Composing what may not be "sad trash": a reconsideration of Mary Shelley's use of Paracelsus in Frankenstein.
Generally speaking, the critical commentary concerning the significance of Victor Frankenstein's three objects of youthful quasi-scientific study has followed the apparent lead of the novel's interior voices. Alphonse Frankenstein, Victor's father, observes Victor avidly reading Agrippa and responds by cautioning, "'do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash.'" (15) At the University of Ingolstadt, M. Krempe, Victor's initial choice for a mentor, upon learning that Victor has been reading the three, asks incredulously, "'Have you ... really spent your time studying such nonsense?'" (Frankenstein 26). M. Waldman, Victor's ultimate choice for a mentor, is more charitable than the other two respondents: he characterizes the work of Albertus, Agrippa, and Paracelsus as "'the labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed,'" and credits those labors as "'ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind,'" which has been able "'to give new names, and arrange in connected classifications, the facts which they in a great degree had been the instruments of bringing to light'" (Frankenstein 28). But Waldman questions the projects of the three even as he credits their labors, associating them by implication with those "'ancient teachers of this science [i.e., chemistry, who] ... promised impossibilities and performed nothing'" in attempting to transmute metals and to create the elixir of life (Frankenstein 27).
In fact, Victor attempts on his own to distance himself from Albertus, Agrippa, and Paracelsus, even before leaving home to attend university. After seeing a powerful bolt of lightning reduce "an old and beautiful oak" to "a blasted stump" and "thin ribbands of wood," Victor asks his father to explain "the nature and origin of thunder and lightning." Alphonse, with a little help from Benjamin Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1751), "constructed a small electrical machine, and exhibited a few experiments; he made also a kite, with a wire and string, which drew down that fluid from the clouds." Victor concludes, "This last stroke completed the overthrow of Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus, who had so long reigned the lords of my imagination" (Frankenstein 23). Perhaps Victor overstates the case. "But," he adds, "by some fatality I did not feel inclined to commence the study of any modern system...." He opts out of a series of lectures on chemistry that he has agreed to attend out of respect for his father's wishes that he do so, attributing his absence from them to "[s]ome accident." And when Victor begins attending, near the end of the series, he finds the discourse "of potassium and boron, of sulphates and oxyds, terms to which [he] could affix no idea," thoroughly incomprehensible and confesses, "I became disgusted with the science of natural philosophy, although I still read Pliny and Buffon with delight, authors, in my estimation, of nearly equal interest and utility" (Frankenstein 23). (6)
Victor's judgment, in several instances in the novel highly questionable, seems especially so in his comparative assessment of Buffon and Pliny. The former, the author of the forty-four volume Histoire Naturelle (1749-1804), was a painstaking if not always entirely accurate naturalist--he refused to relinquish his belief in "the scala naturae and the immutability of species," for example 10ut he commented usefully on "such central evolutionary problems as the origin of the earth, the extinction of species, the theory of 'common descent,' and in particular the reproductive isolation between two incipient species" (Mary Shelley 96). The latter was the "Roman author of the Historiae Naturalis (called by the Encyclopedia Britannica 'a storehouse of ancient errors')" (Frankenstein 23n). A statement like the one about Buffon and Pliny raises the question of whether Victor is in fact competent to judge whether "the overthrow of Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus"--in any event, of the last of these--has indeed been as complete as he himself announces it to be. Despite Victor's protestations to the contrary, Paracelsus continues as a formative presence throughout the novel.
Why consider Paracelsus, above and beyond Albertus and Agrippa? Commentators such as Vasbinder, who make no distinctions among the three as purveyors of ceremonial magic and alchemy, (7) and Lawrence Lipking, who is quick to point to the Paracelsian homunculus discussed in the De natura rerum (1537) as an example of the "pseudoscience" that Mary Shelley "needed for her experiment in fiction," (8) fail to see that of the three, Paracelsus is the one most nearly deserving of the praise that Waldman tenders for "'the labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed,'" whose work can be seen as "'ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.'" Jeremy Adler notes the influence of the work of Paracelsus, (but not Albertus and Agrippa) among others on E. F. Geoffroy's Tables of the Different Relations Observed in Chemistry between Different Substances (1720), a work that ultimately influenced subsequent theories of chemical attraction and Goethe's 1809 novel Elective Affinities. David Van Leer observes that the names of "Bacon, Newton, Laplace, Swedenborg and Paracelsus loom larger" than those of "Lamarck, Lyell and the two Darwins" (9) in the rise and progress of American romantic science.
Two of Paracelsus' modern editors go even further. Jolande Jacobi, editor of the Bollingen selected edition, observes that Paracelsus "often approaches the most recent insights of the modern psychology of the unconscious, and just as his pharmaceutics make him a precursor of modern chemotherapy, he may well be regarded also as a pioneer of modern psychotherapy. His faith in the 'healing word,' in the radiating efficacy of the physician's personality, is part of the modern psychologist's indispensable stock-in-trade." (10) A more recent editor, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, notes Paracelsus' "advocacy of homeopathy" (26), a doctrine that also attracted the interest of early nineteenth-century physicians such as M. J. B. Orfila, Astley Cooper, and Samuel Hahnemann, (11) and suggests that he "is often hailed as the founder of modern medicine and iatrochemistry." (12)
Perhaps it is best to let Paracelsus himself speak on at least two of these issues. His comments on poisons show him to be one of the originating thinkers of the homeopathic position, which states that in small doses, agents that are ordinarily held to cause illness may actually cure it. "Is not a mystery of nature concealed even in poison?" he asks. "What has God created that He did not bless with some great gift for the benefit of man? Why then should poison be rejected and despised, if we consider not the poison but its curative virtue?" (Paracelsus/Jacobi 169). And Paracelsus' comments on a cure for syphilis point the way toward both chemotherapy and iatrochemistry. Of the use of mercury to treat syphilis, he argues, "Upon these three forms of manifestation of mercurius, or quicksilver, is based the cure for the French disease" (168).
