Peering Through the Chinks:

          The Selflessness of the Narrative Structure in Frankenstein


    Unlike Cusanus, Pope, and Coleridge, Mary Shelley does not explicitly seek

to make opposites coincide in a larger whole, but she does implicitly seek a

coincidence of opposites in Frankenstein when she constructs her narrative

technique of concentric circles.  On the simplest level, the largest circle of

narration, that of a reader of the novel, contains all the smaller circles,

which center on the creature's tale of the family he watches through a tiny

chink.  Our attention as readers becomes increasingly focussed on smaller and

smaller circles until we fall into the danger of egotism as intense as that of

Victor Frankenstein.  But working contrapuntally against that increasing

smallness caused by centripetal force, the narrative structure of Frankenstein

creates an equal and opposite centrifugal force of the expanding circumference

of selflessness, love, and disinterest.

    At the structural center of the novel Frankenstein, the creature who has

been created by Victor Frankenstein hunches in his hovel, which is attached to

"a cottage of a neat and pleasant appearance." <1>  In this hovel whose walls

full of chinks allow the cold winds to penetrate, the creature finds one

"small and almost imperceptible chink through which the eye could just

penetrate" (92) into the adjoining cottage.  Through this chink he observes a

family from whom he learns speaking, reading, and other human behavior.

    The creature's narrative, which tells his own story and that of the De

Lacey family, is enclosed within the narrative which his creator, the

scientist Victor Frankenstein, recites to a sea captain, Robert Walton.  In

turn Walton, who is sailing for the North Pole, tells his story of finding

Frankenstein in letters which he writes to his sister, Mrs. Saville, back in

England.  Thus the story of the De Laceys is contained within the story told by

the creature within the story told by Victor Frankenstein within the story

written by Robert Walton within the story written by Mary Shelley. 

Furthermore, a preface, purportedly by the author of Frankenstein but actually

by Percy Bysshe Shelley, instructs the reader in how to read the book.  Mary

Shelley's own introduction tells us how the story was conceived.  So even if

we do not count the cloth covers or the paper ones surrounding the book, even

if we do not count the Frankenstein films to which the twentieth century has

given birth, we still find no fewer than seven framing chinks to peer through.

    In fact, as we actually read the novel, this structure is much easier to

navigate than its description might suggest.  We probably even forget, while

we read the creature's tale, that it is enclosed within Frankenstein's and

Walton's tales.  The immediacy of tone in each narration invites us to become

the audience of each narrator: first we are readers of the author's preface

and introduction; then we become Walton's sister as she reads her brother's

letters, then we become Walton as he listens to Frankenstein, then we become

Frankenstein as he listens to the creature.  At the same time we may find

ourselves identifying with each narrator in turn.  We may feel ourselves

entering into the consciousnesses of Mary Shelley, Robert Walton, Victor

Frankenstein, and the creature as they tell their stories.  Thus as readers we

may play several roles at once: while we are reading the creature's tale, we

may identify with him.  At the same time we may remember that the creature's

tale is being told through Frankenstein's memory and that at the same time

Frankenstein's tale is being told through Walton's memory.  We can, in fact,

imagine ourselves to be for example, both the creature, while he is telling

his story, and Frankenstein, while he is telling his story, which includes

the creature's telling of his story.  The two opposites, the creature and

Frankenstein, which can be seen to be unified because the latter created the

former and psychologically contains him, are thus embodied in each reader,

who is encouraged to unify the opposites within herself.  Mary Favret points

out that the three main narratives


    present themselves not as successors to one another, but as three versions

    of the same tale, one comenting upon and responding to the other two. . .

    . Frankenstein works not to place significance in any one narrative, but

    to "maintain a presence" [quoting Julia Kristeva] of each within the

    others. . . .  The monster's story does not exclude the story of his

    maker, nor does Walton's tale displace the other two.  Rather, the voices

    intersect, which causes them to create new utterances.  We can picture the

    novel, therefore, as a common plane upon which many stories and many

    languages intersect, regardless of internal contradiction.  <2>


    Beth Newman places Frankenstein's framing techniques in the context of

discussions by Jacques Derrida and Shoshona Felman on the natures of frames. 

She explains that narrative framing points outside the tale even while it

creates borders:


    Contradictory though this may seem, there is really nothing surprising

    about it; we are confronting a fresh instance of framing's double logic,

    the tendency of the frame simultaneously to establish boundaries and to

    announce, even to invite, their violation.   <3>


    Just as Cusanus, Pope, and Coleridge emphasized the two major opposing

forces in the universe--the expanding and contracting or the centrifugal and

centripetal--so Frankenstein encourages us to think in huge circles of

opposing forces.  One force tries to keep the circles firm and true, closed

and selfish; the opposing force tries to break out of the circles, to escape

the claustrophobia.  The centripetal force in this novel, the selfishness of

inescapable circles and self-absorption, is the more obvious one to every

reader.  Less obvious, but just as important, is the centrifugal force, the

outward driving force, the force of selflessness which emerges most strongly

at the very beginning of the novel in the story of the noble fellow, then

again less strongly in the middle with Felix's rescue of Safie's father, and

then again, more feebly still, at the end of the novel in Walton's decision to

obey the will of his men and turn back from his quest.

    There are many possible effects of Mary Shelley's structuring devices. 

For example, we enter gradually into the bizarre and impossible world of the

creature.  Beginning with a conventional epistolary style, the novel places us

safe in England with Mrs. Saville while we gradually learn of Walton's

ambitions.  At each level of the narration we become more distant from the

everyday world of England, both geographically and spiritually.  These levels

of decompression allow us to begin the creature's tale with some familiarity

and expectation, with less likelihood of automatic rejection. 


