms of the Oedipal structure itself. Thus Victor's suffering and the creature's isolation prefigure Deleuze and Guattari's critique of the conservative logic the Oedipal structure imposes on analysis: "Oedipus informs us: if you don't follow the lines of differentiation daddy-mommy-me, and the exclusive alternatives that delineate them, you will fall into the black night of the undifferentiated" (Anti-Oedipus 78). Victor's transgression of the normative sex-gender system and his resolute refusal to allow his creature into it throw the two of them into that black night.
Victor's failure to name his child bespeaks the same exclusion. The name Frankenstein cannot or will not give, the "proper" or paternal name, also marks the child as the father's property and as representative of the father's phallus. The disgust inspired by the creature's visibility registers not just the allusion of the Jehovan creation myth to the fantasy of fecal reproduction, but the dependency of the entire system of patriarchal appropriation upon the fantasy of the fecal child (cf. Irigaray, 73-74). The proper name's claim to make the father the only parent that counts depends, first, on the fantasy that the father is the only parent (cf. Athena's famous argument to this effect in The Eumenides), and second on the logic of castration (that is, the logic of Hans's cure) that translates womb envy into penis-envy, the gift into a barter of phalluses, and woman into a castrated man. In order to render in detail this more extended implication of the fecal child in normative paternity and the Oedipal economy, however, we need to move to Victor Frankenstein's second awakening.
Frankenstein's dream on the night of the creature's "birth" recapitulates in detail the links between Elizabeth as gift, the fantasy of fecal reproduction, and the catastrophic reinterpretation of gift and child under the sign of castration anxiety. The latent dream thoughts clearly center on Frankenstein's manufacture of his creature and his recent, traumatic awakening from his fantasy. The transformations worked upon this content by the dream work itself run parallel to the set of metaphorical meanings Freud maps out for feces in his short essay "On the Transformation of Instincts with Special Reference to Anal Erotism." Freud's essay charts the feces' significance within a developmental narrative that makes it first a gift, then a child, and finally a castrated penis. The dream begins innocently enough with Victor seeing Elizabeth and kissing her. This apparently normal expression of desire and object choice turns out to have been something rather different, however, when his kiss transforms Elizabeth into a corpse. Victor's wish now appears not to have been to produce a child through a sexual union with Elizabeth, but rather to reproduce Elizabeth herself in her role as gift-child. He accepts the gift and attempts to reciprocate it, but his oral gratification produces a fecal "lifeless object" rather than a living baby.
Next Victor identifies the lifeless object as his mother. She is no doubt both the original giver and the intended recipient of Victor's gift, and identifying her as the lifeless object discloses Victor's desire to mimic her reproductive power. Although Freud spends much of his essay talking about the significance of the feces as penis-envy in girls, the fantasy of fecal reproduction springs first from womb envy. The first two meanings Freud assigns to the feces, the gift and the child, concern the pre-Oedipal relationship of the infant to the mother's body, so that the dynamics of incorporation, debt, and gift-giving that motivate the fantasy of fecal birth do not necessarily recognize or give any significance to the difference between men and women - a mouth is a mouth, an anus an anus. Only once the gendered antitheses of Oedipal identification enter into the situation do fantasies of anal fecundity and envy of women's productivity become signifiers of the castrated penis.
In the dream's final turn Victor sees worms crawling in the corpse's winding sheet. The spontaneous generation of worms from the corpse corresponds most closely to the moment when the creature comes to life. The shudder of horror that awakens Victor at this point declares once again Victor's repudiation of the child. But is not this shudder of horror also a moment of arousal—a hysterically displaced erection identifying, as well as fleeing, Victor's genital desire for the mother/feces/child presented to him in the image of the corpse? As such the moment of awakening finally moves Victor to the third item in Freud's series of identifications for the feces, the castrated penis, and simultaneously suggests a retrospective interpretation of the creature's convulsive awakening as the detachment of Victor's phallus. Thus the second awakening enacts an overshadowing of the fecal child's pre-Oedipal significance by castration anxiety, but only a partial one. The intensity of the disparagement directed at the creature here and throughout the rest of the novel testifies to an obtrusive conflict between competing economies of desire and identification, fueling the excessive violence with which the Oedipal economy repeatedly disavows and repudiates its opponent.
