"Mummy, possest": Sadism and Sensibility in Shelley's Frankenstein
Anne Williams, University of Georgia
Hope not for minde in women; at their best
Sweetnesse and wit, they'are but Mummy, possest.
John Donne, "Love's Alchymie"
In 1779 an imprisoned Frenchman recorded the following dream:
It was around midnight. I had just fallen asleep . . . Suddenly, she appeared to me. . . I saw her! The horror of the grave had not at all altered the radiance of her charms, and her eyes still flashed as brilliantly . . . A black veil enveloped her completely, and her beautiful blonde hair loosely floated above. It seemed as if Love, in order to keep her still beautiful, sought to soften all the lugubrious array in which she presented herself to my gaze . . . 'Why suffer in the world?' she asked me. 'Come and be united with me. No more pain, no more sorrows, no more distress in the endless place where I abide . . . I said to her: 'Oh my Mother! . . .' but sobs choked my voice. She extended a hand to me, which I covered with my tears . . . Overcome by my despair and my affection, I flung my arms around her neck to hold her back or to follow her, and to bathe her in my tears, but the phantom disappeared. All that remained was my sorrow. (Schaeffer 4).Similarly, after he "gives birth" in Mary Shelley's novel, Victor Frankenstein also dreams of a dead mother:
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 with horror . . . (57)Awakening, Frankenstein sees this image replaced by one even more horrible to him and one undoubtedly real: the creature
with his eyes . . . fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he uttered 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 downstairs. (57)According to the logic of the dream work, the sequence of images (Elizabeth/dead mother/creature) implies an identity confirmed as Frankenstein tries to describe his experience of awaking to see his creature: "A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch."
|2||These two dreams are oddly complementary.
They illustrate contradictory responses to a dead mother, which is, apparently,
a notion exceedingly troubling, indeed virtually unspeakable. Within a patriarchal
system in Western culture founded on the assumption that matter and spirit
are dual and irreconcilable, matter/mater bears the burden of mortality,
since everyone born must also die. Within this logic, as the dreams suggest,
two contradictory responses to the conjunction of death and the mother are
possible: denial or horror. The mother is either so idealized that she has
no body at all (is, in fact an unreachable ideal), or else she is simply
"mummy," "dead flesh," the first meaning of the word according to the O.E.D.
Donne's lyric, "Love's Alchymie," quoted in my epigraph, epitomizes the
revulsion which the body of the mummy evokes. He describes the lover's futile
fantasy that love may spiritualize female flesh. But this belief
is, the speaker concludes, as quixotic as the alchemist's quest to transform
base metal into gold. Men who believe in this transforming power of love,
he writes, also claim to hear the music of the spheres.
|3||Frankenstein's dream concludes much like Donne's
poem, with a horrified recognition of "mummy possest." The dreamer of 1779,
however, effects the transformation of the dead mother into the real "sorrow"
remembered by his conscious mind. Frankenstein has "re-membered" a mummy
in his "workshop of filthy creation." But the earlier dreamer's transformation
is accomplished in the immaculate workings of language. He is an active
participant in an ongoing conversation. By means of words he negotiates
a relationship with this woman he knows is dead, while denying, if not entirely
repressing, that reality ("The horror of the grave had not at all altered
the radiance of her charms . . ."). He fantasizes an explanation for this
paradox; "It seemed as if Love, in order to keep her still beautiful, sought
to soften all the lugubrious array in which she presented herself to my
Since this dreamer was a native speaker of French, however, his linguistic
veil is virtually transparent; the word for "Love" (l'amour) sounds
perilously like the word for "death" (la mort). The dream climaxes
in an act of naming, when he exclaims, "Oh, my mother!" ("Mother" is a projection,
since he calls her that only after she has defined herself as a source of
unconditional love and infinite compassion.) The dreamer's desire "to bathe
her in my tears" and to embrace her implicitly regresses toward the infantile
state in which gesture replaces language. But she vanishes, dramatizing
the plight of the son separated from the mother by the Oedipal crisis. He
awakens because he unconsciously recognizes that the escape from earthly
suffering that the lovely woman offers in "the endless realm where [she]
abide[s]" is in fact the kingdom of death.
|4||In contrast to the earlier dream's
imaginary conversation, Frankenstein's dream essentially reverses its action,
beginning with an embrace and ending with the actual flight of the dreamer,
rather than that of the imaginary mother. It is a kind of silent film where
images succeed each other in a different kind of regression; eros (Elizabeth)
becomes thanatos ("the corpse of my dead mother"), which becomes the face
of the newly born creature. This dream suggests that Frankenstein's unhallowed
art has accomplished what Donne and millennia of patriarchy had declared
to be impossible. He has infused dead flesh with the spark of life; he has
animated a mummy.
