In this essay, I suggest that the central section of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – the creature’s description of his first experiences – echoes Hume’s and Bacon’s discussions of inductive reasoning. Because the creature must learn the causes of phenomena the reader takes for granted, his story defamiliarizes both the reader’s world and the process of induction itself. The creature’s tale thus functions as a travel narrative, and produces the cognitive estrangement associated with science fiction. I then examine the prominence of inductive reasoning in the novel as a whole, and discuss Victor’s and the creature’s singular situations as resistant to inductive understanding. I argue that Shelley uses various narrative techniques (such as embedded narratives and character doubling) to invite and frustrate readers’ attempts to use induction to solve the novel’s central moral questions. The reader’s inability to form coherent inductive patterns in part accounts for the novel’s radical ambiguity. Finally, I suggest some consequences for Frankenstein’s relation to the gothic: the novel departs from gothic conventions in its unusual use of the doppelgänger, and its rhetorical goals in invoking induction.
Corps de l’article
This essay examines the central section of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – the creature’s narrative, which describes his initial awakening to consciousness and his earliest attempts to process sensory data. In so doing, I hope to supplement the reasons we relate Frankenstein to science fiction, travel narrative, and gothic literature, and to connect frustrated patterns of induction to the underlying narrative structure and moral ambiguity of Shelley’s novel.
A striking feature of the creature’s narrative is his need to learn the causes of what seem to us the most obvious phenomena. He tells Victor, “I was delighted when I first discovered that a pleasant sound, which often saluted my ears, proceeded from the throats of the little winged animals” (68-69). Soon after, he can distinguish among types of little winged animals: “I found that the sparrow uttered none but harsh notes, whilst those of the blackbird and thrush were sweet and enticing” (69). He acquires his earliest knowledge not through formal education, nor from innate ideas, but rather through the process of induction. The creature notes, “[P]erpetual attention, and time, explained to me many appearances which were at first enigmatic” (74), emphasizing the repeated empirical observations necessary for induction.
In fact, the creature’s method closely resembles David Hume’s description of how we all infer causation through our sensory experience of the constant conjunction of two things. In Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he proposes the following thought experiment:
Suppose a person, though endowed with the strongest faculties of reason and reflection, to be brought on a sudden into this world; he would, indeed, immediately observe a continual succession of objects, and one event following another; but he would not be able to discover anything farther. He would not, at first, by any reasoning, be able to reach the idea of cause and effect; ... nor is it reasonable to conclude, merely because one event, in one instance, precedes another, that therefore the one is the cause, the other the effect. Their conjunction may be arbitrary and casual... .
Suppose, again, that he has acquired more experience, and has lived so long in the world as to have observed similar objects or events to be constantly joined together; what is the consequence of this experience? He immediately infers the existence of one object from the appearance of the other.Enquiry 42
Hume’s hypothetical situation aptly describes how Frankenstein’s creature is “brought on a sudden into this world,” endowed from the start “with the strongest faculties of reason and reflection,” and yet devoid of experience. As Hume predicts, the creature is eventually able to infer cause and effect once “he has acquired more experience.”
In some cases, the creature’s particular inferences echo specific examples used by Hume. In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume states, “We remember to have seen that species of object we call flame, and to have felt that species of sensation we call heat. We likewise call to mind their constant conjunction in all past instances. Without any farther ceremony, we call the one the cause and the other the effect, and infer the existence of one from that of the other” (135). In contrast, the newborn creature has no previous encounters with flame to remember; when he finds a fire, he “thrust [his] hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain” (69). Both the creature and Hume are drawn repeatedly to fire as an example. Hume remarks, “When I throw a piece of dry wood into a fire, my mind is immediately carried to conceive, that it augments, not extinguishes the flame. This transition of thought from the cause to the effect ... . derives its origin altogether from custom and experience” (Enquiry 54). After unsuccessfully trying to ignite wet wood, the creature notices, “The wet wood which I had placed near the heat dried, and itself became inflamed... . By touching the various branches, I discovered the cause” (69). In both Hume and Shelley, these mundane examples are made strange and fascinating by exposing the underlying inductive process we take for granted.
Hume and Shelley’s preoccupation with fire may have a common source in Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, which laid the foundations for inductive scientific methods. In Book II Bacon lists twenty-seven “Instances Agreeing in the Nature of Heat,” and then provides lengthy analysis of similar substances which lack heat, differing degrees of heat, and qualities which are not invariably associated with heat, before hypothesizing that heat is associated with motion (144-80). In the course of the discussion he asserts, “Flames are always either more or less hot, and there is no negative to be subjoined at all” (152). Bacon’s work has additional resonance with Frankenstein when he warns against scientists who become so preoccupied with a particular subject that it distorts their conceptions of other areas of inquiry. Significantly, Bacon provides as negative examples “the race of alchemists [who] have built up from a few experiments with a furnace a fantastic philosophy having regard to few things. Gilbert, likewise, after the most painstaking studies of the loadstone, immediately erected a philosophy that suited his own favourite subject” (61-62). Walton shares Gilbert’s fascination with magnetic phenomena, while Victor spends his youth obsessed with alchemy. The failure of Victor’s experiments does not diminish his belief in the alchemists he studied. Victor remarks, “[I]f my incantations were always unsuccessful, I attributed the failure rather to my own inexperience and mistake, than to a want of skill or fidelity in my instructors” (22). Bacon anticipated such a reaction: “[T]he alchemist nurses eternal hope, and when the thing does not succeed, he blames some error of his own, and in self-condemnation thinks he has not properly understood the words of his art or of its authors” (94-95).