In Freudian terms, the novel plays out a struggle between perversion and normality, healthy development and regressive desires, infantile anal-erotic fantasy and mature genital sexuality. But even Freud's own work points beyond the evaluations imposed by such terminology. In Totem and Taboo, for instance, Freud's consistent equation of western European infantile psychology with non-Western "savage" maturity surely indicates, once the ethnocentric bias is removed, that mature, normative sexual arrangements in one sex-gender system may well be considered perverse, immature, and criminal in another. Thus Frankenstein's project, rather than being merely perverse or hubristic, also expresses the utopian possibilities figured in the gift economy of the Frankenstein family. His desire to give to the world the same gift his mother gave to him pits itself against the social norm of patriarchal appropriation and tries to introduce an alternative sex-gender system into the world. Rubin could almost be glossing Victor's project when she announces her own version of the feminist utopia: "Cultural evolution provides us with the opportunity to seize control of the means of sexuality, reproduction, and socialization, and to make conscious decisions to liberate human sexual life from the archaic relationships which deform it" ("Traffic" 199-200). The failure of Frankenstein's project recapitulates a pattern familiar to any reader of the period's literature, the dissolution of revolutionary ambition into tortured repetition of the system it endeavored to overthrow. Like the fate of the Poet in Alastor or of the would-be revolutionary Rivers in Wordsworth's The Borderers, Victor Frankenstein's attempt to break free of the social contract ends up merely reiterating its deep structure. Yet this reiteration, by making that structure explicit, exposes it to the possibility of critique. In this play of desire, repetition, containment, and critique Victor's project turns out (as Zizek says of Kafka's universe) to be "not a 'fantasy-image of social reality' but, on the contrary, the mise en scène of the fantasy which is at work in the midst of social reality itself" (Sublime Object 36, Zizek's emphasis).
Another way of putting this is that the story of Victor Frankenstein, quintessential male hysteric, shows how the splitting of genders within the patriarchal sex-gender system of Freud and Jehovah paradoxically eternalizes or naturalizes a radical denial of difference between men and women. Castration anxiety splits men from women by differentiating the way they bear a common signifier, the phallus. The resulting (Oedipal) sex-gender system opens a gulf between those who have the phallus and those who merely bear it, and therefore it strips femininity of any positive identity, instead rendering it merely as absence or lack; as Irigaray puts it: "A man minus the possibility of (re)presenting oneself as a man = a normal woman" (Speculum of the Other Woman 27; see also 18, and passim). The wandering phallus of the male hysteric is not pathological because it moves about. On the contrary, the "proper" journey of the phallus is the very map of normality. The problem with the male hysteric is that his phallus wanders from the prescribed circuits of ownership and exchange. It should not be unexpected that these movements refer to normality in ways that are normally kept hidden. The character Marlowe in Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, for instance, who is struck hysterically mute in the presence of "proper" ladies, finds himself entirely comfortable with women whose sexual favors can be had for money because, as he puts it, such women "are of us, you know" (II.i). The exchange of money for woman reassures Marlowe that manipulation of the anal-phallic signifier effectively negates sexual difference. Victor Frankenstein's wandering, demonic fecal child exposes the same negation in a far more startling, emphatic, and critical way.