|5||What Frankenstein has done throws
everything in his world off balance. Shelley's narrative struggles to accommodate
this animate mummy, oscillating between the two contrary responses delineated
by the dreams: idealization and horror. Shelley creates impossibly idealized
female characters and then inflicts the most extraordinary violence upon
them. (And in the case of the creature's bride-to-be, similar violence follows
Victor's contrasting fantasy of her demonization in his eyes.) This oscillation
also determines the novel's complex narrative technique, which is, I shall
argue, a strategy to contain the unspeakable anxiety aroused by the idea
of "mummy possest." Frankenstein is a peculiar combination of sadism
and sensibilityand thereby discloses that there is a profound kinship
between them, as is certainly the case in the first dream above. The dreamer,
after all, was the Marquis de Sade.
|6||Although Sade (1740-1814) and Mary
Shelley (1797-1851) were more or less contemporaries, they have seldom,
perhaps never, been compared. Superficially, they would seem to be about
as different as any two people could be. Shelley was female, English, bourgeois;
Sade was male, French, aristocratic. She was troubled by her own inadvertent
violations of her culture's notions of propriety, particularly in her daring
to write novels.
He reveled in violating all that he had been taught to hold sacred. Nevertheless,
they lived in a period of revolutionary upheaval, and they both deployed
Gothic conventions in the service of philosophical romance. They both dreamed
of dead mothers. And both left a permanent mark on their culture. Sade's
name became the standard term for one who takes pleasure in cruelty, and
Shelley created a myth for the modern world, most often read as concerning
the dangers of technology. (The name "Frankenstein" has become so familiar
that it generates its own neologisms, in, for instance, the term "Frankenfood,"
coined in 1992 to describe plants genetically manipulated to yield edible
produce.) Furthermore, Sade and Shelley both reveal an unexpected allegiance
to the subject position of the opposite gender. Shelley's dreamer is clearly
male. As the novel's first readers immediately noticed, Shelley's imagination
Sade's dream concludes with a culturally "feminine" excess of emotion.
|7||In Art of Darkness: A Poetics
of Gothic (1995), I argued that the Gothic manifests a relationship
between gender and literary form. From Horace Walpole through the 1960s,
one may discern two narrative traditions. The Walpolean or Male Gothic tells
a tragic story of male hubris that is punished. In this fictional world
the supernatural regularly intervenes; its reality is in fact a premise
of these fictions. The female characters seem to exist primarily to suffer
as the objects of often perverted male desire. (It is sometimes difficult
to draw a line between this kind of Gothic and pornography, as early readers
of The Monk realized.) The Male Gothic uses complex narrative techniques
such as elaborate frame narratives, multiple points of view, and the fiction
of an assemblage of documents (as in Stoker's Dracula). The Female
Gothic narrative, on the other hand, has a unified point of view (either
the limited omniscience characteristic of Ann Radcliffe, or the first person
conventional since Jane Eyre.) Though the heroine may at times believe
herself to be the victim of supernatural events, the ghosts are nearly always
explained in the end. Moreover, this kind of story is comic, ending with
the heroine's marriage and consequent establishment of herself socially
and financially by becoming the wife of a wealthy and powerful man. From
this perspective we may discern yet another odd contrast between Sade and
Shelley. He writes a perverted variety of "Female Gothic," in which the
horrors faced by the heroine are those of the real world, not the intervention
of supernatural forces. Shelley's novel is more nearly a "Male Gothic,"
which uses a characteristically complex narrative structure in tracing the
consequences of an impossible and supernatural act: to create a man out
of dead flesh and to imbue him with life.
What is the origin of these odd misalignments of gender and genre? One may speculate that these disturbances arise from the writers' childhood experiences. Shelley lost her mother at birth. The circumstances of her birth oddly literalize the Oedipal crisis as experienced, according to psychoanalysis, by sons within patriarchy. She was educated by her father, and knew her mother only through her writing, which she often read by the grave. As Nelson Hilton notes,
the fact of the matter would seem to be that her father was her mother. Mary Godwin's involvement with her biological mother was necessarily imaginary, textual, and relatively late: Mary Wollstonecraft was present as a portrait in the study, some books on the shelf, a character made scandalous in public reception of the Memoirs published by Godwin the year after her death (57).I would only add that Wollstonecraft's body was also present, if "encrypted," in her grave in St. Pancras Churchyard, a quite material enactment of the psychic repression of the mother's body effected by entry into the symbolic order.
|9||If Shelley's actual experience literalized
the Oedipal situation usually allotted to sons rather than daughters, Sade's
curiously literalized that of the Female Gothic. He was exiled very young
from Paris and the court where his mother was a lady in waiting because
he had gotten into a fistfight with the equally youthful Prince de Condé.