The creature applies his inductive skills to many more phenomena than fire, though, as he explores the forest outside Ingolstadt, stays in the de Laceys’ hovel, and travels to Geneva to find Victor. He spends his time near the de Laceys “watching, and endeavoring to discover the motives which influenced their actions” (73). Eventually he learns enough to contrast Agatha with the area’s other inhabitants: “The girl was young and of gentle demeanour, unlike what I have since found cottagers and farm-house servants to be” (71). The creature also describes the flora and fauna, and notes the local weather: “I found my feet chilled by the cold damp substance that covered the ground” (70). Because he comments upon the local customs, scenery, wildlife, and weather he encounters during his wanderings, the creature’s narrative functions, in part, as a travel narrative.
The creature’s bewilderment with snow brings into focus what is unusual about his travel narrative: he is describing a location that is unfamiliar to him, but is already very familiar to his narratee, Victor, and is likely familiar (or at least, not exotic) to Mary Shelley’s readers. Typically in travel narratives of discovery,
[t]he traveler to unknown places returns to ... a “narrative audience” contemporary with readers, inhabiting the same part of the world and sharing information about the traveler’s culture and values. Readers and narrative audience are equally ignorant of the [world the traveler has explored]; both groups need detailed information about distant manners, customs, and geography.Slusser and Chatelain 161
Here, the creature’s audience and Shelley’s readers share “the same part of the world” that is explored, and are already acquainted with its “manners, customs, and geography.” From the reader’s perspective, it is not the narrated world that is strange, but rather the narrator himself. Yet by hearing this tale, the reader must reexamine associations usually taken for granted, and Europe’s manners, customs, and geography become defamiliarized. In the words of Slusser and Chatelain, “The familiar world of the reader ... is rendered uncanny when presented through the eyes of [a] conventional narrator turned alien” (175).
This defamiliarization is closely related to the cognitive estrangement central to discussions of science fiction since Darko Suvin’s influential definition of the genre: “SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (7-8). For Suvin, estrangement involves “confronting a set normative system ... with a point of view or look implying a new set of norms” (6). In addition, “SF sees the norms of any age, including emphatically its own, as unique, changeable, and therefore subject to a cognitive view” (7). In the case of Frankenstein, Paul Alkon notes the “significan[ce] as a science fictional technique [of] the cognitive estrangement achieved by inviting readers to see their own world as it appears to an intelligent alien,” as it appears, that is, to the creature (Science Fiction 34). The creature’s narrative certainly “confront[s] a set normative system” that we usually take for granted, and incites us to take a cognitive view of those norms, to imagine that the world could have operated on different principles. This effect supports Darko Suvin’s suggestive but underexplained comment that the creature’s story is “both the compositional core and the real SF novum” of Frankenstein (129). By paying more attention to the inductive techniques and the estranging effects of the creature’s tale, we can arrive at a new understanding of Frankenstein’s relation to generic criteria frequently applied to it. Thus, the most important and extended travel narrative in the novel occurs, not in Walton’s letters describing his attempted arctic exploration, but rather in the creature’s tale of his wanderings in the year following his creation. And if we define science fiction primarily based on the cognitive estrangement it induces, then the creature’s narrative is the section most exemplary of science fiction, rather than Victor’s description of how he animated the creature.
An examination of induction and estrangement in Victor’s narrative reveals that, although the creature is remarkably skilled at induction, his creator is not. When the creature ominously promises Victor, “I shall be with you on your wedding night” (116), Victor mistakenly assumes that he himself is the monster’s target, not realizing that his fiancée, Elizabeth, is the true object of the monster’s threat. Many critics note with astonishment Victor’s obtuseness in this instance, a reaction based on the reader’s ability to use induction successfully when Victor does not. We notice a pattern in which the creature murders those close to Victor (William, Justine, Henry), but not Victor himself. Frankenstein fails to understand and extend this pattern, despite the creature’s previous assertion, “My enemy is not impregnable; this death [William’s] will carry despair to him, and a thousand other miseries shall torment and destroy him” (97), implying a future sequence of similar acts of vengeance. Victor tries to explain his oversight by claiming, “As if possessed of magic powers, the monster had blinded me to his real intentions” (133). The invocation of magic here is apt; Victor projects his own failure in scientific analysis onto the creature, who is given a supernatural, irrational influence.