That Shelley's novel aims beyond delineating a moral dilemma (regarding the proper use of science, for instance), the shortcomings of a particular male personality-type (e.g. a type like her husband or the Poet in Alastor), or a displaced rehearsal of her grievous experiences with family and childbirth, to a critique of what I'm calling the social fantasy appears with equal force in the plight of the creature. Although the pathos of the creature's situation would seem to depend upon its utter privacy, his problem is anything but private in the crucial sense that everyone who sees the creature rejects him in the same immediate, unthinking way Victor does at the creation scene. "Monster! ugly wretch! you wish to eat me," cries little William, as if the creature's oral-anal character were stamped on his features (170). Shelley's Godwinian demonstration of the creature's natural benevolence being perverted into criminality by his miserable circumstances depends upon this universal, unthinking rejection and exclusion. The irony of allowing the creature to so eloquently voice his desires is that he can act upon them only within the severely restricted range given to him by his "nature," that is, by the unthinking and immediate rejection and exclusion he meets with on all fronts. Victor's decision to keep the creature isolated and secret, thereby channeling his extraordinary strength and energy into serial homicide, acts out a repression woven into the social fabric.
The fact that the creature's limited options are imposed upon him most actively by Victor, and therefore seem to reify Victor's desire, encourages the illusion that the creature is merely Victor's double. They are indeed locked together in their secret misery, as the bizarre pas de deux of the final chase sequence most clearly illustrates, and their actions are at times ironically symmetrical as well, as when Victor's disposal of the aborted female runs parallel to the creature's strangulation of Clerval. But these examples serve to emphasize the way the creature's actions are constrained to the field of possibilities imposed upon him by Victor, or rather by society at large with Victor as its intermediary. The illusion of doubling is also supported by Victor's tendency to misrecognize the relation between himself and the creature, repeatedly imputing his own failures of insight or responsibility to the creature's malevolent intervention. When Victor describes his misunderstanding of the creature's wedding night threat, for example, he claims that "as if possessed by magic powers, the monster had blinded me to his real intentions" (233). In such instances the creature functions as a mere exteriorization of Victor's psyche, but this function is only another aspect of Victor's mystification, an illusion depending on Victor's narcissistic perspective.
Rather than being the "vampire" Victor projects as his nemesis, however, the creature wants nothing more than normalcy. Perhaps the most pathetic thing about the creature's situation is that the novel's strongest voice for normative heterosexuality is his. The creature's yearning for a female companion carries far more conviction than Victor's tepid acquiescence to his marriage with Elizabeth, and it is the creature who wants to turn Victor into an unambiguous father and identify his paternity with the authority of the Hebraic-Miltonic creator. The creature's disastrous infatuation with the De Laceys acts out all too well his relation to the patriarchal paradigm he yearns to inhabit. His participation in the cottagers' domestic economy is beneficial as long as he remains hidden, but the elder De Lacey's blindness to the fecal child's deformity cannot forestall Agatha's fear, Safie's flight, and Felix's aggression when the creature shows himself. His appearance is scandalous, its effect traumatic. The patriarch's health can only be restored by abandoning the spot and re-establishing the family elsewhere. The novel remains fascinated with the creature's poisonous intimacy with his creator, and its considerable emotional power emerges from their secret and deadly romance. The popular adaptations, however, seem from the start to have taken a clue from the De Lacey family.
Any adaptation of Frankenstein perpetuates the contamination of the natural and the paternal enacted by exposing the motif of the fecal child inherent in Jehovan or Promethean creation. However much the retellings elide the rest of Shelley's plot, the monstrous non-birth of the non-person holds firmly onto its central place, so much so that it often draws the name "Frankenstein" away from Victor and onto his creature. Nonetheless the theatrical and film adaptations of Frankenstein also consistently set themselves the task of containing the critical energies of Shelley's fable within a resolute reaffirmation of patriarchal norms. The hallmark of this reaffirmation is the project of curing Victor Frankenstein—a plot development that highlights one of the singularities of Mary Shelley's novel, the absence in it of any recognition that Victor needs to be cured. Of course Victor has his breakdowns in the novel, and his recoveries as well. But Victor's self-righteousness, Walton's admiration, and the creature's eulogy all conspire at the novel's end to deny the unregenerate narcissism and willful misrecognition evident throughout the story of his pursuit of the creature. The adaptations, in contrast, make Victor's departure from and return to conventional sexual normalcy a far more explicit and integral feature of the plot. The ending imposed upon James Whale's immensely influential Frankenstein—wherein Baron von Frankenstein repeats his wedding toast to the "son of the house of Frankenstein" while, through the open bedroom door, we see Elizabeth administering to the recuperating Victor (renamed Henry)—epitomizes this strategy. Indeed the eventual reversion to problems of gender identity in The Rocky Horror Show or the explicit re-emergence of the creature's sexual energies in Brooks's Young Frankenstein appear by way of parodying Whale's film rather than as ways of returning to the fable some of its Shelleyan edges. The project of curing Victor Frankenstein predates the Universal Studios production by more than a century, however. The earliest stage adaptations stake out a coherent set of strategies, later adopted and modified by Whale, to cure Victor and to restabilize "natural" paternity.
