the romance, the double, the psyche
Death too, as a convention, is observed without being too much exaggerated, even though there are a total of eight deaths in the story. Frankenstein’s mother dies of scarlet fever. Then the Monster murders William, Clerval, and Elizabeth: these are the most obviously dramatic and gruesome. The other deaths appear to follow as natural consequences: Justine’s execution (an injustice of society); the destruction of the female Monster (a ‘necessity’); Adolphe Frankenstein (grief at the sad progression of events); and Victor Frankenstein (terminal exhaustion in pursuit of the Monster). But there are sufficient hints in the text concerning responsibility for these deaths to indicate a possible interpretation of it.
The novel then contains many of the basic elements of the romantic novel and the Gothic horror story, but they are mixed in such a rich and densely patterned manner that a variety of readings are possible. The common interpretations are usually based upon either biographical evidence drawn from the life of Mary Shelley and her husband (4) or upon Promethean readings which the sub-title invites, the Faust legend, or the Satan-and-Adam possibilities which are suggested by the literary experience which both the Shelleys and Frankenstein and his Monster share in their readings of Milton (5).
There is also an interpretation which takes the novel as a critique of Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father, a cautionary tale on scientific experimentation (that is, the pursuit of pure reason) taken to extremes. This seems to be supported by Frankenstein’s own words to Walton: ‘Do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me … and you will dash the cup from your lips!’. But this possibility is undermined by the remarks which conclude his tale: ‘Yet why do I say [all] this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes [of scientific discovery] yet another may succeed’. There is also the possibility of seeing the novel as a cautionary ‘punishment of the outsider or the man who has gone too far’, with Walton as the man who turns back and lives to tell the story. But these seem rather hard on the Monster and leave the complexities of relations between Frankenstein and his monster unexamined.
What then is to be made of this curious relationship, along with the astonishing number of parallels, echoes, and inversions which surround it. A reading of the novel as an exploration of the Double or Doppelganger theme may well be supported with the observation that Mary Shelley dedicated the novel to her father, the author of Caleb Williams, one of the first novels to examine this notion.
Both Frankenstein and the Monster are very similar: they complement each other, exchange roles, and perform similar acts – whilst all the time seeming to be in violent opposition to each other. Both are intelligent and well educated, and both start out with the impulse to be good – Frankenstein as a dutiful son, and the Monster in his efforts to help the de Lacey family. Yet both end up as murderers, haunted and hunted by each other.
The Monster kills William, Clerval, and Elizabeth. Frankenstein feels himself (with some justification) responsible for these murders: ‘I not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer’. And he is indirectly responsible for four other deaths: Justine is hanged because he keeps silent about his own creation; Adolphe Frankenstein dies broken by ‘the horrors that were accumulated around him’ – all of which are ultimately attributable to his son; the female Monster is destroyed by Frankenstein: ‘I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being’; and ultimately Frankenstein kills himself in his relentless pursuit of the Monster.
Just as Frankenstein curses the Monster almost as soon as he has finished making him, spurning his own creation (his ‘son’) so the Monster ends by cursing him, quite conscious that their respective roles have been reversed: ‘Slave … you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember that I have power … You are my creator, but I am your master – obey!’. There are other similar reversals in their individual destinies. Frankenstein, who sets out to create life, ends by destroying it. And the Monster, who ‘ought to be [Frankenstein’s] Adam … am rather the fallen Angel!’.
The Monster starts out hunting Frankenstein with revenge as his motive, but then it is finally Frankenstein who becomes the hunter, pursuing the Monster with the same motive – with the additional ironic twist that the Monster leaves ‘clues’ to his whereabouts, as if luring Frankenstein to his death. And just as Frankenstein does die as a result of this mad pursuit, the Monster vows that he will go out the same way: ‘I shall collect my funeral pile, and consume to ashes this miserable frame’. Both find rest only in death.
There are many other instances where they repeat, echo, or reflect each other – either directly or in mirror-inversion. Frankenstein is slight, ‘gentle’ with ‘fine and lovely eyes’ but a feeble disposition: the Monster is eight feet tall, powerful, violent, with ‘watery eyes’. Even though the novel is one of the earliest examples, this is in the classic tradition of the Double story.
Frankenstein and his Monster are like contradictory parts of the same person. The Monster is the active, physical side of Frankenstein (the scholar) but also more obviously the ‘evil’ side. He performs acts almost on Frankenstein’s behalf (to carry out his subconscious wishes) daring to do what Frankenstein can not. As Masao Miyoshi has observed ‘The common error of calling the Monster ‘Frankenstein’ has considerable justification. He is the scientist’s divided self.’ (6)
1. Mary Shelley’s own introduction to the novel. Oxford University Press edition (2011) which reprints the 1831 text. All subsequent quotations are from this edition.
2. James Rieger (ed), Frankenstein, New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974, which reprints the 1818 text.
3. Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England, Harvard University Press, 1972.
4. Kiely gives an account of this reading, combining it with the Frankenstein/Shelly as Prometheus reading.
Christopher Small, Ariel Like a Harpy, London: Gollancz, 1972, which also covers exhaustively the biographical readings of the novel.
6. Masao Miyoshi, The Divided Self, New York: New York University Press, 1969.
7. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, London: Hogarth Press, 1962. All subsequent quotations are from this edition.
8. Cited in David Punter, The Literature of Terror, London: Longman, 1980.
© Roy Johnson 2011
Frankenstein – study resources
Frankenstein – Oxford Classics – Amazon UK
Frankenstein – Oxford Classics – Amazon US
Frankenstein – York Notes for students – Amazon UK
Frankenstein – York Notes for students – Amazon US
Frankenstein – Spark Notes for students – Amazon UK
Frankenstein – Spark Notes for students – Amazon US
Frankenstein – Cliffs Notes for students – Amazon UK
Frankenstein – Cliffs Notes for students – Amazon US
Frankenstein – Norton Critical Editions – Amazon US
Frankenstein – 1994 Robert de Niro film – Amazon UK
Frankenstein – 1931 original film with Boris Karloff – Amazon UK
Young Frankenstein – 1974 Mel Brooks spoof – Amazon UK