In part owing to the long-lasting renown of Paracelsus as a founder of modern medicine, mercury remained the drug of choice for treating syphilis among other maladies well into the nineteenth century. Keats was treated with it for the symptoms of syphilis. (13) And Percy Shelley's "partial recovery" from what he thought might be syphilis at the end of August 1815, after being treated by the surgeon and physiologist William Lawrence and prior to the set of circumstances that led to Mary Shelley's composition of the novel, (14) may also have resulted from the standard practice of a dose of mercury as well.
Mary Shelley's familiarity with Paracelsus likely resulted in the first instance from Percy Shelley's prior reading of him. In a letter of June 3, 1812, to Godwin, Shelley confesses that he "pored over the reveries of Albertus Magnus, & Paracelsus" (Letters of Shelley I: 303), crediting the former with helping to improve his Latin, but reserving further comment on the latter. Mary catches Percy Shelley in the act, as it were, by in part modeling the character of Victor, questing to discover the secret of life, loosely on the young Percy himself. (15) Of the three medieval and Renaissance occultists, Paracelsus comes closest to being part of the genius loci of the novel's setting--if not like Victor (and Rousseau before him "by birth a Genevese" (Frankenstein 17), (16) at least a Swiss, having been born in the German-speaking monastery village of Einsiedeln, in the canton of Schwyz, in 1493 (Paracelsus/Goodrick-Clarke 14).
Interestingly enough, the presence of Paracelsus in Frankenstein does not merely inform the novel's science--or its critique of science--although there is a tantalizing similarity to be observed between the "transparent" homunculus of Paracelsus (Paracelsus/Goodrick-Clarke 175) and the "watery eyes" of the monster (Frankenstein 34), as well as the forty-day and forty-week gestation of the homunculus (Paracelsus/Goodrick-Clarke 175) and the "nearly two years" that Victor works "for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body" (Frankenstein 34), part of the time being devoted to discovering the principle of life and part of the time being devoted to creating life itself. (17)
Rather, the presence of Paracelsus informs the protagonist of the novel's psychological development and the novel's narrative structure, both of which combine to offer a cultural critique far more trenchant and chilling than any directed at the science per se. The scientific hubris of Frankenstein is not Paracelsian, Darwinian, Galvanic, or Davian. It is, rather, Baconian. To the extent that other scientists are invoked, they are invoked in the service of the Baconian project, which is anathema in Victor's (and Calvin's) native city, Geneva, even as it was originally to Bacon. (18) Both Waldman and Victor paraphrase Bacon in the narrative leading up to the creation of the monster. Waldman speaks of how scientists "'penetrate into the utmost recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places,'" then goes on to allude to the discoveries of William Harvey and Robert Boyle (Frankenstein 28 &n). A few pages later, Victor confides, "One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself, and the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while ... I pursued nature to her hiding places" (32). (19)
There are any number of announcements of the Baconian program in The Advancement of Learning (1605) and elsewhere. But perhaps the most literal and imperialistic is found in The New Atlantis (1614-17), where the pursuit of nature to her hiding places, conveniently figured as invaginated spaces--caves (20)--is the project. Why do Atlanteans descend into their caves? As one of them states, "The End of our Foundation is the Knowledge of Causes and secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire to the effecting of all things possible." (21) Ultimately, the issue is not whether one does or does not believe in Paracelsus, but rather whether one believes in what Paracelsus acts out in his various representations and what Bacon literalizes: the truism that knowledge is power. It is a truism embodied by the eight-foot-tall monster, the powerful outcome of Victor's knowledge, whose "yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath" (Frankenstein 34). (22)
But Victor ironically fails to recognize that understanding nature is first and foremost a matter of understanding oneself. Natural knowledge and self-knowledge are not separable categories of understanding. Although "Frankenstein's self-absorption and irresponsibility have to be inferred" (Frankenstein B xxxix), these traits are readily evident to the questioning reader of the novel. For example, when Victor is on the verge of creating the monster, he states that he "had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body." The statement echoes the hope earlier expressed by Victor that he "might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet" (Frankenstein 34). If, as it was thought in the late eighteenth century, electricity is a fluid, then "infusing life into an inanimate"--that is, an unmoving--"body," is a matter of pouring electrical fluid into it. But the biblical account, which informs the novel strongly through the intertextual intermediation of Paradise Lost (1667; 1674), of how the first human was animated, does not apply electrical infusion, but rather pneumatological inspiriting (Gen. 2:7). The monster is also "an inanimate"--that is, an unensouled--"body," and no charge of electricity can remedy that lack. Yet Victor comes very close to the truth when he admits, "I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit" (Frankenstein 32). Without self-knowledge, even Victor's attempt to create % new species that would bless me as its creator and source" (32) is ultimately a soulless quest, and in this sense as well the monster is every bit a creature created in Victor's image. Indeed, the self-loathing that Victor and the monster manifest in common derives from their shared perception of their own soullessness.
