There are really two main "dreams" in Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein novel: Victor Frankenstein's daydream about the grand future effects of his creating artifical life and the nightmare into which he falls after he recoils from his finished creature in revulsion and exhaustion. This second dream, quite complex, has become the subject of many interpretations, particularly in the twentieth century. Even so, I raise a number of questions that these previous readings have not answered and show how the rest of the essays in this collection respond to those in new and striking ways. In recounting the most influential existing interpretions, I also show how many profound cultural and psychological issues are raised by both of Victor's dreams, especially his nightmare about embracing his dead mother. As a result, the newer interpretations offered here address some major unresolved quandaries in the history of Western culture. Mainly through the work of my fellow contributor's, then, we collectively offer new insights about long-standing issues in the West: the relationship between sentimentality and sadism, the role and nature of parody in human creativity, the need for several radical repressions for the enforcement of a patriarchal society, and the parallels between dream-language and the movement between images in modern motion pictures. Because of the questions raised by these readings, as well as in Frankenstein's dream, these essays claim, we are thrown back on and must therefore confront the most basic ways in which Western self-representation has occured over the last several centuries.
Frankenstein's dream after "giving birth" suggests that the creature represents the unspeakable body of the mother within the Symbolic Order. Shelley's representation of female characters implies that sadism and sensibility are complementary responses to the paradoxical views of motherhood within patriarchy. The novel is a hybrid of male and female Gothic narrative conventions: Frankenstein's story follows the male Gothic trajectory of the overreacher who fails and dies. Embedded in this story is the creature's Bildungsroman, tragically diverted from the comic female plot. Shelley does represent her own mother; her complex frame narrative contains, at five removes from the outer frame (Walton's letters), the story of a woman very like Mary Wollstonecraft. Subsequent versions of the Frankenstein myth in popular culture tend to repress the female (as Victor refuses to create a bride for this creature); she may appear, however, in the proliferation of horror movies about mummies.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, often read as an indictment of Romantic excess, instead takes a parodic stance that opens up a critical distance on conventionally Romantic attitudes even as it maintains a familiarity that precludes wholesale dismissal. The novel takes its place in an alternative Romantic tradition that reads literary activity as inherently parodic, in which authors create not out of a void but from a chaos of pre-existing texts. The practice of parody calls attention to the ways in which authors are themselves readers; it also underscores the value of eliciting imitations, flattering or otherwise, from a scribbling readership. By mocking and partially adopting the characteristic excesses of her contemporaries, Mary Shelley accepts the possibility of being parodied herself, which would at least foster a future audience, however damaging such a response might be to the fantasy of unqualified success. Frankenstein, in the way it treats its antecedent texts, suggests that parody in the Romantic era is less antagonistic than is often assumed.
This essay tries to account for the power that gives Mary Shelley's Frankenstein its unusual place in literary and cultural history. The central thesis is that the fantasy of male creation, a fantasy the novel straightforwardly connects to Paradise Lost and Genesis, refers consistently to the infantile sexual theory of birth by defecation. The power of Mary Shelley's novel has much to do with its exposure of this reference. The novel associates the infantile yet authoritative fantasy of male birth with a pre-Oedipal economy of gift-giving and womb envy that is desperately at odds, in the text, with the Oedipal economy of castration and exchange. The result is that Shelley's novel denaturalizes patriarchal authority and radically subverts its Western mythic or religious foundation. But at the same time the novel recuperates and conceals its own anti-patriarchal critical power by ultimately forcing Frankenstein and his creature to submit to an Oedipal rivalry based on the creature's desire to enter the sex/gender system ideally represented to him by the De Lacey family. The early stage adaptations and the later cinematic tradition even more emphatically recuperate patriarchal authority by making castration and rivalry into the plot's dominant motifs.
In this essay, Marc Redfield weaves together readings of Shelley's novel and of James Whale's 1931 film, arguing that in different ways both texts make legible a certain monstrousness of vision and figuration. The film renders the monster hypervisible as an image in, and of, the age of mechanical reproducibility, and as an uncanny icon of the "cinematic." Shelley's novel provides an implicit critique of the fantasy of seeing-itself-seeing that animates Whale's film by suggesting that the act of seeing cannot be isolated from the unreliable performativity of figurative language. The secret of life is a "sudden light" that breaks in on Victor, obliterating his own understanding of the cognitive processes that got him to the point of illumination. He cannot tell his secret to Walton because the secret posseses him; his understanding and his act never catch up with each other. The novel thus suggests that no aesthetic perception can catch up with or understand its own technical enactment and proliferation, while Whale's film in turn helps us recognize this monstrous predicament as one of technoshock.