Category: The Monstrous Double in the Mirror (3/18)

The Creature is an infant in the guise of a full-grown man. Like an infant, he undergoes rapid intellectual and linguistic development; but unlike an infant, the process is distorted and changed — a fitting effect of his ignominious birth. In psychoanalytic terms, infants go through what French psychoanalyst Lacan called the  “mirror stage,” in which children between 6 and 18 months old first recognize the image in a mirror as themselves, a representative of their own coherence. Before the Father’s No (either from a true father figure or society at large) brings them crashing into the world of the Symbolic like Icarus falling into the sea, the child lives in the Imaginary, a world where it is perfect being that exists in that mirror. Once the child moves into the symbolic, it realizes it is not the imago in the mirror and spends its life trying to become that imago once more–such is the mechanism that gives us drive and desire.

The Creature is born and abandoned, left without a father figure to give him this “No.” Normally, society would step in to place limits that aid human development, but Frankenstein is ostracized for the first months of his life — living in the woods, he never experiences those limits that will eventually lead to him realizing the image in the mirror is his imago. Without these, when he observes the De Lacey’s , he observes the first people he’s met since becoming 6 months old.  Normal infants do not place other people as their imago because they are constantly exposed to society since birth; but the Creature’s isolation causes his mind to make the De Lacey’s his imago, describing them as “perfect forms” with admirable “grace, beauty, and delicate complexions” (pg. 104). When he looks in the pool, he sees his reflection but does not identify it as his imago, stating that he was “unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror” (pg. 104). After an internal struggle of conflicting mirror images (the De Lacey’s and his own monstrous reflection), he realizes that he can never become the imago he first identified with. Left with nothing but his reflection–an image he identifies as his actual self–the Creature becomes trapped in a permanent state of the Imaginary. To live in the Imaginary is to un-repress thoughts and feelings that should be kept buried. To unbind the Id is to become psychotic; the Creature loses his mind and his postive, imago-seeking drive, killing without mercy because he knows and accepts that he is everything he will ever be.

He is the monster in the water.

The False Imago

Frankenstein’s creature goes through the normal human state according to Lacan, but he chooses the wrong image to identify with first and is unable to reconcile his ideal with his reality.

Lacan believes that during infancy, we experience the “mirror stage” and identify with an image, or imago, we see in the mirror so that we can project the qualities of the portrait onto our own. Because we feel physical constraints and cannot attain the perfection of that image, we improve ourselves to reach it, hiding weakness behind it. The creature was at one point in an undeveloped mental state, as evidenced when he tells Frankenstein: “It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being,” (95). Like our own memories of infanthood, he has trouble recalling the way his life was initialized and defined by this time period. As the creature defines himself, the people of the homestead provide an image that impresses the creature with their beauty and grace (104). As the first intelligent beings he could observe at length, the cottage-dwellers were the closest thing to a mirror image that he could pattern himself on without the help of a glass.

When given a mirror, the creature is shocked at his visage, even though it is something he had lived with his whole short life. “At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was in the mirror,” (104). The creature sees the people of the farmstead as his imago and ideal self-image, so he cannot identify with his actual appearance. The imago, which is supposed to comfort by how familiar it is, becomes unfamiliar because the creature can no longer associate it with himself. The monster must instead pattern himself on a lesser image, losing the ability to identify with the wholesome aspects of the human imago. Of these, the creature shows jealousy: “The more I saw of them, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness,” (118). The creature sees the benefits as outside of himself, theirs but not his, yet he still desires their qualities. He aspires to be the image, but unlike those whose imago is a mirror of the self, his actuality is different enough that he knows he cannot reach the goal. This angers him, and so he is alienated by his own ugliness, or rather, by how different his face in the mirror is from the faces of humans he saw first.

According to Freud, the uncanny encompasses the realm of the unknown, more specifically dealing with humanity’s general trepidation towards the uncovering of certain hidden or concealed things within ourselves, often regarding hidden memories of ours from the past. It is the “revelation of what is private and concealed, of what is hidden” (class notes), confirming the oft-personal nature of the uncanny. What is concealed can even be hidden unintentionally from ourselves: the mind represses certain memories/experiences from the past, so whatever uncovers these experiences, which generally hearken back to our earliest years, represents the uncanny. Such repressed material from our early days, according to Freud, can be reflected through an “uncanny double” (a doppelganger)–its roots springing from our “narcissistic self-love” (class notes) cultivated in our childhood–which is a mental image/projection/persona of ourselves that we form (either intentionally or, more often, unintentionally)–for ourselves in order to define the way we see ourselves. The super-ego is related to this concept as well, projecting “all the things it represses onto this primitive image of the double. Hence the double in later life is experienced as something uncanny because it calls forth all this repressed content” (class notes).