As the scientists and philosophers of the romantic era knew, such soulless self-absorption dooms the scientific enterprise. The second scientific revolution in which they participated "is marked by enterprises in individual and cultural self-understanding that are both more radical and more explicit" than the enterprises of the first revolution. Such "enterprises" are necessary preparation for learning to speak "nature's own language." (23) Interestingly, the relationship between self-knowledge and natural knowledge is discussed at some length in Paracelsus, and Victor could not have studied him and not been made aware of the relationship.
To begin with, Paracelsus holds that to the extent that man is created in God's image, he is created in the image of the great world itself.
Consider how great and noble man was created, and what greatness is to be attributed to his structure! No brain can fully encompass the structure of man's body and the extent of his virtues; he can be understood only as an image of the macrocosm, of the Great Creature. Only then does it become manifest what is in him. For what is outside is also inside; and what is not outside man is not inside. The outer and the inner are one thing, one constellation, one influence, one concordance, one duration ... one fruit. (Paracelsus/Jacobi 95)
Nor is Paracelsus the originator of these concepts, which find expression elsewhere in his writings and which date back at least to Plato's Timaeus. (24) In his insistence that man--and it is man (about woman, more below)--is "an image of the macrocosm"--the microcosm created in the image of a God that is all in all, Paracelsus yokes natural knowledge and self-knowledge inescapably. If "the inner and the outer are one thing, then knowledge of the one presupposes knowledge of the other. Nearer to Mary Shelley's own time, physicians such as Astley Cooper and John Hunter professed the medical concept of sympathy--the real and reciprocal influence of the health of the mind on the health of the body and vice versa" (de Almeida 292-93)--which extended the microcosm-macrocosm analogy that Paracelsus appropriated from the platonists.
Victor's awareness that "what is outside is also inside," an awareness that some commentators on the novel have echoed, (25) grows for him cumulatively and distressingly, and with that growing awareness Victor is unable to sustain an ongoing sense that it is possible, in Waldman's words, to "'command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows'" (Frankenstein 28). (26) In the aftermath of William's murder and Justine's execution for a crime that Victor knows she did not commit, he states, "now all was blasted; now instead of that security of conscience, which allowed me to look back upon the past with self-satisfaction, and from thence to gather promise of new hopes, I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe" (Frankenstein 59). Here the notion exists in an uneasy resonance with the Miltonic concept, as voiced by Satan, of the self as hell, (27) a concept which is actually the infernal corollary to what Paracelsus has to say about the self and this world. Subsequently, after listening to Elizabeth reflect on the fate of Justine and reaffirm her sense that Justine was innocent of the crime in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Victor reaffirms the identity of the outer and the inner. "I listened to this discourse with the extremest agony," Victor confesses, "I, not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer" (Frankenstein 61).
But the word "blasted" signals a connection between this passage and the one in which the lightning bolt renders the oak tree "a blasted stump" (23), as well as the one in which Victor makes the connection explicit. While stopping at Oxford on the way to Scotland, there to begin work on creating the monster's mate, Victor reflects on how far he has come from another university in another place and time.
During my youthful days discontent never visited my mind; and if I was ever overcome by ennui, the sight of what was beautiful in nature, or the study of what is excellent and sublime in the productions of man, could always interest my heart, and communicate elasticity to my spirits. But I am a blasted tree; the bolt has entered my soul; and I felt that I should survive to exhibit, what I shall soon cease to be--a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity, pitiable to others and abhorrent to myself. (110)
The destruction by lightning of the macrocosmic oak tree eventually prompts Victor to propose himself as the microcosmi "blasted tree," its "soul" or vital principle rendered moribund by the losses that Victor has sustained. That soul should be associated with a vital principle would not have proved surprising to those of Frankenstein's readers familiar with the Abernethy-Lawrence debate over the nature of the life force, in the course of which the former identified the life force as being connate with the soul as it was originally breathed into humanity in Genesis 2:7 (de Almeida 100-101).
The destruction of the macrocosmic tree occurs, not by narrative coincidence, immediately prior to the final illness and death of Victor's mother from scarlet fever (Frankenstein 24-25). The two events, in other words, are associated, and not surprisingly. Trees in Paracelsus figure womanhood and nurturance, and in the figurative economy of the novel, if not in Paracelsus, the destruction in question enacts a type of denaturing or deformity.
Nurturance is a central concern of the novel, whether taken as an historical issue, an issue of characterization, or an issue in the life of Mary Shelley. Johanna M. Smith contends that Frankenstein in its presentation of Victor interrogates the Enlightenment "myth of human capacity to be perfected by education and nurture" (Frankenstein S 318). Butler, citing Godwin's recommendation of "as little mourning as possible" and Percy Shelley's inability to offer Mary anything other than intellectual support in coping with the deaths of three of her four children, not to mention the suicides of her half-sister and Percy Shelley's first wife, suggests that Mary transformed her personal experience into her novel. "To the extent that Frankenstein is a family drama, centred on parental nurture (or the lack of it), on the failure of communication and mutual support, and on the death of its gentlest, most vulnerable members, it reads like an imaginative reworking of experience" (Frankenstein B xiii).
In the words of Paracelsus, writing in the Opus Paramirum (1530-31),
A woman is like a tree bearing fruit. And man is like the fruit that the tree bears. The tree must be well nourished until it has everything that it needs to give, which is why it is there. But consider how much injury one tree can bear, and how much less the pears. By that much a woman is also superior to man. Man is to her what the pear is to the tree. The pear falls but the tree remains standing. The tree continues to care for further fruit in the course of its long life, therefore it must also receive much, suffer much, bear up with much for the sake of its fruits, in order that they may thrive well and happily.... (Paracelsus/Goodrick-Clarke 94-95)
Although Caroline Frankenstein "bear[s] up with much for the sake of [her] fruits"--Victor reports that "on her death-bed the fortitude and dignity of this admirable woman did not desert her" (Frankenstein 24)--she ultimately succumbs.
