victor & elizabeth

I haven’t seen Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film version of Frankenstein, so honestly I’m not too sure what’s going on in that scene up there. I mean, yes, that’s Victor and Elizabeth clearly having a moment. But I wonder, is Elizabeth dead in that picture?

She probably isn’t, but hear me out — the only times Victor shows intense passion for Elizabeth (in Mary Shelley’s 1831 book, at least) is during his particularly vivid dream (which I’ll get to) and after Elizabeth’s dead, when he “rushed towards her, and embraced her with ardour” (168), observing “the deadly languor and coldness of the limbs” (Shelley 168).

Now, that dream. In it, Victor’s walking the streets of Ingolstadt, when suddenly he see Elizabeth “in the bloom of health” (61). He recounts, “Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death, her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms” (61).

Sigmund Freud would have a field day with this one. Believing that dreams were fuzzy windows into the unconscious, Freud analyzed dreams to find repressed bestial desires now made into altered, more acceptable forms. According to Freud, “every emotional affect, whatever its quality, is transformed by repression into morbid anxiety” (Freud 429), and if this repressed object recurs and causes anxiety, then it’s considered uncanny. Yup, Victor’s sure sounds like an uncanny dream.

So why this dream now? Why would Victor think of his dead mother now? Well, this happens just after he’s given life — given birth — to his creation. And remember, one of the biggest reasons he decided to do this whole thing was because he thought, “if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (Shelley 58).

Because the death of his mother absolutely wrecked him. In fact, Victor calls it “that most irreparable evil” (50). In describing his mother’s nursing of Elizabeth from scarlet fever (which ultimately kills her), he details, “Elizabeth was saved, but the consequences of this imprudence were fatal to her preserver” (49). Imprudence? Ouch. For every tender word he uses to describe Elizabeth, this speaks volumes. Undoubtedly, Victor has not gotten over the death of Caroline Frankenstein, “this best of women” (49). Worse, Caroline straight-up tells Elizabeth (really, the reason she’s dying in the first place) to replace her, as she says, “Elizabeth my love, you must supply my place to my younger children” (49).

And in a way, Elizabeth does. She is the sole madam and caretaker and ultimately wife of the Frankenstein house. But she’s also inadequate. Victor’s affections clearly remain with his dead mother, shown through Elizabeth transforming into Caroline in his dream as well as his obsession with animating dead matter. Because of Victor’s repressed resentment for Elizabeth, she cannot fully replace Caroline as mother and lover.  And most telling of all, Victor, ever the egomaniac, takes on this pursuit on his own, taking the role of mother in forming the creation. Pretty sure that didn’t work out so well either.

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