In several other crucial plot lines and thematic concerns, the novel emphasizes but foils the process of induction. Shelley’s novel defamiliarizes causation, and since causation is the principle on which all but the most experimental narratives are built, Frankenstein highlights and makes strange the underlying premise of its own narrative structure. The largest challenge to induction (for both the characters and the reader) is posed by the status of both Victor and his creature as aberrant, isolated cases. The singularity of the creature’s unnatural birth, and his extreme isolation, are obvious to readers and to the creature himself, who states, “Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was” (88). As Peter Brooks phrases it, “The Monster... . is a unique creation, without precedence or replication” (600). When Victor discovers the mechanism of creating life, he stresses his own isolation and singularity: “I was surprised that ... I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret” (30). And after Elizabeth’s murder, Victor emphasizes the uniqueness of his suffering: “no creature had ever been so miserable as I was; so frightful an event is single in the history of man” (137).
The aberrance of both Victor’s actions and the creature’s existence poses a problem to inductive reasoning, in that they cannot be placed in a series of similar events. As Hume admits, “Were an effect presented, which was entirely singular, and could not be comprehended under any known species, I do not see, that we could form any conjecture or inference at all concerning its cause” (Enquiry 148). Neither the creature himself, nor his peculiarly obsessive thirst for vengeance, could be “comprehended under any known species.” If we wish to form a conjecture regarding the origin of the creature’s murderous disposition, we are inevitably left frustrated, and the question left unresolved. This failure results from Victor’s carelessness in framing his experiment and his indifference to tracing its immediate consequences. If he had been more exact, Victor may have been able to form inductive inferences, despite having only one example. For as Hume argues, “’Tis certain, that ... we may attain the knowledge of a particular cause merely by one experiment, provided it be made with judgement, and after a careful removal of all foreign and superfluous circumstances” (Treatise 154). As a consequence of Victor’s lack of judgment, both he and the reader are unable to determine which circumstances are superfluous and which are not.
In theory, Victor could rectify this and acquire surer knowledge of the creature’s character, by repeating his experiment; he is encouraged to do so when the creature requests a companion. Victor’s description of his decision to abort the female creature both focuses and distorts the relationship between inductive series and the creature’s malevolence:
[A] train of reflection occurred to me, which led me to consider the effects of what I was now doing. Three years before I was engaged in the same manner, and had created a fiend whose unparalleled barbarity had desolated my heart ... . I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness... .
Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.114
Victor stresses the singularity of his previous creation by mentioning its “unparalleled barbarity.” He also emphasizes that his current act of creation is a repetition of the previous one – “three years before I was engaged in the same manner” – and hence would establish a series from which Victor (and the reader) could make inductive inferences. Victor considers the possible effects of this second experiment, and even in what should be the best case scenario – the two creatures provide companionship to each other and leave Europe – Victor imagines the possible extermination of the human race. This scenario is noteworthy, and not just for the hyperbolic consequence of human extinction. Most debates about the cause of the creature’s destructive behavior attribute it either to his isolation and maltreatment, or to his unnatural origin. Here Victor imagines his creature happily paired with a mate and surrounded by offspring, and imagines them naturally procreating without Victor’s further intervention. The two obvious causes of the creature’s violence are eliminated, and yet Victor still imagines that they will be a “race of devils.” Characterizing them as a race, which may multiply so much that they overrun the planet, suggests that he fears losing direct control over their propagation, or even that he fears propagation itself. That is, Victor’s alarmist rhetoric may derive from his anxiety that the creature will become an endless series, rather than a singular instance.
Of course, Victor’s fears are not entirely without foundation. Because he cannot yet determine the source of the creature’s evil (and because the stakes are so high if Victor fails to eliminate that factor), it is dangerous to perform a second experiment. But because he refuses to create a second member of this species and start an inductive series, he cannot isolate the variables involved in the first instance. He therefore cannot decide with any assurance whether the creature is inherently evil, or is the product of his neglectful upbringing. Victor is thus caught in a catch-22 that precludes successful induction. The impossibility of determining the source of the creature’s malevolence, is both the cause, and the result, of the impossibility of creating a female companion.
I am suggesting that it is impossible to answer confidently the novel’s central ethical question, yet many of Frankenstein’s readers, starting with Percy Shelley, have claimed the novel has a clear moral. Gayatri Spivak, for example, describes it as an “overly didactic text” (256), and Franco Moretti claims the novel “wants to get the readers’ assent to the ‘philosophical’ arguments expounded in black and white” (106). Other critics, such as Susan Winnett and Lawrence Lipking, claim the novel leaves its major questions wholly unresolved (Winnett 508, Lipking 319). How to explain these diametrically opposed responses? Shelley invites the reader to use induction to judge characters’ behavior, because the minor characters repeat key traits, situations, and actions. While it initially seems they should coalesce into clear patterns, in the end they don’t, and attempts at induction are frustrated. In addition, Shelley uses methods of characterization and embedded narratives to render the implied author’s views radically ambiguous, adding to the reader’s interpretive difficulties. Frankenstein both invites inductive judgments, and makes such judgments uncertain, or even impossible.
