Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein : Sexte[x]t

Par David COAD
Publication en ligne le 19 décembre 2017


Après une mise en garde contre les excès de la critique féministe (trop fantaisiste, trop ancrée dans la psychobiographie), la sexualité du texte fait l’objet d’une approche psychanalytique : la recherche de la jouissance, le rejet de l’Autre, les fantasmes œdipiens, la sublimation et la castration. Frankenstein, un texte sexuel structuré en sénaires, suscite un parallèle avec l’Apocalypse puisque le nombre de la Bête est 666.

Texte intégral

1Some of the worst critical excesses, from which I will not be exempt, have been committed on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Relegated for too long, we are told, as borderline or unserious literature, the novel has been taken up as part of the Mary Shelley industry in the last twenty years, especially by the feminists and the Americans, taken up, resuscitated, put into categories and traditions (the « female gothic », the fantastique), stretched and moulded to accommodate a whole series of approaches to a literary text : the contextual, the psycho biographical, the feminist and Freudian, the Lacanian...

2The trouble is twofold. Firstly, Mary Shelley is a victim of her biographical and historical situation. Her life up until Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death in 1822 is a fascinating fairy-tale romance of wicked step-mothers, teenage pregnancy and elopement, ménages-à-trois, illicit liaisons, bastards, suicides and drownings. After 1822 Mary Shelley lapsed into lethargy and anonymity, writing awful novels to survive financially, editing and deifying her dead husband, before a scandalous attempted blackmail which overshadowed the end of her life. She died in 1851.

3Frankenstein was written right at the height of Mary Shelley’s « Romantic » period. 1816 must have been her annus horribilis : Claire flaunts herself like a floozy in front of Lord Byron ; Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, commits suicide and is dumped in a beggar’s grave ; Percy’s wife, Harriet, drowns herself. At least Mary and Bysshe were able to get married for Christmas. Such biographical data is too much for many critics and leads to one particularly dangerous excess : the inability to separate biography and literary criticism.

4One of the worst sinners is the professor of English at the University of Chicago, William Veeder, whose Mary Shelley & Frankenstein : The Fate of Androgyny1 is an unserious, gossip-raking, over imaginative pot-pourri of bizarre theories and jargon. He uses Frankenstein to talk about and «prove» hypotheses concerning Mary Shelley. Generally the feminists have come out with the most outlandish assertions about Mary Shelley’s psychic troubles and disturbances. Ellen Moers, for example, in « Female Gothic », suggests that « Most of the novel, roughly two of its three volumes, can be said to deal with the retribution visited upon the Monster and creator for deficient infant care. Frankenstein seems to be distinctly about a woman’s mythmaking on the subject of [...] the trauma of the afterbirth »2. Why not the trauma of one-parent families while we’re at it ? As Hamlet would say, ’tis Rank !3 Barbara Frey Waxman, in « Victor Frankenstein’s Romantic Fate : The Tragedy of the Promethean Overreacher as Woman », purports that « Victor is already experiencing the vulnerability and turmoil of the newly pregnant woman as her body changes before her eyes »4. Two pages later we find : « Victor understands the range, intensity, and movement of a pregnant woman’s feelings in our culture »5. She ends her article by voicing this French discovery : « Shelley was writing “from the body” and thus creating a “powerful alternative discourse” »6. I suppose Percy was writing from his phallologic brain only. This is twaddle.

5One of the most excessive feminist view-points is expressed by Marc A. Rubenstein, a follower of Gilbert and Gubar ? In « “My Accursed Origin” : The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein », he informs us of the «real» nature of the papers which the Monster took from the laboratory, that is Victor’s journal kept for four months before his « birth ». Unashamedly Rubenstein writes : « […] what the monster really refers to are the love letters Mary Wollstonecraft wrote to Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, during the first four months of their relationship in 1796 »7. And referring to the 1831 Introduction, we learn about the author : « She is trying to draw for us a picture of her imagination as a passive womb, inseminated by those titans of romantic poetry, Byron and Shelley »8. How a fictive monster could have had access to his author’s dead mother’s correspondence is not revealed by Rubenstein, nor, unfortunately, when or where Byron inseminated Mary Shelley. Is he confusing Mary with her step-sister ?

