Reflections on *Frankenstein*: The Conflict of Generations, Multiperspectivism and the Art of Being of the Devil’s Party

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Last class I spoke at length about the identity crisis faced by Frankenstein’s monster: having read Milton’s Paradise Lost (a book rather unlikely to be among the few literary possessions of exiled Frenchmen, but Shelley’s is obviously not too concerned with realism), the monster recognizes the evident similarities between his own coming-into-being and that of Milton’s Adam (in the poem, Adam recounts his own gradual coming to consciousness and his eventual growth into a fully functional, speaking and thinking man); but he also sees that his own situation is more like that of Lucifer/Satan. There are differences here too, of course: Lucifer is made great but he falls because he can’t bear bowing to authority in Heaven (“better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”–or so he makes the best of a bad lot);  Frankenstein’s monster is made lowly, but he strives to better himself and only falls because authority (his “father,” Victor Frankenstein) can’t bear to recognize him as his own and won’t acknowledge his own responsibility to his creation. In other words, the monster’s “fall” into crime and vengeance is not quite equivalent to either Adam’s or to Lucifer’s; it contains elements of both. By making the monster hard to identify exactly with either biblical character, and yet making both identifications explicit (the monster himself sees that he is like Adam and Satan), Mary Shelley touches on a peculiarly human condition, which we’ve already discussed in our reading of Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey”: the fact that humans also face an identity crisis. When we are good we seem to approach the condition of angels, the divine; when we aren’t we are very much like the animals we try to distance ourselves from.

By making the monster play two roles in the creation story, Shelley allows us to ask some deep theological questions in the guise of a more or less safely secular story. For whether the monster is fallen angel or created first man, the structure of both analogies leads us to the inevitable conclusion that the God role must be played by Victor Frankenstein. This is, of course, a role he assumes quite consciously during his phase of scientific enthusiasm. But of course the reader knows, as well as the older, wiser, suffering Victor who tells his own story, that playing this God role is a losing proposition: it is a classic case of hubris and a perfect set-up for a tragic downfall. And the plot abides. I said that Shelley is thus able to treat theological questions in the guise of a secular story, because it could be argued that by questioning Victor’s obligations towards the monster, and even the monster’s view that Victor is his “lord,” Shelley is also implicitly questioning the way religion situates humans relative to God. These questions are made even more complex because we get not only the monster’s own account, but also Victor Frankenstein’s. So not only are the monster’s own interpretations double, but we also get the added perspectives offered by Victor’s own version of the events. Thinking about the monster, we are tugged between sympathy on one hand, and fear and disapproval on the other; thinking about Victor, we deplore his naivety (especially his misreading of the monster’s warning “I will be with you on your wedding-night” [123]) even as we pity him for the price he pays for his pride. Nor should we forget that both the monster’s and Victor’s tales are mediated through Captain Walton (though this is easy to forget while we read), and we should remember Victor’s motives for telling the tale in the first place: as a warning and example for Walton.

Viewing Frankenstein’s relations between characters structurally is an endlessly enriching way to read this novel. I’ve already suggested that it mimics some of the character configurations in Paradise Lost and Genesis, but you could also read the monster’s relationship to Victor as a national/political allegory, where the monster stands for the common folk and Victor for the oppressive king–for example; if we transpose this into the French context (not a huge stretch given the recentness of the French Revolution), I guess that would make Elizabeth a kind of Marie Antoinette? (It may be significant that Burke, whose name came up last lecture, found the image of Marie Antoinette facing the guillotine to be the very height of the sublime.) Anyway, I’m just riffing on a theme now.

Not only does it reveal philosophical, domestic, political and ethical concerns with family relations, social contracts, theology and more, it also makes possible readings that Mary Shelley probably didn’t intend, but which nevertheless inhere in the text. One is the Oedipal love triangle, in which the monster resents his male creator and secretly lusts after Victor’s mate (Elizabeth); in this case, Elizabeth’s murder seems even more pathological because the Freudian model assumes that the male child secretly wants to murder his father and sleep with his mother; in Frankenstein, some people read Elizabeth’s murder as a rape-murder (the text leaves this possibility open), and I suppose if you read the book this way the rape part of the attack is somewhat consistent with the Freudian model. But the murder isn’t really–unless it’s a perverse way to “kill” Victor by killing his one true love; but then it also means that the monster kills his own secret object of desire. I know this is a clumsy analysis, and I include here just as an example of how reading character relations as structures can help see the story in new ways. Another possible reading, this one from a pop-anthropology perspective, would be to see the monster as an incarnation of Victor’s deep biological (animal) self, and the murder of Elizabeth as a means of avoiding incest and inbreeding. Another stretch, but again a potentially mind-opening window onto this rich novel.

To me, a far more intriguing structural reading in this novel is the “homoerotic triangle” structure, which I mentioned in an earlier post: that is, the configuration involving two male and one female characters, and which allows the two males to approach each other in the relative social safely provided by their (real or simulated) attraction to the same woman. An example of this is the homoeroticism between Han Solo and Luke Skywalker; this relation can survive in covert form thanks to their shared attraction to Princess Leia (Luke doesn’t yet know she’s his sister, and anyway this doesn’t really change the structural logic). In Frankenstein, you could argue that such a triangle is formed between Victor, the monster and Elizabeth–and that by killing Elizabeth the monster forces Victor to respond to the erotic tension between himself and his creation. I call this tension erotic, but I don’t exactly mean that Victor and his monster really want to kiss etc but just don’t know how to broach the topic. That’d be an interesting story too, though. I’m not actually reading anything literally sexual into the story, for Eros includes a wide and various range of possibilities. Maybe it’s simpler to say that the conflict between the monster and his creator can productively be re-imagined as an erotic one, whose unspeakable nature (not only because it is male-male, but also because it involves father and son, human and monster, etc) makes it impossible to consummate except through violence and death.

Enjoy the end of the novel.

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