Category: The Uncanny (3/12)


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.

From Victor’s “wildest dreams” it appears that he is deviating from the normal Oedipal development (if any of it can actually be called ‘normal’), and instead of progressing from the infantile Oedipal stage into an adult stage where he is supposed to look for substitutes for his mother, he is regressing back from the substitute, namely Elizabeth, to his mother, as is seen in the dream figure’s transformation. This revival of an infantile stage is a return of the repressed and this which arouses the uncanny, along with the incest taboo that is ingrained in society, causes Victor to be absolutely horrified with his unholy desire, as is seen in the image of the “graveworms crawling”(61) which, according to Freud, could be a safer way to express his horror at his incestuous thoughts, as ‘insects’ is a word similar to ‘incest’. This tension and self-abhorrence in Victor may be the source of all his anguish throughout the novel, and his drive to make the Creature. The Creature can in fact be seen as an expression of this unnatural sexual desire for his mother that is buried in his unconscious; he is the desire made flesh. Victor’s narcissism doesn’t allow him to loathe himself for what he sees as a horrifying unnatural desire, or go harmlessly neurotic like other people do when their repressed drives rise to the surface, so instead he creates a being, a manifestation of this desire, on which he can displace the hatred. This is supported by the fact that the Creature’s biggest grievance is that he is unnatural and doesn’t belong anywhere.

Like his desire for his mother, the Creature is also a literal return from the repressed, as he is put together from parts of dead bodies that were buried in the past. He is Victor’s hidden perversity exposed to whole world, as is exemplified in the image created by “[in the] light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch”(61), where the light invades the dark room, a representation of the inner compartments of Victor’s psyche, and shines on the Creature. This can also explain the description of the Creature’s eyes with “if eyes they may called”(61) which calls into question the legitimacy of his penis, as Victor is afraid that his forbidden desire for his mother means that there is something wrong with him sexually. This is why Victor seems to simultaneously hate the Creature and be obsessed with him. This is why he never tells anyone about the Creature as, to reveal his unconscious desire would be unthinkable, elucidated in how he says, “my tale is not one for the public”(78) and doesn’t even consider telling the truth to save Justine’s life. This is why he feels such strong fear, (“catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse”) and horror towards the Creature, as this is the result of the experience of the uncanny that arises when there is a return of the repressed.

While reading about the uncanny and its definition, as well as Freud’s general theories and theses regarding it, everything started to fall into place with regards to Frankenstein and his monster.  The immediate conclusion that is brought to mind is that Frankenstein is using his creature to put into physical being his double, and through this regressing into his childhood again because he is experiencing the uncanny – he is experiencing his double as an adult.  But I think a large factor is that Frankenstein has experienced his development in a twisted way, and therefore in experiencing the uncanny he sees a return of the repressed material that illustrates the disruption of his natural development, which may be the causation for the need to create his creature.

In a regular trajectory of development, a child would experience their childhood narcissism and create ideas for their double, where it is acceptable since the narcissism has not been overcome.  Then, later on in life, as the narcissism is overcome, encountering the double will end up leading the person to the uncanny and return them to childhood thoughts and memories.  Naturally, we can interpret his creature as his double.  Yet there is something very critical that happens in Victor’s experience of the uncanny: “I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams.   I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt” (61).  According to the Oedipal design of development in relation to the family, a person’s development of feelings of affection towards an individual are based on the interactions with their parents and basically, whether they have fear of castration or penis envy.  The “normal” development of a male child will push them to have affection for their mother, and then transfer that affection to a woman that reminds them of their mother.  Instead Frankenstein has been attached by affection to Elizabeth since so early in his life (since the age of five) that he was not able to properly complete his development with regard to affection of his mother.  With regard to Elizabeth, Frankenstein has this to say early on in the narrative – “Elizabeth Lavenza became the inmate of my parents’ house – more than my sister – the beautiful and adored companion of all my occupations and pleasures” (43).  Victor prematurely transferred his affections from his mother onto his “cousin,” and if this aspect of development was disrupted, is it not also possible other aspects of his development was disrupted?  In particular, what if he never truly overcame his childhood narcissism, and is, instead of mentally, physically creating his double in order to ensure his immortality?