1) The moral. The clear tendency of both R. B. Peake's 1823 Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein and H. M. Milner's 1826 Frankenstein; or, The Man and the Monster! is not to interpret Frankenstein's project as a "filthy parody" of divine creation, a strategy that implies the malleability of the norm it mocks and perhaps subverts, but instead to render Frankenstein's achievement as a blasphemous transgression of a fundamentally unquestionable divine prerogative and natural order. The 28 July 1823 playbill to Presumption tells its readers: "Exhibited in this story, is the fatal consequence of that presumption, which attempts to penetrate, beyond prescribed depths, into the mysteries of nature" (quoted in James, 88, and Forry, 5). Milner puts the sentiment in the mouth of Frankenstein himself: "I am the father of a thousand murders. Oh! presumption, and is this thy punishment?" (I.vii). Shelley's 1831 edition itself picks up the chorus, both in the introduction, where Shelley recounts her original vision of the "pale student of unhallowed arts" whose work inspires fear because "supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world" (281), and in the emphatic cautionary motive Victor declares for sharing his narrative with Walton: "'Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me, — let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!'" (286) In the novel, however, this only adds one more moment to Victor's patently contradictory range of self-recrimination and self-justification. In the plays, once Frankenstein recognizes his guilt, he consolidates his moral recovery by immediately pursuing and attempting to destroy the creature. But the relatively unambiguous moral resonance of all of this depends on a number of other related changes to the story.
2) The assistant. An obvious change is the addition of Frankenstein's assistant to the cast of characters. Both Peake's and Milner's assistants are comic foils to Frankenstein's ambition. Peake's Fritz opens Presumption with a song ("Oh, dear me! What's the matter / How I shake at each clatter") about how nervous his master's mysterious doings have made him, and he wants nothing more than to go back to his cottage and be reunited with his cow. Milner's assistant, Strutt, instead brags in the opening scene about his master's ability to make gold. Soon after, the assistants both begin to deliver Frankenstein's "dabbling" from its isolation and secrecy by being clandestine witnesses to the creature's birth. It is only in Whale's film that the lab assistant (Fritz again) begins to take on some of the responsibility for the bad end Frankenstein's project comes to. The 1931 Fritz's misshapen body and his delight in terrifying and mistreating the creature mark him as a kind of Mr. Hyde to Frankenstein's Jekyll, less a foil than an embodiment of Frankenstein's sick desire. Fritz's botched brain theft has been deservedly ridiculed (James 91), but the perverse relationship he shares with Henry Frankenstein serves a more important function as the diseased counterpart to Henry's healthy attachment to Elizabeth. The function of pointing the way toward Frankenstein's cure is already served quite differently by Milner's Strutt, however, whose sociability and straightforward pursuit of the butler's daughter, Lisetta, implicitly rebuke his employer's self-serving, secretive, and devious ways.