    The frames . . . mark the exclusion of Mrs. Saville--and the reader as

    well--from the horror of the narratives they contain, and signal an

    immunity from the seductiveness of the voices that first utter them.  At

    the same time, each frame that we pass through as we read makes the matter

    at the center seem more highly charged, more significant, more invested

    with power.  <4> 


    Of course, the levels of narration can be played off against each other. 

In particular we are surprised when the creature speaks with surpassing

eloquence and extreme sensitivity after Frankenstein has painted him a cruel

murderer.  On the other hand, since we have already seen some of

Frankenstein's weaknesses, including his egotism and his self-imposed

isolation, we now find stronger reasons to question Frankenstein's claims to

benevolence when the creature tells us how his creator deserted him.  Mary

Favret infers from the "multiple, competing voices in the structure of

Frankenstein," that "like Frankenstein's monster, the novel itself is a

representation of human life which exceeds the dimensions of any one

individual." <5> 

    An even more complex relation between narratives occurs when we remember

Mary Shelley's description of the creation scene as it first arose in her

imagination.  She seems to assume that Frankenstein would naturally recoil

from his creature:


         I [Mary Shelley] saw the hideous phantasm of a man . . . show signs

         of life. . . . Frightful must it be. . . . His success would terrify

         the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-

         stricken.  He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of

         life which he had communicated would fade.  (9)


Thus it is not so easy, as most readers naturally do, to blame Victor

Frankenstein for his rejection of the creature when Mary Shelley so easily

assumes such a rejection.  Furthermore, Frankenstein has told Walton to beware

of the creature's speaking ability; the creature may deceive Walton and us. 

We must weigh the murders committed by the creature against his claims that he

is another Adam who asks only for humane treatment <6>  

    Finally, because of these kinds of complications among narrative levels we

must make judgments as to the worth and reliability of their claims.  Where

should we place our trust?  As readers of this novel, how do we interpret

narrative technique to help us decide what values, if any, are being urged? 

To put my question in other terms, how does structure imply theme?

    I would like to focus my ideas about structure and theme on two key

episodes in Frankenstein.  One episode, in the center of the novel, is the

most despairing of all; the other, near the beginning, is the most hopeful.

I suggest that this combination of hope and despair, a coincidence of

opposites, structures the entire novel.  In fact, the entire novel and these

two episodes in particular invite us to go out of ourselves and imagine

behavior which seems impossible for us.  They invite us to become wholly

other in a way that anticipates the radical self-annihilation in favor of

another that Blake will explore and insist upon. 

    Joseph Kestner explains that not only the content, but also the structure

of Frankenstein is peculiarly narcissistic.  Following Jean Ricadou, Kestner

explains that the technique of a story within a story, "an enclosed narrative

challenging the primary narrative, becomes structurally a narcissistic text."

<7>  However, competing with that narcissism, I add, opposing it thematically

and structurally, is selflessness.

    Percy Bysshe Shelley's definition of morality in his "Defence of Poetry"

provides a useful explanation of the effect of the novel and particularly of

the two episodes on which I will focus:


    The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and

    an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought,

    action, or person, not our own.  A man, to be greatly good, must imagine

    intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another

    and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his

    own.  The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry

    administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.  Poetry enlarges the

    circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever

    new delight.  <8> 


Although Shelley's image here does not go as far in becoming other as we shall

see Blake's images doing, he does define consciousness and sympathy as a

circumference instead of a center.  His definition still implies the ego

acting from a center, but his centrifugal language, his throwing of the self

out into another and his attention to circumference rather than center, not

only anticipates Blake but also provides a way to understand the concentric

circles of Frankenstein.  Since the novel is constructed of concentric

circles, and since the largest concentric circle by implication is that of the

reader's understanding, we are invited to consider ourselves as expansively

containing Mary Shelley, Walton, Victor Frankenstein, the creature, and the De

Laceys.  We thus can become a circumference of sympathetic understanding

instead of a centered ego separate from others; we can become universal much

like Blake's Albion.

    Percy Shelley's definition of morality, similar to that of Hazlitt in his

Principles of Human Action, goes to the heart of the question of the utility

of literature.  Instead of any kind of narrow didacticism, Percy Shelley's

definition and Mary Shelley's novel give us an enlarging of the imagination,

not only as we imagine something new to us, but as we hold mutually exclusive

ideas in the mind at the same time.  Considered together, the two incidents on

which I will focus bring together in a coincidence of opposites the hope and

the despair that are so powerful in the novel Frankenstein.  At the same time

each episode on its own invites us to become like the characters: able to

identify so fully with another that we lose our own sense of self-


    The first key episode occurs at the structural center of the novel, only a

few pages from the physical center.  In fact if we include the title page and

the dedication page, we find this episode on the 109th page of 218 pages in

the Oxford paperback.  If we attempt to peer through the layers within frames,

to penetrate the circles of narration, the stories within stories, if we

search for the center by mathematical or psychological or thematic means, we

find this scene.  It takes place within the creature's telling of his own life

and that of the De Laceys.  As he observes the family in their cottage, he is

learning a few words, including the contraries "Felix," and "unhappy."  Each

night he benevolently supplies the cottagers with wood.  He hopes that after

he learns to speak, the cottagers will accept him as a friend:


    I easily perceived that, although I eagerly longed to discover myself to

    the cottagers, I ought not to make the attempt until I had first become

    master of their language; which knowledge might enable me to make them

    overlook the deformity of my figure.  (113-14)


    But in the middle of this most hopeful part of the creature's existence,

during the arrival of his first spring, he sees his own reflection in a pool

of water:


         I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers--their grace, beauty,

         and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified, when I viewed

         myself in a transparent pool!  At first I started back, unable to

         believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when

         I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am,

         I was filled with bitterest sensations of despondence and

         mortification. (114)


This moment is the most pessimistic moment in a very pessimistic book.  As

Harold Bloom explains, "All Romantic horrors are diseases of excessive

consciousness, of the self unable to bear the self." <9>  Or, to follow Peter

Brooks, we encounter "the pathos of a monsterism in doomed dialectic with

nature and with culture." <10>  This scene blasts any possibility that nurture

could ever be the salvation of the creature.  Already we have seen him

rejected by his creator, by an innocent child, and by others; now we see him

rejected by himself. <11>  This scene echoes the scene already quoted when

Mary Shelley simply assumes that the creature must be rejected by his creator. 

