Frankenstein and the excess of signification :
a case of unstable balance

Publication en ligne le 19 décembre 2017


L'auteur met en relief le caractère polysémique d'un roman qui se prête à de multiples interprétations, voire à certains délire interprétatifs, à un excès de signification. L'ambivalence de la position de Mary Shelley vis à vis de ses personnages conditionne l'incessant mouvement de bascule du lecteur qui sympathise tour à tour avec le créateur, puis avec la créature, en fonction de la perspective narrative dominante (conséquence de l'enchâssement des récits). Le roman qui témoigne du caractère incertain de la démarche intellectuelle de l'auteur – entre acceptation et révolte, affirmation d'une identité féminine et soumission aux valeurs masculines, – peut aussi se lire comme illustration de la propre quête introspective de son auteur.

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1In his S/Z, Barthes says of the operation of interpretation : « to interpret a text is not to give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it ». He then goes on to envisage a triumphant plural text whose « networks are many and interact, without anyone of them being able to surpass the rest ; […] we can gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one ; the codes it mobilises […] are indeterminable […] ; the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language » (5-6).

2Frankenstein is such a text in its capacity for change, its adaptability and openness to new combinations of meaning. Its excess of signification, which at times vitiates the coherence of the text, has both troubled and fascinated its critics and readers. From its first publication onward, critical responses have attempted to contain this surplus of meaning and resolve its tensions. As one critic has remarked, the « source of this dizzying profusion of meanings appears to lie in Mary Shelley’s overloading of the novel with approximately parallel « codes » of signification – psychological, pedagogic, sexual, Miltonic, political – which overlap and interfere with one another at so many points that no single line of interpretation can convincingly fend off all the others » (Baldick 56).

3The question that naturally arises is how a nineteen year-old girl (even if one takes into account Mary Shelley’s literary heritage) managed to produce a work of such magnificent complexity and enduring importance. I believe that despite its elaborate framework of interlocking first-person narratives, despite the digressions, epistles, confessions, descriptions and minor characters with which Frankenstein is filled, it still attracts new interpretative revisions largely because Mary Shelley refused, or perhaps was unable to give any final authority to her novel1. Even in its absence of female protagonists, the novel has been called a « woman’s book » because in it, Mary Shelley articulates her own anxiety about femaleness and authorship. It is precisely the author’s own equivocal stance toward the relation between Frankenstein and his monster, as well as the conflict within each of the two main characters, that occasions a series of ambiguous and often contradictory explications while at the same time suspending all moral certainty. Mary Shelley’s ambivalence toward her characters results in the continual reversal of sympathies from the tale’s protagonist, Victor, to his antagonist, the creature, and vice-versa. This shift of allegiance is reinforced by the « doubling » in the elusive relationship between Victor and the monster (which recalls Victor’s relationship to Walton), so that « all identities in the novel are unstable, the roles of master and slave, pursuer and pursued alternating or merging » (Baldick 44).

4Rather than offering one interpretative aspect of the novel while neglecting others I shall explore the critical responses this ostensible lack of authorial intention has provoked. By examining the various dimensions of Mary Shelley’s possible « real » message, I shall attempt to show that, like the characters of the novel, interpretations, too, tend to overlap, merge or even become mutually exclusive. The tale’s versatility, it will be argued, is precisely the result of Mary Shelley’s emotional and intellectual uncertainty, which led her to incessantly question her moral and philosophical credo. Rather than indisputably adopting the views of her intellectual milieu, she subjects her anxieties to scrutiny and dramatises her scepticism in her work. In this respect, Frankenstein can be read as an instance of the author’s self-exploration and an attempt to come to terms with her own intrapsychic conflicts.

5Let me begin my analysis by examining Victor’s narrative function and the characterisation he receives by his author. The reader’s first glimpse of Victor comes from Walton. Walton’s letters to his sister are full of enthusiastic appraisal of this «noble creature» (12), this « divine wanderer »(14), as he calls Frankenstein. Later, Victor’s own narrative comes to reinforce the reader’s admiration toward his person. Victor is depicted as a Promethean quester, a romantic overreacher, a person totally devoted to humanistic values. Confined in his laboratory in self-imposed exile he seeks « the attainment of one object of pursuit »(35) which is the capacity of « bestowing animation upon lifeless matter » (36). He attributes his overwhelming discovery to his zeal, determination and boldness as opposed to the « cowardice or carelessness » that had restrained others before him.