This is what confronts the creature when he looks at a reflection of himself in a pool. He “admired the perfect forms of [the cottagers he had been observing]– their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!” (104). He was at first “unable to believe that it was indeed [him] who was reflected in the mirror,” which is a sign of the uncanny double because this whole time the creature has been yearning for acceptance from the hostile humans around him, and this desire to connect stretches all the way back to its “birth” in Victor Frankenstein’s lab. Victor created the creature in a human image (in Victor’s mind, at least), and of course that did not go as planned, but with the creature’s “eyes… were fixed on [him]” (61). The creature likely saw Victor and saw him, a human and his creator, as the ideal in looks. He associated himself as a human and constantly tried to associate with other humans as well, but he finally confronts his true appearance through the reflection on the pool and sees pure hideousness. He sees himself this way based on his ideal perception of appearance, which he formed way back when he first came alive through Victor and subsequent other humans. This is his now-uncovered “uncanny double,” which was the mental image/projection/persona he created for himself to reflect the way he saw and perceived himself– as a human, like everyone else he saw. This is why he was disgusted by his appearance: because he had a prior, already-crafted self-image of himself that was uprooted by his real, actual self-image in the reflection, uncovering his repressed “uncanny double.” It is also why he still would want others to overlook his physical deformities because at the end of the day, he still wants to be accepted by others, as evidenced by his eventual entry into the cottagers’ house in order to finally gain acceptance from them (which, of course, does not go as planned for him).

Within Frankenstein, the creature’s psychological maturation process serves as a crucial element of the monster’s characterization and the narrative direction of the novel as a whole. Lacan’s “mirror stage,” acts as an excellent analytical tool for the comprehension of this mental development in its fullness.

The mirror stage is a term used to define the period of infancy during which the individual begins to recognize the coherence and organization of their various body parts. This ideal and absolute sense of fullness allows the infant to inhabit “the imaginary,” a mental state similarly marked with integrity and completion. Even after the state of the imaginary is exchanged for the state of “the symbolic,” with the rise of language, the concept of the perfectly whole ego cannot be forgotten. It is deeply satisfying as it maintains the illusion of inherent individual definition, and accordingly it is preserved in the form of the “ideal-I.” This state of pure self-congruity is pursued throughout the rest of life as one of the most central human drives, but it can never be achieved again due to the rise of language.

The creature is initiated in this standard process, but as he follows it, his unusual circumstances lead to an abnormal alteration of the ultimate results. In his intellectual infancy, the being finds the De Lacey family, and is compelled to observe them. He gradually enters the mirror stage, but there is a fundamental error in how it is used. Instead of granting the creature a sense of wholeness and coherence in his own body, he finds it in three others. He is never given the opportunity to realize his own form in the construction of ego, so it is instead based upon his observation of the De Laceys. Within their household, the monster finds a sense of satisfying fullness, as each of the family members cares for each other and fulfill different responsibilities and emotions. As long as he inhabits the imaginary, the De Laceys serve as a strange substitute ego or “I,” for the creature.

As the being matures, however, this state cannot maintain itself. The symbolic begins to arise as the creature realized that Felix De Lacey “uttered many of the same sounds when he read, as when he talked … he found on the paper signs for speech” (104). This statement expresses the first comprehension of abstract signs, most notably in the form of words. Immediately afterwards, the monster sees his true form for the first time but was “unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror … I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification” (104).

By only seeing himself once the mirror stage has terminated, the creature’s ideal-I has been utterly fractured and broken. His necessary individual coherence is exchanged for contention. He realizes that his own construct of self is inconsistent with his true form, and that his ego is flawed. A fundamental human drive has been stolen from him, as he can no longer truly pursue or accept his ideal-I.

Because his mirror stage and conception of identity are based upon a group of people rather than a single individual, there is some morsel of hope for the ideal-I of the creature. By gaining acceptance as a part of the De Lacey family, the ideal-I can be repaired. However, each time the creature sees his own image, “hope … vanished, when I beheld my person reflected in water, or my shadow in the moonshine” (118).

The creature’s disgust in his self image may be comprehended as a perverted psychological maturation. Through a false mirror stage, the fundamental drive for the ideal-I is lost. This results in the horror of existential crisis, as any semblance of inherent identity yields to pure disorder and dissonance.

