Jerrold E. Hogle, University of Arizona
In Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818)—unlike nearly all of its many adaptations—there are at least two levels of "dream" for Victor Frankenstein, the title character. The first, which is given a dream-like quality by his insistence that it is not "the vision of a madman" (Shelley 47), is his hopeful daydream of what the creation of a human life through science might ultimately mean:
Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. Pursuing these reflections, I thought, if I could bestow animation on lifeless matter, I might in the process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption. (Shelley 49)
To be sure, it is this vision to which Victor refers, along with his hope that his creation might be "beautiful," when he later laments, on actually seeing his creature come to life, that "the beauty of the dream vanished" to be replaced by "horror and disgust" at a "wretch" more "hideous" than a "mummy again endued with animation" (Shelley 52-53, my emphasis). Even so, this daydream raises far-reaching questions on its own that persist in the Western world to this day, among the many reasons for the long survival of Shelley's arresting story. To what degree, as the biological sciences have developed (now quite rapidly in our age of biotechnology), is Victor's aspiration a valuable one, even within the long-standing middle-class ideology of men whereby the self-made individual achieves his potential in products of his ingenuity that can change the world? Exactly when does this dream, appealing as it was in 1818 and remaining in 2002, "cross a line" (and where is that line?) that separates worthwhile ambition from socially destructive obsession? Is there so much ego in Victor's hubris, with all the "I"s and "me"s in the above passage, that Frankenstein is primarily an attack on scientific aspiration as too often self-serving, as exploitative of manipulated "others" mainly for the sake of how they will reflect back on the scientist or discoverer?
Indeed, is such ego separable from the aspiration? Are we looking at science "going too far," assuming a more moderate and sociable version of itself, or is Mary Shelley exposing a dynamic of selfish dominance that is endemic to such quests from their very inception? After all, Victor tells his story using these words, among others, to Robert Walton, the arctic explorer who "frames" Frankenstein's and his creature's stories within a packet of letters sent from the ice-floes of the far North to his sister back in England. Victor's stated purpose for his narrative is to offer warnings to others who "seek for knowledge and wisdom," as Walton is doing (Shelley 24), as though Frankenstein's desires and errors could be universalized to apply to many individuals who have, as Walton has, dreamed of an ultimate discovery (such as the North Pole) that "presents [itself first] to the imagination as a region of beauty and delight" (Shelley 9). Are the features of Frankenstein's daydream, then, too much those of Shelley's contemporaries and too persistent even for many of us today? Is Mary Shelley, as some have suggested (see Homans 100-19 and Mellor), writing a critique of male or Romantic aspiration as she knew it, particularly in such poets and dabblers in science as Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley (whom she married in December of 1816)? Or are such longings bound up, at their time and since, with our best ambitions for making the world a better place and human life longer? Are the darkest and brightest sides of this dream inseparably mixed together? Have they been so for almost two hundred years in Western culture? And if so, why?
The problems that Victor's conscious dream present, however, are greatly complicated when we recall that there is a second, more preconscious dream (really a nightmare) into which Victor falls in Mary Shelley's novel. Right after he recoils from the first sight of his finished, and now breathing, creation, at least as he remembers in his narration to Walton, Frankenstein "rushes" in frightened disgust from his makeshift laboratory and, finally giving way to exhaustion after long "depriv[ing him]self of rest and health" (Shelley 52), throws himself on his bed, with his most conscious thoughts of escape from his problems being focussed on his fiancee, Elizabeth Lavenza:
I slept indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt [his present location]. 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 I beheld 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; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window-shutters, I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created. (Shelley 53)
This stunning moment, virtually unique to the novel in the many versions of Frankenstein, has understandably provoked numerous and varied interpretations, several which I will review shortly. Its immediate effect, though, is to undermine Victor's lofty daydream by revealing a preconscious disposition towards a sort of necrophilia with his mother as what is more truly symbolized in the sewn-together features of the being he has created. Is this the real dream—the actual dark urges—at the foundation of Frankestein's project, a deeper motivation that is covered over and obscured by his conscious ambitions? Especially in juxtaposition to its hopeful counterpart, what does this dream tell us about the larger meanings and cultural resonance of Frankenstein the novel, about the wider Romantic quest for "brave new worlds" to which it clearly responds, and about the development of this story after the novel appeared in versions that are clearly based on this nightmare, even if (or perhaps because) they refuse to repeat it? In other words, what is "Frankenstein's dream" at bottom? What lies most fundamentally behind this tale's ongoing importance to us as a persistent Western myth? The essays in this collection all strive to answer these questions and to do so from very different perspectives that have rarely been applied to Frankenstein before now.