Like Victor Frankenstein and like the young boy, who both recoiled in horror,

the creature, without any training in society's standards, rejects the

ugliness of the creature himself.  He naturally prefers the beautiful

cottagers.  His existence is irredemably rotten to the core.  Despite his

intelligence, grace, and insight, the creature is doomed not only to

inferiority, but to total rejection, total self-hatred.  He stands rejected

not only by his two creators, Victor Frankenstein and Mary Shelley, neither

one of whom gives him a name, but also by himself.  How then could he ever be

assimilated into any society of humanity? 

    Kestner points out that a reflection "paradoxically presents a surface of

depth": <12> the gazer can believe that he is seeing deeply, but of course he

is seeing only the surface.  Thus the creature falls into the same mistake

that all observers of him fall into: they think that his superficial surface

is really the depth of his being.  As readers of the novel, who never see the

creature, nor hear him, nor feel him, we are able to bypass the superficial

appearance and see the soul of the creature in a way that no character in the

book can.  Peter Brooks borrows Lacanian terms to explain the difference

between the "speculary" mirror-stage and the "symbolic" use of language.  The

"hopelessness of speculary relationship" when people see him is combatted by

the symbols of language, which he learns from watching the De Laceys and which

he hopes will be his means of intercourse with others.  But the speculary wins

out over the symbolic. <13>

    Mary Shelley's parody of a central scene from Milton's Paradise Lost

underlines the poignancy and hopelessness of the creature.  After Eve awakens

from her creation, she catches a glimpse of her reflection in a pond and is so

delighted that she returns for a second look:


         That day I oft remember, when from sleep

         I first awak't, and found myself repos'd

         Under a shade on flow'rs, much wond'ring where

         And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.

         Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound

         Of waters issu'd from a Cave and spread

         Into a liquid Plain, then stood unmov'd

         Pure as th' expanse of Heav'n; I thither went

         With unexperienc't thought, and laid me down

         On the green bank, to look into the clear

         Smooth Lake, that to me seem'd another Sky.

         As I bent down to look, just opposite,

         A Shape within the wat'ry gleam appear'd

         Bending to look on me, I started back,

         It started back, but pleas'd I soon return'd,

         Pleas'd it return'd as soon with answering looks

         Of sympathy and love; there I had fixt

         Mine eyes till now, and pin'd with vain desire,

         Had not a voice . . . warn'd me . . .   (IV.449-68)


This narcissistic display of vanity foreshadows Eve's later susceptibility to

Satan's temptations.  She seems congenitally incapable of standing firm.  But

beyond this obvious susceptibility lies a Miltonic sense of self-respect. 

Eve's beauty, although it may lead to dangerous narcissism, is primarily

evidence of God's goodness.  Any temptation that the human condition is prey

to, whether from physical beauty or from free will, must be withstood,

according to Milton.  Responsibility remains, no matter what, whether in Eden,

or in the wide world at the end, when Adam and Eve carry "Paradise within." 

Eve's self-love can be either a foundation of self-respect or a temptation to

egotistical narcissicism.  Similarly, Adam's adoration of Eve can be either

self-destructive uxoriousness or generous unity; indeed, when Adam makes the

noble decision to fall with Eve, his action can be interpreted in either way,

just as the fall itself can be seen as fortunate when viewed as a felix culpa. 

    No matter how a reader may interpret events in Paradise Lost, one thing is

certain: existence itself, creation of humanity is a blessing, never to be

rejected.  During Adam's most desperate attempt to defend his sin, he demands

of God:


         Did I request thee, Make, from my clay

         To mould Me man?  Did I solicit thee

         From darkness to promote me?--  (X.743-745)


This defensive blame of God is not allowed to stand within the context of the

whole poem.  Adam even begins to refute himself a few lines further on:



                           ... inexplicable

         Thy Justice seems; yet to say truth, too late

         I thus contest; then should have been refus'd

         Those terms whatever, when they were propos'd:

         Thou didst accept them; wilt thou enjoy the good,

         Then cavil the conditions?   (754-759)


Milton's justification of the ways of God to man is rewritten by Mary Shelley

as a natural and justified resentment of a bungling and uncaring manufacturer.

Quite clearly in Paradise Lost Adam has no right, according to Milton, to

question God, to question God's creation, to prefer non-existence.  Just as

clearly in the novel Frankenstein, the creature has every right to question

his creator.  The creature has been naturally rejected by his creator, by all

other humans he meets, and even by himself; the creature naturally and justly

rejects his creator, all other humans, and even himself.  Not only the

creature's ugliness, not only his self-respect, but even his very existence

and the very existence of humanity are called into question.  The bleak vision

could hardly be more nihilistic.  The constructive, persistent tone of

Paradise Lost has been reversed in the mirror of Frankenstein's destructive,

dismal resignation.

    The tale of the central story of the De Laceys, the one in which this

pessimistic mirror scene is enveloped, ends when they also reject the

creature.  And this rejection takes the pessimism to yet a deeper level.  Many

readers misinterpret the scene of Father De Lacey's rejection of the creature. 

Most seem to think that De Lacey accepts the creature until his sighted family

returns and chases away the hideous looking monster. But a closer reading

reveals that the old man has already rejected the creature before the family

sees him, because of the very nature of the desperate creature.  Hoping that

he can escape the horrors inevitable when anyone sees him, the creature talks

to old blind Father De Lacey, who assures him that, as he hopes, "the hearts

of men, when unprejudiced by any obvious self-interest, are full of brotherly

love and charity" (134).  The creature responds with, "where they ought to see

a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster" (134).