3) The girlfriend. A more decisive strategy for making Frankenstein's situation less ambiguous is the reconfiguration worked on Victor's romantic attachments. Presumption erases any trace of Victor's alliance with Elizabeth, instead attaching her to Clerval. Victor plays the role of the father in approving and helping to arrange this match. The novel's odd, endogamous gift economy disappears along with Alphonse Frankenstein, to be replaced by this thoroughly proper, exogamous transaction. Victor himself is then quite suitably wed—so to speak—to the De Laceys. We find that Agatha De Lacey is the love of his life, and that his "blighted love" for her (they were separated by fate, and he thinks she is dead) has driven him into his obsessive pursuit of "abstruse research" (I.ii). On the wedding day of Elizabeth and Clerval, which has been disrupted by the return of the De Laceys bearing news of the creature's recent enormities in the countryside, Victor and Agatha are reunited at the moment just after Victor, in a soliloquy, has dedicated himself to taking responsibility for the effects of his "cursed ambition" by pursuing and destroying his renegade monster (III.i). His resolution to place the public safety above his attachment to his research clearly runs strictly parallel to his turning away from his strangely begotten child to the proper sexual object, Agatha. By the time he dashes off in pursuit of the creature (to meet an unhappy end when the two are buried together by an avalanche in the play's spectacular finale) he has undergone the cure prescribed for him in the play's opening scene by Clerval: "I am bound in duty to counteract this madness, and discover the secret of his deep reflections. . . . I will seek the cause, and, if possible, effect his cure."
The Man and the Monster accomplishes even more explicitly Victor Frankenstein's reclamation by conventional sexual mores. Frankenstein now becomes a mere cad who has abandoned his wife (at least she calls herself his wife; whether a legal ceremony has taken place remains vague) and infant child (!) in order to pursue his project under the patronage of one Prince Piombino who envisions Frankenstein as the ideal match for his daughter, Rosaura. In the final scene of Act I, at a ball given by the Prince in Frankenstein's honor, Frankenstein confronts his monster in public, taking this opportunity to make the play's moral crystal clear: "I am the father of a thousand murders. Oh! presumption, and is this thy punishment?" A short time later, Frankenstein completes his moral reconstitution by acknowledging his wife and (genital) child. At this point the play's thematic development is over; the monster promptly abducts the wife and child, an extended chase sequence ensues, and all ends once again in the destruction of both man and monster.
4) The monster. What happens to the motif of the fecal child concomitantly with the pat moralization of the fable and the normalization of Victor's sexuality? If the interpretation pursued here is valid, one would expect the creature to become more phallic, and for castration anxiety to become more predominant in his representation, his actions, and his dealings with Victor. The adaptations fulfill these expectations abundantly. The logic of castration tends to overshadow any hints of fecal reproduction, for instance, when instead of the "filthy process" by which Victor manufactures his eight-foot behemoth, the theatrical tradition begins to develop the idea that the creature has been stitched together from dead body parts, eventually producing the wounded-looking, sutured figure familiar to twentieth-century cinema. The most obvious and remarkable change Peake and Milner make in the representation of the creature, the decision to render Shelley's Miltonic spokesman mute by conflating him with the stage tradition of the Wild Man (James 84-90), also considerably softens the creature's reference to the fantasy of the fecal child. This decision could be considered a way of adopting the perspective of the creature and dramatizing his desire for normalcy, for while to a reader of Shelley's novel the creature's eloquence is one of its most striking features, what really matters to the creature is that no one is willing to listen to him. At the same time, however, this strategy now presents the mute creature to us as unspeaking brute energy hysterically disconnected from rational control: he becomes the wandering phallus of the male hysteric. As the tradition develops further, the issue of Frankenstein's loss of control over the Monster more and more displaces the irrational disgust and rejection the creature inspires in the novel, and concurrently the figure of the mad scientist "playing God" obscures Victor's "filthy parody" of patriarchal appropriation.