The failure of nurturance that Caroline Frankenstein's death symbolizes for Victor finds expression in his relationship to food. Walton and his crew's first actions upon bringing the emaciated Victor aboard ship include "rubbing him with brandy and forcing him to swallow a small quantity." Some time thereafter, Walton reports, Victor took "a little soup, which restored him wonderfully" (14). One of the monster's first actions is to respond to the primal sensations of hunger and thirst: "... I lay by the side of a brook resting from my fatigue, until I felt tormented by hunger and thirst. This roused me from my nearly dormant state, and I ate some berries which I found hanging on the trees, or lying on the ground. I slaked my thirst at the brook ..." (68). Nor does the monster ever forgo the opportunity to speak of his diet and note that it is, in contrast to humanity's more generally if not to Victor's, vegetarian. (28)
However, Victor says virtually nothing about his own diet throughout much of the novel--not even on the occasion of his wedding--merely noting that, "after the ceremony was performed, a large party assembled at my father's" (Frankenstein 133). His only mention of specific foods--not his own diet, however--comes in his description of the island in the Orkneys where he has gone to fabricate the monster's mate.
The soil was barren, scarcely affording pasture for a few miserable cows, and oatmeal for its inhabitants, which consisted of five persons, whose gaunt and scraggy limbs gave tokens of their miserable fare. Vegetables and bread, when they indulged in such luxuries, and even fresh water, was to be procured from the main land, which was about five miles distant. (113)
Subsequently, Victor gives the islanders "a pittance of food and clothes" (113). Here and throughout the rest of the novel, Victor's references to food always emphasize its scarcity or absence. Although he fares well enough, the monster echoes this thematization in his narrative, especially the part which deals with the De Lacys and Safie.
Interestingly enough, the majority of references to Victor's food and drink are associated with the creation--and, afterwards, the destruction--of another female object, the monster's mate, and afterwards with the pursuit of the monster himself. After dumping the remains of the monster's mate into the sea, Victor, who "had already been out many hours ... felt the torment of a burning thirst ..." (119). He does not mention slaking that thirst. After weathering the storm at sea that follows the dumping, Victor sights a town on the Irish coast and sails toward it "as a place where [he] could most easily procure nourishment" (119). But Victor has no money, and he does not record that he is fed. Only while pursuing the monster northwards--and then only for the purpose of trying to maintain his strength in order to apprehend and kill his creation--does Victor consume "some food that [he] had killed," taking only "a small part," and sharing the bulk of it with the villagers "who had provided [him] with fire and utensils for cooking" (142).
In fact, the only record of Victor's ingesting anything other than the meat he eats while pursuing the monster is of the medicines that his nurse prepares and administers (123), and of the laudanum that he begins to take as a soporific (127). In the aftermath of his trial for the murder of Clerval, whom the monster murders in revenge for Victor's destruction of the monster's mate, Victor says more than he knows, stating that "the cup of life was poisoned for ever ..." (126). (29)
Paracelsus is clear on the symbolic function of food. Here as elsewhere, using the figure of the tree, Paracelsus declares,
All our nourishment becomes ourselves; we eat ourselves into being. So also in medicine, with this difference, that the treatment must match the disease. In health all that is worn out is restored to each organ by and in itself Do not be astonished at this: a tree which stands in the field would not be a tree, had it no nourishment. What is nourishment? It is not a mere feeding or stuffing but the restoration of form. What is hunger? It is a precursor of future death in the waste of organs. For the form is carved by God himself in the womb. (Paracelsus/Goodrick-Clarke 80-81)
If food symbolizes "the restoration of form," then the absence of food symbolizes not only death but deformity as well.