6Up to the moment in the narrative when the creature comes to life, Victor’s characterisation creates no problems of consistency. His self-proclaimed purity of motive seems to bear the author’s and the reader’s approval. However, Victor’s sudden horror and disgust for his creation, his flight from the monstrous child that disappoints his expectations, his inability to prevent the murders of all the persons he loves, turn the reader’s admiration to exasperation with the hero because of his painful passivity and intolerable ineffectuality. This unexpected reversal of the reader’s response to the main character points toward another shift of allegiance, this time on the part of the author. The novel’s middle section is marked by Shelley’s transfer of sympathy from Victor to the creature, from the creator to his creation. Thus, while Victor seems to be admired initially because he belongs to the long tradition of fictional characters who defy patriarchal authority and disrupt the ideal of domestic tranquillity, he is later on destroyed because of his rejection of domestic shelter and his alienation from humanity. As Susan Wolfson has maintained :

despite Victor’s alternately self-lacerating and self-aggrandising rhetoric, the novel does not indict him so much for violating the boundaries of life and death as for abdicating parental responsibility for the life he has created. (54)

7Unlike Milton’s Satan who is punished for transgressing divine law, Victor seems to be punished for rejecting his bond with human community and for denying his responsibility toward it. At one point, even Victor becomes aware of the conflicting nature of his desire : to pursue his solitary quest of glory or to blissfully lodge himself in the domestic world. He admits that :

During these last days I have been occupied by examining my past conduct ; nor do I find it blameable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature and was bound towards him to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty, but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. (199-200)2

8It is the hero’s vacillation between his personal drive and the benefit of the community that encourages the various, often incompatible, interpretative responses that the novel has received. True, seen from the perspective of Victor’s bold achievement, the novel can be read as a parable of presumption which dramatises the danger of knowledge (Levine 9-12 ; Baldick 45-47) or as a variation on the Shelleyan doomed seeker who sets out to « create an image of beauty and instead looses into the world, […] an image of death » (Wilt 70). Yet, at the same time, it articulates Mary Shelley’s uncertainties as a woman and a writer living in a community that encouraged men to pursue Promethean fantasies and distance themselves from women while it fostered female behaviour of self-effacement and passivity. Shelley’s treatment of Victor (and Walton by extension) can be read as a « female critique of male ambition » (Aldrich and Isomaki 124).

9That Victor remains an internally divided character until the end of the novel, torn between his Promethean pursuits and his knowledge of what his fatal ambition has left in its wake, is evident in the closing section of the narrative3. Aboard ship, he admonishes Walton to :

learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. (38)

10Yet, later on, when Walton’s crew threatens to mutiny should they continue their Northward mission, Victor vehemently exhorts them not to return to hearth and home :

You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species, your names adored as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind. And now […] you shrink away and are content to be handed down as men who had not strength enough to endure cold and peril ; […] ye need not have come thus far and dragged your captain to the shame of a defeat merely to prove yourselves cowards. Oh! Be men, or be more than men. Be steady of your purposes and firm as a rock. […] Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows. Return as heroes who have fought and conquered and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe. (197-198)

11Even in his death-bed speech, Victor seems simultaneously to revert to the Promethean values and blame his disaster on fate rather than on the values themselves. « Seek happiness in tranquillity, » he says to Walton, « 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 » (200). As Veeder points out, the use of the passive voice here indicates Victor’s persistence in seeing himself victimised by external forces. He admits « only that he was inadequate to his dream : he sees nothing inherently fatal and vicious in the dream itself » (46). Thus, Robert Kiely’s claim that « though a good and gifted person before his « ruin », it is really afterward, by means of the uniqueness and depth of his suffering, that Frankenstein achieves superiority over other men » (158), does not hold true since he does not show any signs of increased self-awareness. Rather, Victor’s motives remain deeply ambivalent because they reflect Mary Shelley’s own conflicting values toward the unfettered Romantic aspirations and their equivocal results. Like Victor, she is both fascinated and frightened, attracted and repelled by the concept of Prometheanism and its excess of ambition that has captured the imagination of her contemporaries, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. On the other hand, while one tends to agree with some of the feminist perspectives that read the novel as a corrective to male egotism which « must be regulated, specifically by the give-and-take of domestic relationships » (Poovey 123), one cannot disregard the fact that such an assessment is not present in the novel, mainly because Mary Shelley never fully endorsed the values of domestic life. Brought up by Godwin’s utopian radicalism and Wollstonecraft’s notions on sexual equality, she was profoundly and creatively affected by them. In this respect, Kate Ellis is undoubtedly correct when she reads the novel as a « protest against the separation of male and female activity characteristic of the bourgeois family » (124). The young woman’s exposure to conflicting familial and cultural values, later intensified by her experimental relationship with Percy Shelley, led to a kind of imbalance within her – what Knoepflmacher has called « self-division into aggressive and passive components » (94). Thus, ambition and domesticity seem to constitute two incompatible components in Frankenstein, a deeply rooted polarisation that the text ultimately fails to resolve.