Sade was sent to live with his grandmother in Provence. By the time he was
seven years old, his mother had entered the Carmelite convent in Paris where
she would eventually die. His childhood and adolescence were a dark version
of Udolpho, having taken place, as Radcliffe's novel did, in medieval
family castles in the south of France. His uncle the Abbé de Sade
was the most influential figure of his youth. (How Gothic to have an Abbé
for an uncle!) He instructed his nephew in the delights of libertinage,
among other things. This influence continued into adulthood. Sade's dream
of the beautiful dead mother occurred after reading his uncle's book, which
argued that Petrarch's Laura was Laure de Sade, a distant ancestor.
Sade's experience of Gothic conventions was thus more literal than literary. Neil Schaeffer notes that the isolated country chateaux of La Philosophie dans le boudoir or Justine, while reminding us of literary Gothic conventions, are also indebted to the medieval castle in which Sade spent much of his youth, the Château de Saumane:
There were spiraling stone staircases, passageways (some of them secret), and cellars . . . Up above, on the high ramparts . . . the view is extensive and thrilling . . . The darkness, the dampness, even in the height of summer, and the weight of solid stone blocks are oppressive. [. . .] The three distinctive elements of the boy's new homechâteau, fort, and subterranean cavesbecame the model for the great and terrible fortresses of his libertine fiction . . . This complex of specialized spaces became the diagramthe pure formof Sade's conception of the structure of society and man's place in it (Schaeffer, 14-15).
Besides these unexpected parallels between Sade's and Shelley's education and experiences, however, there may be one real link between them. One of the cruelest events in Shelley's novel, which is filled with cruelty, is the execution of Justine Moritz, unjustly accused of murder because the creature had slipped into her pocket a miniature portrait of the little boy William's dead mother Caroline. This episode is additionally painful because Justine is executed on the basis of a forced confession:
"I did confess, but I confessed a lie. I confessed, that I might obtain absolution; but now that falsehood lies heavier at my heart than all my other sins. The God of heaven forgive me! Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was. He threatened excommunication and hell fire in my last moments, if I continued obdurate. Dear lady, I had none to support me; all looked on me as a wretch doomed to ignominy and perdition. What could I do? In an evil hour I subscribed to a lie; and now only am I truly miserable." (84)
Critics have frequently remarked on the irony of the name "Justine"
for Shelley's doomed servant girl. Her fate is remarkably unjust,
and it is additionally pathetic because she was earlier plucked from poverty
and unhappiness by the generosity of the Frankenstein family. Furthermore,
the reader knows that Frankenstein is responsible for the murder, and
he refuses to speak. Like all the women in this novel, she can do nothing
to avert her horrible fate. Frankenstein and the creature at least have
chosen the paths that lead to their destruction, but Shelley's
women cannot choose their fates.
Like the women in Sade's books, they are helpless. Indeed, it is possible
that Shelley chose the name Justine for this hapless victim as an allusion
to Sade's Justine, ou les malheurs de la vertu, published in 1792.
None of Sade's works appears on any of the lists Shelley kept of her
and Percy's reading. But it is highly unlikely that she would have admitted
to reading such books. We do know that Byron owned a copy of Justine
in 1816, just before he left England. According to Leslie Marchand, his
possession of this book was one piece of evidence Lady Byron adduced as
a sign that her husband was mad (2, 559). Mary Shelley, then, may have
heard about more than Galvanism while listening to Shelley and Byron's
conversations that fateful summer.
In Justine Sade was rewriting Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. But in contrast to the English heroine who successfully converts her virtue into a marketable commodity (her price is a wedding ring), Justine lives in a world where no one values virtue. Sade inflicts the most horrible suffering on his innocent heroine. The novel begins as Madame la Contesse de Lorsange ("priestess of Venus" and "proud libertine" ) and her lover invite a woman about to be executed for murder into their carriage to tell her story. When her parents had died bankrupt, she and her younger sister had been cast out of their convent school and left to survive as best they might. The younger sister, Justine, is devoted to virtue and meets with a dreadful series of disasters as she is tortured and raped by men contemptuous of both her and her virtue. Eventually she is condemned to death for a murder she did not commit. Madame de Lorsange, who has prospered by following the path of vice, eventually recognizes that this unfortunate woman is her long-lost sister. She and her lover arrange a royal pardon for Justine, and take her to their château. Shortly afterwards, Justine goes to close the window in the midst of a thunderstorm and is struck by lightning and killed. This the fate of virtue, according to the Marquis de Sade. And as Schaeffer points out, not only is Justine repeatedly and undeservedly abused in the most horrible ways:
Wherever she turns, either to seek assistance or even to give it to others, she is always disappointed, betrayed, raped, or tortured. When she humbly or feebly protests her ill treatment, her persecutors always offer her a philosophical harangue demonstrating the folly of virtue and the good sense of vice. Here, as in Sade's other erotic novels, the sexual scene, the rape, is sandwiched between a kind of intellectual rape or assault upon the victim. (411).Though the suffering that Shelley metes out to her female characters is less sensational than the rape and torture Sade repeatedly inflicts on Justine, her Caroline and Elizabeth, as well as her Justine, are all uniformly virtuous and conventionally feminine idealsgood girls. But within her plot they seem to exist primarily in order to suffer and to die. And they are, in the end, all as dead as Sade's Justine, albeit more at the hands of Frankenstein's creature than a bolt of lightning.
