The Author is Become a Creator God
‘The author is become a creator-God’ (Herder). The deification of creativity in relation to ‘Frankenstein’.
This essay was written and submitted by Ruth Bushi, who recently completed work on her Masters at the University of Durham. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be read as an allegory for the creative act of authorship. Victor Frankenstein, the ‘modern Prometheus’ seeks to attain the knowledge of the Gods, to enter the sphere of the creator rather than the created. Like the Author, too, he apes the ultimate creative act; he transgresses in trying to move into the feminine arena of childbirth.
Myths of divine creation are themselves part of the historical process that seeks to de-throne the feminine; this is the history of Art, itself at first denied to women as an outlet of self-expression. It is a process recorded in Art itself, in stories like that of Prometheus. Prometheus in earlier myths stole fire from the Gods (analogous to the author at his craft). Later he was credited not just as Man’s benefactor but as his creator. Man creates God through myth so as to have a power to will towards.
At this point text, analogy, and reality twist upon each other. As Victor moves into the female space of the womb, an act of creation aped by the Gods in mythology and religion, Mary Shelley as author moves into the male domain of art, aping the creative power of the Gods.
Reading Frankenstein as an analogy for Art can be more fruitful if done within the framework of Oscar Wilde’s essay, ‘The Decay of Lying’, in which the author argues that the artist creates the world and not just imitates it: this will conclude this essay.
At the meal between mortals and the Gods at Mecone, Prometheus tricked Zeus into accepting the bones over the choicest entrails. Man was punished by the denial of fire; Prometheus again defied the Gods in stealing it. As punishment, he was chained to a cliff, and Zeus sent an eagle daily to peck at his liver. In the dramatisation by Aeschylus, Zeus is depicted as a tyrant who would kill all mankind; Prometheus is defiant against tyranny: ‘let him raise/ my body high and dash it whirling down/ to murky Tartarus. He cannot make me die.’ (Cassell Dictionary of Classical Mythology 338) In later versions of the myth, Prometheus in some way becomes the creator of Man, fashioning him out of mud. After the great flood, Prometheus’ son and daughter-in-law were the only survivors, and re-propagated the sexes.
The concept of Frankenstein was created in part in the summer of 1816, through Lord Byron’s literary challenge, inclement weather, and a nightmare. Literary sources included Paradise Lost and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which the Shelleys read the year before. Thus the idea for a story based on the Prometheus myth, and of the baseness of the condition of existence without God seems intentional, and engendered by these sources.
The novel reflects a climate in which literary worship of the divine was to an extent forsaken in favour of the awe-inspiring wonder of Nature; the concept of the sublime was in itself a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The Romantic Movement saw a concerted effort to return to superstition and excess of imagination. It was marked by a Gothic ‘revival’ and the birth of science fiction in Shelley’s text, and by the deification of the Natural world, and Man himself.
Frankenstein begins with a narrative that in some ways mirrors the tale it tells. Robert Walton’s polar expedition is, like Frankenstein’s, a search for the unknown and amidst the breathtaking beauty of the natural world:
I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; and may regulate a thousand celestial observations, that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent for ever. I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited – these are my enticements.
The enticements, in fact, are firmly rooted in potential glory. What Walton desires is to ‘obtain a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated’ (Frankenstein 11). He too wants to share in the cultural deification of authorship; in his youth he to had been a poet, in later life he substitutes the hopes of fresh discovery as supplementary to creation. The deification of authorship in both these forms is aggregated in his reaction to Victor Frankenstein as a ‘divine wanderer’ (Frankenstein 24). The adjective is a reference to Frankenstein’s grace in misery, his unabated ability to appreciate the wonder of Nature; at this point Walton is unaware of the divine aspirations that his patient has in fact attained.
Frankenstein himself makes the analogy of exploration and writing, ‘The world was to me a secret which I desired to discover; to her [Elizabeth] it was a vacancy, which she sought to people with imaginations of her own.’ (Frankenstein 30) The divide is not so great; Victor also populates his world with the creation of his imagination.
The deification of science as described in Shelley’s work, depends upon the defiance of God. Victor is at first charmed by natural science because of the grand dreams of its masters in seeking power and immortality; he is able to study modern chemistry after attending M. Waldman’s lecture: ‘[These modern masters] penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens’ (Frankenstein 42). In succumbing to Waldman’s lecture, Frankenstein does not become his student, but his disciple. Wilde called Science the history of failed religions; more than this it is in itself a kind of religion-substitute, favoured by rationalists, and for the Romantics reflective of a artistic climate unable to rely on the benevolence of God. And yet, despite an absence of God, there is still a lack of free will, or at least a reliance on ‘bad faith’. Frankenstein feels his meeting with Waldman fixes his destiny; inexorable fate also condemns him to pursue the monster to the arctic.
