From Creator to Creature: Mirroring in “Frankenstein”
Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein, explores themes of classicism, gender, science, and nature. Written during the 19th century, Frankenstein warns the reader of the dangers of ambition and knowledge. It remains prevalent today as it scrutinizes the ways in which the rationality and order of science is contrasted with the willfulness of nature. Although many critics emphasize the contrasting relationship between science and nature, I believe that Shelley’s mirroring approach is a greater contribution to the novel’s lasting appeal. Many critics briefly mention mirroring, but fail to discuss its significance in depth. The mirroring, seen within the main characters and with Shelley, makes the story a timeless piece as readers are able to relate to imperfect, dynamic relationships. Through mirroring, we as readers are able to witness the ways in which the characters and Shelley struggled with their imperfections. However, these imperfections –great as they are– are overshadowed as readers sympathize with their plight.
When examining these characters, one must examine the life of Shelley. Romanticism was an academic and literary movement that Shelley was engaged in. The movement was a revolt against the rationality and uniformity of Neoclassism. It highlighted the importance of emotion, the individual, and nature. Such ideas are translated to the novel along with concepts from the Gothic movement.
Frankenstein is an archetypal Gothic novel as it has components of horror, mystery, and both dark, gloomy characters and sceneries. Joseph Pearce, in his introduction to the novel, discussed such background elements stating:
Although the presence of this tragic backdrop pervades the work, it should not eclipse the many other elements that serve to add to the deadly cocktail of depth and delusion that makes Frankenstein such a beguilingly deceptive story. From the very beginning, on the title page itself, we are given tantalizing clues concerning the aesthetic and philosophical roots of Mary Shelley’s inspiration and perhaps an inkling of her purpose…. (Pearce)
The eighteen-year-old Shelley, combined these movements within her novel to explore technological and scientific development in a society that was seemingly unready to accept it. Victor Frankenstein, a determined science student, creates unnatural life from stolen, decaying body parts. The horror story thus follows the titular character as he comprehends his grave, selfish deed. Once the innocent creature awakens to the world around it Frankenstein abandons it- disgusted by both the hideousness of the creature and his actions. After learning how to live in isolation and with loneliness, the creature quickly discovers the cruelty of people. His creator, however, remains the most malicious as Frankenstein is the reason behind such experiences. The creature vows for revenge through the spillage of blood, both the blood of his creator and those whom Frankenstein loves. Frankenstein is a science fiction/horror story that examines the nature and order of humanity and morality.
The relationship between Shelley and Victor Frankenstein is seen quite early in the novel, beginning with the settings. Victor is “by birth a Genevese and my family is one of the most distinguished of the republic,” (Shelly pg 27). Similarly, the birth of the novel began in Geneva, Switzerland when Shelley and her husband were encouraged by Lord Byron to write the most frightening story to pass the time in miserable weather. The scene of the creature’s birth matches the weather in which Shelley conceived her ideas. Victor narrates that
“It was a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toil…the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out…” (Shelley p 52). The scenes of the creature’s birth are quite momentous. Shelley discussed her attempts at creating an outstanding horror story fit to win a competition claiming “Invention…does not consist in creating out of the void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances but cannot bring into being the substance itself.” Aldrich and Isomaki discuss the mirroring seen in the novel, as “the same theory explains Frankenstein’s need to recycle substances taken from the grave.” As readers, we discover that the creature is given life yet is unaccepted into society as he fails to develop proper, acceptable behavior and emotional expression.
Shelley, born in late 18th century London, was raised in a liberal environment to William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft, a women’s rights activist, died days after the birth of her daughter. The lack of maternal care and guardianship is discussed by critics. Marcia Aldrich and Richard
Isomaki claim that “the search for a satisfactory model of parenting in Frankenstein is not unlike a search for a satisfactory model of female authorship….But Frankenstein is also the name of the book, and the logic of transference allows a comparison between Victor Frankenstein and his monster, on the one hand, and Mary Shelley and her novel as “hideous progeny” on the other…”As Aldrich and Isomaki described, the creature and his maker are mirrors of one another. The creature yearns for such a relationship and when he is unable to acquire it, his isolation turns to a bloodthirst. Similarly the ambitious scientist, in a cry for attention, creates a life that results in his own manner of isolation from his humanity and society. The relationship between creator and creature is dynamic, yet the reader is able to foreshadow the actions of each character in relation to the other.
Although the creator vows that he is incomparable with his creature, there are an abundance of examples that disprove such an idea. While the creature is born in unnatural, paranormal circumstances, the birth of Frankenstein is a happy one. Critic Sean Fitzpatrick’ also draws upon this idea stating: “In their relation to each other, Frankenstein is to the monster a reverse mirror image of humanity’s relation to the supernatural. As a perfect Maker created man, so an imperfect maker created a monster. While man is the child of divine love, the monster is the child of human pride.” Although Frankenstein’s birth is one of fortune and pleasantness, his life is torn by heartbreak by the death of his kind, charitable mother. Shelley drew upon her own experiences, as both writer and scientist lost a significant figure in their lives, resulting in quests to find a maternal figure in their lives. Unlike the former, the creature had no parental guidance resulting in internal torment. “But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses:” claimed the creator, “or if they had, all my past life was now a blind blot, a blind vacancy in which I was distinguished from nothing” (Shelley pg 116). Shelley, drawing upon the absence of her mother, mirrors her own loss within the creator who thus passes it along to his creation who is “alone and miserable; man will not associate with me” (Shelley pg 138). Like his creator, the creature yearns to be accepted by society yet is ultimately unfit for such a role.
