Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

In their chapter on ghosts in literature, Bennett and Royle propose that nineteenth century literature altered the widespread understanding of ghosts. The ghost now ‘move[d] into one’s head. The ghost is internalised: it becomes a psychological symptom, and no longer a thing that goes bump in the night… ‘ (p. 133). Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley certainly provides evidence for this argument that nineteenth century Gothic literature became more concerned with the haunted consciousness than the haunted house (Byron 2004: Stirling University).
The tale like all Gothic works is concerned with the uncanny, and if we believed the popular representation of Frankenstein, we could be fooled into thinking that it is simply about a terrifying, grotesque monster. However, is this actually what Shelley’s novel is about? By paying particular attention to chapter two in volume two of Frankenstein, and using Bennett and Royle’s chapter on ghosts, I will consider to what extent Frankenstein can be described as a ghost story. Before we start to look at Frankenstein itself, we should first look at the context in which it was written.
As is well known, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when travelling in Geneva with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. In her preface to Frankenstein, Shelley tells the reader that ‘in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and, occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts… ‘ She goes on to describe how ‘these tales excited us in a playful desire of imitation. [Percy Shelley, Lord Byron]… and myself agreed to write each a story, founded on some supernatural occurrence’ (Norton Anthology, p. 908).

So before we have even read her tale, we know that she initially intended to write it as some form of ghost story. Did Shelley achieve her goal? Chapter two in volume two of Frankenstein does seem to provide evidence to the presence of the theme of the supernatural. This is the chapter in which Victor and his creature are reunited after Victor first ran away after bringing the creature to life because he was terrified by its horrific appearance. Prior to this, our only impression of the creature was very much a mysterious one; we knew him only by Victor’s description of his hideous and deformed appearance.
Now we get to ‘meet’ him for ourselves, and our first impression may be that of shock; not because of his appearance (as of course we never really know what the creature looks like) but due to the eloquence with which he speaks. As Sparknotes summarise, ‘The monster’s eloquent narration of events… reveals his remarkable sensitivity and benevolence. ‘ The creature tells Victor of the pain and rejection he has had to suffer with great emotion; ‘All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! (Norton Anthology, p. 960).
His expressive words show us that the creature is not a purely evil being, as Victor would have had us believe. The creature’s appearance has an otherworldly attribute, simply because we never know and never will know what he actually looks like; we can only rely on Victor’s and Walton’s descriptions which may be biased, and so his appearance remains a secret. Nicholas Abraham ventures that ‘ghosts have to do with unspeakable secrets’ (Bennett and Royle, p. 134).
As we know, Frankenstein felt his secret of creating life was unspeakable to his family and friends – the only person he recounts his tale to is Walton (that the reader knows of anyway). On the other hand, Victor never constantly reiterates the creature’s horrific appearance, and pays much less attention to the humane, sensitive side of the creature. This turns out to be a fatal and tragic mistake, as the creature’s human characteristics turn out to be the most important; it is his humane side that becomes blackened by rejection of society, and causes the creature to kill Victor’s family and friends and eventually, Victor himself.
The way in which the creature appears before Victor in this chapter is also extremely eerie. He ‘bound[s] over the crevices in the ice’ as an answer to Victor’s call to the spirits. Victor pleads with them ‘Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life’ (Norton Anthology, p. 959). The fact that the creature’s arrival comes when Victor is pleading for someone to carry him away from his worries by means of death could foreshadow who Victor’s ‘saviour’ will be.
The creature also has a distinguishable effect on Victor when the two are reunited; he becomes the catalyst to cause Victor to become haunted only by his sheer animal hatred of the creature. As the creature approaches Victor, Victor describes how ‘anger and hatred had at first deprived me of utterance, and I recovered only to overwhelm him with words expressive of furious detestation and contempt’ (Norton Anthology, p. 959). The creature has a ghostlike effect on Victor, as he causes him to become paralysed, not by fear however, but by his pure loathing for him.
If we take this further, we could even venture to say that from the creature’s animation right until Victor’s death, the creature ‘initiates a haunting theme that persists throughout the novel-the sense that the monster is inescapable, ever present, liable to appear at any moment and wreak havoc’ (Sparknotes). Victor constantly lives in fear from the appearance of the creature, and also fears that he will kill all his family and friends. The way in which Frankenstein is narrated also carries on this haunting theme.