The monster’s disgust with himself lies beneath his physical appearance. Although he desires that others look past his physical atrocities, he is “terrified when he views himself in a transparent pool.” (Frankenstein pg. 104) Through Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective, we will see that his reflection is representative of much more than his physical traits and that the text reveals why the monster was at first ” unable to believe that it was indeed  I who was reflected in the mirror (pool).”(Frankenstein pg. 104) We need to identify what the monster actually saw as he looked upon his reflection, and suggest why in fact the monster had feelings of “despondence and mortification.” (Frankenstein pg. 104)

The monster’s unbelief of his own reflection stems from his realization of the “double” effect. As the monster looks upon his reflection,  he realizes what is a representation of the “double,” that which serves as insurance against the destruction of the ego, or symbolically our deaths.(“The Uncanny” pg. 9) It can be represented through many mediums, one of which is a reflection. (“The Uncanny” pg. 9) The monster comes to the unconscious realization that what is framed by the pool is a reflection, or representation, of the double or what has been created to preserve himself.  There is a sense of horror that the monster experiences as he realizes he is the source of the reflection in the pool for two ideas I believe lead to the same conclusion. First, the significance of the “transparent” pool should be explored.(Frankenstein pg. 104) By definition, transparency “allows light to pass through so that objects behind can be distinctly seen, easy to perceive or detect.” (Merriam Webster) From this specification, the monster and the reader can trust that what the monster sees in the pool is indeed a reflection of himself. The first of the  two ideas is that the monster cannot touch or feel his reflection as though it were a tangible entity. This must create some confusion due to the idea that he is indeed a living, tangible being, but is capable of creating an intangible image in the pool. And if indeed this reflection is a representation of the double, a safeguard in place to preserve life and counteract the destruction of oneself, how can something so intangible and inanimate accomplish such a feat? The second of the two ideas suggests that the monster may have some difficulty processing the duality of his existence. The monster has unconsciously doubled himself, proved by his “reflection in the transparent pool,” as an insurance against his degeneration. This makes him a living being with, let’s say, a “reinforcement” in place for his survival. However, within this same being is the  “reality of a monster” experiencing “fatal effects of this miserable deformity,” (Frankenstein pg. 104) reason for  the reader to associate him with ideas of “unnatural or extreme ugliness, deformity, wickedness, or cruelty” subjects so opposite the existence and preservation of life. (Merriam Webster) If the creature is in fact a monster, how can he feel assured of the validity or effectiveness of his double, if indeed it is a true reflection of his monstrosity? For these reasons the monster cannot look past his feelings of “despondence and mortification” at the sight of his reflection, despite his desire for others to excuse his physical appearance.

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:

While Otto Rank associates the idea of the double with a feeling of preservation and immortality, the monster’s vision of his own “miserable deformity” (104) more likely is associated with the “castration by a doubling or multiplication of the genital symbol” (Freud 425). The monster covets the appearances of the DeLaceys, “the perfect forms of my cottagers – their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions” (104). The DeLaceys serve in Freud’s Oedipal complex as the mother, with the monster being the young son in the stage of polymorphous sexuality and desiring the mother. However, the monster becomes “terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool… unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror” (104). This terror is due to the fact that the monster sees the separation between him and his mother – he has a phallic penis while she does not, and thus he can never be like her, just as he will never have the perfect form of the DeLaceys. This terror stems from his fear of castration; he sees that the DeLaceys are different than himself and worries that his phallic penis will also be taken away. His hatred for himself represents the Oedipal hatred for the father with whom he associates due to the common penis, but whom he believes has stolen the penis of the mother (or created the differences between himself and the DeLaceys). Eventually however, he identifies with the father when he “became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am” (104).
Freud mentions the “unfulfilled but possible features to which we still cling in phantasy, all those strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all our suppressed acts of violition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will” (426). The double is a representation of these unfilfilled and suppressed actions. Even though the monster wants others to overlook his deformity, he can’t help but be disgusted by the unconscious feelings of desire for his mother and hatred for his father. The double is also associated with early ideas of narcissism, rendering “it possible to invest the old idea of a ‘double’ with a new meaning and to ascribe… those things which seem to the new faculty of self-criticism to belong to the old surmounted narcissism of the earliest period of all” (426). Initally the monster is unable to even believe that his own reflection is staring back at him out of the pool, which is a protection provided by his early stages of narcissism. Our senses of self-criticism and the ability to accept ones flaws revert back to narcisssim with the incorporation of the double. When he sees his reflection in the pool, his double reflection prevents him from being able to look at his appearance objectively and he reverts back to the more basic form of narcissism to form his self-image giving him the “bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification” (104).

