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Critical Editions of Classic Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

— from Mary Shelley to M. R. James —

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The Repercussions of "Super-Natural" Physics on Profane Creativity in "Frankenstein&q

As a student of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment, it stands to reason that the eponymous protagonist of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would draw from Sir Isaac Newton, one of the movement’s most lauded progenitors. Indeed, Victor Frankenstein specifically cites the English physicist as an inspiration during his collegiate shift from naturalist mysticism to empiricist pragmatism early in the novel (238), and the influence of physics appropriately haunts him throughout the work. While neither specifically Newton nor any of his laws of natural motion are expressly responsible for the catastrophes which bludgeon Victor’s stillborn future, Newton’s unshakable third law of motion—that the mutual forces of action and reaction between two bodies are equal, opposite and collinear—manifests in the supernatural physics of Victor’s transgressions, haunting him with vicious, karmic accuracy, repossessing interpersonal potential in favor of isolated vacancy and substituting decay for fertility. Nature’s mystical physics arrest Victor’s profane efforts with every spiritual misdeed.

In the moment of his attacks, Nature gives way to his aggression, but after the blow, like a bent sapling, snaps aright with a brutal, inverse replication of his force. In time, all the sowings of his perverse ambitions are squelched by weeds of horror. Frankenstein’s rebellion against the natural order of birth, youth, marriage, procreation and a humble death, his essential attempt to alter the processes of the Hegelian Weltgeist, results in an explosive misfire of the natural process, wherein marriage, youth and intercourse beget the odiously charnel rather than the melodiously carnal. In its initial retribution for his currish meddling, the mechanism of “super-Natural” (so spelled hereon in order to emphasize the sentience and participatory agency of the natural world through the supernatural conduit) justice sacrifices the precocious William to the tomb. Still unable to don the burden of responsibility for his genesis act by providing his miserable Adam with a miserable Eve, he condemns his own fertile matrimony to be nullified by the harmonizing momentum of super-Natural physics.

The only feasible solution for karmic resolution is the creator’s own destruction—an event that comes too late for his brutalized family, and is ultimately accomplished by an act of Nature itself rather than by his own, ever-avoidant hand. Frankenstein’s inability to recognize the equilibrium-bringing physics of the super-Natural Order evict him from the protection of both Newton’s responsible empiricism and Coleridge’s sublime romanticism. Insensitive to the cautious sense of duty necessary to abide in either camp, he is blind to their guidance and thrust into the path of a swift-returning pendulum.

As seen in Coleridge’s haphazard Mariner, whose insensitivity to the critical hierarchies honored by “the spirit who bideth by himself/ In the land of ice and snow” (401-402), the British romantics were prone to extend warning to intellectuals who sought to submerge the organism of the natural world into formaldehyde, quantifying it beyond appreciation, without expecting a thrashing reprisal. Nature is not to be meddled with and is both hallowed sacrament and active agent: “Nature (for Wordsworth) and the World Spirit (for Hegel) operate in man and through man, but without acquiescence, and often in spite of man’s conscious will” [emphases added] (Stuart Curran 90). Frankenstein is reprimanded in a method grimly similar to that of the baleful Mariner: both execute an act of bravado against an incomprehensible and often unsympathetic world without fear of chastisement, and are involuntarily driven to make penance until the spiritual debt has been repaid and harmony reestablished: “Since then… That agony returns/ And till my ghastly tale is told,/ This heart within me burns” (Coleridge “Rime” 581-585); “You may give up your purpose; but mine is assigned to me from Heaven and I dare not” (Shelley 184). For both fallen adventurers, the cost of insulting the scriptures of Nature is the exchange of living companions for the chilly dead and Cainic banishments on grueling philanthropic missions. Frankenstein is released with death, the Mariner perhaps not until Judgment Day (Coleridge “Rime” 577-590), but each character suffers in isolation until the debt they have amounted in the natural world can be redeemed.