It is told through a series of multiple narratives, as if Shelley was trying to recreate the way in which scary stories are passed down through generations, and perhaps also how they change over time. A noteworthy example of the creature’s haunting effect on Victor comes when the two are reunited on the glacier. Victor describes with horror the feeling that came over him as he ‘beheld the figure of a man… advancing towards me with superhuman speed. ‘ He tells the reader that ‘I felt a faintness seize me; but I was quickly restored by the cold gale of the mountains.
I perceived as the shape came nearer, (sight tremendous and abhorred! that it was the wretch whom I had created. I trembled with rage and horror… ‘ (Norton Anthology, p. 959). Victor must have, on some level, expected a reunion with his creature at some point; he knew he could only run from him for so long. However, his guilt has haunted him from the creature’s creation, and so it could be that the creature is simply the embodiment of all of Victor’s guilt and remorse for acting like God. This could explain why he is overwhelmed with horror – not by the creature’s appearance, but because now he has to face his guilt head on, which he has attempted to put out of his mind for so long.
We should also observe that Victor says he was ‘restored by the cold gale of the mountains’ (Norton Anthology, p. 959) when he feels faint. This is the chapter in which the theme of sublime nature becomes utterly important in regard to understanding Victor Frankenstein, his creature and their remarkable relationship (Sparknotes). The majestic scenery of nature affects Victor’s moods, has the power to move him and remind him of good times and also bad times.
In a striking example, he goes so far as to say that ‘these sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving’ (Norton Anthology, p. 58). This comment may show that Victor takes greater comfort in God’s creation, that is, nature, than his own family, to whom he has not told his awful secret, and thus a barrier has been created. Victor has chosen instead to isolate himself and take comfort from the inanimate and almost haunting scenes around him.
The changing weather can also arouse in Victor his feelings of despondency. He remarks ‘… the rain poured down in torrents, and thick mists hid the summits of the mountains. I rose early, but felt unusually melancholy. The rain depressed me; my old feelings recurred, and I was miserable’ (Norton Anthology, p. 58). This could reveal that Victor’s moods are ruled by some absent yet ever-present being – perhaps God. God is notable primarily by his distinct absence in the novel (Byron 2004: Stirling University). However, the way that Victor does not appear to have the power to control his own feelings could show us that he has lost some of his own life and vitality in creating the creature, and now leaves it up to the changing nature and weather to control his emotions. The place where Victor and his creature meet is also significant, as it first introduces the idea of the creature being Victor’s doppelganger.
The fact that they both meet at a rather random scene of beauty rather than an actual place could show that they are both isolate creatures, albeit that Victor is isolated because he chooses to be, and the creature because he has to hide from human eyes. The language that Victor uses indicates to the reader that he would prefer to be alone with his secret in nature than with other people. He uses phrases such as ‘solitary grandeur’ and ‘terrifically desolate’ (Norton Anthology, p. 958) to describe the scenes around him, and perhaps also his state of mind.
The creature, like Victor, is affected by beautiful nature around him, and feels that ‘the desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge,’ (Norton Anthology, p. 960) which also reflects how Victor feels. The creature and Victor are both so at home in nature, which could stress that there is more to this relationship than meets the eye; are these two really so different? Many modern critics believe that the creature is Victor’s doppelganger. In earlier Gothic literature, evil was generally located in an external source, but Frankenstein sees a turn inwards to a focus on the evil within ourselves (Byron 2004: Stirling University).
Bennett and Royle propose that ‘conflicting senses of the word ‘ghost’ suggest ghosts are both exterior and central to our sense of the human’ (p. 132). The creature in Frankenstein is the embodiment of this confusion. While he is physically exterior, he also pervades Victor’s consciousness. It has to be remembered that it was Victor who created the creature, and so perhaps the creature is Victor’s doppelganger, as he is ‘the embodiment of an internal and irreparable division in the human psyche’ (Byron 2004: Stirling University).
It is possible to see that the gaps between Frankenstein and his creature are not as wide as we may have initially believed. However, while I do believe that Frankenstein is a ghost story to a very large extent, I do not think one could describe the tale of Frankenstein without, at some point, mentioning the genre of science fiction. While at once being Gothic and having the style of the German ghost stories that Shelley and her companions were reading on their travels, the story would have much less of an impact if it were not for the role that science plays in the book.
Victor becomes obsessed by the secret of life in the book, and it is he who creates the ‘ghost’ in the story, so it is not simply a case of the bogey man in Frankenstein. The creature challenges our way of thinking about ghosts because he was brought to life made of dead parts, as if life can spring from death with the use of science. So, while I would argue that the tale is most definitely a ghost story, I do not think that Frankenstein would have become such a literary classic if Shelly had not chosen to use the role of science to show us what can happen if we mere mortals meddle too much with God’s prerogative.

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