The doublings of characters and situations which are a frequent feature of gothic fiction are certainly present in Frankenstein, and they seem to offer the repetition and patterning required for inductive reasoning. Such character groupings are often noted, and include Victor and Walton who share an ambition for discovery, and who both share their autodidacticism with the creature; Elizabeth and Justine who are both adopted into the Frankenstein family and imitate aspects of Caroline Frankenstein; and a plethora of parent-child relationships. But despite the promise held out by these abundant pairings, the reader ultimately cannot find patterns which would answer the central moral questions of the novel. Any seemingly straightforward links between Victor and Walton, which might provide evidence of the relative value and danger of scientific discovery, are disrupted, for reasons which I will discuss later. The parent-child relationships similarly fail to demonstrate the influence of upbringing on character. I agree with George Levine that “[d]espite the potentially easy patterning, there is no simple way to define the relationship between parents and offspring in this novel... [W]hat is consistent is only the focal concern on the relationship itself” (20-21). As one example of how parental influence is rendered ambiguous, I offer the case of Justine Moritz.
Justine seems promising as a comparison case for the creature because she is convicted of his murder of William Frankenstein, and because Justine is also hated by her parent. Her background story appears in one of Elizabeth’s letters to Victor:
And now I must tell you a little story that will please, and perhaps amuse you. Do you not remember Justine Moritz? Probably you do not; I will relate her history, therefore, in a few words. Madame Moritz, her mother, was a widow with four children, of whom Justine was the third. This girl had always been the favourite of her father; but, through a strange perversity, her mother could not endure her, and, after the death of M. Moritz, treated her very ill. My aunt observed this; and, when Justine was twelve years of age, prevailed on her mother to allow her to live at her house. The republican institutions of our country have produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it... . A servant in Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England. Justine, thus received in our family, learned the duties of a servant; a condition which, in our fortunate country, does not include the idea of ignorance, and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being.
After what I have said, I dare say you well remember the heroine of my little tale: for Justine was a great favourite of your’s [sic].39-40
Elizabeth goes on to say that Justine’s siblings died, and “Justine was called home by her repentant mother... . The poor woman was very vacillating in her repentance. She sometimes begged Justine to forgive her unkindness, but much oftener accused her of having caused the deaths of her brothers and sister” (40-41). Elizabeth then informs Victor that Madame Moritz died last winter and Justine returned to the Frankenstein household (41) – presumably this is the information that will please, and perhaps amuse, Victor. A reader’s first reaction to Justine’s story might be to note that Justine faced a neglectful parent, yet she grew up to be virtuous and admirable: she is described as “frank-hearted” and “grateful” (40), she selflessly nurses Victor’s mother during her fatal illness (54), and she shows great courage during her trial. Justine’s example might be used to argue that one’s upbringing does not determine one’s moral character, thus undermining the creature’s assertion that he became vicious because he was mistreated. But Justine’s example is not nearly so straightforward. Her mother may have hated her, but she was her father’s favourite, and she entered the Frankenstein household at the still impressionable age of twelve. Her dual upbringing, experiencing both hatred and benevolence, is emphasized by her oscillation between her family’s home and the Frankenstein household, and suggests that she serves as a straightforward example of neither a neglectful upbringing nor a nurturing one, since she goes through both twice.
At least as strange as the content of Justine’s story, is the manner in which it is narrated. Elizabeth begins her letter by asking Victor, “Do you not remember Justine Moritz? Probably you do not.” Victor’s presumed lapse in memory provides the rationale for Elizabeth reminding him of Justine’s history. Yet Elizabeth ends her narrative by writing, “Justine was a great favourite of your’s,” and we later learn that Victor and Justine lived in the same household for five years before Victor left for university (54), which suggests that Victor needs no reminder of who Justine is. Of course, the person who does need to be told Justine’s history is Shelley’s reader, who has not encountered Justine before. Elizabeth’s letter thus serves what James Phelan labels the synthetic function in narrative. Phelan distinguishes three functions operating within characters and texts: the mimetic, the thematic, and the synthetic. The mimetic function “refers to the component of fictional narrative concerned with imitating the world” through a “set of conventions, which change over time, by which imitations are judged to be adequate” (Narrative 218). The thematic “component of a narrative text [is] concerned with making statements, taking ideological positions, teaching readers truths” (220). And the synthetic function deals with “the constructedness of a text as an object” (220). Justine’s story is included not because it is mimetically necessary in the circuit of communication between Elizabeth and Victor, but rather because it is synthetically necessary in the circuit of communication between Shelley and her reader.