Most of the answers so far, of course, given the contents of Victor's second dream, have been psychoanalytic ones. Frankenstein unquestionably joins with other early nineteenth-century texts (see Ellenberger 143-215) in beginning to craft the ingredients of the unconscious and the interpretation of dreams that Sigmund Freud proposed as scientific truth by the 1890s. For most Freudian critics (see Tropp 19-33; Twitchell 46-60; and Veeder 112-17, for examples), Victor's pursuit of life's deepest secret by digging up body-parts in Mother Earth therefore stems, like his inconsistent pursuit of Elizabeth, from an unconscious desire for and a resistance to a reunion with the body of his deceased mother—the very feminine origin he has tried to avoid by producing a "child" without a woman or sexual intercourse. Indeed, Victor's mother in Shelley's novel, Caroline, dies shortly before he leaves for Ingolstadt because she catches scarlet fever from Elizabeth (the initial object of Victor's embrace in his dream), whom the older woman lovingly nurses in the Frankenstein household until her own "fever was very malignant" (Shelley 37). Her death, as Victor recalls to Walton by stopping his narrative cold at this point, is the most devastating event in the young scientist's life:
I need not describe the feelings of those whose dearest ties are rent by that most irreparable evil, the void that presents itself to the soul, and the despair that is exhibited on the countenance. It is so long before the mind can persuade itself that she, whom we saw every day, and whose very existence appeared a part of our own, can have departed for ever—that the brightness of a beloved eye can have been extinguished, and the sound of a voice so familiar, and dear to the ear, can be hushed, never more to be heard. These are the reflections of the first days; but when the lapse of time proves the reality of the evil, then the actual bitterness of the grief commences. (Shelley 38)
Still shattered by such an enormous loss for him, even when he speaks to Walton, Victor not surprisingly covers up his extreme longing in his supposedly very different process of creation. But the repressed manifestly returns the more his efforts come to fruition. Victor's finished product is revealed by his dream at the moment of "birth" to be a cover for his drive to return to his mother—to rejoin himself to her body, for which Elizabeth is but a displacement—and to do so by entering, Orpheus-like, into the world of buried dissolution (the charnel houses and graveyards from which he steals pieces of bodies) where his mother, like Eurydice, has been taken by Death itself and from which he longs to recover her (though with no more success than Orpheus had).
Such impulses turn out to be the most fundamental of the infantile drives that Freud finds sequestered in the human unconscious and describes as disguising themselves in half-conscious displacements, especially in dreams. By these lights, Victor is continuing the universal childish longing to return to the body of the mother from which the infant has been thrust (one basis of all the longings of eros in life) and pursuing that goal, more than most do consciously, by manifesting a death-wish to re-enter his and everyone's intrauterine state prior to birth (the drive of thanatos in Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle ). Since such drives have to be radically obscured in any manifestations of the unconscious for Freud, even in dreams, it is no surprise for the psychoanalytic reader that they appear most overtly throughout Frankenstein in figures that seem their opposite, in this case the fabrication of a male body by a man that seems to avoid women and motherhood altogether while supposedly making life out of death and not vice-versa. The hero's nightmare in Frankenstein, it seems, is at least the Freudian displacement where we are all shown to be concealing, in fact to be reversing, infantile longings of both eros and thanatos (loving procreation and death-seeking destruction) so that they are sublimated within our most "adult" pursuits. Within this theory, the longings and violence in both these deep drives, which Freud sees in some of his works as the drives of the id, come out in Victor's creature as they do not in the creator who has projected, even othered them, onto his creation as though they all belonged "over there" and not in himself. Such a combination of life-creating and life-destroying impulses in the "monster" is part of what makes him enact the killings of little brother William, the servant Justine, Elizabeth, and even Victor's best friend, Henry Clerval, that Victor subconsciously wishes to bring about, both to dominate his world and to return it all to death, the inclinations he is most unwilling to face as basic aspects of his fundamental being (see Kaplan and Kloss 119-45). It is in this way, after all, that Frankenstein's creature is a form of "the uncanny" as Freud defines that feeling of profound revulsion and déjà vu in his 1919 essay of that name. What Victor comes to call his "daemon" (Shelley 94) is so abhorrent in its grotesque unfamiliarity, according to "The Uncanny," because what it harbors is the deeply familiar, his creator's own repressed and most infantile drives.