Both Frankenstein's and Sade's dreams imply that the mother connotes
an erotic fusion of passion and compassion. Frankenstein's impulse in
his dream to kiss Elizabeth, his "cousin"/fiancée, effects her
horrible transformation, and the dead mother of Sade's vision is a blonde
beauty, who evokes in the dreamer a fantasy about a presumed affair between
her and "Love" (like Romeo's speculation that "insubstantial death is
amorous" and has made the body of Juliet his "paramour," Sade sees his
relation to the mother figure as part of a triangle). Probably the most
surprising element of the dream is its almost hysterical emotionality.
As Schaeffer comments, "Tears came to Sade (if only in a dream) as easily
as they poured from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that man of exquisite feeling"
(5). The dreamer's "sorrow" remains his consciousness kind epitaph marking
disappearance lovely, mother. One would not anticipate that someone so
notorious for finding pleasure in the suffering of others, particularly
women, could be capable of such "feminine" feelings.
But this dream discloses a crucial fact: sensibility and sadism are
deeply akin, two possible ways of responding to the primitive psychic
wound inflicted by separation from the mother. Sade's dream suggests that,
as in the Oedipus complex, the mother is the source of feeling. Hence
the "good mother" is imagined as a source of perfect sympathy, a fantasy
like that inscribed in the notion of the Virgin Mary as "fons pieta."
But the (male) subject is also denied access to this source; due to the
terms of the Oedipal "contract," he is quite early separated from the
female and all that is ascribed to her. Sade's response is characteristic
and perhaps inevitable. His response is filled with self-pity.
His intense emotion is generated as a response to losing "Mother," who
has seemed to be a source of perfect compassion. This dream offers an
illuminating pre-text both for the literature of sensibility and Sade's
career. On the one hand, it indulges in a luxuriance of emotion, and a
valuing of emotion may be the most direct response to it. On the other
hand, as Marianne Noble has argued, the reader's pleasure in the literature
of sensibility is a masochistic pleasure. The reader responds from a passive
and abject position (Rousseau notoriously confessed to enjoying the experience
of being beaten).
Sadism, though, also involves an active response, finding erotic pleasure
in suffering observed or inflicted on other women as unconscious substitutes
for the lost mother. In Pornography and Silence: Culture's Revenge
Against Nature, Susan Griffin thus argues, compellingly, that the
pornographer's impulse to seek erotic pleasure by inflicting pain on female
bodies is based on just the kind of frustration that Sade's dream describes.
In Justine Sade exploits the conventions of the novel of sensibility. He extracts the maximum pathos from his heroine's plight by picturing her as virtuous beauty in distress. When we first see her:
She was tied up like a criminal, and so weak that she would certainly have fallen had the guards not supported her. When a cry of surprise and horror escaped Mme de Lorsange, the young girl turned, revealing the most beautiful form in the world, and the most noble, agreeable, interesting face, everything designed to please, and rendered more piquant by the tender and touching affliction that innocence adds to beauty. (66)Young, beautiful, and committed to virtue, Justine is the ideal victim of the sentimental novel.
Sade even concludes his book with the characteristic gesture of the genre, a stated desire to reform the libertine, and an apostrophe to the reader pointing out the lessons to be learned from Justine's sad history. Juliette (Mme de Lorsange) improbably abandons her life as a courtesan and becomes a Carmelite nun, a gesture echoing the behavior of Sade's mother. The book's last words are addressed to the reader:
Oh, you who wept over the misfortunes of virtue; you, who pitied the unfortunate Justine; in pardoning these sketches, which are perhaps a bit stronger than anyone has ever found a reason for employing, may you at least gather the same fruit from this story as did Mme. de Lorsange! May you convince yourselves like her that true happiness may be found only in the bosom of Virtue and that if, in these imponderable scenes, God permits Virtue to be persecuted on earth, for this suffering she will be rewarded in heaven! (414)
At the same time, Justine demonstrates just how easily the novel
of sensibility may serve the pornographer's desires. And certainly many
early Gothic novels such as Radcliffe's Udolpho are also novels
of sensibility. Still, as much as Frankenstein's status as Gothic
novel or as proto-science fiction has been debated,
I would suggest that its deepest generic affinity is to the novel of sensibility.
