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Frankenstein (1818): "What was I?"

For months before I began reading for exams, I knew I would start with Frankenstein. I didn't have a clear understanding of why, but I could at least track the trajectory of my interest. My final paper for Andy Franta's fall 2014 Romantics course was on Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes"; and, in the eleventh hour (twelfth? thirteenth?), my research led me to Stanley Plumly's The Immortal Evening, which I devoured in a sitting. Around that time, I saw an ad for Charlotte Gordon's Romantic Outlaws. I ILL'd it and when it arrived I plowed first through all the Mary Shelley chapters, then her mother's. (Litographs, by the way, launched a new book club this month featuring Romantic Outlaws as one of its first titles.) Between Plumly and Gordon, I caught Romantics fever; and Mary Shelley, I knew, would become ever-important to me and my future work. I kept seeing her as Gordon presented her — a little girl haunted by the knowledge that her own life ended her mother's. I recognize that little girl. I know her well. 

Colavito says Frankenstein is the epitome of the mad scientist novel. He notes critics who consider it a gothic novel, and he acknowledges that it is but draws attention to its focus on science, suggesting that the role of the scientist sets it apart from other Gothic novels. He links it to the school of biological horror that emerged in the 19th century. (I can't help but think back, too, to the Renaissance, to Marlowe's Doctor Faustus; and to Sarah Wall-Randell's "Doctor Faustus and the Printer's Devil," which is maybe one of my favorite essays about DF and should not be divorced from one's reading of it.) Anyway, when I think of Frankenstein, I think of the strength of its transcendence into everyday, household awareness. The average American, I'd be willing to bet, if asked, would answer that the creature's name is Frankenstein. (It's possible this line of inquiry could open up a simple discussion of Saussure's synchrony and diachrony?)

Anyway, the novel's multi-layered construction seems of primary interest to me, at least for now. Nested within Victor's narrative, nested within Walton's, the creature's lies at the heart of the text. All three men complain of loneliness and desire companionship, which may be all they have in common (and what we all have in common, perhaps). In any case, the intended recipient of this multi-level stack of narratives is Walton's silent and disembodied, married sister, Margaret, who never responds. We can assume, though, that she is reading (somewhere).

Another reader, in the creature's narrative, is the wife of the blind man's son. A foreigner, she must be taught to read and speak. As she learns, Frankenstein's creature also learns. He recognizes not just that the family communicates by speech but also that writing is made up of signs. Rejected by his maker/father, the orphaned creature discovers language, letter formations he himself calls "signs," and he reads. He reads everything he can get his hands on. I recognize this orphan, too. I know him well. "What was I?" he wants to know. The line breaks my heart. I realize we have probably all wondered who we are at some point, but, if we are also othered or marginalized in some way, we don't just wonder who we are but obsess about what we are, and desperately want to know why the answer is so repellant to those who have ever laid eyes on us. 

I'm interested, finally, in the text as "women's writing," as Shelley's possible meta-commentary on the status of women throughout history as readers. I'm interested in her multi-level narrative construction of stories within stories. Whose story is it? I'm interested in themes of identity-formation, in mirroring, in the blind man's inability to see the creature but his family's horror at seeing him, which mirrors the creature's own horror upon seeing himself. Three topics, or talking points, then: (1) the text's multi-level narrative stacking; (2) women-as-readers, as positioned and represented by a woman author; and (3) identity formation re: Aristotle's delight in representation, Saussure's signs and structure, and Lacan's mirror stage. 

The Sandman, Vols. 4, 5, 7, 9

Problematic: Liminality and Narrativity