For several insightful feminist critics, however, this Freudian scenario about Frankenstein's dream is a cover for another hidden—and more widely cultural and political—unconscious. While seeming to long for a reunion of himself with both his mother and death, Victor in his usurpation of "making a baby" may be striving to "kill" the feminine powers, from Elizabeth's to Caroline's, that threaten male supremacy in ways quite apparent to Mary Shelley, the daughter and namesake of Mary Wollstonecraft (best known then and now for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman ). After all, Victor's "researches into [the] secrets [of the mother], to usurp her powers," be she Mother Earth, his own, or any mother able to conceive a child, as Margaret Homans shows, really "require that she be dead," that her literal body recede behind and beneath Frankenstein's male metaphor (or substitute) for the process of birth (Homans 142). Since well before Frankenstein's and Mary Shelley's time, "woman" in the West has come to be associated with earthy "nature" (as opposed to "culture"), "death" just as much as life (with Euridyce, like Persephone, staying in the underworld as long as Death commands her, while Orpheus ascends back to the earth), uncontrolled "emotion" or "sensibility" (in contrast to masculine "reason"), and the "body" more than "the mind" (especially as the birth-source of all human beings in their bodily forms). All of that means that woman is too often "the literal," the possibly chaotic and uncontainable "Real" or "Thing in itself," Kant's imperceptible and irrational Ding an Sich (see Brown) of which only mental (and masculine) Reason and Understanding can supposedly make some sense. The standard male quest, taken to a revealing extreme in Frankenstein, is to contain and distance that amorphous feminine Real by fabricating rationalized constructs and symbols that seem to contain it, or even transcend it, by way of distinctly male frames of reference (such as his male "demonstration" of fabricated life) through which we glimpse the deep and primordial Feminine only "through a glass darkly," preferably as though she were dead and the male constructs that repress her were alive. It is this process that is the real monstrosity, according to this important feminist view. The horror he faces there is that the mother whose birth-powers he has sought to usurp, now joined with death, is also the object of desire that he most wants and does not want simultaneously. With this kind of unconscious as its real foundation, then, "the novel is about the collision between androcentric [male-centered] and gynocentric [woman-centered] theories of creation, a collision that results in the denigration of maternal childbearing through its circumvention by male creation" (Homans 105).
There is even a further dimension in Victor's creature and his dream if we consider both from the perspective of a pro-feminist psychoanalytic approach that is more recent—and far reaching—than these others we have noted. According to the view of "monstrosity" advanced by Julia Kristeva (herself a psychotherapist as well as cultural theorist) in her Powers of Horror (1980, trans. 1982), grotesque "others" in Western culture are really forms of the "abject" created by the psychological process of "abjection." Literally ab-ject means both "to throw off " and "to throw under," so Kristeva defines "abjection" as a process of ejecting or displacing preconscious multiplicities in the self into an externalized alter ego through which what is preconscious, already quite disguised, is "thrown under" the eventual dominance of sanctioned cultural discourses and other forms of social control. For Kristeva, moreover, the multiplicities most abjected by us—the anomalies we most want to "throw off" from the deepest roots of our being—are the state of being half-inside/half-outside the mother at the moment of birth (and thus self and other all at once) and the concomitant state of being half-dead and half-alive at the same moment (thus intermingling in our very foundations what are later thought to be total opposites). Such primordial conditions of the self as "in-between . . . ambiguous . . . composite" are for all of us an "immemorial violence" out of which any child strives to become "separated from another body in order to be" and hence to be able to construct a distinct public identity (Kristeva, 10). The thrown-off abject, the product of abjection, is thus the symbolic and disguised repository of that violence and basic otherness-of-the-self-within-itself, the means for staking out a supposed identity over against it. The monstrous "other" that uncannily seems to harbor all this ultimately exposes and conceals it by being both highly compelling and highly repugnant at the same time. According to this view, Frankenstein's creature is a quintessential example of the abject in being a highly differentiated and horrifying double of his creator. The strongest evidence of that in Mary Shelley's novel is Frankenstein's "monstrous" dream of being re-enveloped by his mother and death simultaneously, since there the creature's revolting visage is shown to be ultimately based on the two deepest anomalies that Kristeva sees as the most abjected of all: the visceral sense of being both separate from and absorbed into the mother and the sense, both fearful and seductive, of being embraced by death right at what seems the birth of a new form of life. In addition to being a return of the primally repressed and the "uncanny," then, Victor's non-waking dream is also the exposure of an abjection and the abject, in which the irreconcilable deep differences in the self are made to seem outside it in a pasting-together of bodies as manifestly different from each other as the abjecting subject really is at its most underlying levels.