6This is the sort of absurdity we are driven to consider if we take this pseudo-criticism seriously. Let’s end with post-partum depression and Mary Wollstonecraft’s menstrual cycle (if you haven’t yet studied it in depth, have a look at William St Clair’s The Godwins and the Shelleys, pages 497-5039. (By the way, the author is, or was, a «senior official in HM Treasury »). Let’s have done with dead mothers, dying babies, foetuses and abortions, not to mention the following narratological subtlety : « This configuration [the Monster’s narration at the centre of the novel on a mountain peak] [is] modelled upon a vagina enclosing a penis » 10!

7The second critical excess comes from the fact that Frankenstein is a delectable morsel for structuralist and post-structuralist critics. Anything and everything works. Frankenstein is a blob of jelly, a bowl of putty, a Barbie doll which says : « Please do something with me ». There isn’t one critical tendency, one school of thought, one theoretical grid which doesn’t seem to fit the novel like a glove. You can use Jung, Freud, Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, even Deleuze et al. and come up with something more or less coherent and logical. Even Penguin have suffered from a monstrous surfeit. Look at the paratext! For only £3.99 we are loaded with an introduction, a note on the text, suggested further reading, a chronology, three appendices (three appendectomies would have perhaps reduced the cost even more) and more notes.

8The problem with all this secondary industry is that we miss the tree for the forest. Who bothers to tell us that Frankenstein is, and always was, much of a second-rate novel ? Marred as it is by an inelegant, pompous, Latinate style – made worse by Percy’s editing suggestions (Percy Bysshe Shelley’s two gothic romances, Zastrozzi (1810) and St Irvyne (1810-11) are so heavily-trowelled that they are almost unreadable). Harold Bloom has the good critical sense to call Frankenstein a « flawed, frequently clumsy novel » and William Godwin, « a tendentious novelist »11. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, though finished in 1803, was published the same year as Frankenstein. If we compare the two novels, we are immediately struck by one novelist’s craftsmanship, style and innovation whereas Mary Shelley’s trite prose, stereotype characterisation and histrionics usually bypass the critics’ attention. The tree, nonetheless, is a unique, interesting tree, even if the ground in which it originally grew is much more interesting : tendrils from Romantic soil nourish important literary works two hundred years later.

9The sexuality of a text and the textuality of sex is a favourite hobby-horse of recent critical theory12. That sex lurks beneath the textual surface of Frankenstein only the prudes will deny. Of course it is not laid on as in Lewis’s The Monk, but nevertheless, as Barbara Waxman quotes in her article, « [Mary Shelley was] caught up in such a maelstrom of sexuality at the time she wrote the novel »13. The Shelley household did certainly invite rumour, scandal and criticism. Even Byron refused to have his illegitimate daughter, Allegra, brought up by her hysterical mother, Claire and her vegetarian, atheist friend, Shelley. When the Shelleys moved into the Villa Diodati in June 1816, rumour had it that the League of Incest (Bysshe was reported to sleep with Mary or Claire), had also arrived. Table cloths drying on the balcony at the Villa were taken for the girls’ petticoats through the lenses of telescopes rented to the curious for the occasion14. Let’s take a telescope, then, turn it on the novel and, like Tiresias, look at Mary Shelley [’s] washing.

10At the beginning of Frankenstein, we are introduced to the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, under the sway of one burning ambition, one « fervent longing », one pursuit or search : the acquirement of knowledge. He is a savant, an intellectual, a bookish student intent on penetrating the secrets of nature. The lack of moderation, the excess of this enterprise, its obsessive nature, have turned Victor into an isolated figure. He ostracises himself from family, friends and his fiancée, that is he sacrifices all links with others (the domestic ties of affection), in order to satisfy a narcissistic desire. There is something unnatural, a disequilibrium, in Victor’s choice to find satisfaction or jouissance alone. This self-inflicted isolation should be seen in terms of a rejection of Other (mother, father, woman, the feminine, love, the affective, the libido, the irrational, the unconscious). If Victor Frankenstein’s narcissistic, masturbatory, solipsistic obsession with self and rejection of Other can be seen as hubris, his nemesis will be the return of Other that hitherto he suppressed, repressed, sublimated15.

