Frankenstein: A Tale of Humanity, the Monster, the Other, and the Mirror by Angélique Babineau

Frankenstein: A Tale of Humanity, the Monster, the Other, and the Mirror by Angélique Babineau

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an intricate and nuanced tale exploring various complex themes. As the story unfolds, the text comments on the meaning of monstrosity, of humanity, and of monster-making. Frankenstein, as registered in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s work “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” affirms that monsters are a product of culture. Monsters are not about differences; they are mirrors. They reflect our worst fears and desires and, whether we are ready to accept it or not, we are monster-makers creating extensions of ourselves, as the Creature is of Victor.

Monsters are born through the eyes of the beholder as a product of cultural tensions and projection of the self. The first thesis in Jeffrey Jeremy Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” is that “the monster’s body is a cultural body” (Cohen 4). The monster is an engine for an allegory; it “incorporates fear, desire, anxiety and fantasy” (4). Mary Shelley, in her novel Frankenstein, presents us with Victor Frankenstein, a protagonist who, on the one hand, exerts a kind of monster-making  by angelizing the women who surround him and, on the other hand, projects his intentions, fears, and appetites on the being he creates. These creations support Cohen’s first thesis. For instance, Shelley parodies patriarchal Enlightenment views when she describes Elizabeth through Victor’s eyes: “The saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home. Her sympathy was ours; her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her celestial eyes, were ever there to bless and animate us. She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract” (Shelley 45). In this short passage, Frankenstein angelizes Elizabeth, using vocabulary related to the holy such as “saintly soul,” “shrine,” “celestial,” “to bless,” and “living spirit of love” (45). She is compared to an inanimate object, a lamp, “dedicated” to ensure the happiness and well-being of her entourage. She is given no depth as a character and her attributes are either physical (“her smile” and “her celestial eyes”) or clichéd feminine qualities (“sympathy,” “soft voice,” or “the sweet glance of her celestial eyes”). This not only objectifies Elizabeth, but ultimately deprives her of an individuality outside of Victor’s mind, which is, in itself, a form of monster-making and a means of othering. By crafting, in his mind and for the readers, a perfect and flawless version of Elizabeth, Victor robs her of her humanity. She is trapped in a box that he designed for her, an experience many women had to live through to fulfill the male gaze—and still do. This frequent monster-making of women is denounced throughout Shelley’s text. Furthermore, this critique of patriarchal Enlightenment ideas is emphasized in the animation scene.

When the Creature is brought to life, Frankenstein escapes and goes into his room, horrified by what he achieved. He falls asleep, avoiding his responsibilities, and wakes up to the Creature besides his bed: “He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs” (60). Victor interprets the Creature’s gesture as an aggressive one. Yet the Creature makes no real attempt to harm Victor. The Creature’s hand being stretched out is most probably a way for him to ask for help, like a baby whose first reflex is to reach out for his mother. Victor is disgusted by this vulnerability, relating to patriarchal thinking in which men are forbidden to display feminine-perceived behaviours, such as sadness and compassion. Frankenstein projects his interpretations upon the Creature’s actions as he does with Elizabeth’s. In different, but resemblant ways, he creates this binary vision of them both. Elizabeth is the epitome of goodness, while the Creature is the embodiment of evil. The novel highlights a crucial element of society, as captured in Cohen’s first thesis. The monster, whether it takes the traditional folkloric form or is simply crafted by one’s eyes and projected onto another being, is a product of culture and, by extension, a continuation of ourselves.