Its outer frame narrative, Walton's story, continues the genre's ostensible
aim of reforming manners by means of a tale of suffering. One could even
argue that this aim is achieved; Walton chooses to renounce his own hubristic
quest. As he writes to his sister after Frankenstein's death, "What can
I say, that will enable you to understand the depth of my sorrow? All
that I should express would be inadequate and feeble. My tears flow; my
mind is overshadowed by a cloud of disappointment. But I journey towards
England, and I may there find consolation." Characters in Shelley's novel
are certainly judged on the basis of their capacity for fine feeling.
In addition, one of her most prominent means of characterization is the
often pathetic vignettes concerning virtuous behavior: first we hear Walton's
story about his ship-master's exemplary actions towards the "young Russian
lady, of moderate fortune" with whom he was in love. When her father gave
his consent to the marriage, "she was bathed in tears, and throwing herself
at his feet, entreated him to spare her, confessing at the same time that
she loved another, but that he was poor . . ." At this point the ship-master
not only gave up the marriage but gave out considerable property to his
rival. The histories of Caroline Beaufort, Elizabeth Lavenza, and Justine
Moritz are all virtually identical tales of a similar generosity. The
story of the De Lacey family, too, reveals a consistent delicacy of feeling.
When Safie's father, unjustly imprisoned in Paris, offers his daughter's
hand to Felix if he will aid his escape, "Felix was too delicate to accept
this offer; yet he looked forward to the probability of the event as to
the consummation of his happiness" (120).
Frankenstein's friend Henry Clerval is also a man of sentiment, "whose
eyes and feelings were always quick in discerning the sensations of others"
(66). Upon his reading the letter to Frankenstein announcing the death
of William, "tears gushed from the eyes of Clerval" (71). Moreover, as
always in the novel of sensibility, powerful responses to nature are an
index of character in Frankenstein. In contrast to the ideally
sympathetic response to the natural world, Frankenstein's conception of
science is couched in sexual terms connoting rape; natural philosophers,
he says, "penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works
in her hiding places" (47).
Finally, all the women, Caroline, Elizabeth, and Justine, are nearly indistinguishable sentimental heroines. Frankenstein's father "strove to shelter [Caroline], as a fair exotic is sheltered by the gardener, from every rougher wind, and to surround her with all that could tend to excite pleasurable emotion in her soft and benevolent mind" (32-33). She is memorialized by her husband in a painting, representing "Caroline Beaufort in an agony of despair, kneeling at the coffin of her dead father. Her garb was rustic, and her cheek pale, but there was an air of dignity and beauty, that hardly permitted the sentiment of pity" (75). When we first glimpse Elizabeth, she is described as
thin and very fair. Her hair was the brightest living gold, and, despite the poverty of her clothing, seemed to set a crown of distinction on her head. Her brow was clear and ample, her blue eyes cloudless, and her lips and the moulding of her face so expressive of sensibility and sweetness, that none could behold her without looking on her as of a distant species, a being heaven-sent, and bearing a celestial stamp on all her features. (34)Justine is much the same, as Elizabeth describes her; "She is very clever and gentle, and extremely pretty . . . her mien and her expressions continually remind me of my dear aunt" (64).
By contrast, though Frankenstein is sensitive to natural beauty, his
tragedy is set in motion because of his lack of feeling. Before
the "birth," he is unmoved by the gruesome undertaking, the Gothic accouterments
of his grisly task that should have inspired terror in any young man of
sensibility: "My attention was fixed on every object the most insupportable
to the delicacy of human feelings. 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"; "Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a churchyard
was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from
being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm" (50).
Yet, ironically, Frankenstein's greatest failure springs from inappropriate
feeling. He does behave according to the ethos of the novel of sensibility
in which outward appearancephysiognomyis invariably an index
of the inner self. He loathes the creature he has made simply because
he is ugly. He immediately calls it "the wretchthe miserable monster
I had created," a "demoniacal corpse," "no mummy again endued with animation
could be so hideous," "a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived."
He remembers Coleridge's simile (from The Both Frankenstein's and Sade's
dreams) about the one who knows "a frightful fiend / Doth close behind
Thus another aspect of the creature's tragedy is that he is a character
whose appearance is not an index of his inner self. He is a man
of feeling trapped in the body of a murderer. (The Sorrows of Young
Werther is, after all, one of the few books he gets to read.) Trapped
in a novel of sensibility, in which outer form is assumed to be an index
of the inner self, he is doomed from the first. His history cannot follow
the conventional path, in which the virtuous self is recognized and the
desperate creature saved. Like Justine's, his appearance invites torture.