Victor: The Half-formed Man

So in case we weren’t already convinced, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory proves it: Victor is messed up. Based on Freud’s writing, I might also venture to say, it takes one to know one. This is my interpretation for how it all went down:

According to Freud, the “double” may be an external projection of repressed infantile material, that “the quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the ‘double’ being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage” (426). Victor’s manic obsession with giving life to the monster is then the resurfacing of his repressed infantile psychic, primarily in the form of his castration anxiety. Unlike most boys following “normal” development, Victor never resolved his castration anxiety: he never overcame his affection for his mother, and consequently has remained fearful of his father castrating him for this unnatural attachment. This is evident in his dream, in which Elizabeth, the natural object of his affection, transfigures into “the corpse of my dead mother.” Victor then “started from [his] sleep with horror,” as if realizing he still possesses an attraction for his mother and her appearance in “a shroud” condemns this unnatural affection.

The image of the “dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters” as the means of revealing what is uncanny to Victor (the monster=his double =his repressed castration anxiety) evokes Freud’s idea of the uncanny as the reappearance, the illumination of the familiar, but repressed aspects of infantile development. The uncanny appears in this scene as Victor’s double: the monster. As his double, the monster is then the embodiment of Victor’s castration anxiety. Not coincidentally, the first thing Victor describes is the monster’s eyes, how “his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me.” According to Freud, “that anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind, is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated” (424). Further, the monster appears with “one hand outstretched, seemingly to detain me,” a physical position which represents the penis Victor is afraid of losing. In Victor’s case, the uncanny is the resurfacing of his earlier psychic stages in the form of the double he has created, an unconscious effort to resolve his castration anxiety which actually, to his horror, illuminates it and perpetuates its torment of him. For example, when Victor later refuses to give the monster a mate, he prolongs his unresolved castration anxiety by refusing then to resolve the monster’s anxiety (manifested in his desire for a mate, which would confirm his possession of a penis).

The uncanny seems to be anything that reminds a person of their earlier psychic stages of the unconscious. Victor’s unconscious was definitely reminded, upon the animation of the creature, of his Oedipal psychic stage. On the surface, Victor seems to have progressed normally through that process. However, the dream reveals that isn’t quite the case. Although it seems that Victor is in love with Elizabeth, her image in the dream regresses to that of his dead mother. However, we can’t say that this directly correlates with Victor’s unconscious wanting to get with his mother. According to Freud’s dream interpretation, the forbidden desires of the unconscious are censored in dreams. The explicitness of the dream suggests that what it censors is even more taboo than desiring his mother. What could be more taboo than that?

Warning–I’m gonna say something pretty crazy here: maybe Victor like–I don’t know–didn’t think the creature was so hideous. Maybe he really thought, “damn this guy is fine.” In a weird, weird way he felt attracted to what he had created? I mean, he was set to marry his adoptive sister so already his life is pretty weird. But let’s turn to the text, and talk about my second best friend: Victor’s unreliability as a narrator. “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast…” (60). Victor may have designed the creature to be beautiful, but it is interesting that, in describing the “monstrosity,” he first paints it as beautiful. Present Victor, the one on Walton’s ship, knows that the creature isn’t beautiful. He knows that the creature becomes a murderer. The Victor of that moment, however, doesn’t know that.