One might be tempted to judge this an awkward way for Shelley to fulfill this synthetic function, and attribute it to her inexperience as an author. But precisely this awkwardness, this break from mimesis, draws the reader’s attention to this material, and provides further evidence for Justine’s conflicted status within the Frankenstein household and within the novel. She is torn between a marginal position as a servant, and a more central one as an adopted member of the family. This blurred boundary is further emphasized by Elizabeth’s comment, “A servant in Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England.” Again, this is information which Victor does not need to be told, but here there is an even greater disruption of mimesis in that Elizabeth has never traveled to the “great monarchies that surround” her native country and so has no direct experience on which to make such a comparison. Justine’s equivocal position is also, in part, due to the manner in which the novel introduces her. She is not mentioned earlier in the narrative, when Victor describes other members of the household, which suggests Justine’s status as an outsider, and her minorness as a character. Yet Elizabeth devotes half of the letter to describing Justine, spending twice as many lines on her as on Victor’s two brothers, which grants Justine greater significance in the text. As a result, we have trouble using Justine as an example of any one clear trait or position: she is both neglected and nurtured, both a marginalized outcast and an important character in the extended Frankenstein family. Justine disrupts any inductive pattern in which she is placed.
Another illusory promise of stable moral judgments is offered by the novel’s technique of embedded narratives. We might be tempted to use the lessons learned by the narratees as models for how we should process the story. Victor initially responds to the creature’s tale with curiosity and compassion, but that compassion is short-lived. And for months Victor feels conflicted about granting the creature’s request for a mate, almost completing the task before violently destroying it. Victor’s reaction to the creature’s story is itself ambivalent, and hence fails to offer the reader a clear model.
Walton’s reception of Victor’s story may seem more useful. Walton does follow Victor’s advice to avoid ambition, but does not follow his advice to destroy the creature. Any straightforward moral of the story is disrupted, though, because Victor himself hedges on both pieces of advice. Victor qualifies his last request to Walton to kill the creature: “The task of his destruction was mine, but I have failed... . Yet I cannot ask you to renounce your country and friends, to fulfil this task” (151). Victor’s last words are a remarkable renunciation of the moral of his story: “Walton! Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed” (152). Victor’s advice to Walton is further undermined by the fact that the two courses of action Victor urges are incompatible – to follow and destroy the creature Walton must travel further north, but to forgo his ambition and rescue his crew he must head south. In the end, the creature gives him the opportunity to destroy him without a chase north, by entering the ship, but Walton takes pity on the creature and lets him go. Walton himself heads back to England without reaching the pole. Taken together, Walton’s actions seem to suggest that he sympathises with the creature, and judges Victor to have been in error in ignoring the consequences of his overreaching ambition. But even this inference is uncertain. Walton may let him go because the creature claims he is about to commit suicide (156), and will do Walton’s dirty work for him. Walton’s other decision may not be based on Victor’s advice at all: the captain abandons his journey to the Pole at least in part because his crew is threatening mutiny (148-49). And Walton has imperfectly heeded Victor’s warning against ambition, since Walton mentions to his sister, “I endeavored to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation; but on this point he was impenetrable” (146).
Given these frustrated patterns, contradictions and ambiguities, is there any stable ground left in Shelley’s novel, any framework we can use to guide our judgments? We might be inclined to turn to the text’s opening framework. Peter Rabinowitz views epigraphs and descriptive subtitles as privileged positions in a text which demand particular attention from the reader (58). In Frankenstein their importance is even greater since they are among the few parts of the text originating from an authorial voice, rather than from one or more potentially flawed character-narrators. The subtitle is “The Modern Prometheus,” and the epigraph from Paradise Lost is Adam’s post-fall lamentation to God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me? –” In some versions of the myth Prometheus created man from clay, so both the subtitle and epigraph emphasize Victor’s act of creation. They might also suggest the benevolent intentions of God and Prometheus, and hence invite a sympathetic reading of Victor. Yet Prometheus’s reputation as an overreacher who violates divine boundaries, and the epigraph’s implication that Victor usurps God’s role as creator, both invite readings of Victor as misguided or worse. The specific quotation from Paradise Lost aligns with the creature’s viewpoint, not Victor’s; it thus demonstrates a sympathetic understanding of the creature’s plight. The quotation also raises the issue of free will: neither Adam, nor the creature has any choice in his own origin. But one of Milton’s chief preoccupations in justifying the ways of God to man, is reconciling God’s foreknowledge with man’s free will. The broader context of Paradise Lost might then suggest that the creature is responsible for freely choosing his murderous actions. The opposite inference would be made, however, from the novel’s dedication to “William Godwin, author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &c.” In his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Godwin argues for the doctrine of necessity, in which our actions are the necessary consequences of political structures and social conditions. He goes so far as to say of a murderer and the knife he uses, that “the one is no more free than the other as to its employment” (170). This prefatory material thus suggests both Victor’s benevolence and his pride-driven transgression, and suggests the creature both exercises free will and is socially predetermined. It invokes many of the novel’s central preoccupations but offers contradictory answers to the questions it raises.
