Tag Archive: uncanny

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).

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

Reality and Illusion

The creature in Frankenstein represents the primitive, backwards, and ostensibly “Oriental” figure, which remains alien to the Eurocentric, Christian “West”. The creature, however, is merely a displacement of Victor’s desires and thoughts about himself.

Through the layers of filtering in the novel, the creature can be representative of Victor’s identification as the savage Asiatic woman. By projecting these Eurocentric, westernized thoughts onto a subaltern creature, which is in fact only a figment of his imagination, Victor can escape internalizing his inferiority and avoid becoming conscious of his status as an “other” amidst enlightened, rational society. Victor feels not merely oppressed, but also voiceless in his own life and this forces him to identify as a foreign colonized woman. His adoption of Edward Said’s binary opposition allows him to place himself into the “Western” structuralist category and escape his inner, oriental nature. This displacement blurs the distinction between reality and illusion, as Victor’s illusory creature is in reality his skewed thoughts and inferiority complex manifesting in latent content. By defining himself in opposition to everything he has been taught is lesser and backwards, Victor can avoid the cultural multiplicity that characterizes relations between the colonizer and the colonized. The education that the creature receives from Felix is Victor recounting the Eurocentric cultural and historical narrative he received, which he believes is fallacious. However, he can’t outwardly deny this and identify with the oriental, paradigmatic “other” so this creature allows him to avoid being an outsider and gives him the ability to break free of these shackles.

When Victor sees himself, beneath all of the layers of filtering and repression, he even says that he “became fully convinced” that he “was in reality the monster”. It is only by artificially conjuring a monster and displacing all of his genuine thoughts and desires onto it that he can avoid how he really feels about himself. This uncanny feeling is so foreign yet strikingly familiar, precisely the relationship that the monster has to Victor. The “miserable deformity” that the monster witnesses is in fact Victor’s castrated body exposed by the water, and this fear of castration that Victor represses sheds light on his identification as a foreign, colonized, subaltern woman who obviously does not have a penis (104).

Through this avoidance, Victor can displace these thoughts onto a monster that typifies the subaltern, foreign woman in his unconscious and ultimately, he can avoid self-hatred and can continue to perpetuate the Eurocentric, colonialist discourse that he internally abhors. 

Since there were only 2 posts, each about wildly different things, this summary won’t be as comprehensive as the last one. However, I noticed a contradiction about the status of the creature in these blog posts as opposed to in my previous blog posts, my initial reading, and my term paper. These last two posts have shown the creature in a much more negative light than before.

The last two posts have seemed to point out the creature’s inhumanity or negative traits much more than I had emphasized them earlier. Upon completing Frankenstein, I was very sympathetic to the creature and its struggles with its own humanity. But the last two blog posts focus on both the creature as an unavoidably uncanny being and as a model of neocolonialism. Due to class discussions about feminist interpretations of the creature, I’ve also made an effort to try and refer to the creature with the neutral pronoun “it” rather than “he.” This is because the monster does not have a distinct gender (we do not even know the creature’s genitals). But have my own interpretations sucked the humanity away from the monster? With some refinement, not quite.

Namely, if I refine the argument from the last blog post (“The First Step to Neocolonialism”) to respond to some of the feedback. This was by far my most popular post from a feedback perspective, and the comments have forced me to revise some aspects of my argument. The creature may not ever be pure subaltern or pure colonizer: that would be an essentialist viewpoint that Spivak would despise. Rather, the creature’s composition mirrors the composition of postcolonial society. The collection of different parts that make up culture (colonizers and colonized) is similar to the collection of different body parts which make up the creature. But it is this hybridity in the creature that leads to something similar to neocolonialism. It still contains parts of the subaltern, but because of the colonial discourse it has absorbed, its future role as a subjugating force is more apparent. I should have been more clear about the creature as a mimic, leading to the titular “first step to neocolonialism.”

However, this may still seem like a negative interpretation of the creature, for how can one sympathize with a neocolonial subjucator? Well, it’s important to note that this is only part of the creature. The creature’s hybridity allows for both subaltern and colonial power to exist in the same being. His struggle to pull out of a subaltern role is complicated by the colonial discourse. This ends up perverting his assertion of empowerment, much like how he struggles to find his humanity as an uncanny being. We sympathize with the creature’s struggle, not the creature’s actions or symbolic status. He is not rigidly something to be feared as a neocolonialist presence or uncanny creature or revolutionary commodity, but something to be sympathized with as it tries to break out of these traps.  Because of this, different theoretical interpretations of the text can reveal one basic truth in the construction and effect of the novel. How wonderful to see the universality of a sympathetic creature.

Psychoanalytical Approach to Frankenstein

Frankenstein’s monster consciously understands his physical hideousness, yet he still feels he can realize his existence as humanly as possible. He rationalizes it with the idea that the more humanly he behaves, the closer he becomes to realizing a human existence. For example, the creature thinks that were he to pick up language, it would make up for his deformities. The creature’s desire to attain a humanly existence is uncanny; as the desire to learn of society and to fit within its framework are foreign to the creature, yet it poses a familiar desire. This uncanny desire is strongly rooted in a sexual basis. An integral element to fitting in human society is the necessity for a sexual counterpart. To the creature the cottagers fulfill this role. Frankenstein’s monster ascribes qualities indicative of sexual attraction to the cottagers: “their grace, beauty and delicate complexions” (104). These qualities indicate femininity as opposed to the monster’s own masculinity, establishing a duality that is central to sexual counterparts. When the monsters states that he “eagerly longed to discover myself to the cottagers” we see the monster yearns to interact, and be with the cottagers,

However when the monsters sees his reflection, he realizes that the cottagers could not be his sexual counterpart. He contrasts his admiration of the “perfect forms” of the cottagers with the terror of his own appearance, highlighting their incompatibility. The monster realizes that he is there not exists a suitable sexual counterpart, yet uncannily, he still yearns for one, and from this arises the “the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification”. This is further highlighted when he compares his ordeal to that of an Adam without an Eve (118). Despite living in Paradise, Adam also uncannily desires a sexual counterpart, and it is out of his desperation that Eve is created. In parallel, the monster demands Frankenstein make a female counterpart for him. Ultimately, we see that his disgust does not arise from his self-image, but rather the implication that his appearance would not allow him any extant sexual counterpart.

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.