The scene on page 104 of Frankenstein where the creature recoils in horror at his own reflection struck me immediately as a mutated version of the classic Greek tale of Narcissus. “…how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror…” I call the scene mutated for obvious reasons: Rather than developing a love of self as did Narcissus, the Creature instead develops a self-hatred, which, when examined in context, seems to be rooted in the constant rejection that blocks him from forming an identity.

This is best understood when viewed through the lens of Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage. According to Lacan, the mirror stage is characterized by an identification with the “Ideal-I”, or a fantasy image of oneself that represents a completeness that the child does not possess but will always strive towards. Lacan also makes the point that this ego is, at its core, dependent on an “other” – that is, it exists as a mirror image spawned from identification with external figures. In the case of the creature, he is rejected immediately by Frankenstein, his creator. Without an “other”, the creature cannot seek completeness of identity. He is trapped in a limbo of sorts, and, after continuous rejection by society, turns to the De Lacey family. In his mind, they assume what would be considered the mother or father’s role in the mirror stage of a normal human child; he sympathizes with them and models an “Ideal-I” after them: “When I slept, or was absent, the forms of the venerable blind father, the gentle Agatha, and the excellent Felix, flitted before me. I looked upon them as superior beings, who would be the arbiters of my future destiny.” (Shelley 105)

The power of the “other” in the formation of the creature’s identity is revealed by his horror at his own reflection. The recognition of the self in the mirror is, according to Lacan, the first time that a child begins to form an identity separate from the “other” upon which the “Ideal-I” is modeled. But the creature cannot reconcile his own reflection with the “Ideal-I” that he has formed in his mind, and is thus unable to complete his identity. In relation to the “other”, the only understanding of himself that makes sense is that of a monster: “At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification.” (Shelley 104)

His sense of self unity is broken, and he cannot complete the mirror stage: “I was dependent on none, and related to none…My person was hideous, and my stature gigantic: what did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them.” (115-116). Finally, when he is rejected by the DeLacey family, it severs his link to the human world, and all self-awareness becomes an awareness of loss and confusion. It is only then that the creature becomes a monster.

 

*Understanding of Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage was aided by:

http://www.english.hawaii.edu/criticalink/lacan/index.html

http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/definitions/mirrorstage.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_stage

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