Frankenstein’s narrative techniques and strategies of ambiguity have another curious effect: they may modify our understanding of the novel’s relation to the gothic. One of the results of the embedded narratives is that the creature is able to tell his own story; he is given a voice, and we are given access to his thoughts and feelings. As many have noted, this invites the reader to sympathise with the creature, disrupts an unproblematic labelling of the creature as villain, and renders our moral judgments more difficult. According to Darko Suvin, this also makes the novel less gothic. He argues that most of the novel
is in the tradition of the Gothic story, in which the universal horror and disgust at [Victor’s] creature would simply prefigure its behavior and its hideous looks testify to its corrupt essence. Yet the Creature’s pathetic story of awakening to sentience and consciousness of his untenable position as a subject... provides an almost diametrically opposed point of view. His theme is both the compositional core and the real SF novum that lifts Frankenstein above the level of a grippingly mindless Gothic thriller.129-30
Suvin sees gothic literature and science fiction as antithetical, because the gothic is “anti-cognitive” (8), and because it aligns the physical laws governing the world with a simplistic ethical framework to create a universe hostile to the protagonist (19). I infer, then, that Suvin believes the creature’s narrative moves Frankenstein away from the gothic and toward true science fiction precisely because it renders our moral judgments more difficult, and treats the creature as something more complex than a standard gothic villain.
I would argue that the creature’s narrative disrupts gothic expectations for structural, as well as for ethical, reasons. Readers who approach Frankenstein through gothic conventions often see the creature as Victor’s doppelgänger, his gothic double. Alex Woloch points out “an important, but underrecognized, narrative dimension of the doppelgänger in nineteenth-century fiction, whose purely exterior configuration (are the thoughts of a double ever narratively articulated?) forces the protagonist to confront or conceptualize himself as an object rather than a subject, as a social rather than merely psychological being (and thus as a minor rather than central character)” (238). The double’s very exteriority is what distinguishes him from the original, whose interiority is presented in the discourse; but the double’s existence raises the possibility that the original himself could have been a minor character, defined by his exteriority (238). The answer to Woloch’s question – “are the thoughts of a double ever narratively articulated?” – is yes; they are articulated in Frankenstein. By allowing the creature to tell his own story, Shelley grants him the interiority that is typically denied to the doppelgänger. The peculiar importance of exteriority and interiority for the creature, becomes clear in the conversation with Victor leading up to the creature’s narration of his tale. Victor yells, “Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form” (67). The creature responds by placing his hands over Victor’s eyes, saying, “Thus I relieve thee, my creator... thus I take from thee a sight which you abhor. Still thou canst listen to me, and grant me thy compassion” (67). At the very moment the creature struggles to reveal his inner thoughts, he also prevents Victor from reducing him to his exterior appearance. By telling his story, the creature claims the status of protagonist, of original rather than doppelgänger. The creature does not so much expose Victor’s potential minorness, but rather asserts his own potential majorness, and disrupts the asymmetrical doubling associated with the gothic.
In addition, Frankenstein deviates from gothic conventions in its particular invitations to use induction, and strategies to frustrate such reasoning. My analysis of Frankenstein bears some resemblance to Margaret Russett’s analysis of gothic conventions in The Mysteries of Udolpho. Russett argues that Radcliffe’s heroine and Radcliffe’s readers adopt models of knowledge derived from British empiricism (specifically Hume’s model of inference or induction) to assign causes for the mysterious circumstances depicted in the novel (170). For both the gothic heroine and the reader of gothic fiction, applying such real-world standards of probability and causation is both unavoidable, and unproductive (177). There are some important differences, though, between her treatment of Udolpho and my treatment of Frankenstein, differences which may clarify what I find peculiar about Shelley’s text. Russett focuses on suspense in The Mysteries of Udolpho, which “is used here in a way that consciously aligns the reader’s experience with the heroine’s inescapable, equivocal anxiety” (159), and the reader “grasps at clues in the attempt to resolve her uncertainty” (164). Frankenstein differs in that suspense is not the dominant response of its readers, and Shelley does not align the reader’s anxiety with the protagonist’s. In that respect, I agree with Franco Moretti’s claim that “a description of fear and a frightening description are by no means the same thing. Frankenstein ... does not want to scare readers... . The person who is frightened is not the reader, but the protagonist” (106). Suspense is much less important during the process of reading Frankenstein than it is while reading Udolpho; but my argument further differs from Russett’s in that I am most interested in how readers process Frankenstein after they have reached the end of the text, in the security of their retrospective understanding of the novel as a whole. In that case, the reader’s rational, probabilistic judgements are not to hypothesize solutions to mysteries while having insufficient information, but rather to assign causes retrospectively to determine characters’ responsibility for various ethical mistakes. On the issue of what (if any) moral judgments we can make confidently, Moretti and I part ways. He argues, “[Frankenstein] appeals to [readers’] reason. It wants to make them reflect on a number of important problems ... [and] it wants to get the readers’ assent to the ‘philosophical’ arguments expounded in black and white by the author in the course of the narration” (106). I am suggesting that very little is expounded by the author, and none of it in black and white.
