A Psychoanalytic Reading of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

Psychoanalytic literary criticism applies the techniques of psychoanalysis, especially those of Sigmund Freud, to the interpretation of literature.  In contrast to liberal humanist criticism, which emphasises the universality of ‘human nature’, psychoanalytic criticism examines the repressed trauma, anxieties and desires of a particular individual, and aims to uncover the unconscious desires which drive the behaviour of literary characters. In chapter four of Frankenstein, Victor animates a creature composed of dead body parts, and critiqued psychoanalytically, he experiences ‘the uncanny’ due to his repressed death-related trauma, reveals oedipal anxieties through a highly-symbolic dream, and demonstrates repressed homosexual desire and the possession of a death drive, through his diction and actions. In reading the passage through the lens of psychoanalytic criticism, the reader understands that Frankenstein’s failure to confront his unresolved issues both influences his behaviour and brings about his ruin, in that the creation of the monster, as an incarnation of his repressed desires, leads to his eventual death.

Victor has a repressed fear of death, which is highlighted by his intense emotional response to the animated monster’s unnatural appearance. Freud describes ‘the Uncanny’ as something familiar (heimlich) which has been made unfamiliar (unheimlich), and therefore produces a sense of terror in the viewer.[1] When Victor first observes his creation he displays such an emotional response, stating that “breathless horror and disgust filled my heart”.[2] The uncanniness of the monster is caused by the unnerving combination of the binaries of life and death within one being, whereby the monster breathes, non-verbally communicates, and expresses emotions – Heimlich characteristics of the living – yet maintains the countenance of death, with his “watery eyes”, “shrivelled complexion” and “black lips”, and is thereby made unheimlich.[3] The collapse of the familiar boundaries between life and death also causes Victor’s repressed distress over the death of his mother to resurface. As Freud states, the frightening element of the uncanny “is something…repressed” which “now returns”,[4] and Victor’s Freudian slip, in which he opines that “A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch,”[5] demonstrates the relationship between his current feelings of the uncanny and his repressed horror at his mother’s death, repressed trauma which will later resurface in form of a dream.

Victor’s dream also reveals his conflicting repressed desires for Elizabeth and his mother. These aforementioned repressed desires involuntarily resurface in Victor’s dream, in which his expression of acceptable passion towards his would-be fiancée – an ‘embrace’ and “kiss of Elizabeth[6] – devolves into an embrace of his dead mother, revealing his repressed Oedipal desire, by which he unconsciously desires emotional and sexual possession of his mother and “thus…regards the father as a rival”.[7] Different symbolic images are condensed within the dream, in which the shroud symbolises his concealed desire to ‘envelope’ or wholly possess her,[8] and the phallic worms aim to penetrate the shroud, or overcome the obstacles which prevent the fulfilment of that desire.

As the dream suggests, however, this oedipal desire was frustrated by his mother’s death, and therefore Frankenstein’s Oedipus complex remains unresolved. The complex, although a normal component of the phallic stage of psychosexual development, was usually resolved during childhood when the male child reconciled and learned to identify with the father.[9] Frankenstein’s continued failure to identify with his father means he is stuck in the phallic stage.[10] This psychosexual immaturity explains Victor’s impotence, by which he fails to take forceful action to contain the monster’s murderous destruction – as a heroic and virile man would have done, and does not consummate his marriage to Elizabeth, embracing her only when she is dead.

 

Victor’s lack of heterosexual virility and selfish rejection of his creation are a result of his intrinsic narcissism, a characteristic which was seen by Freud as a normal, transitory characteristic of the phallic stage of development, but an unresolved Oedipus complex meant the trait was permanent.[11] Freud posited that an oedipal male’s permanent narcissism caused him to identify with his mother, unconsciously desire his father, and choose a homosexual object of desire which resembled himself.[12] Consequently, Victor demonstrates repressed homosexual desire towards the monster and Henry Clerval, which unconsciously reveals itself through his diction. He describes the creation of the monster with homoerotic vocabulary, stating “I…desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation”,[13] creates a creature which embodies his ideas of masculine perfection, with “lustrous” hair, “beautiful” features and a well-proportioned body,[14] and feels “calm and serene joy” upon ‘grasping’ Clerval’s hand.[15] Furthermore, when Frankenstein awakens after his dream, he is “fixed” in a romantic gaze with a sexually-suggestive monster, who “[holds] up the curtain of the bed” and attempts to touch him.[16] Victor’s repressed homosexual desire resurfaces in a frightening way, and he experiences the uncanny; the monster is simultaneously an object of revulsion and desire, as Victor is subconsciously attracted to him but repulsed by his deathly composition.