Instead, his story is naturalistic: cruel circumstances prove stronger
than individual desire; indeed, circumstances determine desire.
"Misery made me a fiend," he rightly says (57). The creature capable of
feeling and denied relationships with other beings eventually becomes,
yes, a sadist who delights in destroying the links that connect his father/mother
to the world.
His creator Frankenstein's tragic flaw is that he is incapable of empathy. He cannot fulfill his creature's one request, to make a mate for him. He reverts to misogynistic clichés to rationalize his decision to destroy her, cliché; rooted in the impossible ideals demanded of the female by the patriarchal imagination:
she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness. He had sworn to quit the neighbourhood of man, and hide himself in deserts; but she had not; and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation of being deserted by one of his own species. (160)The female of the species, it seems, is unreliable, not to be trusted with honorable compacts made between men. She cannot be depended on to love, honor, and obey. But Frankenstein's misogyny is clearly a rationalization masking a deeper fear. If the creature is "mummy" in the sense of "mother," to create a female would undo the reversal necessary to concealing one of his two most important functions. Victor's sadistic "abortion" demonstrates not only a failure of empathy, but also his inability to separate sex from reproductive function (even though he had maintained that distance himself in giving life to the creature). He could have created a female creature incapable of giving birth. But that solution is literally unthinkable. In Frankenstein's mind, woman cannot escape her fleshly capacity for motherhood.
|25||Power is also an issue in the reader's
response to the scenes enacted in the literature of sensibility, the Gothic
novel, and pornography. All three genres seek to arouse powerful emotions
in the reader, who can be interpellated either as the victim or the victimizer.
We can thus become a masochist or a sadist, or both alternately, as we read.
Marianne Noble has argued that the novel of sensibility and the Gothic are
constructed so as to engage the reader as a masochist. Pornography, in contrast,
situates the reader as a voyeur within the detached (and powerful) perspective
of the male gaze. The Male Gothic tends to be sadistic, for its characteristic
narrative techniques hinder imaginative identification. The Female Gothic,
with its limited omniscient or first-person narrative, impels identification
with the suffering heroine and is thus inherently masochistic. Perhaps the
most original aspect of Frankenstein is that Shelley uses both modes
of narrative. Walton's tale is a kind of normative Female Gothic plot, and
the creature's story is a Female Gothic gone tragically awry. Victor's story
follows the Male Gothic pattern of the overreacher punished. The body of
Shelley's novel, like that of Frankenstein's creature, is hybrid.
The bandages wrapped around a mummy declare the body's status as something
"other"deadeven as they also reveal that form which it is
their primary purpose to conceal. I would suggest that the literary form
of Frankenstein has a similar function, to express and yet distance
us from the unspeakable horror of Victor's dream. I propose that the Male
Gothic convention of multiple narratives and narrators used here is linked,
especially in Shelley's obscuring of the desired and haunting mother,
with the Radcliffean Gothic premise of the unexplained supernatural. We
have to accept Shelley's statement that Frankenstein is capable of infusing
life into a dead body, like Stoker's assertion that vampires exist, or
Walpole's that a gigantic plumed helmet can fall from out of the blue.
Furthermore, the Male Gothic's predilection for the unexplained supernatural
stems from the Oedipal crisis, through which little boys are separated
from their mothers before they have had a chance to become acquainted
with women as human beings like themselves. The bad and good mothers of
the pre-Oedipal state remain very much alive in their unconscious minds.
Multiple layers of narrative can thus serve as a kind of compromise-formation
that both distances the ego from the feared (m)other and at the same time
accommodates her, revealing her shape without facing her completely.
Her mother's death, after all, made Mary Shelley's early experience
of father (present and powerful) and mother (absent, though present as
a buried body) more like the typical son's than the typical daughter's.
But her use of characteristically Male Gothic narrative conventions was
also over-determined. She (perhaps unconsciously) chose a literary model
that is also a nest of narratives aiming to control an unspeakable vision
of another mother horribly married to death: Coleridge's The Rime of
the Ancient Mariner.
Critics of Frankenstein, while acknowledging Shelley's allusions
to Coleridge, have too rarely analyzed them.
In his first letter, Walton writes of how "that most imaginative of modern
poets" has influenced his interest in polar exploration, his desire to
seek out "the land of mist and snow" in which he may discover "the secret
that drives the needle" (a phrase that not only implies a curiosity about
origins, but also the erotic motive of scientific discovery). A second
explicit allusion occurs after the creature has disappeared from Victor's
gaze. In attempting to articulate his fears, Frankenstein quotes the Mariner's
ominous simile: "As one that on a lonely road / Doth walk in fear and
dread / And having once turned round, walks on / And turns no more his
head: / Because he knows a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread."