Mirroring between Frankenstein and his creature continue until the end of the novel, creating a cycle. Both creature and scientist think alike, despite Victor’s attempts to distance himself from his creation. Tess Yanisch, in a critique, claims “. One could view the creature as Frankenstein’s “child” — not only his physical creation, but somehow also his patterns of thought and expression. Or perhaps both are expressions of the “natural man,” sensitive and generous; the crucial difference is that only Frankenstein has social support to nurture these sensations.” The cycle begins when Victor is studying how to develop life. His passion and dedication is far from feigned as he “pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardor…. and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding places…” (Shelley, pg 49). Frankenstein in his pursuit to create life, sacrificed his sanity as “a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (Shelley, pg 49) Once the creature is given life, Frankenstein abandons it forcing the creature to solely make sense of the mysterious world in which he was placed. This abandonment, toppled with the cruelty he faces from humanity, leads the creature to destroy the man who gave him life.
The creature’s vengeful pursuit is mirrored with his creator’s obsession to generate life. Although killing his creator consumes him with remorse and agony he continued with his act with “a frightful selfishness [that] hurried me on, while my heart was poisoned with remorse…My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of chance without torture…” (Shelley, pg 214). The creature feels forced to kill his creator to equate his own misery upon the other as
“ I discovered that he, the author at once of my existence and one of its unspeakable torments, dared to hope for happiness …sought his own enjoyment in feelings and passions from the indulgence of which I was forever barred, then important envy and bitter indignation filled me with an insatiable thirst for vengeance” (Shelley, pg 214). Both creature and creator find themselves in isolation and self-loathing, each yearning for the love and affection found in familial relationships. Such love could be found between the two, yet their selfishness and hatred prevents such an occurrence. Shelley, drawing upon her own life, illustrates the ways in which one bares him or herself from obtaining happiness.
The mirroring between Shelley and Frankenstein continue past the novel and into Shelley’s own career. Aldrich and Isomaki discuss such ideas stating “Both Shelley and Frankenstein view their creations ambivalently because each has encroached on prerogatives reserved to others: Shelley’s unfeminine presumption in writing a novel is like Frankenstein’s usurpation of [his] mother’s role in reproduction. Both distance themselves from their false creations, and yet the monster nevertheless acts as Frankenstein’s gent, the book as Shelley’s.” Although both writer and characters mirror one another, the plight of Shelley was more severe as she faced a battle between her roles as a writer and her gender. Unlike Frankenstein, Shelley faced repercussions due to her gender and the position in which she found herself.
Although Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Creature mirror one another, these reflections are not indistinguishable. The parallels between the three are alike yet, each have characteristics unique to their own person. Shelley’s mirroring approach reflects the complexity of both her novel and her life. The story is filled with varying themes and subjects, all of which are compacted within a few hundred pages. Mirroring communicates the ways in which the author and her characters are flawed beings who seek paths to conserve their humanity. Paul Northam draws upon this stating:
My suspicion is that the public is worried about something Turney barely touches on: human nature. These readers argue that fundamental moral lapses in Frankenstein the scientist implicate him as a primary cause for the catastrophes that overwhelm his family. He undertakes his project not for altruistic reasons, not to advance human knowledge, but primarily for the glory it will bring to him….
Mirroring creates characters in which readers across all borders, whether these borders be gender or class, can sympathize with. As readers, we search for ourselves within characters. Shelley construction of likable, yet greatly flawed individuals lures readers from all times and spaces, whether they be from 19th century Britain or American students from the 21st century.
In the beginning of this essay, I was confused on the direction in which I wanted to take. This was translated to my essay as I entered more than one critical conversations on Frankenstein. After speaking with Professor Harris, I was able to focus solely on mirroring between Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Creature in my second draft. In my second draft, unlike my first, I used a significant amount of evidence from the book itself. These inclusions, I believe, highlight the stance I take in my prose. It is within those paragraphs that I am most proud of and I believe my voice as both a reader and critical thinker is most evident. In my last draft, I entered my critical conversation earlier than previous drafts and offered a more intriguing ending for my reader.
I would like to thank my fellow group members, Sarah-Ripley Forsyth and Joe Schwab for their constructive feedback. I was able to construct a more focused essay with their help. I am incredibly grateful for Professor Harris’ commentary and advice as he helped me tackle a piece that was hectic and poorly constructed. His time and efforts are greatly appreciated. I would also like to thank my roommate, who inspired me to pick Frankenstein as my focal text. Thank you for the late nights in which we recounted the numerous themes found within the book. Finally, I’d like to thank the author, Mary Shelley, for providing readers with such a striking horror story. Thank you!
Aldrich, Marcia, and Richard Isomaki. “Aldrich and Isomaki, “The Woman Writer as Frankenstein”” Approaches to Teaching Shelley’s Frankenstein. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990. 121–26.
Fitzpatrick, Sean. “Frankenstein by Mary Shelley — Crisis Magazine.” Crisis Magazine. Sophia Institute Press, 20 May 2013.
Northam, Paul. “Legacy of Frankenstein: The Monster Is the One in the White Lab Coat.” Rev. of Frankenstein’s Footsteps:Science, Genetics, and Popular Culture. American Scientist Sept. 1998: 1. The Scientific Research Society.
Pearce, Joseph. “The Misunderstood Monster | Joseph Pearce | From the Introduction to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” | Ignatius Insight.” Introduction. Frankenstein. By Mary Shelley. Ignatius Critical Editions ed. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. Ed. Robert D. Shepherd. St. Paul, MN: EMC/Paradigm Pub., 1998. Print.
Yanisch, Tess. “Mirroring in Frankenstein.” The Electric Age 19 Sept. 2011.