11In Frankenstein, the Monster can be seen as representing, embodying, that part of Victor’s ego or self that he finds difficult to acknowledge, that he rejects, holds apart as abject, refuses to accept, tries unsuccessfully to ignore and from which he is alienated16. It is as if he has been able to separate himself from a part of his personality, or ego that he believes to be unnecessary, repulsive, fearful, horrible. This partly explains why it, the phenomenon in terms of the fantastique genre, is monstrous17. Victor Frankenstein finds a part of his self monstrous, abject ; it inspires horror. Paradoxically, in trying to flee the Other (the phenomenon), there is an unconscious desire to accept, to be integrated with the Other, since unity is preferable to division. The more the Other is rejected and reviled, the more it « turns up », wanting to be integrated in the psyche. Whilst espousing repulsion for the Other, there is at the same time attraction, since the self needs the Other to function normally. The despised, hated, rejected Other in fact becomes the abject object of desire.

12What is the Other for Victor ? One example is his mother. There is a connection between Victor’s mother, and another other, the MonsTER MaTER. There is also a link between the Monster and Victor’s fiancée/sister/cousin, Elizabeth Lavenza. That Victor is expected to marry his « more than sister » introduces the theme of incest that had a special interest for Mary Shelley. Her novel, Mathilda, is centred round the same theme – a father’s incestuous desire for his daughter. William Godwin suppressed the novel and withheld it from publication. We know that Elizabeth Lavenza’s mother died giving her birth, but the scenario is repeated in the novel : Mrs Frankenstein dies after tending her « daughter », stricken with scarlet fever. So Elizabeth is responsible for the death of two mothers, her biological and adoptive mother. That Victor Frankenstein is expected to marry the woman who « killed » his mother, and given his Oedipal attachment for his mother, seems unnatural. That he is expected, furthermore, to marry his « sister » is even more unnatural. Unconsciously, then, Victor Frankenstein rejects the incest taboo, rejecting the matricidal murderer. He unconsciously flees the sexual advances of his future bride – this explains his flight with Clerval to Great Britain away from the prospect of marriage. Clerval becomes a safe substitute bride. And this explains the curse of the Monster/Elizabeth : « I shall be with you on your wedding-night ». We understand the repeated postponement of his marriage and consummated union. Victor rejects the feminine and woman. Woman for him is symbolic of the castration threat, woman is the Terrible Mother, woman is Medusa18.

13That Victor is under the sway of an Oedipal fantasy towards his mother can be suggested by the feminisation of nature in the novel, and Victor’s more than once expressed desire to penetrate mother nature’s secrets. The product of this incestuous union is monstrous. The dream-nightmare in chapter five, experienced just after the creation of the Monster, establishes a link in Victor’s unconscious between the Monster-Elizabeth, his future bride, and his dead mother. The oneiric condensation, bride = mother, again points to the desire to possess the mother. Here the maternal imago is intimately associated with Thanatos. In fact Eros (Elizabeth) and Thanatos (Mrs Frankenstein) are condensed to suggest Victor’s death-drive. That Elizabeth dies on her wedding-night, not unfortunately in the Elizabethan sense, increases the Eros-Thanatos motif. Victor’s course towards death in the Arctic could be interpreted as a desire to reach the mother, the Mère de glace, to find refuge in the womb-tomb.

14Two subjects not largely dealt with by the critics are sublimation and the primal fantasy of castration. It is possible to see the scientific research into the secrets of life in Frankenstein as sublimated erotic desire. The ardour with which Victor carries out his pursuit of knowledge, his reluctance to taste nuptial delights, point to a displacement of his libido. Freud suggests a similar idea in the scientific endeavours of Leonardo da Vinci19. Victor channels all his energies into his reading and preparation, then into infusing life into his creation. The Monster’s curse is a promise of the return of the sublimated : it is natural that the loved object will be present at consummation after the lover’s pursuit.