One result of the mother's death that symbolizes a failure of nurturance is Victor's growing awareness of his own deformity. In the first instance, that death is implicated in the deformed and deforming Baconian project. Unreflectively pursuing "nature to her hiding places" (Frankenstein 32), in other words, is a form of pursuing the absconded mother rather than the nurturance she symbolizes. (30) Overtly, it is the monster who, by his own admission, is "endowed with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome (80), but Victor's failure to feed alludes to his own deformity, no less operative, if less visible, than the monster's. Moreover, Victor's growing identification with the monster suggests his own awareness of his deformity. Near the end of Victor's narrative, he confides in his father, as he had done "often, during [his] imprisonment," "'William, Justine, and Henry--they all died by my hands.'" When his father asks if he is mad, Victor denies being so, reiterating, "'I am the assassin of those most innocent victims; they died by my machinations'" (128-29). (31)
The monster for his part, while standing over Victor's newly lifeless body, echoes his assumption of the guilt that comes with deformity. "'That is also my victim!' he exclaimed; [']in his murder my crimes are consummated; the miserable series of my being is wound to its close! Oh, Frankenstein! generous and self-devoted being! What does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me? I, who irretrievably destroyed thee by destroying all thou lovedst'" (Frankenstein 153). (32)
As Victor and the monster converge and finally come together in Walton's presence, they implicitly interrogate the novel's narrative structure and pose issues of narrativity. The narrative structure of Frankenstein has received its share of critical notice. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, drawing on the work of Marc A. Rubenstein, note that "Frankenstein contains three 'concentric circles' of narration (Walton's letters, Victor Frankenstein's recital to Walton, and the monster's speech to Frankenstein), within which are embedded pockets of digression containing other miniature narratives (Frankenstein's mother's story, Elizabeth Lavenza's and Justine's stories, Felix and Agatha's story, Safie's story), etc." Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak claims that "Frankenstein is built in the established epistolary tradition of multiple frames." Maurice Hindle notes that the novel's original three-volume format highlighted "the Chinese box structure of the narrative worlds-within-worlds of the book." And Butler notes that "Frankenstein can be read as the testimonies of three deliberately differentiated autobiographers, who together bear witness to a story of universal significance." (33)
In discussing the issues of narrativity that Frankenstein poses, I wish to focus primarily on matters of connexity and causality. Philip J.M. Sturgess offers two definitions of connexity, the second being the more useful for the discussion at hand. He states that such "connexity is concerned with the way events actually 'connect' in the form in which they present themselves to the reader. It derives from the relationship between events in terms of their place and manner of representation in the syntagm. The discursive contiguity of such events may, or may not, coincide with the relationship these terms have in the chronological or chronological-causal sphere of the represented world." (34) Sturgess discusses both macrotextual and microtextual causality. The second sort of causality, having to do in part with "microtextual features ... which constitute the narrative continuum at every point of the syntagm within chapters or breaks" (42), is the one that is more useful for the discussion at hand. Connexity and microtextual causality are among the operative features and structures of narrative that give it a meaning that inheres in those features and structures, rather than the syntagm per se. Of Ulysses (1922), but in a sense no less valid for Frankenstein, Sturgess observes, "we may say that the story of narrativity derives its nature from the sequence of representation in any work" (189). In formalist terms, connexity and microtextual causality are two of the operative features and structures of narrative primarily responsible for the narrative's sjuzet, or discourse, as opposed to its fabula, or story (28).
There are three questions to be engaged here regarding narrativity in the novel: where is the monster in the narrative, how may one characterize the novel's various scenes of narration, and who if anyone understands the significance of her/his actions within the frame of the narrative itself? To answer the first question: the monster is in the narrative--almost as deeply in the narrative as it is possible to be. In terms of Hindle's "Chinese box structure," the box within the other two boxes, the narrative that centers the other two narratives, which tell, respectively, the story of his creation and the story of his creator, is the monster's. In a sense, he is also within the metanarrative of Victor who creates the monster discursively as well as physically, out of his own desire to be recognized for the prodigious deed of creating human life. Victor's claim that because "the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to [his] speed, [he] resolved, contrary to [his] first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large" (Frankenstein 31-32), is disingenuous. He states that he "began the creation of a human being" (31).
The monster is created in Victor's ego-image, and if he is created unlanguaged and unblessed, he is nevertheless Victor's living word, and as such the monster and his monstrous word center the novel and its narratives, including Walton's. Up to the last minute, when he accedes to the crew's wishes and "consent[s] to return," Walton, who is informed in part by the narratives of the monster and Victor, frames his voyage of discovery in terms of his own ego image. In attempting to exhort his crew to stay the course, Walton says more than he knows when he argues, "'This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts might be; it is mutable, cannot withstand you, if you say that it shall not'" (150). Walton is projecting, and what he projects in part is a personality at once so hard-hearted and cold-hearted as to put pack ice to shame.
The monster, as a created being, implies the relationship between creator, creature, and world underwritten by the Paracelsian texts. To the extent that the world and the scene of narration are coterminous, they are as cold and blighted as are the three narrators. Walton tells his tale from the ice-filled Arctic Sea. Victor's tale is told from a number of blighted locales--his home after the death of his mother; his "workshop of filthy creation" (32); his home after the murder of William and before the unjust execution of Justine; the Met de Glace; a blighted island in the Orkneys to which Victor has gone to create the monster's mate; a jail cell, his home after the murder of Clerval; in the snow and ice fields of northern regions-and ultimately from Walton's ship. The monster's tale is told from the Mer de Glace, Victor's foul workshop, a winter landscape, the "kennel" (71) adjoining the De Lacey residence, and from Walton's ship.
What is thematized by the novel's treatment of food is narrativized by the scene of narration, which is almost always inhospitable and which places tremendous pressure on language, which tells the deceptions its speakers enact and live out. Referring to the early phase of his existence, when he is acquiring language and before he grows into the image of his creator, the monster, alluding to the narrative of Balaam and his ass (Num. 22:20-41), claims to have spoken God's truth as it were, in a manner "harsh, but supple," much like "the gentle ass, whose intentions were affectionate, although his manners were rude ..." (77). But those whom he observes as his models, figured by implication as "lap-dog[s]" (77), that is, unproductive and overrefined, are not even as good as their name, let alone their word. As the monster first begins to acquire language, he learns that, "The girl was called sister, or Agatha, and the youth Felix, brother, or son'" He also learns several other words, "without being able to as yet understand or apply them; such as good, dearest, unhappy" (75).
The monster unwittingly engages in a critique of onomastics that is a critique of language more generally. What is in a name? Felix means happy or fortunate. But as the monster himself observes, Felix "was always the saddest of the groupe" (75). Agatha, the feminine form of the Greek to agathon, the good, exhibits no such quality upon seeing the monster, instead fainting, while Felix rips the monster away from his father, then strikes the monster (91). Similarly, Victor is hardly victorious, nor is he a free stone--Frankenstein in the sense of being free spirited--but only in the sense of gathering no moss and ending up with no place to call home on this earth. Not being as good as one's name suggests what the novel otherwise renders in its narrative: an all-but-epidemic lack of self-knowledge.
