Tag Archive: mirror stage

Through critical psychoanalytic and post-colonial critical techniques, the highly violent nature of the creature in Frankenstein may be explicated. This movement may be accomplished first through an analysis of the characters in Lacanian terms. Like any other human individual, the creature undergoes interaction with an evolutionary set of psychological realms, initiated by the infantile mirror stage. This developmental state is characterized by an idealized recognition of bodily coherence and fullness, described singularly as the “imaginary.”

However, there is something subtly abnormal and perverted about this process within the narrative, resulting in highly unusual implications. In his intellectual infancy, the creature attaches his sense of self-definition not to his own body, but to the collective whole of the De Lacey family. His ego or “I,” finds a strange substitute in the contextual relations of the group, rather than his personal sense of bodily coherence. This state is able to maintain itself as long as the creature can inhabit a position of outside observation, free of linguistic structure or interaction with the De Laceys.

The necessary and inevitable rise of the symbolic state eventually comes to overturn the peace of the imaginary. The creature realizes his own faculty for linguistic representation and abstract symbolism, introducing the concept of intellectual lack through the inability of language to completely invoke a form, and subsequently forcing the full sense of ego to retreat into the form of “ideal-I.” Only after this process has been completed, does the creature perceive his true form in a pool of water. By seeing himself after he has moved into the symbolic state, his ideal-I has been completely broken or fractured. He comes to a realization that his ego is deeply fissured, and that it is totally inconsistent with his true nature. The fundamental human drive towards the coherence of the ideal-I is stolen from him, and he is left only with inner contention and conflict.

However, there is some hope for the creature. It may be possible for him to repair his imaginary self-definition by gaining acceptance with the De Laceys, as his idealized sense of self was based upon their family as a collective whole. Accordingly, he adopts a role parallel to the feminine subaltern place of Safie within the household. In this debased role, he receives the second half of his lesson in linguistics. The creature is fed and accepts the nuanced language of colonial discourse, adopting the sense of ideological subjugation. However, there is a flaw here as well. Instead of maintaining the superficial wholeness expressed by Safie, the creature is a maelstrom of discord. His loss of ideal-I has rendered him unable to mask the conflicting elements of the colonial discourse. Accordingly, his attempt at integration fails, and his ideal-I completely vanishes.

Here, the literary critic may perceive that the two linguistic educations, and the two failures, expose the true nature of the colonial symptom. The De Lacey family served as a microcosm for western European dominance and colonization. Through his first failure at drawing an ideal-I from the cumulative whole, the creature destroys the concept that colonial society is full, whole, natural, and free of conflict. Through his second failure in his inability to adopt the subaltern role, the creature shows that each socially striated placement is wrought with ideological tumult, and that this societal system is not legitimate. The creature is the physical manifestation of the latent violence hidden behind the colonial façade, the corporeal avatar of a fissured reality. He is now marked with discord, and will not stop in his quest to subvert the stability of colonial discourse, revealing a form of violence present everywhere.

Frankenstein’s monster learns the craft of language by carefully observing the interactions of a French peasant family, the De Lacey’s. Through this interaction, and a reversed Lacanian developmental stage, the creature becomes indoctrinated with the phallocentric colonialist discourse, believing it as fact.

            For Jacques Lacan, the mirror stage of development is marked by the creation of a child’s Ideal-I, and the change from the imaginary stage to the symbolic stage. The mirror stage occurs when a child sees an image or “imago”, typically its own reflection, and uses the image as a constant goal to strive for throughout life. For the creature, the mirror stage occurred atypically, and the monster unconsciously assigned the De Lacey family as its Ideal-I, “When I slept, or was absent, the forms of venerable blind father, the gentle Agatha, and the excellent Felix, flitted before me. I looked upon them as superior beings…” (105). If we take dreams, as Freud suggested, as when the unconscious comes through, then the creature’s dreams of the De Lacey family are representative of the creature’s assignment of them to the Ideal-I, which is further supported by the phrase “superior being”. The Ideal-I is unattainable, the child’s “superior being” which it can only attempt to match.

            In this period of growth, the creature also learns language. This is contrary to Lacan’s supposed steps because to him, language is an aspect of the symbolic order because it defers meaning to pre-existing words and clouds pure emotion. Because the creature learns language while in the imaginary state, it forever associates language and speech with the pure, infallible state of the imaginary order. When the creature eavesdrops on Felix’s lessons to Safie about history, he also interprets these lessons as factual, “I should not have understood the purport of this book had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations” (108). The history is being told from Felix, a male member of the colonizers, to Safie, a female colonized. In that scenario, the creature and Safie become virtually identical, colonized peoples being taught the ways of the dominant culture, but in the creature’s case, he interprets this possibly filtered history as true. When he’s rejected from the De Lacey’s, he demands that Victor make him a female creature that he believes will undoubtedly stay with him, perhaps firmly believing the phallocentric discourse that Felix had taught, which would have emphasized female subservience.