Frankenstein’s non-heterosexual creation of the monster has erotic overtones, and thus conflates the issues of death, sex and narcissism. Despite Victor’s reluctance to engage with his creation, Freud would suggest that it is his narcissistic homosexual desire which unconsciously induces him to reproduce himself in humanoid form, as he creates an object of desire who resembles himself, so that he may love it as his mother loved him.[17] The doppelganger is both a manifestation of a narcissistic desire for self-preservation, and an uncanny harbinger of death, as the “notion of doubleness undermines the very logic of identity”.[18] Thus, his creation parallels and is motivated by the relationship between the libidinal drive and the death drive elucidated by Freud, in which sexual desire is both self-protective and self-destructive.[19] Freud argues that the libidinal drive promotes the behaviours which sustain and create life, and the death drive stimulates self-destructive behaviour which is motivated by the unconscious desire to die;[20] correspondingly, Frankenstein creates ‘life’ in response to his emotional and sexual urges to do so, and thus personifies ‘death’ itself in creating a creature which he, rightfully, suspects will kill him.[21]

Hence, a psychoanalytic reading of this passage from Frankenstein, and an examination of Victor’s Oedipal Complex, repressed homosexual desires, ‘uncanny’ feeling in response to viewing his monster, narcissism and death drive allows the reader to understand Victor’s sexual and physical impotence, reveals his simultaneous attraction to and repulsion by the monster, elucidates his complicated familial relationships, and explains why he creates a being and effectively allows it to ruin him. As such, this psychoanalytic reading exposes many aspects which underlie Victor’s characterization, Shelley’s choice of diction, and the narrative development itself, which ordinarily would have been overlooked in a liberal humanist critique.

[1] Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, trans. David Mclintock (London: Penguin, 2003), 23-24.

[2] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: the original 1818 text, eds. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf (Ontario: Broadview Press, 2005), 85.

[3] Shelley, Frankenstein, 85.

[4] Freud, The Uncanny, 147.

[5] Shelley, Frankenstein, 86. [My emphasis].

[6] Shelley, Frankenstein, 85.

[7] Calvin Thomas, Ten Lessons in Theory (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 54.

[8] Shelley, Frankenstein, 85.

[9] Freud, Sigmund, “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex” In On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and other works, trans. James Strachey, ed. Angela Richards (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 317-319.

[10] Frankenstein neglects his father’s entreaty to write to him, even though he was “uneasy at [Frankenstein’s] long silence” (Shelley, Frankenstein, 90), and is seen to resent his father’s dismissal of his fascination by the works of alchemists, and his father’s entreaties to marry Elizabeth.

[11] Sullivan, L.E, “Oedipus complex”, in The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioural Sciences (London: SAGE, 2009), 357.

[12] Sigmund, Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” in Freud’s ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction,’ Joseph Sandler, Ethel Person and Peter Fonagy, eds. (London: Karnac Books, 2012), 20.

[13] Shelley, Frankenstein, 85.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 87.

[16] Ibid., 86

[17] Sigmund Freud, On sexuality: three essays on the theory of sexuality, trans. James Strachey; John Sutherland, ed (London: The Hogarth Press, 1974), 11.

[18] Andrew Bennet and Nicholas Royle, “The Uncanny,” in An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (London: Routledge, 2009), 41.

[19] Thomas, Ten Lessons in Theory, 71.

[20] Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” trans., C. J. M. Hubback, ed. Ernest Jones, in The International Psychoanalytical Library 4 (1922).

[21] The monster indirectly kills Frankenstein by the emotional torment and physical exhaustion which he causes him to experience.

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