Safie, whose name derives from the Arabic word for "clean," or "pure," (35) is as good as her name. And her presence at the virtual center of the novel, in perhaps the most centrally embedded of all the narratives within narratives, opens on the third of the three questions concerning narrativity by raising anew the issue of ensoulment. In Safie's case ensoulment proves to he the means to attaining self-knowledge, as such knowledge relates to that aspect of narrativity having to do with understanding the significance of one's own actions. And through the attainment of self-knowledge comes knowledge of the other.
For Paracelsian microcosmic humanity to understand the Paracelsian macrocosm, the soul must function within the microcosmic body as it does within the macrocosm, so that "the outer and the inner are one thing, one constellation, one influence, one concordance, one duration ... one fruit" (Paracelsus/Jacobi 95). Knowledge of the other or the world-soul presupposes self-knowledge or knowledge of one's own soul, in other words. Safie's mother, who "was a Christian Arab," imparted to Safie the desire for both kinds of knowledge. "She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion, and taught her to aspire to higher powers of the intellect, and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet." These "lessons were indelibly impressed upon the mind of Safie, who sickened at the prospect of ... being immured within the walls of a harem, allowed only to occupy herself with puerile amusements, ill suited to the temper of her soul, now accustomed to grand ideas and a noble emulation for virtue" (Frankenstein 83).
The compositional history of the novel makes clear just how this part of the narrative bears on the question of the soul as the source of "higher powers of the intellect, and an independence of spirit." In his chronology of the novel's composition, Charles E. Robinson notes that Mary Shelley finished the fourth chapter of the second volume--the chapter preceding the Safie chapters--on 5 December 1817. From 5 to 9 December Shelley was involved in writing the fifth and sixth chapters of the second volume--the Safie chapters (Notebooks I:lix)--at the very same time she was reading her mother's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). To be precise, the journal entries for 8 and 9 December note both that Shelley was writing and reading "Rights of Woman." (36)
Wollstonecraft is clearly the source of her daughter's comments. Questioning Milton's characterization of Eve in Paradise Lost, Wollstonecraft imputes motives verging on oriental despotism. "I cannot comprehend his meaning," she says of Milton, "unless, in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation." (37) The imputation to Koranic doctrine of the position that women do not have souls, although now known to be a mistaken, if widespread, interpretation, is profoundly disturbing to Wollstonecraft--so much so that she returns to the issue several times thereafter. Wollstonecraft questions gender roles that reduce women to the conditions that obtain in "the seraglio," where "the epicure must have his palate tickled, or he will sink into apathy.... " "Surely," Wollstonecraft argues, "she has not an immortal soul who can loiter life away merely employed to adorn her person, that she may amuse the languid hours and soften the cares of a fellow-creature who is willing to be enlivened by her smiles and tricks, when the serious business of life is over" (Vindication 29).
How does Safie's self-knowledge manifest itself? She knows her mind, both as concerns the general principles to which she subscribes, and as concerns the tactics to be employed in support of those principles. Having resolved not to return to Turkey, "the prospect of marrying a Christian, and remaining in a country where women were allowed to take a rank in society, was enchanting to her" (Frankenstein 83). When she finds out that her father must flee to Turkey but wishes her to stay in Leghorn to secure his as-yet undelivered property, Safie "resolve[s] in her own mind a plan of conduct that it would become her to pursue in this emergency." Taking "some jewels that belonged to her, and a small sum of money" (85), Safie, attended by a Turkish-speaking Italian servant, follows the De Laceys into Germany, whence the family has fled.
Safie's self-knowledge in the ways of the soul manifests in her playing and singing of "some airs so entrancingly beautiful," on the monster's report, "that they at once drew tears of sorrow and delight from my eyes. She sang, and her voice flowed in a rich cadence, swelling or dying away, like a nightingale in the woods." Nor is Safie's command of language restricted to her own. Although the monster subsequently contradicts himself on the matter, he initially reports of Safie and himself that "she and I improved rapidly in the knowledge of language ..." (79).
Safie's soul is both her object and means of expression. It is her narrative, and as such it exists in contrast to the monster's repressively soulless narrative and the repressively soulless narratives of Victor and Walton beyond him. In her "Note on the Revolt of Islam," originally pubhshed in 1817 as Laon and Cythna; or, the Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century, but suppressed, revised, and reissued in 1818, the same year as Frankenstein, under its new title, Mary Shelley chronicles the events informing Percy Shelley's composition of The Revolt of Islam in such a way as to suggest that the climate of repression that permeates her novel also permeated his life at the time.
The saddest events awaited his return to England; but such was his fear to wound the feelings of others that he never expressed the anguish he felt, and seldom gave vent to the indignation roused by the persecutions he underwent; while the course of deep unexpressed passion, and the sense of injury, engendered the desire to embody themselves in forms defecated of all the forms of weakness and evil which cling to real life. (38)
Percy Shelley "defecates" his poem "of all the forms of weakness and evil which cling to real life" by creating the same sort of symbolic landscape and narrative frame that Mary Shelley does in her novel, both of which figure the context of the times as cold and meager as a way of dealing with social and interpersonal issues that cannot be broached in any other way. As Cythna, the female protagonist, sings to Laon, the male, of the world that the poem symbolizes (and that the novel symbolizes in a manner not so differently):
"This is the winter of the world;--and here We die, even as the winds of Autumn fade, Expiring in the frore and foggy air--Behold! Spring comes, though we must pass who made The promise of its birth.... " (Poetical Works 9.25.3685-89)
One cannot help but be reminded of the monster's exit in the last lines of the novel (and this discussion): Death is the only anodyne for the physical and mental anguish begotten of the failure to attend to matters of the soul. Seeking to "'sleep in peace,'" or at the very least to think of the world differently from the way he does in the novel's present, the monster "sprang from the cabin-window.., upon the ice-raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in the darkness and distance" (Frankenstein 156).
