Frankenstein Friday: ‘I can’t get that monster out of my mind’
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published almost 200 years ago, has never been out of print. Reflecting on this, I thought of one of Joan Didion’s essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, ‘I Can’t Get That Monster out of My Mind.’ While not Didion’s focus, the title of her essay seems a fitting descriptor of Frankenstein and its appeal.
Remarkably, its draw is not only to those who have read the novel but even more to those who have not read it, yet have been exposed to a more or less accurate version of the story through films or plays.
There is an interesting phenomenon in popular culture where the name ‘Frankenstein’ is often mistaken for the name of the monster. In her biography, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, Anne K. Mellor asserts that this mistake of identity derives ‘from an intuitively correct reading of the novel.’
There is a merging of identities between the monster and Victor Frankenstein. It is as if the monster is Frankenstein’s mirror image. They are endlessly fascinated with each other. If the monster is Frankenstein’s double — a projection of the monster within Victor that both repels and fascinates him, and that he searches for and runs from — this might account for something of the enduring impact of Shelley’s novel.
One might speak of Victor’s own menacing presence that he represses. His sweet and genteel existence is brought low with the death of his mother and his break with family when he leaves for university.
The carefully ordered enclosure of his world begins to unravel when his creative energy takes over and he pursues something he knows is forbidden. However, his undoing is neither the creation of the monster nor the emergence of himself as monster.
Rather, it is when he refuses the monster a ‘voice’. In fact, the monster that Frankenstein creates is never named and never allowed to enter into a relationship with Victor. The monster remains a ‘filthy mass’ that ‘sickened’ Victor’s heart. The monster repulses Victor. He cannot bear to gaze upon it.
I think there is an important link between the horror that Frankenstein’s monster evokes in Victor and the ethical implications of Shelley’s novel. Psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s insight into the dynamic process of ethics guides us.
For Kristeva, living ethically has something to do with not projecting our horror of the ‘monster’ within ourselves onto the other. The monster horrifies us because it reminds us of something within ourselves, something frightening, unnamed, unnameable, indeed beyond understanding.
Victor was intoxicated with the compelling desire to create life, and even more so, with the actual experience of creativity. It excited him but also terrorized him.
If one reads Shelley’s novel through Kristeva’s lens, the relationship between Victor and his monster reveals a relationship with which all human beings must come to terms. If not, according to Kristeva, we run the risk of destroying anyone and anything that represents the monster.
There is a subversive quality in the novel Frankenstein. It pushes us beyond simplistic assumptions of a unified identity. It opens us to genuinely experience the other. It reminds us that otherness is within, and this realization may impel us to treat the other with respect, with love. We have a stake in this. Otherness is not the monster with which we must contend. It is not the monster that impinges upon us from outside. It is within.
Christine Jamieson is an associate professor in the Department of Theological Studies. Her specialization is in social ethics and bioethics; she is currently involved in research with the Centre for Clinical Ethics in Toronto exploring values conflict and values integration in the hospital setting.
Her book Christian Ethics and the Crisis of Gender Violence: Exploring Kristeva’s Reading of Religion, Culture and the Human Psyche was published by Christian World Imprints in 2013.