When readers attempt to apply inductive reasoning to Shelley’s novel, we find that there is an overabundance of information, which can’t be made to fit a clear, definitive pattern. The problem does not lie in confusing what is probable in real experience with what is probable in gothic fiction, as Russett diagnoses the case in gothic literature (177). Nor does it lie in Russett’s claim that “fictional probability... is rigged” (176), that the needs of the discourse trump the probability of the story (although there are any number of implausibilities in Shelley’s text). Rather, when readers attempt to decide the key ethical questions of Frankenstein, we are invited to think rationally and apply real-world standards of causation, but we find the data set too messy and contradictory for induction to provide any answers. In order to make such judgments, we must resort to deduction instead. Since we are not given sufficiently reliable guidance within the novel itself, we are forced to import our own starting premises from outside of the novel. In that case, Frankenstein either teaches its readers nothing that they didn’t know before, or it encourages readers to confront and question their own inherent assumptions about the origins of evil and the benefits and dangers of science.
I would like to thank Maggie Kilgour, Michael Eberle-Sinatra, Robert Philmus, Jonathan Sachs, Mary Esteve, and Jonathan Sadow, and all the other participants at Concordia University’s Works in Progress Colloquium Series (2006), the International Conference on Narrative (Carleton University, 2006), and the NASSR conference (Université de Montréal, 2005), for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay. I am grateful to Zoe Beenstock for her assistance with the preliminary research.
In the published 3-volume edition of 1818, the creature’s narrative literally occupies the center of the novel, occupying chapters 3-8 of the nine chapters which comprise volume 2. The original draft of the novel is composed of two, rather than three, volumes, and though the creature’s narrative is not so symmetrically placed at the center of the draft, it is given structural prominence since the creature’s narrative begins the second volume (Robinson 271).
Although I have found no direct evidence that Mary Shelley read Hume’s Enquiry or his Treatise of Human Nature, David Womersley finds an echo of Hume’s Treatise in the creature’s reading of Paradise Lost “as a true history,” and suggests that Percy Shelley likely read the Treatise (164-65). Frank B. Evans, III shows one of Percy’s prose notes to Queen Mab paraphrases Hume’s Enquiry on the doctrine of necessity and the “constant conjunction of similar events” (636). Mary did read Hume’s Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects from November 29, 1817 to January 13, 1818 (Shelley, Journals, 185-90), and read Hume’s Four Dissertations in January, 1818 (Shelley, Journals, 190). As I suggest later in this essay, Frankenstein’s representation of induction may also be influenced by Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, which Percy read in 1815 (Shelley, Journals, 92). Critics have suggested additional sources for the creature’s description of his earliest experiences, including Rousseau’s Emile (Richardson 150; Lipking 322-25), Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Pollin 107), and Adam’s awakening in Paradise Lost (O’Rourke 549).
Anne Mellor finds interesting thematic resonance in the novel’s references to fire (78-79).
Other Baconian elements of Frankenstein are discussed by Callahan (39-48), Svilpis (65-66), Kilgour (194, 204), and Mellor (89, 111).
The familiarity of the setting described within the creature’s tale contrasts with the sublimity of the setting in which the creature tells the tale. Paul Alkon says of the Alpine “backdrop” of Victor’s conversation with creature, “Shelley’s description of this scenery… evokes an estranging view of our world as though it were a different planet inhabited by ‘another race of beings’... . Shelley has it both ways. Her characters stay on earth, but we are told to imagine our world as another planet” (Science Fiction 31).
In context, this quotation refers to Frederick Pohl’s “Day Million.”
Carl Freedman argues that when Frankenstein begins his tale, and usurps Walton’s place as the apparent protagonist, the novel shifts from a traditional travel narrative to a “predominantly science fictional” work (Critical 49). My claims are not meant to contradict his, but rather to add another layer of complexity.
Paul Alkon makes a similar claim about Gulliver’s Travels, arguing that Book 3 appears closest to science fiction when defined by plausible technology, but Book 4 is more successful as science fiction defined by cognitive estrangement (“Gulliver” 175). In the case of Frankenstein, Alkon notes the cognitive estrangement produced by the creature’s tale, yet emphasizes the importance of science and technology: “Mary Shelley’s careful delineation of Victor Frankenstein’s progress from Geneva to Ingolstadt, from childhood dabblings in alchemy and magic to adult use – and misuse – of science, takes ... her book over the border from fantasy to science fiction” (Science Fiction 30). He nonetheless sees the two elements as related, suggesting that invoking science allows the novel to induce cognitive estrangement (Science Fiction 11). Other critics have not been so generous toward Victor’s use of science. James Rieger objects, “[T]he technological plausibility that is essential to science fiction is not even pretended at here. The science-fiction writer says ... since x has been experimentally proven or theoretically postulated, y can be achieved by the following, carefully documented operation. Mary Shelley skips to the outcome and asks, if y had been achieved, by whatever means, what would be the moral consequences? ... [S]he skips the science” (xxvii). By defining science fiction based on cognitive estrangement rather than technological plausibility, such an objection is overcome, and Shelley’s novel more firmly placed within the genre. In addition, my emphasis on the creature’s use of the inductive scientific method highlights the experiments and postulates that are “carefully documented” in the novel.