Gilbert and Gubar reiterate the concept of textual creation as birth allegory: ‘anyone who has read Shakespeare’s sonnets knows about this comparison of the child to the text as a way of securing one’s immortality.’ (Waxman 15) In Shelley’s text, then, the author attempts not only a dissection of the (male) Soul as a product of the Romantic age, but she also pushes forward the boundaries of knowledge of ‘feminine’ creation.
Victor transgresses the Natural order in moving into the feminine sphere in a physical capacity. He creates around him a ‘work-shop of filthy creation’ (Frankenstein 50); this is the male womb of creation. His progress at this time is recorded in the language of pregnancy:
After so much time spent in painful labour, to arrive at once at the summit of my desires, was the most gratifying consummation of my toils. But this discovery was so great and so overwhelming, that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the result.
Moreover, as Waxman also suggests, Frankenstein’s creative experiment results in the doubling of identity as happens during pregnancy; some critics have read the monster as Victor’s double, a symbol of both the goodness inherent in Man, and his fated Fall from Grace. Frankenstein’s initial motivation is feminine in that it is benevolent, born of a wish to benefit mankind. Waxman calls it the ‘female realm of the Gift’ (Waxman 19).
Finally, Victor attains something of the feminine in achieving a new understanding of Life and Death: Life and Death are as inseparable as two sides of the same piece of paper. ‘A pregnant woman usually intuits how close she is to death even as she is carrying life and feeling the pulses of the creative process in her own body’ (Waxman 19); this can be juxtaposed against Frankenstein’s dream of his dead mother. The warning of the dream is impressed further by an earlier description of natural creation: ‘never did the fields bestow a more plentiful harvest, or the vine yield a more luxuriant vintage: but my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature.’ (Frankenstein 50, emphasis added) Instead, he is rooting in charnel houses, forcing decaying remains to cohere, to renew the vital principle.
Ultimately, Frankenstein’s creation ends in chaos and confusion; Victor is unprepared for the reality that lies beyond socially imposed gender constraints. Women are inherently maternal, and yet he notes, ‘when I thought of him, I gnashed my teeth, my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish that life which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed.’ (Frankenstein 87) Thus Frankenstein seeks, in vain, the feminine arena of creativity; his actions also parody the myths of divine creation.
The concept of God as known in Christianity is present only implicitly in the text, for example in that Frankenstein is compelled to make the monster in his own image (thus begging the question, who is the real monster?) This is emphasised through explicit reference to the gods of mythology, such as in the novel’s subtitle.
An explanation of this is perhaps to be found more in the monster’s tale than in Victor’s, and in its parallels with Paradise Lost. The comment that seems evident in Frankenstein is that God has abandoned Man; the progression of history sees Man abandon God in the Victorian era. ‘Oh truly I am grateful to thee my Creator for the gift of life, which was but pain, and thy tender mercy which deserted me on life’s threshold to suffer’ (Frankenstein 114). The monster, then, is made a symbol for Man: his alienation from his creator mirrors that which Victor himself feels in the torture of free will, which through bad faith he interprets as inexorable destiny, and evil at that.
The monster’s tale may itself be read as allegory, of a paradise not even gained. Agatha and Felix would appear to be representations of Elizabeth and Victor. DeLacey could either symbolise Victor’s father, or perhaps the repressed merciful aspect of Victor’s character: God the Father rather than just the Creator. Two parts of the text which can be compared with the latter would be firstly the monster’s parody of Victor’s spiritual and moral blindness in covering his eyes; secondly Felix’s violent reception of the monster. ‘Begone, vile insect!’ as Victor cries, ‘or rather stay, that I may trample you to dust.’ (Frankenstein 94) The arrival of the Arabian marks one possible conclusion to the monster’s story, though one that remains unfulfilled.
The potential for creation is not entirely denied to men. As the monster demonstrates, Man makes Man. After Victor’s literal creation, it is the literary creations of Goethe and Milton which in turn fire the monster with virtuous feeling. His reception by the DeLaceys develops his spiritual monstrosity: ‘Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.’ (Frankenstein 125)
At this stage he is utterly alienated from his own Creator. He realises that he is wholly alone, without mother, father, or friend; it is the condition of Man to live, as Joseph Conrad wrote, as he dreams: alone.
Thus Frankenstein’s monster himself seeks to share in Man’s mimicry of creation through connection with Others. He wants to be ‘made’ (affirmed, sexually and non-sexually) by a female companion, and in turn wants to affirm his companion. He is denied this supplementary womb by the ‘No of the Father’, and instead (un)makes Elizabeth on her wedding night in lieu of Victor.
The only kind of creation that the monster can achieve is out of line with the natural order. He is gleeful when he kills William: ‘I, too, can create desolation; my enemy is not impregnable’ (Frankenstein 139, emphasis added).
If God is absent in Frankenstein, the sublime wonder of Nature is a substitute; it produces in Victor feelings of almost religious ecstasy: ‘my heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy’ (Frankenstein 93). It is Nature, the natural order, which Frankenstein seeks to subvert. As Shelley’s text is analogous to the Prometheus myth, there is a similar textual reflection in Wilde’s essay mourning ‘The Decay of Lying’.