12Turning now to the way the Creature is perceived and defined in the novel we discern a similar authorial ambivalence in characterisation which, in turn, bewilders the reader’s feelings. By depicting the Creature first as monstrous in his destructive power and later as morally superior to the so-called civilised people, and particularly to his creator, Mary Shelley seems to oscillate in her sympathies between the two protagonists. As a consequence, while initially repelled by the Creature’s crimes, the reader feels compassion when learning of his unmitigated pain and undeserved plight. The epigraph to the book makes it only too clear that it is Victor who is morally responsible for the Creature’s vengeful cruelty. Furthermore, the monster’s lengthily elaborated tale reveals not only his absolute innocence of preconceived notions but his ignorance of even the elementary sensations of hunger, thirst and cold. The Creature’s eloquent tale of emotional and moral progress, his account of abortive attempts to participate in the ordinary joys of humanity, his grief at losing the promised mate that Victor destroys before completing, all of these engage the reader’s sympathy and make the Creature even attractive despite his horrific appearance. His eventual transformation to a vicious murderer is not only convincing but even justifiable when his unbearable sufferings are taken into account. In fact, only now, in retrospect, can the reader appreciate the ambiguity of the book’s subtitle « The Modern Prometheus ». For, as Muriel Spark has remarked, « though at first Frankenstein is himself the Prometheus, the vital fire-endowing protagonist, the Monster, as soon as he is created, takes on the role » (161).

13As a matter of fact, critics who have read Frankenstein from the Creature’s perpectiverighly emphasise his allegiance to the long line of Cain figures (beginning with Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner). Or they link him with Milton’s Adam and Satan alternatively, following the Creature’s repeated remark « I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the Fallen angel » (84). They view him as the embodiment of our fears of the way science can pervert nature. They compare him to an outcast that attacks the « stultifying force of social convention » (Moers 98) or to an unprotected being who seeks its rights in a new hostile world. Finally, they see him as an examplar of the Goodwinian  view that evil is not innate by the result of the oppression and injustice of others. Bearing in mind  the socio-political concerns of Shelley’s generation, the Creature can also be interpreted as reanimating  the controversy generate in Britain by the French Revolution. In this case, the Creature can be seen either as Edmund Burke’s pernicious « monster » of Democracy or Wollstonecraft’s monstrous Parisian mob turning against the tyranny and despotism of the ancien regime (Balwick 10-29 ; Sterrenburg)4.

14Still from another point of view, recent feminist critical interpretation sees the creature as a furtively female character and points out Shelley’s identification with it. The Creature’s tragic experience of utter abandonment allows Mary Shelley to consider her own anxiety about her status as a human being and her vocation as female. Drawing on biographical evidence, we know that Mary Shelley experienced rejection quite early in her life. She felt deserted by her mother, whose death she caused by her birth, but she was also deprived of the love and sympathy of her father for whom she entertained an « excessive and romantic passion »5. In a more general sense, the monster’s exclusion from educational privileges reflects the situation of the nineteenth-century woman who was also « barred from the educational opportunities available to men and forced to improvise an education for herself » (Frankenstein, Aldrich and Isomaki, 129).