It has been argued that the decision to deprive the creature of his eloquence takes away his only effective claim to sympathy and therefore places even greater, because more exclusive, emphasis on his hideousness (Lavalley 244). What this interpretation fails to take into account is that the dumb-show stage monster is able to communicate through his gestures, something utterly impossible for Mary Shelley's creature. What disappears is not the creature's claim to sympathy, but rather the unbearable tension between the creature's desire and the scandal of his embodiment. The novel presents this tension most explicitly in the dilemma of Walton when he finally meets the creature. The creature's voice inspires in him "a mixture of curiosity and compassion," but, says Walton, "Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome, yet appalling, hideousness. I shut my eyes involuntarily . . . I dared not again raise my looks upon his face, there was something so scaring and unearthly in his ugliness" (268). James A. W. Heffernan is very much on the mark when he suggests that cinematic representations of the creature necessarily dramatize the tension between the impersonal, male-dominated "gaze" theorized in Lacan's Four Fundamental Concepts and the individual "look" with its more focussed and less predictable desire (140). It is at the level of the "gaze" that theatrical and cinematic representations so consistently, almost inevitably, protect the patriarchal fantasy's normative status by framing the creature's visual appearance in the anatomical grid of castration and the sex-gender system it implies. Shelley's fecal child thus becomes not only phallic, mute, detached, fragmented, and brutalized, but also the child of light, emerging in spectacular fashion from pyrotechnical display. As if to proclaim the retreat of the patriarchal appropriation of the womb's fertility into a law-like, all-encompassing background, the allusion to Adam as mudchild recedes into echoes of creation ab nihilo.
Nonetheless the moralization of the fable and the normalization of Victor never quite overshadow what I began by calling Frankenstein's traumatic content. The creature always seems to steal the show, perhaps because that stubborn resistance to Oedipal identification lodged in the motif of the fecal child continues to energize the creature's role as a non-person. The directions for costuming Peake's "Monster," for instance, call for a blue tunic "fitting quite close, as if it were his flesh." His bare face, hands, arms, and legs are meanwhile painted blue to match the tunic. Thus the costume simulates flesh while the actor's flesh simulates the costume, rendering the Monster neither clothed nor naked, both clothed and naked. The creature's simulacral presence, human but not a person, living but unborn, persists through the many retellings of Frankenstein and spills over into the story's science-fiction progeny. The breach Shelley made in the construction of nature, paternity, property, and the proper name remains open, unsettling, and prolific.
By engaging a collective fantasy about paternity, Frankenstein also puts at stake the economy of inheritance and retribution tied to that patriarchal dream. In the chase sequences and mob scenes of Whale's two cinematic versions of Frankenstein, the creature turns into a scapegoat for Victor's transgressions. Thus he finally gets to participate in the community, and in fact heals it, but only by being vilified and excluded from it. The creature's screams of terror and pain in the burning windmill at the close of Frankenstein, and the parodic crucifixion scene in the middle of Bride of Frankenstein, both demonstrate that when he becomes a vehicle of justice, the creature continues to evacuate the content of the form he inhabits. It is not necessarily in adaptations of Frankenstein, however, that the disruptive energies of Mary Shelley's fecal child are most fully put into play. Let me close, then, with two other examples of this motif, one from the Gothic novel and one from horror cinema.
After Shelley's creature, the Gothic novel affords no more extended exploration of the fecal child than Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff is a filthy, dark child mysteriously born(e) out of the elder Earnshaw's travelling cloak. In the act of birth he first destroys, and then is substituted for, the gifts the father had promised his children. No patronymic is ever bestowed on him; instead he draws his name from the soil, as if to declare his chthonic affinity with Adam. More than one character thinks he should more appropriately be associated with the devil. Heathcliff is an alien force who inspires uncontrollable intensities of love and hatred in the members of the family, and the bonds he forms with Catherine are, according to both of them, radically incommensurable with those that bind together the kinship structure of Thrushcross Grange. The story resolves itself by erasing Heathcliff's monstrous incursion into that economy of kinship, or, more precisely, by transforming him into the genius loci of the heath. Like Shelley's creature departing to his self-immolation at the North pole, Heathcliff fulfills the desire of the narrators in a way impossible within the territory they can inhabit; and like the creature disappearing into the Arctic mist and darkness, Heathcliff removes himself from view so as to allow the resettling of normality.
