the romance, the double, the psyche
However, the Frankenstein-Clerval-Monster conjunction immediately suggests yet another step in this interpretation – a reading of the novel based on the classical Freudian trinity of the Ego, the Super-Ego, and the Id as the structure of human consciousness itself. It is certainly not difficult to see that the three characters correspond closely to the three Freudian categories.
Both Clerval and Frankenstein’s father act as representatives of the Super-Ego. Indeed Freud’s view is that the father is the origin of an individual’s Super-Ego. The two characters are present as a reminder to Frankenstein of what is good, proper, and socially desirable. Frankenstein himself represents the Ego – the pursuer of his own wishes and ends, the experimenter who uses reason even whilst feeling guilty about it. Freud defines his concept in just these terms: ‘The ego represents what may be called reason … in contrast to the id, which contains the passions’ (7). The Monster, as Id, certainly contains passions – the often irrational, unconscious urges fuelled by libidinal energy which are essentially amoral, but which it should be noted can be just as easily the source of good impulse as bad ones.
Freud’s basic notion is that these three components of consciousness represent different types of morality which are in potential conflict with each other:
From the point of view of instinctual control, of morality, it may be said of the id that it is totally non-moral, of the ego that it strives to be moral, and of the super-ego that it can be super-moral and then become as cruel as only the id can be.
In this Freudian reading, the novel expresses the tragedy of conflicts within an individual consciousness. Frankenstein is riven by the competing forces of his social conscience (his Super-Ego), his conscious desires (his Ego), and his unconscious wishes (his Id). It will not be difficult (bearing in mind the Double reading) to demonstrate the competition between Frankenstein and the Monster as dramatic representations of the Ego-Id conflict – but first it is necessary to produce a reason, or an origin for the essential divisions which break Frankenstein apart.
The simplest explanation seems to be straightforward Oedipal rivalry coupled with sexual fear and guilt. To begin with, Frankenstein’s father is considerably older than his mother – a man of ‘upright mind’ [my emphasis] ‘who had filled several public situations with honour and reputation. One does not need to labour the point that Adolphe Frankenstein represents throughout the novel a public rectitude and standard of correctness from which his son steadily falls. Moreover, his father repeatedly urges marriage upon him – something which Victor fears. And if the son has sufficient reason to feel rivalry with him for the attention of the younger mother, he has later even further evidence of his father’s sexual potency with the arrival of two younger brothers – Ernest and William.
But his parents wanted a daughter as well, so one is supplied by the adoption of Elizabeth – the sister/cousin figure on whom Frankenstein’s sexual fears and desires are ultimately focussed. She becomes a central source of anxiety for him: he is attracted to her, but takes great pains to avoid and then put off marriage to her – a marriage which his mother wished for on her death bed.
Thus one does not have to go far in search of the origin of Frankenstein’s psychological conflicts, or his mental association of sex and death. The object of his unconscious sexual desire (his mother) is removed before he can transfer it as a conscious desire onto someone else (Elizabeth). Moreover, his mother’s death from scarlet fever was contracted from Elizabeth herself. She has ‘killed’ the object of Frankenstein’s desire – and will ultimately die herself as a result.
Frankenstein therefore has subconscious reasons for every one of the murders which follow – even the most shocking and paradoxical. In William’s case it is sibling rivalry and the fact that the boy is a reminder to Frankenstein of his father’s sexual potency. Both Adolph Frankenstein and Clerval are Super-Ego figures, constant reminders of what is correct social behaviour. It is Elizabeth’s case which is most complex: at one level she represents the threat of sexuality which Frankenstein fears, at another she is an object of forbidden desire (as his sister/cousin), and at a third she is the ‘murderer’ of his mother.
The progress of Frankenstein’s psychological tragedy thus runs as follows. Following the death of his mother by a disease caught from his fiance, Frankenstein leaves home, his father, Clerval, William, and Elizabeth – all of whom are to die. Knowing that neglect of his friends and family is wrong and that his father would disapprove, he ‘creates life’ on his own. It is not difficult to see the Monster as an image of Frankenstein’s secret sexuality: ‘it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs’ – especially when the description of the Monster itself is suggestively close to what might be the implement of Frankenstein’s sexuality, complete with its appurtenances and products:
Beautiful! – Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath: his hair was of lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness.
The Monster is thus simultaneously a phallic image, a representation of Frankenstein’s conscious sexual guilt and fear, and an embodiment of his Id – the unconscious irrational impulses, the amoral libido-fuelled forces which can act either for good (creation) or evil (destruction and death).
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