Perhaps that is why Victor carelessly leaves the creature alone, right after it’s birth. He can’t handle the fact that he’s feeling something for a guy-like creature. He lives in a hetero-normative world. His mother literally said to him, on her deathbed, “My children [Elizabeth and Victor]…my firmest hopes of future happiness were placed on the prospect of your union,” and to impress her point she has them hold hands (49). He’s been told that Elizabeth was his since she joined the family. In the dream, Elizabeth’s transformation into his mother seems to be a throwback to his mother’s dying words. To what is expected of him. The norm that he may be–probably is–deviating from. The possibility of not fitting the mold laid out for him was too much for him to take

Trapped In The Closet

Victor’s desire to bring life to an inanimate object – to birth life from his own creation – can be likened to what Freud would call a pathological male development. According to Freud, Victor’s obsession with making a ‘baby’ comes from a deep seated desire to find a substitute for his father’s penis. (Pause)

In the ‘normal’ development of the Male Oedipal Complex, Victor would start to identify with his father, and then look for a substitute to satisfy the subconscious infatuation his Id would have with his mother. On a surface level, it looks like Victor has found this in Elizabeth, so it would be easy to say that Victor has experienced a normal development.

But writing a post about that would not push any boundaries, and would surely result in yet another mediocre grade! Instead, we must consider: throughout the story, we see Victor display many narcissistic tendencies, and as we have discussed before in class, it begins to seem like Victor is not attracted to Elizabeth at all – instead, she simply serves as a piece of furniture that completes his grand view of himself. Remember, according to Freud, intense narcissism in adults creates what he calls the ‘doppleganger’. The doppleganger represents the superego’s repression of unwanted traits or feelings that are unacceptable to the ego. In Victor’s case, his doppleganger is what drives him to pursue Elizabeth, repressing his true feelings and desires which his ego has deemed unacceptable in society. 

At the same time, Victor harbors an intense yearning to find a true substitute for what he really wants, even if he doesn’t quite realize it. His obsession with bringing a being to life stems from his pathological development and the lingering attraction that lurks within the deepest recesses of his soul. (Lighting flashes, organ music plays, and I laugh maniacally at my computer in the Blakemore study room which is shrouded in mystery and darkness!)

So much like my relentless pursuit of a good blog grade stems from crushing insecurities and a fear of failure, Victor’s life work actually comes from a desire to find something that could stand alone as a substitute for his father’s penis. Dare I say it – I think Victor is gay!trapped in the closet

Failed Identification

Victor, in his dream, is confronted with both the love (though strange) he felt from and for his own mother (read: creator), and the complete lack of love he has for his own creation. The creature highlights a strange twist in the parent-child relationship of Victor with his mother, and of Victor with his creature.

His parents, specifically his mother, raised him lovingly by his own account, as a child “whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery,” (42). This contrasts heavily with Victor’s own “parenting” of the creature, which he seemingly directs straight toward misery. Freud says that the double can represent “unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in phantasy, ” (426). Victor’s fantasy seems to be that he can be a creator (like his idolized mother). “For this” he says, “I had deprived myself of rest and health” (60); this deprivation of personal care is not unlike what a mother does for a newborn. He is the newborn his mother had loved; yet when he himself creates a “newborn,” he is repulsed by it. The creature is the double of the child in this case, of the innocent, yet Victor cannot do what his mother had done.

Not only does Victor fail to identify “correctly” with his father, according to Freud’s model of the Oedipal cycle, he cannot even identify incorrectly with his mother. In the dream he does not find peace with his earlier identification as a Creator like his mother. This does not fit him either. He calls the creature “the miserable monster whom [he] had has created” and “the demonical corpse to which [he] had given life” (61). This is the passage that depicts everything Victor has strived for going wrong. In trying to be a creator, he has seen the failure of his own potential, the death of his own self-image.

Frankenstein and the Uncanny

For next Thursday (3/12), students will write a blog post on the following question prompt:

Using Freud’s theory of the uncanny (repetition-compulsion, the double, return of the repressed), interpret Victor’s “wildest dream” on page 61.  How is this strange Oedipal desire for the mother/spouse related to Victor’s relationship to his parents and his desire to animate a corpse?  Explain how this psychological state illuminates important themes in the novel.

Please categorize under “the uncanny” and don’t forget to create relevant and specific tags.

Remember that students now have the option to revise their posts after class, due by Friday at noon.

 

Here’s an inspiring YouTube video on Oedipus veggies, the story of Oedipus told through vegetable actors.  This story served as the basis for Freud’s theory of the unconscious.  Be warned: this video contains graphic scenes not suitable for vegetable viewers.