(1.) Samuel Holmes Vasbinder, Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1984) 61.
(2.) Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley, Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988) 90. Subsequent parenthetical references to this text as Mary Shelley, followed by page number(s), will appear in the text and notes of the essay.
(3.) Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, ed. James Rieger (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974) xxvi.
(4.) U. C. Knoepflmacher, "Appendix," The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1979) 317.
(5.) Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Nineteenth Century Responses, Modern Criticism, ed. J. Paul Hunter (New York: Norton, 1996) 21. Subsequent parenthetical references to this text as Frankenstein, followed by page number(s), will appear in the text and notes of the essay.
(6.) The chemical references are anachronistic in a novel carefully set in the late eighteenth century, sometime between the publication of Volney's Les Ruines, ou Meditations sur les Revolutions des Empires (1791), which the monster overhears Felix using to instruct Safie (Frankenstein 79-80) and the end of 1799. All of Walton's letters to his sister bear the year date of "17--" (passim). Boron and potassium were first isolated and named by the Shelleys' favorite chemist, Humphrey Davy, in 1807. Davy had also worked on the oxides ("oxyds') of nitrogen and on acid anhydrides such as sulfur trioxide ("sulphates'). See David Knight, Humphry Davy: Science and Power (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) 57-73, 82-88. None of this work is discussed in Davy's A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (1802), which has usually been cited as the source of Mary Shelley's acquaintance with Davy's researches (see Mary Shelley 91; Vasbinder 74). The work on potassium, at any rate, is first discussed in Davy's second Bakerian Lecture, "The Bakerian Lecture, on Some new Phenomena of Chemical Changes produced by Electricity," first published in Philosophical Transactions (1808).
(7.) Vasbinder 51-63. See also Martin Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976) 55-62.
(8.) Lawrence Lipking, "Frankenstein, the True Story; or Rousseau Judges Jean Jacques," in Frankenstein 313-31, esp. 323. See also Tropp 59.
(9.) See Jeremy Adler, "Goethe's Use of Chemical Theories in His Elective Affinities," in Romanticism and the Sciences, ed. Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine (New York: Oxford UP, 1990) 263-79, esp. 265, and David Van Leer, "Nature's Book: The Language of Science in the American Renaissance," in Romanticism and the Sciences 307-21, esp. 307.
(10.) Paracelsus: Selected Writings, ed. Jolande Jacobi, tr. Norbert Gutennan (New York: Bollingen, 1951) 67. Subsequent parenthetical references to Paracelsus/Jacobi will appear in the text.
(11.) Hermione de Almeida, Romantic Medicine and John Keats (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 150-51.
(12.) Paracelsus: Essential Readings, ed. and tr. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (London: Crucible, 1990) 30. Subsequent parenthetical references to Paracelsus/Goodrick-Clarke will appear in the text.
(13.) See The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958) 1: 171; and Aileen Ward, John Keats: The Making of a Poet (New York: Viking, 1963) 185.
(14.) Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: the 1818 Text, ed. Marilyn Butler (London: Pickering, 1993) xi-xii; The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964) 1: 429. Subsequent parenthetical references to Frankenstein B and Letters of Shelley will appear in the text.
(15.) Tropp 55, also notes the formative influence on Mary Shelley of "her father's novel St. Leon (1799)," in which "she read of an alchemist, St. Leon, who discovers both the philosophers' stone and the elixir of life" (55), as does Marilyn Butler, Frankenstein xiv, in her edition of the novel. See also Christopher Small, "Shelley and Frankenstein," in Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary, and Frankenstein (London: Gollancz): 100-104; Frankenstein 205-8.
(16.) See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" Critical Inquiry 12.1 (Autumn 1985): 243-61, esp. 246.
(17.) The creation of the monster itself seems to take place within the compass of one year. Victor narrates in medias res, "The summer months passed while I was engaged, heart and soul, in one pursuit" (Frankenstein 32). The creation of the monster is completed at approximately the 320 days specified for the creation of the homunculus, "on a dreary night of November ... " (34).
(18.) Stuart Peterfreund, "Imagination at a Distance: Bacon's Epistemological Double Bind, Natural Theology, and the Way of Scientific Explanation in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries," The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 41.2 (Summer 2000): 110-40, esp. 118-22.
(19.) See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, tr. F. L. Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) 1: 208. Calvin states very clearly that "the order, reason, end, and necessity of those things which happen for the most part lie hidden in God's purpose" (1, 16, 9).
(20.) See Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1980) 164-90.
(21.) The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 7 vols. (London, 1857-59) 3: 156.
(22.) See Fred Botting, "Frankenstein and the Language of Monstrosity," in Reviewing Romanticism, ed. Philip W. Martin and Robin Jarvis (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992): 51-59; Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979) 213, 221-27, 231 40 (and Frankenstein 225-40); and Sarah Webster Goodwin, "Democracy and Uncanny Kitsch in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and Frankenstein," Texas Studies in Women's Literature 10.1 (Spring 1991): 93-108. The monster has been proposed as embodying, among other things, the mob (Botting), "a female in disguise" (Gilbert and Gubar 237), and "the repressed violence of the home" (Goodwin 101).