Victor's creature and dream as containing the abject, in fact, allow both of them to harbor numerous thrown-down anomalies basic to Frankenstein, Walton, and their readers well beyond those that Powers of Horror emphasizes. The creature, as the many studies on him have shown, is a throwing off social and cultural intermixtures that are just as repugnant as the anomalies in Victor's dream—and consequently as fully abjected -- because they are just as basic to the sources of Victor's (and any middle-class Anglo male's) construction of a self, even as it wants to leave those very sources behind more than most others. That is why the creature is as racially mixed as Victor claims not to be, pointing to the interdependency of white and other races in a colonial economy (see Shelley 52; Spivak 248-54; and Malchow 9-31); as working class (indeed, as like the "wandering beggars" of Shelley's time) as Victor tries to avoid being in his aspirations to scientific supremacy, thereby showing how the managerial middle classes are creating the "monstrosity" of the industrial working class they claim to rise above (see Shelley 99 and O'Flinn); as partly self-educated in his accidental reading of older books, as Victor works to be formally educated, indicative of Victor's own early process of learning that he falsely claims he transcends at the time he makes his creature (see Shelley 32-37 and 122-26); as artificial and industrial as well as organic while Victor claims to be only organic and able to keep these domains entirely distinct; and as rebelliously uncontrollable in his insistent and increasingly independent multiplicity, while Victor, without admitting as much, consequently denies the vision in his lofty daydream. The mix of supposed opposites in the creature is the mix in Victor that the young scientist, again and again, tries to deny but can only "abject" onto an other who is pointedly not him and very much him (or at least the many anomalies on which he is really grounded) at the same time.
Frankenstein's preconscious dream, though it reveals less of these mixtures than the creature does, at least shows the abjection of deep Kristevan levels of somatic memory as the fundamental throwing-off-and-under that makes all of the other abjections possible in one terrifying and sympathetic creation. The dream even includes its own dimension of socio-cultural abjection in that it throws off Frankenstein's (and many men's) extremely mixed attitudes towards women as objects of desire and domination, mixed with fears of and longings for reabsorption by the mother, in a scene of symbolic shiftings where attraction changes into the repulsion connected to it and sexual longing becomes a death-wish both for the self and for the fundamental Femininity that is so basic to male existence that men often believe they must throw it off to be really masculine beings. These mixtures repeat themselves, we should remember, in Victor's later waking nightmare when he attempts the creation of a female mate for his monster and feels he must finally destroy her instead, killing the potential of her life both for increased female independence and for the reproduction of a different race that could challenge white, as much as male, supremacy (see Shelley 162-64). The dream behind Frankenstein's conscious hopes, it turns out, underwrites his aspirations with several repressed—and abjected—levels of personal and cultural contradictions, many of which remain as basic to us today, fortunately or sadly, as they were coming to be in 1818. One reason that Frankenstein and the creature in it have become such lasting and important cultural touchstones since the novel appeared is that Victor's creation, with its foundations in the conflicts animating his dream, has become a symbolic focal point for the abjection of a great many cultural, as well as psychological, inconsistencies and quandaries basic to us all since the Enlightenment, if only so that these anomalies can be both addressed and disguised in a way that allows us to face them or avoid them, as we choose. Frankenstein, from the novel through all its adaptations, may well be our modern world's most lasting dark dream, the one that most consistently haunts the industrial and post-industrial West with the many consequences of our fear (or is it sometimes our desire?) that mechanical reproductions of various kinds may replace or threaten the forms of human reproduction in many different ways.