    The creature's eloquence has apparently won over the old man, but when the

old man's kindness encourages the creature to tell his story and even asks who

the creature's potential friends are, the creature panics:


    I paused. This, I thought, was the moment of decision, which was to rob me

    of, or bestow happiness on me for ever.  I struggled vainly for firmness

    sufficient to answer him, but the effort destroyed all my remaining

    strength; I sank on the chair, and sobbed aloud.  (135)


Thus, even before the rest of the De Lacey family arrives, the creature has

already given up.  Defining his situation as all or nothing, he makes it into

a worse crisis than it might otherwise be.  Investing all his energy, all his

hopes for the future, in this one event, he can not act.  This freezing of his

will is an even more excruciating turn of events than his self-rejection in

the mirror of the water.  For now, even when no one is looking at him, he can

not forget himself enough to cointinue his eloquent plea to Father De Lacey. 

And Father De Lacey's sensitive hearing probably begins to fear the loud


    In his desperate condition, the creature hears the family approach and

panics even further, losing the kindness of the old man by his violence:


         At that moment I heard the steps of my younger protectors.  I had

         not a moment to lose; but, seizing the hand of the old man I cried,

         "Now is the time!-- save and protect me!  You and your family are

         the friends whom I seek.  Do not you desert me in the hour of


              "Great God!" exclaimed the old man, "who are you?"  (135)


The old man, feeling the strength of the creature's grip and hearing the

desperation of his voice, recoils before Felix rushes in and drives the

creature away.  The old man's sense of hearing and his sense of touch have

been assaulted just as terrifyingly as has the sense of sight of other

characters.  Even if the family did not arrive at this time in the action, the

old man would probably reject the fierceness of the creature.

    Among the readers who remember this incident more benignly--thinking that

Felix sees the horrible creature and chases him away just as the blind father

seems about to accept him as a friend--is Anne Mellor:


    Whether the blind Father De Lacey reads the Creature's innate character

    correctly, we as readers can never know, because he is ripped out of the

    novel by his prejudging son.  <14> 


Similary Mary Poovey blames the rejection on Felix and Safie:


    Although the monster tries to disguise its true nature by confronting only

    the blind old father, De Lacey's children return and recognize the

    creature's 'ineffaceable' monstrosity for what it literally is. <15> 


On the contrary, the blind father rejects the creature well before Felix

arrives because the creature terrifies him with the strength of his grip and

the desperation of his sobbing.  Sighted people who meet the creature do not

need to ask "Who are you?" because they can clearly see and reject.  The blind

man needs to ask because he can not give a name to the horror inspired by the

grip and the voice.  Deeper, then, than the rejections by creator, society,

and self based on physical appearance, is this rejection based on a

fundamental disposition.  The creature is unable to associate with humans

because his own self-image, like his reflection, is so damaged, so incapable

of constructive use, so irredeemably isolated that he must panic at every

possibility of human intercourse.  He will be unable even to associate with

the benevolent blind because of his self-hatred.

     On the next day the cottagers move out, and the creature in his desperate

anger burns the cottage and the hovel.  In the words of Richard J. Dunn,


         At the very heart of Frankenstein, in the tale told by the one

         narrator who attempts to reach inward and connect himself intimately

         with the story he tells, we have the motivating repulsion that

         produces the book's most terrifying events.   <16>


Dunn is emphasizing the rejection by the De Laceys, but I find the creature's

rejection of his own reflection even more terrifying because it contains,

implies, and objectifies his rejection by the old man.  Although Felix may

recoil from the creature's appearance, Father De Lacey has already rejected

the handgrip and the tone of voice.  Knowing he is so ugly makes the creature

incapable of human intercourse. 

    Together all the rejections in the novel create a fundamental pessimism

that seems to be an absolute rejection on Shelley's part of the idealisms of

her father and her husband.  Contrary to the theories of William Godwin,

education and knowledge do not lead to happiness.  Contrary to the Prometheus

Unbound of Percy Bysshe Shelley, good will can not break the cycle of


    However, the second scene I would like to focus on works in the opposite

direction as a simultaneous contrary.  Combined with the central pessimistic

scene, it works powerfully as an opposite.  This scene takes place near the

beginning of the novel.  In Walton's second letter to his sister he tells her

the story of an Englishman, who is the master of the ship. 


    Some years ago, he loved a young Russian lady, of moderate fortune; and

    having amassed a considerable sum in prize-money, the father of the girl

    consented to the match.  He saw his mistress once before the destined

    ceremony; but she was bathed in tears, and, throwing herself at his feet,

    entreated him to spare her, confessing at the same time that she loved

    another, but that he was poor, and that her father would never consent to

    the union.  My generous friend reassured the suppliant, and, on being

    informed of the name of her lover, instantly abandoned his pursuit. He had

    already bought a farm with his money, on which he had designed to pass the

    remainder of life; but he bestowed the whole on his rival, together with

    the remains of his prize-money to purchase stock, and then himself

    solicited the young woman's father to consent to her marriage.  But     

    the old man decidedly refused, thinking himself bound in honour to my

    friend; who, when he found the father inexorable, quitted his country, nor

    returned until he heard that his former mistress was married according to

    her inclinations. "What a noble fellow!" you will exlaim.  (20-21)  <17>


    This episode is just as structurally important as the central story within

a story which tells of the creature's rejection of his own reflection because

it is the first story about someone else in Walton's letters.  Thus it is the

first story within a story; as such it anticipates the structural device of

stories within stories that shapes the entire novel.  It is a contrary

counterpart to the central structural episode.  Whereas the central story of

the mirror image in the water reveals nihilistic self-rejection, the first

story-within-a-story, by contrast, reveals generous self-abnegation.

