Science Fiction Studies

#42 = Volume 14, Part 2 = July 1987

David Ketterer

Androgyny vs. Bifurcation: A Psychological Reading of Frankenstein

William Veeder. Mary Shelley & Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny. Chicago & London: Chicago UP, 1986. ix + 277pp. $22.50.

William Veeder's is by far the best and most thorough psychological interpretation of Frankenstein currently available--or likely ever to be available. But is that the way Frankenstein is best read? I must confess a partiality for my own broadly philosophical reading as outlined in Frankenstein' s Creation: The Book, the Monster, and Human Reality (1979). Against Veeder's characterization of Shelley as "a woman resolutely not philosophical" (p. 209), I would set the evidence of her reading in philosophy and also Trelawny's testament to her "fine intellect": "her head might be put upon the shoulders of a Philosopher" (The Letters of Edward John Trelawny, ed. H. Buxton Forman [London, 1910], p. 194). Like most psychological readings of the novel, Veeder focuses on all the instances of doubling, the most obvious being that of Frankenstein and his creation. But in my view, Frankenstein is not well understood unless the reader appreciates that, while everything in the book can be seen as a projection of Frankenstein's inner reality, the work's effectiveness largely depends upon a reader's simultaneously acknowledging the independent identity of each character. It is the interchangeable alignment of interior and exterior worlds, of psychology and mythology, that allows for the metaphoric power at the heart of Frankenstein's vitality.

That said, Veeder's complex, contextual approach (with some assist from Freud and Lacan) remains very persuasive. His relentlessly documented study takes account of all the biographical information we have concerning Mary Shelley and her circle, of all of her and Percy Shelley's pertinent writings, of the productions of the Romantic movement generally, and of all the relevant criticism. Finally, however, his book is "about Mary Shelley herself." Veeder's essential finding is that all of Mary's novels "reflect her lifelong concern with the psychological ideal of androgyny and its opposite, bifurcation--the harmonious balance of traits traditionally considered masculine and feminine, and the desolating polarization of these traits" (p. 2). Androgyny is related to Agape, bifurcation to Eros. "Since no individual can effect a perfect balance, the true androgyne for Mary Shelley is the couple" (p. 16). At the same time, a successful marriage, the practical apotheosis of her androgynous ideal, depends upon a balance of the masculine and feminine within each of the partners.

The marriage of the incompatible Mary and Percy, Veeder argues, fell well short of that ideal. The apparently androgynous Shelley was, in fact, "a ferociously bifurcated man" (p. 6). In Frankenstein, Mary splits Shelley into the "good" and "bad" characters, Henry Clerval and Victor Frankenstein. Mary herself was to some degree bifurcated, a point that Veeder establishes by documenting a pattern of masculine attack/feminine retreat in her private prose, in her fiction (where he also demonstrates the mixed masculine/feminine traits of the female characters), and in her life: "She is caught between powerful forces. She grows up with Godwinite radicalism, but also partakes of the rising countertide of conservatism which establishes several decades before Victoria's ascension the values now termed Victorian" (p. 10). But Percy's case was worse--in which regard Veeder sees Frankenstein essentially as Mary's last-ditch effort to save their marriage, as her attempt to explain to Percy his faults in the hope that he might reform. By the same token, Veeder interprets Percy's review of Frankenstein (reprinted as an appendix), in which Victor's role as "victim" (pp. 225, 227) is stressed, as Percy's denial of Mary's charge. This review, Veeder argues, takes its place in a dialogue between the two authors that was opened by Shelley's Alastor: "Frankenstein is Alastor rewritten by the [abandoned] Arab maid" (p. 97). Veeder agrees with the claim made by Christopher Small (in Ariel Like a Harpy [1972]) that Prometheus Unbound should be read as Percy's response to Frankenstein, but goes beyond Small to include other works by Percy in the dialogue (notably Julian and Maddalo, The Revolt of Islam, and The Witch of Atlas).