After all, we might say, it all began as a dream, one that occurred right at the juncture where the rising industrial world and the science connected to it were now clearly replacing, while many were still upholding older economies and the social orders that they sustained. If we can believe Mary Shelley in her Preface to the 1831 revised edition of Frankenstein, her title character's visions, both conscious and preconscious, look back to one dream she claims to have had herself in 1816 near Geneva, Switzerland. There, while staying near and often with Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati, she agreed, as many of her readers know, to join a ghost-story writing contest between herself, P.B. Shelley, Byron, and the latter's live-in physician and occasional lover, Dr. John Polidori. At first she says she made no connection between this group's nocturnal readings in Gothic tales of reanimated portraits or specters—such as those in Jean Baptiste Eryiès's Fantasmagoriana (1812), which is heavily indebted to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764-65; see Shelley 7n. and Hogle 205-06, n.8)—and the many other conversations she recalls overhearing between Byron and Percy Shelley on "the nature of the principle of life" and on whether it was possible, based on the surmises and experiments of Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, that "a corpse would be re-animated" by "galvanism" or some other method (Shelley 227). She states that she heard Byron and Shelley, themselves rebellious descendants of a fading aristocracy, say that it was possible that the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth" (Ibid., my emphasis). She then goes on:
Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head upon my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose to my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful it must 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; that 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. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes. I opened mine in terror. . . . On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. (Shelley 227-28)To be sure, we should not simply take this account to be absolutely true, since it is hardly immediate or objective. Given its "witching hour" and "possession" by the "imagination"—quite conventional literary figures by 1831—it is quite clearly heightened for its new readers fifteen years after the events recalled. It is also quite selective in its memories—and repressive in being so. The dream that arises when Frankenstein sleeps, our principal focus here, is completely absent from Shelley's initial dream. Was something like Victor's embrace of his dead mother, and thus the immediate connection of birth with death, too painful to be admitted to consciousness then, considering that Mary Shelley still blamed herself somewhat for the death of her mother just a few days after Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to her in 1797 (see Rubenstein) and was still in great pain from the death of her own first infant shortly after it was born to herself and Percy Shelley in 1815 (see Moers 217-23 and Johnson)? Did the disguising of these dimensions in Victor's dream come after this story was much more developed, or was such nightmarish dream-work already behind the initial conception of the idea and therefore repressed beneath its remembered surface?
We will never know for sure, but we can say, given the above passage's oscillation between age-old Christian images of the "unhallowed" and the far more recent "mechanism" of the "spark of life," that it does mark, as a dream, the psychological and symbolic effects of a major transition in Western history as many of its elements became "galvanized" together in a well-focussed fictional image. While it may "throw off" what is most abject for Mary Shelley herself by 1831, this remembered or reconstructed or constructed dream at least abjects the irresolution in Western culture around 1818 (and since) between hearkening back towards old Christian prohibitions about human presumption that might claim the life-giving powers of God and aspiring towards scientific advancement and early industrial technology that could allow human beings to improve their lives themselves. It even abjects the indecision of the eighteen-teens between the source of life as an infused and infusing principle outside any single body, advocated in England by Dr. John Abernathy, and the opposing materialist view that life is generated by the structural interrelation of organic and circulating elements within bodies, argued by Sir William Lawrence (Percy Shelley's physician), all of which was debated quite publicly from 1816 on (see Butler). Which of these is the "powerful engine" in the stretched-out "phantasm": a "spark of life" which might just be left to go out or a "vital motion" stirring from within the body dreamt of as coming to life? Moreover, is the use of "engine" here a suggestion of organic vitality or of the ultimately mechanical and industrial possibly taking control of the biological, especially since woman, even here, is pointedly left out of the birth process? If Mary Shelley's inaugural dream contains (as some Freudians might say) the wish-fulfillment of at least giving artificial birth to a story in the face of the deaths of both her mother and her child, it also registers the cultural nightmare of being caught at a crossroads of historical tendencies pulling at each other in the early nineteenth century—and still drawing us into a tug of war today. Whether or not we accept this authorial dream as the "source" of the dreams—and especially Victor's dream—in Frankenstein the novel, it joins these others in showing that all these dreams have profound psychological and cultural dimensions, layer upon layer, ones that still need more of the further exploration attempted by the essays in this collection for the Romantic Circles Praxis series.