The creature perceives its reflection differently when its talks about it on different times. However, an interpretation of the Creature’s monologue requires an understanding of the Oedipal dynamics at play in its frame of reference. The Creature wants a union, so to speak, with the isolated bubble of civilization depicted by the DeLacey family. However its desire is repressed by the judgment of Society as a whole that seems to the Creature as the arbiter of its fate. The very same overbearing and judgmental society governs the DeLacey family (as the creature finds out through Felix’s and Safie’s letters). So in the end, all the Creature desires is a severance of the connection between the DeLaceys and society and its judgment (which resonates with the father and the Father’s No), so that it may find its way to fulfillment without hindrance.

When the Creature first sees its reflection (p.104), it has just taken refuge from the overwhelming rejection it faced in the towns. The creature knows that it is undesired, but is in the dark when it comes to the reason. This blindness, so to speak, puts the creature in an uncanny atmosphere. But then over the course of time it observes and so learns the DeLaceys’ perception of beauty (which is the same for the society, for the most part). And then, equipped with some cognizance of aesthetics, when it sees its double in the water, the Creature for the first time realizes the reason behind its rejection. Even though the Creature’s encounter with its “double” is not strictly the Freudian understanding of the concept (that a double embodies unacceptable desires/notions suppressed by the ego), the effect on the Creature’s conscious mind, be it from the resurgence of desires or merely from their apparition, is the same. Thus, the Creature, realizing that it is incompatible for the union it so desires, is filled with “despondence and mortification”. Therefore the creature’s disgust is born of frustration, and not of surrender to the whims of its Uncanny Double.

As the Creature spends time observing the DeLaceys, it matures. It learns to speak and read, and peruses several works on history and philosophy. It is almost as if the creature is in denial. The train of its thoughts stays clear of its depressing deformities for the most part of a year. It lives its life through Agatha, Felix, their father and Safie. However, after reading “Paradise Lost”, the creature is faced with the inequality between itself and another creation: Adam. This comparison, coupled with the creature viewing its reflection forces it in the uncanny position of facing its very recent but infantile past. However, the creature, now indoctrinated in the ways of men, is under the influence of the Super-Ego reserved only for members of society. And so when it labels itself a ” wretched outcast” (p.118), it is because the creature’s biased sources of education have left it no alternative.

In some cases, ignorance is bliss indeed.

I realized this past week that, much to my chagrin, I have been using the word “uncanny” wrong for my entire life. For Sigmund Freud “the uncanny undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread” (Freud).  Freud likens the uncanny to losing your eyes or fear of castration. In humans both the eyes and the genitals are instruments of categorization and the uncanny relates to the inability to categorize life in the chaotic world. Your eyes categorize the things around you while your genitalia categorizes the self.  The monster has categorized his world through observation but when we sees himself he sees something different from what his observations have taught him about human life.   The moment he looks into himself he realizes that he embodies the destruction of the dichotomy of the familiar versus the unfamiliar. He sees a being that is familiar because it is indeed a reflection of self but simultaneously new and terrifying because he has never seen something like himself before.  This scene of the creature’s self discovery is the very union of heimlich and unheimlich.  The moment is heimlich in the personal nature of self-discovery, yet unheimlich in the idea that his being is radically different and more grotesque than the life he has spent weeks observing.  Upon seeing his reflection the monster experiences the uncanny because he cannot categorize himself as familiar or unfamiliar.

When the creature sees his reflection, he is “terrified” and views his own appearance as “deformity” (Shelley 104). This is because the creature is an uncanny creation. Though he was created from human flesh, he is not human and never will be. His very creation is one without birth, which makes him an unnatural being born of death. In some ways, he is a more uncanny version of Otto Rank’s double, “originally an insurance against destruction to the ego” that “becomes the ghastly harbinger of death.” (Freud 425). His creation from death makes his very existence a reminder of mortality, just like Freud states the double as being. So when he stares into his reflection, he simply sees the fear which we attempt to repress most, death. No matter how much he works on his personality or grace, he will never be able to get around the death which his creation symbolizes or the unnatural method of his creation (though my preferred psychoanalytic reading shows his creation as Frankenstein attempting to fulfill natural Oedipal desires, the creature is a being created without actual sexual reproduction. That is what I mean by unnatural). The disgust in his image is a natural, human reaction to his appearance. Though his brain an psyche are stitched together, he seems to still have a human unconscious.