Thematically the tale of the noble fellow contradicts the selfishness of

Frankenstein and the despair of the creature by placing positive value in the

negation of the self before we even know the rest of the story.  In fact,

since the story occurs so early in the novel, before we have encountered the

horrors to come, we might even begin to think that this selflessness, this

disinterest will serve as the theme of the novel. 

    Walton has already told us that one of his goals is the betterment of



         you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on

         all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near

         the pole to those countries, to reach which at present so many

         months are requisite; or by ascertaining the secret of the magnet,

         which, if at all possible, can only be effected by an undertaking

         such as mine.  (16)


Although he also admits or implies many selfish motives, especially desire for

glory, his whole project seems based on a willingness to risk his very

existence for some greater good outside himself.  Thus Walton's character sets

up for us in his own generous noble action and in his tale of the noble fellow

a theme of self-sacrifice.

    Paul Cantor and Michael Moses, in their overview of the novel, conclude



    The Creature . . . ends up speaking for the value of domestic life in

    opposition to Frankenstein, who, in his heroic quest as a creator, rejects

    the ties that would bind him to a conventional family.  The Creature longs

    for precisely the warmth of hearth and home that its creator fails to

    appreciate.  <18> 


From this point of view, one might say that so powerful is the desire for

domesticity on the part of the noble fellow that, rather than let domestic

bliss fade away when he can not achieve it, he creates it for others: the one

he loves and one whom he does not know.

    The two scenes that I have focused on here, one the very center of the

stories within stories and the other the first of the stories within stories,

provide precisely opposite views of human nature, and the book as a whole sets

before us one of the fundamental questions of theology and of Romanticism: is

man good or bad?  Of course in theology, that question often takes the form of

theodicy: if a perfectly good God created us, then why do we lead such a

painful existence?  In Romanticism, as in Frankenstein, the form of the

question often is: if we feel within ourselves such potential for perfection,

then why do we fall short?  Percy Bysshe Shelley, and even more so William

Blake, tell us that we can fully succeed in our idealistic visions; Pope and

Coleridge tell us that we can not.  Where does Mary Shelley appear to stand in


     The creature's rejection of his own image, especially when considered in

juxtaposition with the defiant epigraph from Paradise Lost, implies that human

existence starts horribly flawed and has no chance of redemption.  On the

other hand the tale of the noble fellow implies that selfless actions can

redeem human existence; disinterest can create a larger world of morality,

expanding the circumference of the imagination.

    This largest opposition, as focused in the two scenes I have chosen, is

also built up from many smaller examples.  Juxtapositions of opposites occur

throughout the novel.  According to Peter Brooks, the monster's eloquence

gives testimony to his mastery of oppositions expressed in language:


    the Monster is eloquent.  From his first words, he shows himself to be a

    supreme rhetorician of his own situation, one who controls the antitheses

    and oxymorons that express the pathos of his existence.  <19> 


Oppositions have structured the creature's existence from the very beginning

of his self-education.  Among his earliest experiences, he encounters one of

the most elementary and important oppositions when he discovers fire:


    I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was

    overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it.  In my joy I

    thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a

    cry of pain.  How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce

    such opposite effects!  (104)


As so often, the creature reacts with a surprising sophistication.  Primitive

minds actually accept the coincidence of opposites quite easily.  The

creature, however, supposes a kind of logic typical of an Aristotelian

philosopher: effects should retain the qualities of their causes.  Therefore

the same cause can can not create unlike, let alone opposite, results. 

Similarly, the creature interprets his first book, Volney's Ruin of Empires,

which Felix reads out loud, as a lesson in opposites:


    These wonderful narrations inspired me with strange feelings.  Was man,

    indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious

    and base?  He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and

    at another, as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike.  (119)


Thus in his earliest lessons, the creature learns the inextricability of

oppositions in fire and in people. 

    In fact, even the most negative central episodes of the novel, the

rejection of the creature by himself and by the De Laceys, contain their

contrary positive values.  The entire story of the De Laceys originates in an

act of disinterested virtue when Felix springs to the defense of a Turk who

is a victim of prejudice:


         A Turkish merchant . . . was tried, and condemned to death.  The

         injustice of his sentence was very flagrant; all Paris was

         indignant; and it was judged that his religion and wealth, rather

         than the crime alleged against him, had been the cause of his


            Felix had accidentally been present at the trial; his horror and

         indignation were uncontrollable, when he heard the decision of the

         court.  He made, at that moment, a solemn vow to deliver him, and

         then looked around for the means.  (122) 


Felix has no motive other than a search for justice.  Although the Turk turns

out to be a villain, Felix does fall in love with the Turk's daughter Safie,

who joins the De Lacey family while the creature is watching them and learning

from his observations.  Thus the main lesson in human behavior that the

creature learns from the De Laceys is the beauty and even the reward of

disinterested benevolence.  As readers, we have been prepared for

disinterested benevolence by the tale of the noble fellow almost at the

beginning of the novel.  The creature does not know that story, but he sees

the benevolence of the cottagers toward each other.  Just as in the tale of

the noble fellow, disinterested action for the benefit of others leads to that

happiest of endings, the ever-after marriage of two lovers.  Furthermore, even

though the De Laceys are poor, their virtues shine through, and the arrival of

Safie brings them happiness.  Safie, wisdom, joins with Felix, happiness. 

When they leave the story, we can easily believe that their happiness will

continue.  They escape the claustrophobic enveloping structures of the novel,

in a way analogous to the way the female babe escapes from Blake's "The Mental

Traveller" (discussed in a later chapter).  This claustrophobia never really

threatens the reader, who may briefly identify with troubled characters'

plights; but the escape of the De Laceys may help the reader to perceive her

privileged outer position and to learn from it.      

    Mary Favret, in her analysis of Frankenstein and Jane Austen's Persuasion,

sugests that "the desire to make sense of communication and community propels

both works."  But while in Persuasion we find


    a moment of hope that communion will be realized in the novel, in

    Frankenstein that fragile moment is crushed.  Instead the novel reaches

    outside of itself for coherence--to us, its audience and to the "World." 



