Tag Archive: Jacques Lacan


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.

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

According to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, an infant develops its self-identity through a stage that he calls the “mirror stage”. In this stage, the child, upon seeing its reflection, learns to identify its reflection and the child’s vision becomes the “I”. For Frankenstein’s monster the mirror stage (much like all of the monster’s life) is atypical, which results in his refusal to accept his deformities.

For Lacan, the child develops its sense of “I” as a model of its selfhood during the time of imagination, a period of fullness in psychic development. As the child matures, its physical and mental handicaps prevent the child from reaching the perfect “I” that it has identified with. Therefore the “I” becomes the “Ideal-I”, an unattainable goal of itself, and serves as the basis of the child’s future interactions, as a quest to become its ideal-I. In the creature’s development however, the steps have been reversed. The monster has learned language, which to Lacan was a component of later development, while it was essentially in a state of infancy or imagination. With language and observation of the De Laceys occurring in the imagination phase of development, the creature designates the De Lacey family as the “I” rather than himself. When the monster finally gazes into a pool of water, the stark contrast between himself and the De Laceys becomes apparent, “At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror” (104). When the monster realizes that he does not look at all like the family he had been observing, the monster effectively becomes his own other, in conflict with the ideal-I that he deemed as the De Lacey family. The creature cannot overcome his deformities because he sees himself as the force preventing himself from attaining the lives of the De Laceys. In Lacanian perspective, he has had the roles of development reversed, which results in the creature’s troubled state.