15In discussions of the Promethean myth in Frankenstein, critics have been loath to read the primal fantasy of castration20. Prometheus taking away, stealing fire from Zeus, can be seen as an image of the son’s fantasy whereby he dispossesses the father of his phallus, that is the son castrates the father. In Greek mythology the fantasy appears in the story of Zeus’s father, Kronos, who castrated his father, Uranus. If Victor Frankenstein can be seen as an image of the castrating son, the Monster then becomes an image of the paternal, castrated phallus. According to the Promethean myth, for his transgression, Prometheus is doomed to have his liver eaten eternally by an eagle. The liver simply regrows for the next « feed ». For his transgression, the son suffers the same fantasmatic punishment : he is castrated and recastrated by Zeus, by the father’s order. This symbolisation of castration appears in the novel as the Monster’s (the eagle’s) devouring, one by one, the members of the Frankenstein family and entourage21. Each murder is yet another symbolic castration endured by the guilty son. This helps explain Victor’s guilt about having created the Monster – stolen the paternal phallus. He is responsible for the « castration » of the Frankenstein family. Each of the fathers in Frankenstein incarnates Lacan’s Name-Of-The-Father and No-Of-The-Father. The castrating father threatens the son’s incestuous desire to possess the mother. Walton, Clerval and Victor all defy their father’s phallic authority. Victor’s fear of castration, his unresolved Oedipal conflict, his narcissistic, symbiotic tie with self and the maternal womb all keep him in Lacan’s Imaginary order despite his desire to accede to the Symbolic.

16Not only is Frankenstein a text of sex, that is a sextext, it is also a sextet, where one of the structuring principles is the number six. In the epistolary opening to the novel, despite the sequence Letter I-Letter IV, there are in fact six different dates. We are given two triads of letters, Letters I-III individually, then Letter IV which contains letters at three different sittings (5 August, 13 August, 19 August). Victor Frankenstein spends six years in Ingolstadt, studying at the university and later consumed in his scientific research before returning to his family. The morning after the creation of the Monster, Victor gets up early to roam the streets at 6 o’clock. The Monster’s narrative at the centre of Frankenstein, chapters III-VIII of volume two, includes six chapters. Following Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s diagram in Frankenstein : mythe et philosophie, we notice that six characters are successively introduced before the first death – that of Mrs Frankenstein – and before the «birth» of the Monster (Walton, Frankenstein, the mother, the father, Elizabeth and Clerval)22. In contrapuntal fashion, six deaths occur (including a triad of murders) after the Monster’s arrival in the world (William, Justine, Clerval, Elizabeth, Mr Frankenstein and Victor Frankenstein). The Monster’s suicide is only threatened ; it needs to be seen as potential and extratextual. This explains why, unlike Lecercle, I have not included it in my list of deaths. Finally, the name of the protagonist in Frankenstein, Victor, like his alter ego, or mirror-image, Walton, contains six letters.

17Given the preponderance in the number of sextets in the novel, it would be useful to look at the symbolism of the sexpartite division. Traditionally the number six is associated with the idea of creation. In Genesis the world is created in six days and it is on the sixth day that God created man in his own image and likeness. (Gen. 1 : 26-27) In Le Symbolisme des nombres, René Allendy writes that six signifies the opposition between the creature and the Creator in an indefinite balance23. This idea of a precarious balance, that is of the innate ambivalence contained in the symbolism of the number six, comes from the unstable formation of two triads which together make up this quantity. Given the existence of two triads forced to combine, one can signify good, one evil, one harmonious union between creature and Creator, one revolt and open rebellion by the creature.

18We can now better understand the sextet as an apt structuring device in the novel. Six as a creational number recalls not only Victor’s creation of the Monster (in a mock imitation of Yahweh he takes six years, not six days), but it also recalls Prometheus plasticator, the maker of men. Mary Shelley’s Monster is also born under the number six as we saw : there are six narrative « births » before his creation, six narrative deaths afterwards, as well as a narration of six chapters. It is the Monster in Frankenstein who brings out the symbolic meaning of the two conflicting triads in the sextet (a division I already noted in the first series of letters). In dialectical form the Monster voices to his creator the ambivalence from which he suffers, and which takes symbolic significance in the two triads making up his number : « I am thy creature ; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel […] I was benevolent and good ; misery made me a fiend »24. Like the number six, the Monster declares himself to be an unstable balance, veering towards good, like Adam, or towards open rebellion, like Satan.