Thus, we as readers, not being trapped in the novel, have the ability to

contain the novel and to learn lessons that the characters can not learn.

    Even the creature's rejection of his reflection, the most gloomy scene in

the novel, is immediately contrasted by its opposite, happy contrary. 

Immediately after the creature tells of seeing his horrible reflection in the

pool, he tells that his generous stockpiling of wood leads the cottagers to

call him "good spirit, wonderful" (115).  He has been spontaneously acting

with disinterested benevolence.  In the novel as a whole the selflessness of

the noble fellow, of Felix, and sometimes even of the creature himself

contrasts with the despairing destructiveness that results from the

egotistical actions of Frankenstein, which in some ways are similar to the

egotistical searchings of the primary narrator, Walton.

    The most destructive force in the novel could certainly be defined as

greedy egotism.  Both Walton and Frankenstein turn away from their families in

order to pursue their obsessive goals; the destructiveness of the creature can

be seen as an effect caused by those egotistical obsessions.  Robert Kiely

explains the creature's most heinous murder, that of Victor's bride Elizabeth,

in terms of egotism:


         The enemy is an egotism which, when carried to the extreme,

         annihilates all life around it and finally destroys itself. . . .

         While the main theme of the novel is the monstrous consequences of

         egotism, the counter-theme is the virtue of friendship.  <21> 


From my perspective, an even stronger counter-theme, one of self-abandoning

distinterest, works to produce a coincidence of opposites in the novel. 

Although Kiely's main counter-theme is certainly the most obvious one, noticed

by many commentators, I think that an even stronger counter-theme, placed

first among the stories-within-stories and then again at the center of the

stories-within-stories, provides a selfless force, equal and opposite to the

force of egotism.  Even the last event in the novel, Walton's decision to turn

back, is based on sacrificing egotistical desires for the happiness of others. 

He is not disinterested and generous, as are the noble fellow and Felix, but

he does make a decision opposite to the theme of egotism.  He turns back, even

though he does not wish to.  We encounter then in three key structural

episodes--at beginning, middle, and end--powerful rejections of the self,

whether in self-abnegation, self-hatred, or self-denial. 

    Many critics have seen in Frankenstein a kind of indeterminacy and have

placed Mary Shelley in contexts which shed light on the question as I have

defined it.  L.J. Swingle uses an epistemological approach to praise

Frankenstein as a tragedy:


         By means of multiple first-person narration, the balancing of

         unresolved conflicting claims to truth and justice, and ambiguous

         primary evidence, Mary Shelley prevents the reader from knowing the

         monster.  By so doing, I believe, she heightens her novel's

         significance, transforming it from a fairly simple moral tract into

         something approaching tragedy.  <22>  


Charles Schug, acknowledging his debts not only to the ideas of Swingle, but

also to those of Richard Dunn, Karl Kroeber, and Robert Langbaum, emphasizes

reader participation and an on-going moral experience which is similar to that

of Romantic poetry:


         because of the manner in which the novel is constructed, the real

         moral problem of Frankenstein is an experiential problem: it cannot

         be comprehended or even approached outside its embodiment in

         Frankenstein's, the monster's, and Walton's experiences; it cannot be

         apprehended outside the reader's direct experience of it. <23> 


Both of these opinions are compatible with mine.  However, I think that the

structural accomplishment of Frankenstein can be stated more fundamentally

with a little help from Carl Jung and even more help from Percy Bysshe


    The creature in Mary Shelley's novel has no name.  He has no friend. 

Despite his best intentions he becomes a serial murderer.  These

characteristics, and many others, anticipate the shadow as explained by Carl

Jung.  Frankenstein, in his refusal to acknowledge his monster, his shadow,

looks forward to the error of twentieth-century man, as defined by Jung:


    We [modern man] . . . have repudiated it [the shadow, "the night-side of

    life," "the nocturnal world"] . . . because we strive to construct a

    conscious world that is safe and manageable . . . Yet, even in our midst,

    the poet now and then catches sight of the figures that people the night-

    world--the spirits, demons and gods.  <24>


The creature repeats his creator's error when he can not face his own

reflection.  That is, just as Frankenstein must naturally recoil in horror

when he sees his dark creation, so the creature naturally recoils in horror 

when he sees himself.  So the old De Lacey naturally rejects the violently

desperate handgrip and voice of the creature.  So Mary Shelley naturally

assumes that Frankenstein must naturally reject his creature.  It is natural

for us not to want to see our dark, monstrous shadows.  Our egotism, which

wants certainty and self-esteem, will naturally not allow us to do so.  What

comes naturally blocks the very actions carried out and thereby implicitly

recommended by the disinterested characters.  The first law of nature is self-


    However, as one of Jung's students puts it, when the individual finds

herself in a spiritual crisis,


         There is only one thing that seems to work; and that is to turn

         directly toward the approaching darkness without prejudice and

         totally naively, and to try to find out what its secret aim is and

         what it wants from you.  <25>


Victor Frankenstein of courses refuses to do what his dark side demands: to

love or at least to acknowledge him.  He even finds excuses not to make a

female companion for the creature. 

    The novel's theme and structure invite us to confront the creature as we

read the book and to compare ourselves to the main characters as they make

decisions or helplessly fulfill their fates:


         It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life

         and the lives of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how

         much the whole tragedy originates in himself, and how he continually

         feeds it and keeps it going. . . . it is quite within the bounds of

         possibility for a man to recognize the relative evil of his nature,

         but it is a rare and shattering experience for him to gaze into the

         face of absolute evil.  <26> 


    The novel shows us how nearly impossible gazing into evil can be.  Many a

theodicy, like the one of Alexander Pope, explains away the existence of evil. 

