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
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
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
ambitions. At each level of the narration we become more distant from the
everyday world of
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
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
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
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
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
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>
parody of a central scene from
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
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,
or in the wide world at the end, when Adam and Eve carry
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
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:
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)
as a natural and justified resentment of a bungling and uncaring manufacturer.
Quite clearly in Paradise Lost Adam has no right,
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,
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
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
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"
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 , 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),
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.