15The Creature, then, as a « victim of the symbolic and the literal, » Poovey maintains, is « doubly like a woman in patriarchal society – forced to be a symbol of (and vehicle for) someone else’s desire, yet exposed (and exiled ) as the deadly essence of passion itself » (128). In addition, Gilbert and Gubar draw the connection between the Creature and Milton’s Eve who, like him is « defective, » a « deformity, » and hence monstrous in Milton’s « patriarchal epic » (220, 225).

16These critical interpretations illuminate the motives behind the Creature’s vindictive acts, yet they often fail to note that what the Creature ultimately seeks to gain is Victor’s approval and protection. « Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous, » he pleads (84). For all his aggression, the Creature is fixed in a passive, reactive role, in which he is dependent solely on the will of his masculine creator to make him happy. He wants to be cared for by his begetter, Victor, whom he calls his « natural lord and king » (84). He does not rebel, like Milton’s Satan, out of defiance toward his creator but because he is denied his subordinate position in Victor’s hierarchical world. In fact, the Creature’s whole survival depends upon his creator’s assertion of his parental bond ; the creature’s life becomes meaningless after Victor’s death, and in his last speech he informs Walton of his wish to immolate himself in « torturing flames ».

17The Creature’s inscription as feminine on the one hand and his desire to rehabilitate himself to the patriarchal culture of which Victor is the embodiment on the other, re-enact Mary Shelley’s own ambivalence toward authority and power. Her characterisation of the Creature as both rebellious and submissive dramatises her own conflicting attitude toward masculine values that she both defies and acquiesces to. In this respect and in spite of her radical background, Mary Shelley serves the paradigm of nineteenth-century women who were caught in the contradiction between resisting culturally endorsed definitions of femininity and acknowledging the prevailing male power structures.

18Who then is really Frankenstein ? Who or what is really his Creature? What unconscious conflicts do these characters embody ? What self-doubts and self-divisions do they re-enact so as to frustrate our hopes of finding a simple ideological meaning ? « Here we are obliged to confront, » say Gilbert and Gubar, « the moral ambiguity and the symbolic slipperiness which are at the heart of all characterisations in Frankenstein. » These « continual and complex reallocations of meaning, among characters whose histories echo and re-echo each other » seem to have their cause in Mary Shelley’s own deep intellectual and emotional tribulations when she was writing the novel (229). Ellen Moers has pointed out the author’s concern with maternity at the time of the novel’s composition and suggested reading Frankenstein as a « birth myth » (99). Mary Shelley’s reference to the novel as her « hideous progeny » has led many critics to seek answers of authorial intention to the introduction to the 1831 edition. Added to the novel 13 years after its original publication and when the author was older and presumably more mature, the Introduction nevertheless still reflects Mary Shelley’s ambivalent response regarding female creativity, a prerogative reserved mainly to male authors. As Poovey observes, her account of the novel’s genesis shows traditional feminine restraint, anticipating the way « Frankenstein calls into question, not the social conventions that inhibit creativity, but rather the egotism that [she] associates with the artist’s monstrous self-assertion » (122). Or, as Veeder remarks, the introduction indicates Mary Shelley’s desire « to improve woman’s lot by both curbing male extremism and confirming female otherness » without transcending her « desire to please dominating males » (Mary Shelley 12-13). Characteristically, she assumes the role of the modest, subservient female who claims to have tried her artistic capabilities after her husband’s persistent « incitement » while she was « infinitely indifferent» to literary achievement and very averse to bringing [herself] forward in print » (xxi, xxii). Of particular interest is also the fact that she depicts the genesis of the idea of the novel as something which has visited her in her dreams and for which she bears no responsibility : « My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. » (xxiv-xxv). Like Victor’s construction of the monster, Shelley’s creation of the novel is the most over-determined act of her creative life. Yet, like Victor she too describes her mental state during the act of conception as a « trance » where she is the passive recipient of « unlawful dreams ». Aware of her unfeminine presumption in writing the novel, Mary Shelley proceeds to establish a critical distance between herself and her characters, disclaiming any potential accusation of « personal intrusion ».