Frankenstein struggles with an uncertain liability (as it is that, by his estimation, the Creature, one of a “race of devils,” stands to endanger the “existence of the human race”(Shelley 144)), whereas the Mariner is shackled with a damnation which is structurally formulaic—though arresting—and born with stern devotion to the ventriloquistic agency of the World Spirit (“I pass like night from land to land/ I have a strange power of speech” (Coleridge “Rime” 586-587)), rather than frantic anxiety. Conversely, the cadaverous and pathologically unrepentant Frankenstein drags a mounting arrearage, unrelieved by communing with “goodly company” in prayer (603-606). Instead, the sullen Frankenstein is tormented as long as his mind is interfered with by consciousness or reality: “My life as it has passed thus, was indeed hateful to me, and it was during sleep alone that I could taste joy … in sleep I see my friends” (174). Paul Sherwin accords that “[Frankenstein’s ambition for] transcendence is equivalent to transgression, and his presumptuous deed is invested with the aura of primal sin against nature … condemned by nature’s gods to [indefinite] suffering” (883). Left to the mercy of his ordaining spirits, Victor (still in mystifying denial) finds solace in controlled personal fantasy rather than conscious remorse and willing servitude.

Unlike the Mariner, whose horrors are sunk in the harbor, and whose recompense is ritualistic though spontaneous, Victor is ravaged by his lack of control (returned only within the climate of the dream world), and fails, even to the end of his journey, to learn that this vain compulsion has all along been his ruination. Rather than being ordained to spread the gospel of his just reckoning—although he does successfully, if inadvertently, deter Walton from nosing further into the impregnable North (179)—he is captivated by the unpredictable recoil caused by his grisly genesis act. Though the progenitor of him whom he considers the epitome of evil, Victor remains convinced that he has been commissioned and blessed by celestial providers to wage justice against his creation—“a task from heaven” (175)—and fails to recognize the true villain of his story, and that it is perhaps his own soul which continues to forge a ponderous chain of mounting spiritual interest: “As the central misreader, Frankenstein is the chief victim of the text’s irony, particularly cruel whenever he thinks he is addressing the super-Natural powers that oversee his destiny, for his invocatory ravings never fail to conjure up his own Creature” (Sherwin 883).

In divorcing himself from responsibility for the circumstances of his Creation, Victor also fails to realize his profound debt to him as his father and god; while Victor’s life is made miserable through the extermination of his beloveds, the Creature’s life is made utterly meaningless by the death of his hated adversary, and all of his vile energy is consumed in the instant of his maker’s demise. Richard K. Sanderson notes that “the monster carries thoughts of suicide with him almost from the beginning. So long as he hopes that Victor will create a female companion for him, he is determined to cling to life” (54), and that “So long as Victor lives and suffers, the monster is ‘satisfied’, but when his creator dies, the monster loses his only reason for living” (55). Stripped of Maker and being singular as a species, the Creature’s only loss, that of his neglectful father, is lethally existential. Like many Christians floundering in the fallout of the French Revolution—through its spiritual chaos and societal decapitations “at a period when Christianity was considered to be part of the law of the land” (Curran 63), resulting in a religion that served “only as … the mask and the garment by which [society identifies] the symbols of worldly power” (65)—the Creature is overwhelmed by the demise of his distant Divinity, and subjected to the philosophical crises modeled by Revolution-era Christendom. Consumed by existential angst, “rebuffed by the world” (Sanderson 55), he surrenders himself to suicide in hopes of “annihilat[ing] himself from that world.”

Frankenstein is guilty of a criminal misinterpretation of the modes, purposes and attitudes necessary to yield harmonic and original creations—a critical practice devoutly treasured by Coleridge: “The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power … the imagination” (Biographia 62). To Coleridge, creativity must be overwhelmed by a willingness to submit and harmonize rather than being resistant, nostalgic or defiant. Frankenstein’s creative process struggles relentlessly against the indomitable World Spirit and manufactures only mangled and misshapen products, bitter to eat and fatal to wield. Rather than respecting the specified domains of Eros and Thanatos, Victor forces them into an unholy union—a rapacious intercourse whose grotesque half-breed breaks the laws of both spirits and crosses borders simultaneously and without hesitation or mercy. By rejecting his mutated bastard, Victor enables him to react violently, tragically hating, with equal toxicity, the humanity within and the humanity without. Victor’s perversion of the Yahwistic genesis act leaves him, as Anne K. Mellor notes, stranded from the support and inspiration of humanistic and theistic communities alike:

In his attempt to override natural evolutionary development and to create a new species sui generis, Victor Frankenstein enacts a parody of the orthodox creationist theory. While he denies the unique power of God to create organic life, he confirms the capacity of a single creator to originate a new species. Thus he simultaneously upholds the creationist theory and parodies it by creating a monster. In both ways, he blasphemes against the natural order. (299)

His creative options manifest themselves in Elizabeth and the Creature, respectively. Successful harmonic creative acts are modeled by his parents, whose greatest potential resides within the union between the precarious Elizabeth and their industrious first-born. This legacy falls into Frankenstein’s distracted hands, and is ultimately fumbled in favor of the jigsaw puzzle of recalled body parts thrust together in the solitude of his apartment. This will be addressed momentarily, but before discussion continues, it is critical to appreciate the option of productive procreation that Frankenstein trades for what ultimately manifests in destructive impotence.

Elizabeth flies directly in the face of Victor’s baleful Creation, both in the manner of her intention and composition. Like the Creature, she is a found object, whether as an orphaned cousin or an unconnected foster child “found playing” (43), and is comparably supernatural: a “cherub,” “creature” and “apparition.” Neither are products of their adoptive parents’ sexual nature; they are, instead, products of their adoptive parents’ spiritual, or imaginative, nature. Alphonse and Caroline recognize a budding, provocative replication of their spirit in the insensitively unappreciated beauty, a spirit of benevolence, charity and familial devotion. Called upon by the Coleridgean “subordination of [their] faculties,” the Frankensteins spontaneously respond to the instruction of imagination—imagining her potential should “Providence afford her such powerful protection” (43)—and claim the girl as their own. This act of sensitive appreciation for unnoticed content replicates Alphonse’s own imaginative investment in his wife, whom he took in as an orphan under the role of “protecting spirit” (41), whom he nurtured, and wedded. The two are claimed to have been summoned to one another through “closer bonds of devoted affection” in spite of—and in part due to—their “considerable age difference.” In retrieving the flaxen Elizabeth from her disharmonic situation amongst the brunette peasants, the Frankensteins demonstrate an imaginative sympathy for potential and futurity; their concerns lie with the security and nourishment of youth and the rising generations—their visceral legacy—rather than the bygone concerns of the past.

Unlike Victor, so consumed with restoring a departed spirit to its evacuated vessel, his parents invest in the promise that accompanies dutiful stewardship. Caroline’s Christological willingness to be exposed to the fever that had “menaced” “her favourite” in an effort to “preserve” Elizabeth at all costs epitomizes the importance with which Victor’s parents imbued the spirit of the future (49). Like prudent gardeners, they are willing to shear the tree of their familial legacy of its antiquated features to preserve the trunk which, they acknowledge, will only be nourished by new rather than old foliage. Even in the light of successive murders, Alphonse optimistically insists that “new and dear objects of love will be born to replace those of whom we have been so cruelly deprived” (164).

Elizabeth, both parents believe, stands to offer the richest crops if maintained and cultivated with care: her permanent inclusion in the family amount to Caroline’s “firmest hopes of future happiness” (49) and the “favourite plan” of the couple (163). Caroline’s willing death to preserve her foster daughter underscores the cherishing nature with which both parents’ value the future. They urge Victor towards a union with his adopted sister, hoping for a successful and fruitful merger of their two greatest investments. By crafting their family through sacrifice, nutriment and active shaping and aligning—chiefly through the pseudo-arranged marriage—Alphonse and Caroline have worked towards fashioning a bountiful and productive creation of the imagination, doomed though it is. With Victor and Elizabeth as their selected mediums, the Frankensteins have creatively set into action a precocious intercourse whose only foil is the destructive and nostalgic agency of the male.