The creature's black lips may also echo the Mariner's "black lips baked"
When Mary Shelley was very young, Coleridge sometimes came to visit William Godwin. Once she and her half-sister Fanny hid behind the sofa in the parlor in order to hear the distinguished poet recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner after dinner. Their presence was discovered, but they were allowed to remain. (Coleridge would later describe the two as "catacombish," implying, presumably, that they were shy and silent, though the metaphor is rather ominous.) But I believe that Shelley, in addition to emulating Coleridge's narrative technique, also owes a probably unconscious thematic debt to The Rime. At the core of Coleridge's poem is a vision of a female figure as traumatic as Victor's dream of "the corpse of my dead mother with the grave worms crawling in the folds of the flannel." It is the pivotal sight of "The Nightmare Life-in-Death" who first appears to the Mariner on a "Spectre-ship" alongside her mate, "Death." Coleridge's portrait of her also is a mixture of the erotic and the repulsive, as if it were a grotesque parody of the vision of blonde loveliness in Sade's dream:
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Coleridge's narrators, however, even the two (or three) in the initial
1798 version, enfold the Mariner's experience in layers of interpretation
that enclose and contain the irrational horror that he has witnessed.
In a parallel fashion, on returning to "his own countree," he wanders
from place to place, keeping young men from attending weddings and singing
the delights of church services in worship of "Our Father," in congregations
that apparently exclude mothers and married women, a telling symptom of
his trauma. Frankenstein's nightmare, among other things, is Shelley's
unconscious revision of Coleridge's femme fatale: he sees the Nightmare
Life-in-Death, while she sees the Nightmare Death-in-Life.
Shelley's strategy of containment is more comprehensive than Coleridge's, though. Just as her narrative remains poised between the Male and Female Gothic modes, and between the sadistic and the masochistic, her novel also contains both the nightmare of the mother's dead body and her alternate vision of idealized maternity, even if her portrait of a woman very like Mary Wollstonecraft is distanced by multiple layers of narrative. We hear this story through Walton's letter to his sister Margaret Saville, and he is repeating what Frankenstein says that the creature has reported about the De Lacey family, whose son Felix has fallen in love with the Arabian Safie. Her mother was
a Christian Arab, seized and made a slave by the Turks; recommended by her beauty, she had won the heart of the father of Safie, who married her. The young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom, spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion, and taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet. This lady died; but her lessons were indelibly impressed on the mind of Safie, who sickened at the prospect of again returning to Asia, and being immured within the walls of a harem, allowed only to occupy herself with infantile amusements ill suited to the temper of her soul, now accustomed to grand ideas and a noble emulation for virtue. (120-1)Here is Mary's fantasy of the ideal mummya free, instructive, intelligent, independent Mary Wollstonecraftencrypted beneath layers and layers of narrative voices, a counterpoise to the horror of Frankenstein's dream about "the corpse of [his] dead mother."
Twenty years after his first composition of The Rime Coleridge published still another frame, the glosses, that are, among other things, designed to control our reading of the poem. Mary Shelley's preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, written about fifteen years after her original "waking dream," has, consciously or unconsciously, a similar effect. Remembering the summer of 1816, Shelley famously recalls the moment of conception:
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing that he had put together; I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. . . . He sleeps, but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening the curtains, and looking upon him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.The ellipses in this quotation obscure what Shelley chose to interject between the elements of her fantasy. She pauses to interpret the meaning of the second image:
Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.Shelley's narrative of her basic dream contains seventy-three words. This interpolation is considerably longerone hundred and seven words. It invites us to read her story as a much less original tale of male hubris, recasting the story simply as a conflict between fathers and sons. That reading would became the cliché driving a hundred screenplays, partly because this story is congenial to a patriarchal culture. But her last clause also confirms, in a telling subjunctive, the unconscious fantasy that I believe motivated Frankenstein: "he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life" (my emphasis).
In this last stage of her original dream, Shelley describes, from the
outside, the moment at which, according to the novel, Frankenstein is
dreaming of "the corpse of [his] dead mother with the grave-worms crawling
in the folds of the flannel." Her pause to interpret this "birth scene"
encloses or encapsulatesand thus both conceals and emphasizesthis
nightmare. In her conclusion to the introduction of 1831, when Shelley
writes "I have an affection for [my hideous progeny], for it was the offspring
of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true
echo in my heart," she implicitly repairs (or bandages over) Frankenstein's
primal failure to acknowledge his creature as his son. The novel is her
child, she now declares. But admitting maternity involves another dimension
of denial here. As Ellen Moers so vividly demonstrated in Literary
Women, during the two years that Shelley worked on her novel, death
and grief were horrible realities, partly because she herself gave birth
to a child who died. She became herself a mother all-too-well acquainted
with death and grief. At the moment of the book's conception, however,
I would argue that death and the mother, horribly, unspeakably, and inseparably
embodied in both sentimental and sadistic terms, became, through love's
alchemy, the words that are Frankenstein.