            Because the creature’s imaginary and symbolic stages were reversed, he believes that language is a component of the imaginary state and is therefore infallible. This misconception causes his to wholeheartedly accept the phallocentric history that Felix had presented to Safie during her teachings.

In my most recent post, I vehemently defended my argument (at least in the comments) that the creature’s apparent behavior did not make it a subaltern character. The question is: Why? Why is it that exposure to identical conditions (discrimination, apathy, ignorance etc.) yielded a meek Safie and a rebellious Monster? Even a cursory examination of these two subjects reveals the only significant variable that changed: the characters themselves. But what was it that was so different between Safie and the Creature? To answer that would take us to the defining moment of a character’s development: the Mirror Stage.

According to Lacan, the mirror stage first manifests itself during infancy. A child who is aware of its uncoordinated motor skills looks into a mirror and sees something more than a reflection. It sees itself as a whole. In a manner of speaking it looks “up” at its ideal, imaginary self. And with the reality of its own fragmentation close on its heels, the child quickly dismisses the differences between itself and its perceived double, and instead adopts the reflection as something to strive towards. Now, the infantile mirror stage only incorporates obvious, physical parities. However as a person matures, society starts to play a part. The person sees in the mirror an ideal image that has been augmented by social judgments on aesthetics. And out of fear of rejection and fragmentation from society, and in hope of total acceptance, the person keeps striving towards his/her imaginary double.

Similarly, the meekness and involuntary conformity of the subaltern comes from its latent optimism for eventual elevation. The subaltern does not, however, sympathize with the lack  that its image invokes. This is because the image is not a product of society, but of the colonizers/patriarchy. But the subaltern toils under colonizers’ expectations nonetheless. There is something to be said for the optimism that the mirror stage inculcates in every human. Like Spivak’s widow and Safie, the subaltern continues to choose paths that are the lesser of two evils in hope that one day the image it sees in the mirror will become real and lead it to freedom and acceptance.

But in case of the creature, the mirror stage is different. Unlike the infant, the creature is the epitome of physical prowess. However the image it sees in the water is that of a sum of parts. Where the infant looked up to its imaginary self as an escape from fragmentation, the creature (literally) looks down and sees itself as disarray personified. There is no ideal to strive towards. Optimism has become redundant. The awareness of its true self has set the creature free from any expectations. This freedom is sadist and damning, but it is freedom still. Where the subaltern perpetually strives to crawl towards the light at the end of the tunnel under mountains of expectations, the creature’s realization of reality blasts away the entire range altogether. So when it chooses to flirt with the idea of peace with the DeLaceys, or to condemn Justine, or to kill Victor, it is merely exercising its freedom like no subaltern can.

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.

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 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:




For next week’s blog post (Monday 3/18), answer the following questions from a psychoanalytic perspective, using Freud’s idea of the uncanny double or Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage:

What does the creature see when he looks into a reflecting pool of water (p. 104, 118)?  Why is he so disgusted of his self-image if, ultimately, he wants others to overlook his physical deformity?



For inspiration, students can recall my graphic in-class drawing of Victor Frankenstein’s “wildest dream,” what Freud would call an uncanny return to his unconscious childhood desire before the Oedipal stage: to have sex with his phallic mother, an incestuous desire displaced from Elizabeth (his “cousin-sister”), to his dead mother, and finally to the hideous monster (the double).  Wow, this novel has some serious psychological trauma (or maybe this image reflects my disturbed transference!!!).

Students can learn from this image about the importance of taking the time to do a close reading, how to base your interpretation on key words, phrases, images, motifs, and symbols.  Remember, don’t over-intellectualize the novel (that’s a form of repression); instead, think psychoanalytically at the emotional level; in other words, think perversely and pornographically–in the most twisted way–and you will discover the secret of the uncanny.


Here’s my explanation for the image below:

Victor’s dead mother folded in the flannel = the binding of the mother in an idealized “safe” form (repression) kills her, displacing the unconscious desire to kill the father onto the mother instead (an “abnormal” Oedipal cycle)

the graveworm = the penis linked with maternal death, thus the phallic mother.  I see a connection between this image and Victor’s recollection of his childhood: a boy bound to his family by a “silken cord”: the biological umbilical cord.

sweaty forehead = the penis forehead in the act of ejaculation, sexual pleasure prior to castration (the uncircumcised penis)

Victor’s sweaty body and convulsing limbs = the son having sex with the mother or, conversely, the phallic mother having sex with her son; incest is not a taboo before the Oedipal stage, thus Elizabeth, Victor’s lover and sister, reverts to maternal love

the moon shining in from the window = the dark, horrible secret of the uncanny has been revealed in the light; the return of the repressed.

the horrible, nameless monster = the uncanny double that reveals the horror of Victor’s secret unfulfilled wish: to have sex with his mother; but he could also symbolize the missing father figure, the super-ego (external observer) that denies incestuous love.  Thus, the creature is a condensation of the mother-father figure, the embodiment of the phallic mother Victor encounters unconsciously in his dream.

uncanny photo



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