Although Alphonse and Caroline have constructed a flawed patriarchal structure consisting of a fanatically ambitious male and a “masochistic [female whose self-exposure] contributes to [her] destruction” (Sanderson 55), their intentions to provide for the future of humanity are not nearly as nefarious and warped as those of their son. Where the Frankensteins seek community and partnership—a “circle … bound close by ties of affection” (Shelley 164)—Victor celebrates the rebellious individual, “shun[ing] [his] fellow creatures like one who has committed a crime” (60). Where his parents foster responsibility towards and compliance with the natural laws of industry, procreation and death, Victor strives to comingle these processes, mistranslating the code of super-Natural ethics to derive life from death through industry. His misreading of his parents’ values is not entirely coincidental or entirely accidental.

Victor’s relationship with his father was not wholly stable, despite his many tributes to the man whom so many horrors wrung so slowly dry. His smug resistance—true to Alphonse’s charge that he had become “pleased with [him]self” (59)—to the old man’s constant pleas to “think of [his family] with affection” and to communicate “regularly,” bespeaks an individual sunken within himself, to whom companionship, the repartee of community and the lack of control produced by coexistence with other free agents has become noxious. Blame and resentment exist in the younger Frankenstein’s lachrymose tones, subtly urging part of the responsibility from his own shoulders: “I then thought that my father would be unjust if he ascribed my neglect to vice, or faultiness on my part; but I am now convinced that … I should not be altogether free from blame” [emphasis added]. This tendency to shirk from the duty demanded by the super-Natural law only succeeds in driving Frankenstein further from the healing baths of community and into the blistering deserts of his egotistical indulgences and his infantile conscience.

Opportunities present themselves on an almost scheduled basis for the creator to own his Creation, to amass the blame, and to realign the disturbed harmonies of the super-Natural world. Justine’s trial (80), the Creature’s demand (128), his Irish imprisonment (154), and the time during his engagement (166) all offered opportunity for Victor Frankenstein to remove himself from the immortal role of creator-god, to assign the responsibility of civic protection to the proper authorities within his community, and to assume the fate demanded by his malfeasance in the stead of his innocent friends and family who suffer without conscious knowledge of why. Rather than commune with this supportive body energized by cooperation and commitment, Victor encloses himself within his Ingolstadt grotto, thus beginning the process of amassing a karmic debt for his failure to dutifully congress with the fragile and fleeting world.

Rather than create, as his parents did, a highway for the future, and being productive by tapping into the natural processes and dictum of an ever-reflexive natural universe, Frankenstein commissions himself to reverse the creative process—to sing the mass backwards, as it were. His endeavors only succeed in creating a repugnant perversion of the stable, rutted path of nature’s unquestionable directives, as he irreverently “pursued nature to her hiding places” and “disturbed, with profane fingers, the secrets of the human frame” (58). Unlike his foresighted, progressive-minded parents, Victor plunges into the worm-infected soil, nostalgically cradling bones and cadavers in the voiceless charnel houses and graveyards—as far as he can remove himself from sentient human interaction, “[i]n a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of a house separated from all the other apartments.” From this Tower of Babel, elevated and defiant, Victor quantifies the mystical within the confines of his infant Dominion.

Elizabeth, dormant as she may be, offers him the chance to create through active and interpersonal procreation: the super-Natural path. His desire is, however, to resist the goading of nature and his parents, to dock his industry in the silent limbs of the dead rather than Elizabeth’s womb. This selection of the voiceless over the vocal flies in the face of the Romantics’ hierarchy of values, who, as enamored as they may have been with independent Byronic industry, were adamant that human expression and communion be cherished and preserved: “The real focus of the Romantics’ critique of their age is on the moral and social values in whose name [industry and rationalization] took place. These social tendencies implied a redefinition and a revaluation of human nature and of the human person to which the poets were all finally opposed” (Curran 74). By declaring more value in the dissected, anatomized human carcass than in the independent, free-willed human soul, Victor joins ranks with the industrialists against whom the Shelleys and Lake Poets so violently rallied.