What I have tried to provide here, with occasional intrusions of my own perspective, is a coalescence of the dominant existing interpretations of Victor Frankenstein's dream as Mary Shelley renders it. After all, it is this previous range of responses to that rich symbolic tangle, along with the novel and its many adaptations, to which the scholars in the accompanying essays react by pointing to several possibilities that remain unexplored in Victor's dream and the others connected to it. All of these expert contributors, like myself, are not so much out to undermine the interpretations I have summarized or interfaced here as to expose what is so abjected in Frankenstein's dream that it has not yet been accommodated by analytical criticism. Though we have not worked towards any uniformity in this collection, the general argument advanced by the included essays is that Victor Frankenstein's dream, despite all that has been said about it, still reveals to us some as-yet-unexamined relationships—ones that go to the heart of both Romanticism and Gothic writing, it turns out -- between literary forms, conflicting cultural agendas, psychological anomalies, and functions of language and images. The need to study Frankenstein's dream remains as ongoing and pressing as it has been for decades because it still causes us to confront what Victor Frankenstein's and the reader will not face steadily: the unaccommodated tugs-of-war between cultural tendencies that have been and remain "cathected" onto Frankenstein and the endless adaptations of it.
If I could recommend an order of reading these all-new interpretations, I would urge proceeding from my overview of the interpretive tradition here to the provocative piece by Anne Williams, author of the important Art of Darkness (1995) on the roots of Gothic fiction and their reappearance in Romanticism. In the key dream in Mary Shelley's novel and much that surrounds it, Williams recovers the interplay so many of us have forgotten—or repressed?—between the established eighteenth-century tradition of sentimental fiction in England and France, well known to, and often used by, Mary Shelley in ways that very few have discussed, and the dimensions of Frankenstein that are genuinely sadistic in the quite literal sense that they recall the fictions (and even the life) of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). These seemingly opposite registers of emotion, vision, and writing, Williams shows, surprisingly interpenetrate each other throughout Shelley's novel and especially in Victor's dream. That established, this essay goes on to reveal what is repressed behind and within this combination. Why, Williams asks us, would these symbolic strains be so interrelated, despite their apparent rejection of each other? For her, we discover, their interaction, itself long repressed, serves to both cover and articulate an even deeper abjection enacted by them both: the "throwing off" and "under" of a broadly Feminine set of biological, social, and linguistic levels on which Western culture, like Frankenstein and Sade, is far more dependent than almost anyone wants to admit.
The next essay I would recommend is Matthew VanWinkle's, since it builds so well on his established expertise with the parodic side of Romantic literature in England. This piece joins Williams' in explaining the intertextuality of Shelley's original novel—very extensive in the book and thus a rich subject for interpreters already—by focusing, not only on its parodies of several texts prior to it, but how it also imports parody into the very core of its story and thereby foregrounds a deep parodic strain in a "second generation" Romantic literature that has long been separated from such impulses except in analyses of Byron. Lest we take "parody" in too simple a sense by emphasizing only its satirical dimension, which is also there in Frankenstein in its jibes at solipsistic Romantic aspiration, VanWinkle grounds his discussion helpfully by showing us a fuller range of what parody can embody in writing prior to and in Frankenstein itself. He then demonstrates that Victor Frankenstein, as much as the novel about him, is driven by parodic "demons" against his conscious intentions, enough that the creature he makes is itself/himself a parody both of contemporary biological debates and of the several texts it/he reads and half-imitates in order to, among other things, come into discourse—a process VanWinkle therefore finds parodic of standard human discourse in the end. Parody even extends to Frankenstein's dream, VanWinkle argues, in the way it persistently echoes and plays off of Coleridge's "Christabel" (first published in 1816) and in that fashion intensifies what is already parodic in Coleridge's most openly Gothic poem. Though many have explored Frankenstein's allusions to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as the main key to the novel's extensive conversation with Coleridge, VanWinkle reminds us of a quite different interchange between two Gothic renditions of a deeply parodic dreamscape. He thereby reveals that this kind of nightmare, albeit in several different forms, is one that troubles and underlies much of Romanticism in general far more than most of us have realized.
In the next essay I would recommend in this itinerary, the remarkable piece by John Rieder, author of Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn (1997), we return to the perspectives of psychoanalysis, but in a strikingly different way from any of the readings I have recounted above. This analysis probes the most "disgusting" aspects of the creature and Victor's dream in Shelley's novel and then shows how these are altered and/or avoided in later adaptations ranging from R.B. Peake's play Presumption (1823) to George Romero's film Dawn of the Dead (1978). Rieder thereby exposes the basic story's links to what Freud in 1916 saw as the child's frequent impulse to duplicate the powers of the mother by imaginatively "giving birth" through the bowels, thus producing the abhorrent but fascinating "fecal child." We are then shown, not surprisingly, how Victor's original creature and his dream embody many more dimensions than any other adaption has suggested of what the 'fecal child' abjects, in part because of a strong cultural resistance since 1818 to facing those very dimensions. With this point made, however, Rieder then follows its implications out to expose the as-yet-unseen social critique that Mary Shelley is unleashing through her novel's use of the fecal child. Such a figure, as Freud saw, defies traditional male-female distinctions and the patriarchal order that sustains them. Some possibilities of this defiance are thus embedded in Frankenstein's positive dream, as well as in his nightmare and Mary Shelley's novel. It is above all this set of potentials, Rieder shows, that adaptations of Frankenstein have tried to occlude by effacing, while still dimly recalling, the fecal child of the original book.