19The Satanic side of the Monster invites a parallel with the beast of the Apocalypse whose number is the number of a man, 666. Attempting to solve the mystery of this demonic number, the Fathers of the Church, using the numeric correspondence of the letters of the Greek alphabet, came up constantly with three words which have 666 as their numeric value : teitan meaning Titan, giant ; Antimon, meaning the opposite of honour ; and Arnoumai, meaning « I deny »25. Two Titans we immediately think of are Prometheus and the Monster (8 feet tell). Instead of honouring his Creator/Father, the Monster indulges in open rebellion, disobedience and «monstrous ingratitude ». He denied his disposition to do good, resorting to carnage, violence and murder. The Antichrist that the Monster half represents is reflected in the triad of grotesque murders he commits, killing William, Clerval and Elizabeth. Half of him is a monstrous, dishonourable denial of prelapsarian bliss – represented by the De Lacey household (Felix means happiness) – and this half tends towards a bestial unleashing of apocalyptic evil. The number six (the number of Nero, the sixth emperor), perfectly suggests this precarious imbalance of the Monstrous Beast in Frankenstein.

20Walton and Victor have the number of the beast inscribed in their name of six letters. This suggests their potential imitation of the Monster’s psychic and moral predicament. It is possible to see Walton as the « good » triad, relinquishing the Promethean, Satanic temptation. According to the letters at the end of the novel, he decides to return to England between the fifth and the seventh of September, that is on the sixth. Victor can represent the rebellious, Satanic denial of nature and God. His is the sixth death in the novel. His enterprise has been the undertaking of man. It is therefore imperfect, as is suggested by the number six. Is it an accident that the character who most resembles Percy Bysshe Shelley in the novel, the androgynous poet, Clerval, has a name of seven letters, the divine number ? His gentleness, kindness and love are a divine, Christ-like counterpart to the wrathful, revengeful Antichrist, the Monster.


1  W. Veeder, Mary Shelley & Frankenstein : The Fate of Androgyny, Chcago, The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

2  E. Moers, « Feamale Gothic » in Georges Levine & U.C. Knoepflmacher (eds.), The Endurance of Frankenstein : Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel, Bekeley, University of California Press, 1982, p. 81.

3  Cf. O. Rank, Le Traumatisme de la naissance.

4  B. Frey Waxman, « Victor Frankenstein’s Romantic Fate : The Tragedy of the Promethean Overreacher as woman », Papers on Language ans littérature, 23, n° 1, 1987, p. 20.

5  Ibid., p. 22.

6  Ibid., p. 26.

7  M. A. Rubenstein, « “My Accursed Origin” : The Search for the mother in Frankenstein », Studies in Romanticism, 15 (summer 1977), p. 170.

8  Ibid., p. 181.

9  W. St Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys : The Biography of a Family, London, Faber & Faber, 1989.

10  F. Randel, « Frankenstein, Feminism and Intertextuality of Mountains », Studies in Romanticism 23 (Winter 1984), p. 532.

11  H. Bloom, « Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus », Partisan Review, 332, (Fall 1965), p. 613.

12  Cf. M. Jacobus, « Is there a woman in this text ? », New Literary History 14, (1982), p. 138.

13  B. Waxman, op. cit., p. 15.

14  Cf. E. W. Sunstein, Mary Shelley : Romance and Reality, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, p. 119.

15  Cf. Anzieu et al., La Sublimation : les sentiers de la création (Tchou, 1992), especially the first part : « Freud et la sublimation ».

16  For discussion of the subject see : Julia Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur, Ed. du Seuil, 1980.

17  A good introduction to the fantastique : J. Malrieu, Le fantastique (Hachette), 1992.

18  Cf. H. Cixous, « Le Rire de la Méduse », L’Arc, 61 (1975), 39-54.

19  Cf. S. Freud, Un Souvenir d’enfance de Léonard de Vinci.

20  G. Mendel, La révolte contre le père.

21  Cf. J. Laplanche, Castration Symbolisations Problématiques II, PUF, 1983.

22  J.-J. Lecercle, Frankenstein : mythe et philosophie, PUF, 1988, p. 83.

23  R. Allendy, Le symbolisme des nombres, Paris, 1948.

24  M. Shelley, Frankenstein, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1992, p. 96-97.

25  R. P. de Monléon, Le sens mystique de l’Apocalypse, Nouvelles Éditions Latines, 1984, p. 212-217.

Pour citer ce document

Par David COAD, «Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein : Sexte[x]t», 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 :