Frankenstein shows us characters who turn away from the horrible vision, but

the structure of the novel insists that we look directly into the depths, that

we forget our safety and egotism as readers.  We can easily see how

Frankenstein bungles his life and how the creature lives out that bungling,

but can we see how this novel reveals to us our own bungling, our own egotism,

our own inability to face our shadows?  Can we look into the reflecting

surface that will reveal our monstrous, dark shadow to us?  The De Laceys

escape from the center of the novel, and we escape through the layers of

narration.  Like Mrs. Saville at home in England, we are safe: we read about

the creature instead of seeing, hearing, and feeling him with our senses.  We

are led through the consciousnesses of the different narrators to the heart of

darkness and then allowed to ascend unharmed.  We can turn our eyes away from

the book at any time.  But if we have not faced the monster, then we have

failed to learn what the structure and theme of this novel can teach us.  We

have missed the experience they offer.

    All theories of human behavior fail before experience, and all attempts

to avoid experience lack wisdom and depth.  In Percy Bysshe Shelley's

dialogue poem, "Julian and Maddalo," the two title characters, thinly

disguised versions of Shelley and Byron, debate the cause of insanity and

misery.  Shelley of course takes the idealist's position, Byron the realist's. 

They visit a maniac, whom each wants to claim as proof of his theory.  But

after the visit,


         . . . our argument was quite forgot,

         . . .

         And we agreed his was some dreadful ill

         . . .

         And I remember one remark which then

         Maddalo made.  He said: "Most wretched men

         Are cradled into poetry by wrong,

         They learn in suffering what they teach in song.  <27>


The power of Romantic poetry, including Frankenstein, is to teach in song

that which philosophy, theory, the world of light can never teach.  The

closest that abstract definitions can come is to call the lesson the giving up

of the self.  The noble ship's master gives up his egotistical desires, and we

in the "real world" find his behavior baffling, stupid, ridiculous.  We look

the other way.  He is not natural.  Victor Frankenstein acts out his

unconscious desires and destroys all he loves.  We look the other way.  He is

not natural.  The creature recoils from his own image.  We look the other way. 

He is not natural.  But the novel Frankenstein invites us to look at these

actions, in the characters and in ourselves.

    Percy Bysshe Shelley's preface to Frankenstein, written in the author's

voice, insists,


    I am by no means indifferent to the manner in which whatever moral

    tendencies exist in the sentiments or characters it contains shall affect

    the reader; yet my chief concern in this respect has been limited to the

    avoiding the enervating effects of the novels of the present day, and to

    the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the

    excellence of universal virtue.  (13-14)


Interestingly, Richard Dunn, while writing an excellent article that I have

already cited, bases many of his ideas on a misreading of this statement.  He

misconstrues the syntax so that the two final phrases (starting "to the

exhibition") fall into the category of those things which the author is

avoiding; <28> clearly, however, Percy Shelley is claiming that Frankenstein

does exhibit domestic affection and the excellence of universal virtue.  He

could be wrong about his wife's novel, of course.  At the MLA Convention of

1986 and in subsequent publications, <29>  Anne Mellor weighed his heavy hand

in many passages.  I think in this case Percy Shelley is right, and my

approach is based on honoring the intention he claims in order to find a

substantial and inclusive interpretation of Frankenstein.  

    Mary Shelley shares with her characters Walton and Frankenstein the

ambition to surpass the everyday world:


         my favourite pastime . . . was to 'write stories.'  Still I had a

         dearer pleasure than this, which was the formation of castles in the

         air--the indulging in waking dreams--the following up trains of

         thought, which had for their subject the formation of a succession of

         imaginary incidents. (5)


Insofar as we enter into this novel, we are also preferring imagination over

the limits of the so-called real world.  In the real world, the shadow is not

confronted; it may not even exist.  Only the imagination--with the tool of the

coincidentia oppositorum--can find the courage and the techniques that allow

such confrontation.  We enter the world of imagination, we confront our

shadows, at great cost, but we thereby take the chance that we might discover

the place within ourselves where opposites coincide, where egotism and

selflessness, hope and despair come together.  The triumph of Romanticism is

to take that chance.  The triumph of Frankenstein is to construct a narrative

technique which invites us to plunge in.

    Anne Mellor interprets the novel as revealing Mary Shelley's preference

for love over egotism, as she distinguishes between the sublime and the



    Because the mind is more likely to respond to the sublime or the unknown

    with fear and hostility than with love and acceptance, the unfettered

    imagination celebrated by the Romantic poets is more likely to construct

    evil than good.  Mary Shelley believed, I argue, that the Romantic

    imagaination must be consciously controlled by love, specifically a love

    that sees all the products of nature--the old, the sick, the handicapped,

    the freaks--as sacred life-forms to be nurtured with care and compassion.

    . . . As Burke wrote, the sublime appeals to the instinct of self-

    preservation and rouses feelings of terror that result in a desire for

    power, domination, and continuing control.  But the beautiful appeals to

    the instinct of self-procreation and rouses sensations of erotic and

    affectional love.  <30>


In a similar reading, Betty T. Bennett sees Frankenstein as answering Alastor,

and then Prometheus Unbound as answering Frankenstein in variations on the

theme of "the necessity for a value system based on universal, selfless love"

<31> .

    I agree with those interpretations insofar as they try to penetrate Mary

Shelley's desires and motives.  However, what Shelley actually gives us in the

novel is an excruciating tension between those two forces, rather than a clear

preference for one or the other.  As does her husband in The Triumph of Life,

she may be suppressing her own hopes in a presentation of opposites that

should but do not coincide.

    She tries to find a coincidence of opposites by enclosing the egotistic

Victor Frankenstein within the cirmference formed by the selflessness of the

noble fellow at the beginning and Walton's turning back at the end.  In terms

of concentric circles, those two denials of the self form the outer circle.  

