Monster as Mirror

Posted by Happy Landings - November 3, 2010

The inception of “Frankenstein” is now a legend: While conversing around a fire with Lord Byron and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 18 year old Mary Shelley and her companions discussed galvanism and, in friendly competition, decided to pen stories of the supernatural. The resulting novel centers on Victor Frankenstein’s pursuit of the secret “principle of life”- and his abandonment of the project once it has come into horrific fruition.

The novel’s construction allows for immediate sympathy and association with Frankenstein. Obviously, he is human. He is also, upon introduction, young and progress-driven, deciding, early on, that his means of development will be intellectual and arrived at through scientific inquiry. His youthful hubris, if not endearing, is understandable: “in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder. A mind of moderate capacity, which closely pursues one study, must infallibly arrive at great proficiency in that study(33).” The figure of the scientist is an effective metaphor for an adolescent. Victor has a narrow scope of experiences and each new discovery, as he experienced it in school from his instructors and books, has been wondrous. He, too, wants to partake in the business of creating truths and wonders, seeking to make the ultimate discovery. Victor possesses an image of life and desires its actualization.

Despite his intimacy with the parts, culled from dead bodies, which comprise his design, Frankenstein is horrified by sight of their animated amalgamation. This fact leads to a conclusion voiced by Frankenstein: “I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery. Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.(35)” He begins the novel with a recanting of his undertaking and its result but on what basis? I do not believe that Shelley was a proponent of blissful ignorance.

It is ignorance and a rigid adherence to the image of his labor’s result that renders Frankenstein unable to accept his creation. Before the revelation, he claims: “Whence, I often ask myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice and carelessness did not restrain our inquiries(34).” While Frankenstein’s inquiry is unrestrained by cowardice and carelessness, these qualities are nonexistent when confronted with the answer. He sees the monster as a completely foreign entity and  wants to completely dissociate himself from it- because the monster is ugly and unexpectedly so. It is, in fact, the abandonment that leads to the monster’s murderous rampage.

Frankenstein is a Romantic tragedy. In the face of the manifestation of his passion, Frankenstein flees, shirking his responsibility and ownership of it. If he is an artist, he is one that lacks conviction and integrity. The-frustrating and sometimes torturous- discrepancy between concept and product is faced by artists, designers, and scientists alike and the passion that allows creation can sometimes fuel the destruction of creation but, for me the passion of the artist, is marked by intimacy. Frankenstein claims that he had no contact with darkness or the supernatural as a student and his monster contains all sorts of darkness. He is a sort of mirror, reminiscent of the spectre of Jupiter in “Prometheus Unbound,” he represents aspects of Frankenstein’s consciousness he refuses to acknowledge. Not only is the monster marked, physically composed of, by death but also melancholy. The monster remarks ” I saw no cause for their unhappiness; but I was deeply affected by it. If such lovely creatures were miserable, it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched. Yet why were these gentle beings unhappy?(87)”  Frankenstein, too, is deeply unhappy but strives to keep it a secret: “I rose early, but felt unusually melancholy. The rain depressed me; my old feelings recurred, and I was miserable. I knew how disappointed my father would be at this sudden change, and I wished to avoid him until I had recovered myself so far as to be enabled to conceal those feelings that overpowered me(74).”

While the monster serves or can serve as a mirror for Frankenstein and his society’s psyche, he is not merely an aesthetic object or representation, he, too has his own consciousness. Shelley’s novel subverts the power of the male gaze, Frankenstein’s horror and inability to share or allow for a shift in power of identification to his object. ” I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous(77).'” The use of Adam is telling and Shelley approaches the other, the monster, with the tenderness of a mother. Life and creation is less of a secret to a woman. This is of course, not to say that there aren’t murderous or irresponsible mothers. Postpartum depression is a very real phenomenon. However, while Frankenstein elevates the qualities of discovery and the accolades and power that would naturally follow, he does not ever consider the consciousness of his creation. His flaw is only considering the monster as object, as other.

Perhaps it’s telling that, since the novel’s publication, the name Frankenstein has changed to refer not just to the scientist but to the monster he created as well. Legacy has blended father and son, demonstrating the lineage that Frankenstein himself couldn’t face.

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