In the horror film, one of the most effective re-conceptions of the fecal child is the return of the dead in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Romero turns the myth of origins on its head, recasting it as a story of apocalyptic judgment. But it is a judgment wholly devoid of rationality. The dead of The Night of the Living Dead (whose grunting and shuffling inevitably refer back to Karloff's performances as the Frankenstein monster) rise to eat the living, not in order to enact justice or impose a final meaning on the world, but simply as an etiological repetition of the non-birth of the non-person, the fate of having been eaten and discarded. Rarely has society been represented more vividly as a besieged and precarious fortification against our own appetites. The two sequels shift the location of the fortress, focusing Romero's scenario on consumerism in Dawn of the Dead and militarism in Day of the Dead, and in the third film a scientist nicknamed "Dr. Frankenstein" tries in vain to call upon the family itself as a means of salvation from the contagious cannibalism of the undead. But this last reference to the Frankenstein story is only a kind of afterthought and even something of a distraction from the trilogy's fundamental debt to Shelley. It is not "Dr. Frankenstein" but rather Romero's mise en scène of social fantasy that most strongly connects his resurrection fable with the traumatic content of Shelley's Frankenstein.
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1 Knoepflmacher assigns the creature a female subject position (106) and May interprets the creature, by way of Victor's nightmare, as his "sister-cousin-lover-mother" (679). Knoepflmacher and Moers both stress Mary Shelley's experience of childbirth. For Oedipal and negative-Oedipal readings, see the following note.
3 Veeder sees Alphonse Frankenstein's death as the culmination of the sequence of the creature's murders and as the ultimate goal of Victor's desire, but also draws a sharp contrast between Alphonse and the "truly domineering" M. Clerval (380). Hobbs stresses the way Alphonse enforces a code of emotional restraint that Victor rebels against.
4 The repeated references to filth have most often been connected to the topic of masturbation, for instance in Eberle-Sinatra, 257; see also Grant, 120-21. Youngquist's reading of the response the creature inspires as "a primitive and visceral disgust aroused by impurity" (345) comes much closer to the present interpretation, but connects the disgust to a version of female sexuality Shelley wants to place "beyond enculturated norms" (343).
6 For a clear and compelling exposition of the split between having the phallus and bearing it, and on the traumatic instigation of this split, see Butler, 45-47. Within a Lacanian framework, one would not talk of castration anxiety's onset coming at this late date in Hans's development. We would need to speak instead of a reassignment of Hans's anxiety about lack, and of that anxiety here acquiring a specific anatomical referent with a normative social function. "Castration anxiety" throughout this essay is used in this anatomically referential sense.
7 As regards Hans's mother's "widdler," it is worthwhile remembering that in Freud's essay on femininity he makes it clear that for a woman to gain full genital maturity she must give up clitoral masturbation and instead achieve vaginal orgasm. The notorious "extra task" assigned to women, then, which Freud explains as the task of repressing identification with the child's first, strongest, but, for girls, homosexual desire for possession of the mother, has an unstated anatomical referent: clitorectomy (SE 22:117-18). The silent status of (symbolic or hysterical) clitorectomy, as compared to the expansive theme of male castration, testifies eloquently to the historical and ideological boundaries of Freud's version of normal or mature genital sexuality.
10 On the ending's "tacked-on" quality see Grant, 127, who also quotes Colin Clive, the actor who played Henry Frankenstein, saying that he was supposed to have been killed by the monster in the previous scene. The sequence in which the monster strangles Frankenstein and then tosses his limp body from the top of the windmill certainly supports Clive's testimony.
11 Although the "dissecting room and the slaughter house furnished many of [Victor's] materials" (56), the notion of patching together fragments of different individuals is entirely undeveloped in the novel (cf. Heffernan 144). In fact, it appears explicitly only in Peake's 1823 Another Piece of Presumption, a parody of his own Presumption, where the tailor Frankinstitch murders his apprentices and sews pieces of them together to make the monster. The stitched-together, fragmented character of the monster is of course one of the ruling commonplaces of twentieth-century cinematic representations—cf. the exploitation of the creature's composite subjectivity in Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and its development into a central motif of Shelley Jackson's hypertext novel, Patchwork Girl.