(23.) Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine, "Introduction: The Age of Reflection," in Romanticism and the Sciences 1-9, esp. 1, 6.
(24.) Paracelsus argues as follows in the Opus Paramirum:
For the Great World has all the human proportions, divisions, parts, members just as man has; and man receives these in food and medicine. The parts are separated one from another for the sake of the whole and its form. In science their general body is the physicum corpus. So man's body receives the body of the world, as a son his father's blood; for these are one blood and one body, separated only by the soul, but in science without separation. (Paracelsus/Goodrick-Clarke 84-85) According to Timaeus, when the Creator had framed the soul according to his will, he formed within her the corporeal universe, and brought the two together, and united them centre to centre. The soul, interfused everywhere from the center to the circumference of heaven, of which also she is the external envelopment, herself turning in herself, began a divine turning of never-ceasing and rational life enduring throughout all time. (36b [Jowett translation]).
(25.) See Frankenstein: Complete Authoritative Text with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives, 2nd ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000) 329. Subsequent parenthetical references in the text will be to Frankenstein S. See also Goodwin 100-101. Smith, who cites Paracelsus, claims that Victor's "crisis is a microcosm of the position of chemistry itself at the turn of the nineteenth century." Goodwin finds that "violence is at the heart of every home in the novel," and that the monster, by his actions, "gives expression" to the "repressed violence of the home."
(26.) See Shelley's Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2002), Waldman's speech seems to echo Asia's speech in Prometheus Unbound (1820):
And human hands first mimicked and then mocked With moulded limbs more lovely than its own The human form, till marble grew divine, And mothers, gazing, drank the love men see Reflected in their race, behold and perish, (2.4.80--84)
(27.) See Paradise Lost 4.73-75, in John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey, 1957).
(28.) "'My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment'" (Frankenstein 99). Percy Shelley was, for most of his life, a vegetarian.
(29.) See de Almeida 151 and n. Victor's comments anticipate Coleridge's comments on the distinctions to be observed between food, medicine, and poison, as those distinctions are laid out in the Table Talk entry for 13 May 1833. Coleridge in his turn seemingly echoes Paracelsus.
(30.) See Anne K. Mellor, "Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein" Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988): 220-32 (and Frankenstein 274-86, esp. 274); and Stephen Behrendt, "Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Woman Writer's Fate" Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices, ed. Paula Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley (Hanover: UP of New England, 1995): 69-87, esp. 69.
I disagree with Mellor, who argues that "Frankenstein's scientific project--to become the sole creator of a human being--supports a patriarchal denial of the value of women and of female sexuality." His project originates out of an anger with the absconded mother, combined with a fear that all female objects have the potential to abscond in a similar way. In a sense, they do. All the major female characters in the novel, save, perhaps for Safie and Agatha predecease Victor, and all are, as Stephen Behrendt notes, "significantly displaced... or entirely eliminated" (69). Victor also harbors a profound ambivalence as to what it would be like to (re)possess in some way the absconded object. This complex of emotions underwrites the dream immediately prior to the monster's first stirrings, in which Victor sees Elizabeth transformed before his very witness into "the corpse of [his] dead mother" (Frankenstein 35).
The women of the novel are not represented as fiercely or even warmly maternal. Elizabeth, who stands in for Caroline as the maternal object by helping to raise Victor's siblings after Caroline's death, speaks to Victor of having children as follows: "'And when time shall have softened your despair, new and dear objects of care will be born to replace those of whom we have been so cruelly deprived'" (132).
Taken all in all, the psychological dynamic of a novel ultimately addressed to "the unseen, silent auditor/reader Margaret Walton Saville (MWS), who exists only in Walton's letters" (Behrendt 69), says a lot more about the unfinished business of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (MWS) with her mother than about the socially constructed role of women in the early nineteenth century.
(31.) See Mary Poovey, "'My Hideous Progeny': The Lady and the Monster," The Proper Ladle and the Woman Writer (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984): 121-31 (and Frankenstein 251-61, csp. 253). In a sense, Victor's mea culpas bear out Mary Poovey's contention that, "Mary Shelley characterizes innate desire not as neutral or benevolent but as quintessentially egotistical."
(32.) "Self-devoted" is a marvelous locution in this context, meaning both self-consecrated or self-sacrificed in the Miltonic sense, and self-centered in our contemporary sense of the term.
(33.) "Monstrous Eve," in Frankenstein 229; Spivak 265; Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, ed. Maurice Hindle (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992) xliv; Frankenstein B xvii.
(34.) Philip j. M. Sturgess, Narrativity: Theory and Practice (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992) 183.
(35.) See The Frankenstein Notebooks: A Facsimile Edition, ed. Charles E. Robinson, 2 vols., The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics 9 (New York: Garland, 1996) I:lix. Subsequent parenthetical references to Notebooks will appear in the text. Robinson points out that Safie was originally Maimouna, after Maimuna, a character in Southey's Thalaba (1801), then Amina, the final decision to change her name being taken at a relatively late stage of composition.
(36.) Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1947) 70.
(37.) Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1988) 19. Subsequent parenthetical references to Vindication will appear in the text.
(38.) The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, corr. G. M. Matthews (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970) 156. Subsequent parenthetical references to Poetical Works will appear in the text.
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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