Alan Rauch discusses Victor’s failings in other aspects of the scientific method, such as the incremental development of knowledge, communication of results, and beneficial applications, in the context of actual medical practice and galvanic experiments.
Maggie Kilgour, for instance, remarks, “We have reasons... to mistrust Victor’s interpretive skills, and his ability to read the most basic facts of his own life... . Victor is unable to interpret even the most obvious clues given to him: he misreads the monster’s words concerning his wedding night” (210).
Carl Freedman notes that the novel “paints a brilliant double portrait of the outsider” since “in his essential solitude Victor is at one with his creature” (“Hail Mary” 262). Franco Moretti also notes Victor and the creature’s aberrance, in the course of arguing that Frankenstein rejects industrial capitalism: “Frankenstein and the monster are relegated to the status of mere historical ‘accidents’; theirs is only an episode, a ‘case’... . By this means Mary Shelley wants to convince us that capitalism has no future” (89).
Franco Moretti provides a similar reading of “race of devils” while arguing that the monster can’t be allowed to reproduce because Victor fears losing control of the proletariat, and because Mary Shelley doesn’t want capitalism to have a future (86).
These definitions are taken from the glossary in Phelan’s Narrative as Rhetoric. In Reading People, Reading Plots, Phelan discusses the interplay of these three functions at much greater length, in the context of the progressive development of literary characters within narrative texts. See especially pages 2-3 and 11-14 of Reading People for fuller definitions.
George Levine reads Walton as making the proper decision on both counts: “[T]he lesson he learns is not merely the explicit one, that he must sacrifice his ambition to others, but that he must also reject the vengeance that Frankenstein wishes upon him... . though this is not stated, in rejecting the vengeance which consumed Frankenstein, he is finally freed into a better (and perhaps a lesser) life” (19). Yet later Levine questions Walton’s assessment of Victor’s story: “Walton would seem the ultimate judge of the experience, as the outsider: yet he explicitly accepts Frankenstein’s judgment of it, and largely exculpates him. The monster’s own defense and explanation... is, however, by far the most convincing” (22). Paul Alkon emphasizes Walton’s sympathy for Victor but shares my skepticism toward Walton’s reception of his story, remarking “[h]is sympathetic interpretation may not be a model for subsequent readers” (Science Fiction 28). Both Levine and Alkon note the ambivalence in Victor’s final words (Levine 26; Alkon, Science Fiction, 30-31).
James O’Rourke also notes that Walton unwillingly returns south under duress from his crew, and comments on the equivocation in Victor’s dying advice (553).
Paul Alkon also observes the ambivalence in the Prometheus reference, which could be read as a “compliment” to Victor’s benevolent intentions, or an “ironic condemnation” of the dangers unleashed by them (Science Fiction 28). Paul Cantor and I agree that the prefatory material “points to an underlying moral ambiguity” (106), but we have differing reasons for drawing this conclusion. Cantor argues that both Victor and the creature could be aligned with Prometheus (103-04), and that Victor and the creature each share traits with Satan (and hence share his guilt) (105). Michael Eberle-Sinatra argues that Shelley rewrites the creation myths of Prometheus and Paradise Lost to deemphasize women further, but does so because “the very conspicuousness of this absence constitutes a critique of ‘things as they are’” (100). By defamiliarizing gender norms, this critique could be another source of cognitive estrangement in the text.
In Book 3 of Paradise Lost, God declares that man is “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (3.99) and that God’s own foreknowledge does not preclude man’s (and Satan’s) free will (3.111-28).
The relation of the novel as a whole to Godwin’s thought is much more complex. Robert Philmus suggests the creature’s explanation of his behavior is an absurd extension of Godwin’s connection between ethical action and sociability (87).
The 1831 edition of Frankenstein is less radically ambiguous, both because it omits the epigraph and dedication, and because it contains more references to Victor’s destiny, possibly diminishing his free will. While I agree with Nora Crook that both versions express contradictory views on fate and free will, I do not think that the additional subtle questioning of destiny she finds in the 1831 edition fully compensates for its more overt assertions of destiny’s power (10-15). The creature’s narrative is largely unchanged in the 1831 text (except for a fuller explanation of his motive in framing Justine).
As Woloch notes, “A first-person narrative necessarily makes a qualitative distinction between the human figure who narrates the story (and is thus presented as an agent or subject of perception) and the characters he writes about (mere objects of perception)” (178), but framed narratives and multiple narrators are among the “different strategies... to compensate ... for the structural imbalance that is compelled by first-person narrative” (179).
Paul Cantor suggests that Victor and the creature are reciprocal doubles of each other, and provocatively claims that “Frankenstein can be regarded as a projection of the monster’s psyche” (127). Another example of more symmetrical gothic doubles can be found in Caleb Williams, where Caleb and Falkland are given more equal shares of narrative attention than is usual in gothic fiction. Nonetheless, Falkland is not granted the privilege of telling his own story; his steward tells Falkland’s story to Caleb.
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