Shelley's declaration in 1831 that her novel depicts the son's rebellion
against the father, a human being's misappropriation of divine prerogative,
has proved powerful. This is the plot enshrined in many horror movies,
and it has become a myth for the modern world. Given Mary's problematic
and quasi-Oedipal relationship with William Godwin, this reading of the
tale is not exactly false, but it is partial. True, the patriarchal imagination
finds stories about father/son conflict more authentic (because more conventional),
but Frankenstein shows us that we cannot deny the murky realms
of dead mothers and living daughters and reanimated mummies, the levels
of the mother (though denied by patriarchy) who has a mind as well as
As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen reminds us, "The monster's body is a cultural
body" (9). It would follow, then, that as culture changes, its monsters
change with it. It was unthinkable that Victor could bring his female
creature to life because this would have been too blatant a recognition
of the creature's maternal dimension. Still, if such a creation were then
inconceivable, as Shelley's narrative shows, by the middle of the twentieth
century the possibility of a bride for the creature was imaginable. James
Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is generally regarded as that
cinematic oddity, the first-rate sequel. But it has few progeny, hideous
or otherwise. It was remade once, less successfully, as The Bride
in 1985, in contrast to the plethora of Frankensteins in twentieth-century
horror films (from Universal Studios in the 30s and Hammer Films in the
60s), although Kenneth Branagh's versionhere departing from the
novel he claims to follow more than anyone elseincorporates the
idea of "the bride" in Frankenstein's effort to revive Elizabeth
after she is killed on the wedding night.
But the deeply repressed significance of Frankenstein's creature does,
I think, find expression in an alternative and prolific sub-genre: tales
of the mummy, the zombie, and the living dead. In this way, as well as
others, the repressed always returns. In the seventeenth century the female
body as "mummy" served Donne as the concrete example of female soullessness
in a poem directed at an elite and primarily male audience. By the end
of the eighteenth century, however, the notion of the animated mummy was
becoming a public locus of horror for a popular audience. A similar though
less uncanny pun on "mummy" than Mary's appears in M.G. Lewis's The
Monk (1796): "The unlucky Duenna never had made a more disagreeable
journey in her life: She was jolted and shaken till She was become little
more than an animated Mummy. . . "(151),
an indication that oft-subordinated women can be reduced to the "living
dead" by the social circumstances that contain them. But after Frankenstein,
the re-animated mummythe self-disguising locus of the sadistically
beaten-down but sentimentally desired motherwould become a stock
figure in the Gothic, above all in twentieth-century horror movies with
its dozens of mummies, zombies, and living dead.
The Video Movie Guide 2001 lists productions of The Mummy
in 1932, 1959, and 1999 as well as The Mummy and the Curse of the Jackals
(1967), The Mummy's Curse (1944), The Mummy's Ghost (1944),
The Mummy's Hand (1940), The Mummy's Shroud (1967), and
The Mummy's Tomb (1942). Not listed is the 2001 theatrical release,
The Mummy Returns, but the zombie offers a variation on this theme
as well. The Video Movie Guide lists nine titles including this
word. And the masterpiece of this sub-genre, Night of the Living Dead(1968),
does not use the word "zombie." It was remade in color in 1990 by George
Romero, who also directed a sequel to the original, Dawn of the Dead
(1979). Also notable is Val Lewten's I Walked with a Zombie (1943).
Pet Semetery is Stephen King's most prominent homage to the mummy/zombie
mode (film version released in 1989).
One might suppose that the word "mummy" included in so many of these titles more readily discloses its unconscious significance than the same image does in Frankenstein. But the conventions of this mummy/zombie sub-genre wrap additional layers between object and audience. The mummified body that is reanimated is always male. In contrast to Frankenstein's creation story, which is contemporary to 1816, the mummy plot usually originates in the long ago and far awayancient Egypt. And the mummy's return to life always seems to be caused by some archeologist's hubristic violation of some ancient shibboleth, which, like Shelley's interpretive intervention in the 1831 preface, encourages us to see the story as a conflict between authority and the overreacher, between age and youth, between fathers and sons. If the popular version of Frankenstein warns us of the dangers of technology, the Mummy films imply the dangers of psychoanalysis, of seeking to discover long-buried secrets. Just as the thing one has made may become uncontrollable, so the mummy, the enwrapped burial of our desire for and revulsion at the mother, may come back to life and unwind its bandages, exposing "yellow, watery, but speculative eyes."
I wish to thank my colleagues Tricia Lootens and Nelson Hilton for
their astute suggestions regarding this manuscript. A.W.
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