19That Mary Shelley was conscious of the duplicity of her characters and the various philosophical, moral and literal implications her novel would raise is clearly indicated by the 1818 Preface to the novel written by Percy Shelley and signed by Mary. There the poet reveals his preoccupation with the « moral tendencies » of the characters and hastens to claim that the « opinions which naturally spring from the character and situation of the hero are by no means to be conceived as existing always in my conviction ; nor is any inference justly to be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind ». As for the author’s « chief concern » in writing the novel, Percy Shelley goes on to say in the guise of Mary, this has been limited « to the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue » (xxviii). Percy Shelley’s ostensibly selective and somewhat naive reading suggests a patronising attempt to guide his wife as well as the novel’s future readers toward the acceptance of a more conservative and traditional meaning. Despite her husband’s wish, Mary Shelley proves to be a brave woman, capable of self-confrontation and eager to explore her fear, aggression or resentment as creative challenges. In its emotional and intellectual richness Frankenstein reflects Mary’s awareness (relative if not complete) of the diverse symbolic aspects of her novel. The symbolism works on a personal as well as cultural level, because Mary Shelley was able to externalise her conflicts and ambivalent responses toward her own identity and her intimate relations (mainly her father, absent mother and husband) and the demands of her age. The constantly shifting moral perspective of the narrative which results from the dramatic unsettling of stable identities and values articulates the psychological turmoil of the author’s emotional landscape at the time she was composing the novel. The result is a profoundly destabilising text, which while frustrating our hope of finding a firm and final meaning illustrates beyond doubt the depth and complexity of Mary Shelley’s vision of humanity. To be sure, Frankenstein’s achievement lies in the complete absence of an authoritative authorial voice, an absence which endows the text with vitality and permits it to attract new and competing interpretative revisions.


« The Woman Writer as Frankenstein ». Approaches to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ed. Stephen C. Behrendt. New York : The Modern Language Association of America, 1990.
S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York : Hill and Wang, 1985.

In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-century Writing. Oxford, Clarendon press 1990.

« Monsters in the Garden : Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family ». The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine and U.C. Knoepflmacher. Berkeley, U. of California press, 1982.

The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven, Yale UP, 1974.
The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1972.

«Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters.» The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine and U.C.Knoepflmacher, Berkley, U. of California press, 1982.

« Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Spectacle of Masculinity », PMLA 108.2 (1993), p. 253-267.

Literary Women, London, W.H. Allen, 1977.

The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology and Style in Mary Wollestonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago, U. of Chicago press, 1984.


Mary Shelley, London, Constable, 1988.

« Mary Shelley’s Monster : Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein ». The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine and U.C. Knoepflmacher. Berkley, U. of California press, 1982.
« Gender and Pedagogy: The Questions of Frankenstein ». Approaches to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ed. Stephen C. Behrendt. New York : The Modern Language Association of America, 1990.
Mary Shelley and Fankenstein : The Fate of Androgyny, Chicago, Chicago UP, 1986.

Ghosts of the Gothic : Austen, Eliot and Lawrence. Princeton : Princeton UP, 1980.

« Feminist Inquiry and Frankenstein ». Approaches to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ed. Stephen C. Behrendt. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1990.


1  In Mary Shelly, Muriel Spark argues that Frankenstein is « Mary Shelley’s best novel because at that age she was not yet well acquainted with her own mind. As her self-insight grew – and she was exceptionally introspective – so did her work suffer from causes the very opposite of her intention, and what very often mars her later writing is its extreme explicitness » (154).

2  All quotations from Frankenstein will be from the Bantam Classic edition, 1981. References will be incorporated into the text.

3  Veeder quotes several critics who maintain that Victor’s final speech remains ambiguous untl the end (46). In addition to them p. Scott (196-198) and Ch. Baldick (47) must also be mentioned as they hold the same opinions.

4  P. Sherwin lists various interprétations that apply to the monster in his « Frankenstein : Creation as Catastrophe », PMLA xcvi (1981) : 890.

5  Godwin’s letter of 1812 to an « unknow correspondent » who had inquired about the philosopher’s théories of education ; the letter is quoted in C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin : His Friends and Contemporaries (London, 1876), II : 214.

Pour citer ce document

Par Dora TSIMPOUKI, «Frankenstein and the excess of signification :
a case of unstable balance», Cahiers FoReLLIS - Formes et Représentations en Linguistique, Littérature et dans les arts de l'Image et de la Scène [En ligne], Archives (1993-2001), Autour de Frankenstein – Lectures critiques, mis à jour le : 19/12/2017, URL :