The Creature in Shelley’s Frankenstein is the physical embodiment of Victor’s thirst for power and illusions of grandeur, that he both fears and desires. Cohen’s sixth thesis in “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” is that the “fear of the monster is really a kind of desire” (Cohen 16). Cohen argues that “we distrust and loathe the monster at the same we envy its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair” (17). The Creature is for Victor the step into the sublime and embodies Frankenstein’s want of control over nature. The sublime is a feeling linked with the observation of nature, when its depth, infinity, beauty or strength almost submerges the witness who becomes both attracted to and fearful of the nature. At the beginning of the Creature’s making, unable to accept the cycle of life and to process the death of his mother Caroline, Victor has a fantasy of altering the laws of nature, without being able to realize he doesn’t understand them, even less controls them: “The world was to be a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember” (Shelley 43). This short passage brings forth Victor’s thirst for deity, as he desires to discover, not only the laws of nature, but the hidden laws of nature. He uses a comparison between “gladness” and “rapture.” Yet, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “rapture” comes “from Latin raptus ‘a
carrying off, abduction, snatching away; rape.’ The earliest attested use in English is with women as objects and in 17th century. It sometimes meant rape” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Victor, with this analogy, mistakes the pleasure and openness of discovery with the intrusion and violence of rape, revealing the control his wishes to exert over nature. The word “unfolded” alludes to something effortlessly unravelling, tying into the theme of entitled control. Victor cannot accept that nature is what it is; he needs to penetrate, control it, break it open. When the Creature is brought to life, Victor realizes that the forces he tried to reign in were beyond his capacities: “I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (Shelley 60). The Creature’s vitality forces Victor to come to terms with the fact that the being he has created is the crystallization of his fantasy of power over nature. Fear seizes Victor as his heart fills with “breathless horror and disgust.” In this moment, Frankenstein is overwhelmed by the feeling of the sublime; he is looking at the Creature, but also looking back at himself. Moreover, towards the middle of the novel, to process the death of Justine, Victor proceeds to ascend to the summit of Montanvert. As he contemplates the beauty of the scene that stands before him, Victor intends to rest and find peace: “My heart, which was sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy […] I perceived, as the shape came nearer (sight tremendous and abhorred) that it was the wretch whom I had created” (92). In this peculiar instant, the protagonist has chosen and called to experience the sublime as a way to attain some inner peace. However, the sublime is a feeling that occurs, not one that is summoned or created. Victor runs through the “sublime’ within his own parameters, hence, keeping control and not going through the terrifying aspect that this state can bring. The Creature disturbs Victor’s mind, bringing him back to his responsibilities, fears and desires. In a way, Victor wants to escape his inability to love his creation and display himself in a heroic position, which the Creature interrupts. Shelley brings forth the idea that monsters are not only products of fears, but of deeply repressed desires as, to a point, the Creature is an extension of Victor. Cohen outlines this very idea in his sixth thesis: Frankenstein simultaneously desires and fears the monster he creates.

Mary Shelley depicts two characters, Victor and the Creature, as so deeply intertwined that the readers might wonder if one could exist without the other. Cohen’s seventh thesis supports this idea, stating that “the monster stands at the threshold… of becoming” (Cohen 20). Monsters are the reflection in the mirror that responds and demands answers to their questions. In the last few instants of the story, the Creature, talking to Robert Walton, declares, “When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil” (Shelley 187). As in Cohen’s thesis, the Creature, Victor’s child, after being continuously rejected and pushed to the margins of society, calls for an explanation. He asks Walton, or probably more to himself, Victor or the readers, the reason for his creation. Why did Victor conceive this Creature if he were unable of unconditional and unrequited love? Frankenstein’s inflated sense of ego prevents him from loving another being in a gratuitous way. Victor, unable to accept his own limits and failures, needs to reject the Creature. At the end of the book the Creature, understanding Victor’s inability to love without a dimension of power, compares himself to a “fallen angel,” implying Victor’s position as God, the creator. The Creature alludes to his evilness being a product of social culture, having been rejected on countless occasions by his creator and by all the people with whom he tried to interact. Victor, in an attempt to distance himself from the Creature he so profoundly hates because of the resemblance they share, refuses to give him a name, depriving him of individuality. Throughout the novel, Frankenstein refers to the Creature as “wretch,” “daemon,” or “creature.” This backfires, reinforcing the intertwined nature between the unnamed and alienated child and the bad father. Victor starts to act like the Creature and vice versa, blurring the delimitation of their individuality. Frankenstein destroys the Creature’s bride-to-be, similarly to how the Creature kills William, Henry and Elizabeth. After Clerval’s death, Victor mourns, crying and asking, “Why did I not die? More miserable than man ever was before, why did I not sink into forgetfulness?” (153). Mirroring this burning pain of losing someone that is so dear to oneself, this desire to succumb to this agony in death and this guilt, the Creature, at the end of the novel, cries, “Polluted by crimes, and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest in peace?” (188). Strengthening the idea that the Creature is a continuation of Victor, the Creature feels the need to die after Victor has passed away. In her text, Shelley ultimately begs the question: “Who is the real monster?” The complexity of the text lies in that there is no clear answer to that question. These two morally ambiguous and intensely correlated characters live within each other, leaving no space for calling one a monster without identifying the other as so.

Monsters are complex and fascinating characters. Shelley and Cohen provide keys to better understand their nature and ours. As we come to realize, monsters are multi-faceted and are product of society, a reflection of oneself, of one’s fears and desires, and of the potential to be. Learning to comprehend monsters and their various shades of grey may allow one to grasp the nature of their fears as they encounter the other and the unknown.

Works Cited

“Rapture.” Online Etymology Dictionary. 2022.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, Monster
Theory: Reading Culture. Edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, University of Minnesota Press, 1996,

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by Johanna M. Smith. Bedford
St-Martin’s Editions, 2016.

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