For Wilde, the magnificence of Nature, which can inspire such awe in Victor, is not a factor: ‘Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One’s individuality absolutely leaves one.’ (Wilde 215) So Nature would appear to ‘unmake’ one; it is Art that affirms us, and indeed creates the world. Frankenstein’s monster is partly made by literature: ‘As I read,’ he remarks, I applied much personally to my own feelings and conditions.’ (Frankenstein 124) If writing is supplementary to the speech of the authors, ultimately it is still the case that human connection creates personality: Man makes Man.
In his essay, Wilde reiterates the principle of Art that views the artist as God; ‘Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is our brain that she quickens to life.’ (Wilde 232) Nature, then, is a very poor muse that the artist improves through defamiliarisation: ‘people see fogs not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.’ (Wilde 232) Moreover, Art is made feminine by the male tradition; once again it is feminine creativity that is overthrown.
Art begins by creating the brown fog of London: thereafter people begin to see the fog in actuality. Hence it is not even a case of defamiliarisation that Wilde is proposing. So, Life imitates Art. Artists, Wilde asserts, create a type, and Life tries to reproduce it in popular form. An example would be notions of femininity as a result of the image of Woman in Art. Wilde writes, ‘the world has become sad because a puppet [Hamlet] was once melancholy.’ (Wilde 230) Eventually, fictions replace reality, such as the example the author gives in his essay, of a Man seeking to find the ‘Japan’ of oriental art: eventually he must concede as a searching for the irretrievable.
Art is Power, and the Artist is made all-powerful. Moreover, Wilde’s aesthetics also support the idea of an artistic elite. Art (ornate falsehood) is achieved only through study and devotion: it is not for the common, ‘uneducated’ man to practice, or to wield power. Artists, furthermore, should not seek to revert to realism: to do so produces work that is ‘vulgar, common and uninteresting.’ (Wilde 225)
The apex of Wilde’s argument is that Art is the product of beautiful falsehoods. This assertion can be read as affirmative of the concepts of the Romantic era and the Gothic revival, of worlds peopled with the creations of wild imagination. ‘Art begins as abstract decoration with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent’ (Wilde 225): this surely is true of Frankenstein.
Read in light of ‘The Decay of Lying’, Frankenstein on another level illustrates the ‘divinity’ of authorship. Art, Wilde said, is superior to Nature because the former constantly evolves new techniques; new ways of seeing new worlds. Hence consider Shelley’s work as the product of an age rebelling against the traditions of the last, the Enlightenment. Finally, ‘Art talks of nothing but itself’ (Wilde 234); Frankenstein, like the myth of Prometheus is not symbolic of any age, it is these ages which are symbols of Art. Thus, to discuss Frankenstein is to discuss, at a tangent, Paradise Lost, Ovid’s Metamorphoses as well as Wilde’s essay.
As well as codified symbols woven into the text, Shelley’s act of authorship further emphasises the Artist’s relationship to divinity. Victor’s miraculous creation, his renewal of life, is literary wish-fulfilment. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf exorcises the memories of her dead parents; she lays them to rest, textually. Through Frankenstein, Shelley plays out a desire to resurrect. Victor’s lessons of Life and Death are born of Mary Wollstonecraft’s death in childbirth. As he metaphorically gives birth, he dreams of Shelley’s, dead mother. (Unnatural) childbirth also eventually kills Victor.
The historical process is one of rebellion and succession. Texts can also be part of this process; such is the case with Frankenstein. Man overthrows the Gods, as Prometheus, and later, in a different sense, the intellectuals of the Victorian and Modernist periods did. Frankenstein usurps the divine role; he is in turn made slave by his creation. Even within the narrative, there is a battle for supremacy of voice: Waldman’s tale is taken over by Frankenstein’s and in turn by that of the monster.
Since the success of Shelley’s novel, and the birth of the horror and science fiction genres, and the affect it has likewise had on the film industry, the monster has not only overthrown his monster, but has taken his name. In popular use, particularly
since the transition of the story to film, ‘Frankenstein’ has often mistakenly been used to signify the monster. This transition itself reflects the process of progression and substitution. As in the case of the non-existent deerstalker that Conan-Doyle never wrote about, celluloid representations have come to denote the essence, supposedly, of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
March, Jenny. “Prometheus.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Cassell Reference)
London: Cassell, 1998.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. 1818. Ed. James Reiger.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.
Waxman, Barbara Fry. “The Tragedy of the Promethean Overreacher as Woman.”
Papers on Language and Literature 23 1 (1987): 14-26.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” Oscar Wilde. Ed. Isobel Murray. The Oxford
Authors. Oxford: OUP, 1989.
This essay was written and submitted by Ruth Bushi, who recently completed work on her Masters at the University of Durham. She can be contacted at email@example.comPrint This Page