The concluding essay in this recommended succession, the highly arresting contribution by Marc Redfield, shifts the focus quite radically by working backwards from a major adaptation—James Whale's Frankenstein film for Universal Studios in 1931—to the movements of phrases and images in Mary Shelley's text, particularly the progression of dissolves in Victor's maternal nightmare. Building on modes of analysis already used suggestively in his prize-winning Phantom Formations (1996) and his forthcoming Politics of Aesthetics, Redfield exposes how self-reflexive Whale's film really is and thus how it foregrounds the fundamental process of mechanically reproducible image-production and the sheer positioning of manufactured motion pictures prior to any narrative or meaning, though the audience is admittedly most conscious of these latter levels in viewing the film. Despite all the differences between the 1931 film and the Shelley novel in plot-elements and characterizations, this essay argues that the strongest resemblance between the two, not much noted until now, may appear in those dimensions—most revealed in Frankenstein's dream, the many artificial composings of the creature (including his learning of language), and the movement of doublings across characters and descriptions in the book—where the "work in the age of mechanical reproduction" (echoing Walter Benjamin) announces its emergent and relentless process of self-duplicating manufacture. It is this "monstrosity," given the rise of industrialism and its post-industrial successors, that may be the most feared and resisted of all the horrors that appear in the novel and its film adaptations. If there is a repressed level in Victor's aspirations of both desire and death-wish associated culturally and psychologically with the deeply Feminine (as Redfield suggests), that level is made possible, as well as partially concealed, this final essay shows, by the moving "technics" of images becoming other images that not-so-subliminally enable and threaten our modern and postmodern lives. As much as abjections of feminine foundations appear in the creature and his creator's dream, so do the most basic modes of image-production that we fear, but in Frankenstein we are forced to recognize them as the means by which we construct ourselves and our extensions of our manufactured beings in our post-"Enlightenment" world.
These arguments, to be sure, are not the end of the debate over Frankenstein's multiple dreams and therefore make no pretense of being "last words" on a subject that still bedevils us, as it should. Indeed, by highlighting levels in Mary Shelley's novel and its progeny that have not yet been clearly exposed amid the barrage of readings that have interpreted this cultural phenomenon, this collection shows the wide range and still-burning urgency of the issues that Frankenstein has raised and continues to raise for us as as the most reproduced and studied Romantic and Gothic story in the history of published literature and Western film production. Because of the questions raised here, as in Frankenstein, these essays are pleased to claim that we are thrown back on the most basic kinds of reflection on Western self-representation, on how "we" have come to be and remain what "we" think we are in the Anglo-European-American West. To be sure, like many readers and viewers, we can ignore these unsettling revelations and let them recede behind the words and images that have vividly articulated them since 1818 in version after version of Frankenstein. The collective hope of these pieces, however, is that Western minds will not continue to "throw off" these several anomalous tangles that ground and disturb our modern lives. In our view, we should face them and their consequences, if only to refuse their most destructive possibilities, so that they will not finally be "lost in darkness and distance," as Shelley's famous creature threatens to be (Shelley 221) but in fact has never been, we are happy to say, since Frankenstein began haunting us at the height of English Romanticism.
In any case, I am deeply grateful to all the contributors here, who made special efforts within their many commitments to bring this collection about; to Jay Salisbury, my excellent Research Assistant on this and other projects at the University of Arizona; and to Orrin Wang, the brilliant General Editor of the Praxis series, who proposed the original idea while inviting this collection, as well as to the helpful staff and most able web masters at Romantic Circles. It is a delight to be able to do this kind of work with such extraordinary and dedicated collaborators.
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Butler, Marilyn. "Frankenstein and Radical Science." Times Literary Supplement (4 April 1993). Rpt. in Frankenstein: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1996. 302-13.
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Mellor, Anne K. "Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein." Romanticism and Feminism. Ed. Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988. 220-32.
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