She furthermore encloses Victor Frankenstein's egotism by placing the story of

the De Laceys at the center of the novel.  As the central, inner circle, the

beneficent De Laceys, with their story of distinerested benevolence, contain

the egotism between themselves and the outer circle.  Thus both center and

circumference of the novel Frankenstein unite in their containing of the

selfish ego that so dominates the rest of the novel.

    Mary Shelley therefore can be placed in between the conservatism that we

find in Cusanus and Pope and the radicalism that we find in Percy Shelley and

Blake.  While denying, as do Cusanus and Pope, that man can achieve the ideal

realm, she nevertheless seems unable to rest content with the realm of

reality.  If we apply the rubric "All Nature is but Art" to Frankenstein, we

might conclude that the creature can never be natural in any common sense of

the word.  All other human beings can assume some kind of natural, even God-

given existence, but the creature, whose creator categorically rejects him,

must try to create his own existence.  He can not do so, not in the novel, not

in any conceivable set of circumstances.  <32>

    When the creature finds that his "natural" being has actually been created

by a psychological monster, in a twist on the Popean optimism of "All Nature

is But Art," the hidden truth of the artist turns out to be a nightmare

instead of a blessing, as in Pope and Blake.  Here the "nature" of the

creature, which includes his horrible, unbearable appearance, turns out to be

the creation of a kind of debased parody of God who never has had the best

interests of his creature in mind.  Although by "nature" the creature is

benevolent and becomes impressively articulate, also by "nature" on a more

fundamental level he is completely unacceptable to society and even to his

creator, and even to his own self. 

    But the acts of selflessness in the novel, especially that of the noble

fellow, sacrifice the happiness of the selfish ego and create another kind of

exsitence, not at all confined to the limits of the natural. They therefore

lean towards the acts of self-sacrifice that we shall see in Percy Shelley and

ultimately in Blake's "Self-Annihilation."




Notes for Chapter 4: Peering in Frankenstein


1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. M. K. Joseph (NY: Oxford UP, 1969), p. 91. 

All quotations of Frankenstein are from this edition.


2.  Mary Favret, Romantic Correspondence (Cambridge UP, 1993), pp. 182, 186,



3. Beth Newman, "The Frame Structure of Frankenstein," E.L.H., 53 (1986), p.



4. Newman, p. 159.


5. Newman, p. 178.


6. L. J. Swingle, "Frankenstein's Monster and Its Romantic Relatives," Texas

Studies in Literature and Language, 14 (1973), p. 52.


7. Joseph Kestner, "Narcissism as Symptom and Structure," in The Nature of

Identity (Univ. of Tulsa, 1981), p. 17.


8.  Shelley's Poetry and Prose (Norton, 1977), pp. 487-88.


9.  Harold Bloom, "Introduction," in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, ed. Harold

Bloom (Chelsea House,    ), p. 9. 


10.  Peter Brooks, "Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts," in Levine and

Knoepflmacher, The Endurance of Frankenstein (Berkeley: Univ. of California

Press, 1979), p. 205.


11.  Although not directly on the subject of the reflection in the water, Alan

Richardson's comments on the education of the creature emphasize his

"irreducible difference" from humanity.  The viewing in the pool clarifies

that difference in the mind of the creature.  Comparing the education of the

creature to that of women in Mary Shelley's day, Richardson, quoting Rousseau,

points out that a young woman was trained to restrain her unlimited desires in

"a perpetual combat against herself."   The creature's natural sympathies are

now turned against himself as he realizes that no matter how hard he tries, he

can never join the human race.  Like the women of the early nineteenth

century, according to Richardson, the creature must learn his inferiority and

deformity as he internalizes social values.  ("From Emile to Frankenstein,"

European Romantic Review, 1 [1991], pp. 157, 151.)


12. Kestner, p. 18.


13. Brooks, pp. 207-08.


14. Anne Mellor, "Frankenstein and the Sublime," in Behrendt Approaches, p.



15. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago: Univ. of

Chicago Press, 1984), p. 129.


16. Richard J. Dunn, "Narrative Distance in Frankenstein," Studies in the

Novel (North Texas State University), 6 (1974), p. 414.


17. This story of the noble fellow is very seldom mentioned in Frankenstein

criticism.  For example, it never appears in Stephen Behrendt's recent

compilation of essays by several hands, Approaches to Teaching Shelley's

Frankenstein.  Beth Newman, in her analysis of framing effects, does use the

story of the noble fellow to emphasize the contrast between the promise kept

by the noble fellow and all the broken promises in the novel, including the

one at the center by the Turk who refuses his daughter Safie in marriage to

Felix (Newman, p. 155).


18. Paul A. Cantor, and Michael Valdez Moses, "Teaching Frankenstein from the

Creature's Perspective," in Behrendt, Approaches, p. 131.


19. Brooks, p. 206.


20. Favret, p. 178. 


21. Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972),

p. 166.


22. L. J. Swingle, "Frankenstein's Monster and Its Romantic Relatives,"  Texas

Studies in Literature and Language, 14 (1973), p. 55.


23. Charles Schug, "The Romantic Form of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," Studies

in English Literature, 17 (1977), pp. 612-13.


24. Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, trans. W.S. Dell and Cary F.

Baynes (NY: Harcourt, 1933), p. 163.


25. Franz 170)


26. Carl Jung Aion (1959; rpt. Princeton UP, 1979), p. 10.


27. Lines 520-46, Shelley's Poetry and Prose, p. 125.


28. Dunn, page????


29. Including her "Frankenstein and the Sublime," in Behrendt Approaches, pp. 



30. Mellor, "Frankenstein," p. 104.


31. Bennett, p. 76.


32.  The ending of the film Young Frankenstein does fulfill the creature's

desire for a normal home, but the urbane, bifocal-wearing, Wall Street Journal-

reading, Peter Boyle on soft pillows under his snug comforter blasts the happy ending

with the absurdity of his pose.