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley is also taking on the Romantic movement in general, with its penchant for unbalanced Promethean males. Thus Byron, the archetypal Romantic, who, like Shelley, embodied something of the androgynous ideal for Mary, is implicated in her attack. But most profoundly involved, according to Veeder, is the book's dedicatee, Mary's father. Not only did both Percy and Mary value their fathers over their mothers but both were obsessed with the same father, William Godwin. (The posthumously published novel Mathilda [1959] amounts to a confession on Mary's part of her incestuous desire for him.) In terms of Veeder's psychological reading of Frankenstein, this means that Victor is less obsessed with his mother (the standard view) than with his father, Alphonse. It becomes significant, therefore, that Alphonse is, in a sense, the last of the monster's victims. Although the monster does not kill Alphonse directly--he dies "naturally" of grief--Frankenstein is the ultimate cause of that grief. It must be admitted, however, that if Alphonse's death is climactic, that fact is very much (deceptively?) underplayed by the dynamics of Mary's narrative. Some kind of primal regression principle may be implied by the reverse alphabetical order of the first name initials of the victims: William, Justine, Henry, Elizabeth, Alphonse. Here Veeder proposes, as a "useful paradigm," the mechanism of Freud's "negative" Oedipus: "the son desires to murder mother in order to get to father "(p. 125). Thus, for Veeder, the key to Frankenstein is the relationship between Victor and Alphonse. Thus, too, the initial move against young William given the Alphonse/ William Godwin connection. In view of Veeder's argument, the dedication of Frankenstein to Godwin emerges as portentous indeed!

Ultimately, Frankenstein wishes to father himself in a solipsistic act of hermaphroditic self-sufficiency. Veeder puts the crux of the matter as follows:

Instead of uniting with Elizabeth, Victor substitutes for her. He projects his male element outward in the monster, allows the female to become dominant in himself, and spends the rest of the novel seeking to make love to his self. What Victor has done, in effect, is to create not an androgyne but a hermaphrodite....Traditionally the hermaphrodite unites in one body the genitals of the two genders, which is not the case with Victor's monster. But Victor's hermaphrodite is not the monster: it is the monster and himself as unnatural male-female. The difference between this "hermaphrodite" and a traditional one, the separation of masculine and feminine into two figures, captures better than any single figure the true essence of hermaphroditism. (p. 98)

"Hermaphroditism is the true expression of Eros, as adrogyny [sic] is of Agape" (p. 99). The matter is subsequently reformulated: "Victor's discovery of the secret of life abolishes Alphonse by supplanting the biological process which made the father a father. Rather than curve the stream of being back to Alphonse, Frankenstein as the only begetter of a new system of begetting curves it into himself. Eros again replicates the Incarnation. Frankenstein seeks victory by blasphemously, hermaphroditically becoming the alpha and omega" (p. 145).

Along the way, Veeder provides a succession of rhetorically orchestrated, brilliant readings of aspects of Mary Shelley's text. His analysis of the wedding night conjunction of sex and death, will and weakness, is particularly interesting. But not everybody will be convinced by the games Veeder plays with the names in Frankenstein. The Walton (walled-town)/Professor Waldman (walled-man) connection is suggestive (p. 83); but I balk at seeing Caroline (Frankenstein's mother) as a "virtual anagram" (p. 168) of Clairmont (the name of Mary's step-mother and step-sister): What about the more obvious link between Clairmont and Clerval? I am persuaded, however, that Margaret [Walton] Saville does stand in for Mary [Wollstonecraft] Shelley. Just as Margaret is critical of her brother Robert's Promethean quest, so is Mary of Percy/ Victor's Promethean quest. The endurance of Frankenstein's brother Ernest (the only member of the Frankenstein family to survive), is "explained" in terms of his sharing an initial with Elizabeth, his earnestness, and his commitment to the ideal represented by the earth rather than by the sky (he is expected to become a farmer).

On a number of occasions Veeder makes a point by relating the first word or so of a sentence to the preceding sentence of Frankenstein. Take, for example, "[I resolved] not to join her until I had obtained some knowledge as to the situation of my enemy. She..." (brackets in original). Veeder comments: "By 'enemy' Victor consciously means the monster, of course, but 'my enemy. She' suggests that the real enemy is Elizabeth" (p. 119). Here I find Veeder to be perceptive and convincing. Elsewhere I think he is guilty of overreading. For instance, when Frankenstein is described as "Leaning my head upon my hands," Veeder claims that "he is reduced to a self embrace which does not, cannot include the heart" (p. 123). The net effect of Veeder's ingenuity is to turn Frankenstein into something of a cabalistic text. Veeder's own text also contains one major mystery. Why, given his painstaking thoroughness, did Veeder not consult the manuscript fragments in the Bodleian Library, or at least the Duke University microfilm copy of same? Although using "James Rieger's edition of [the 1818 text of] Frankenstein so that I can draw upon all three versions of the novel" (p. 244n), he takes no real account of the holographic evidence for Percy Shelley's input. It might well be expected that the dialogue Veeder argues for between Frankenstein and a number of Percy's works would be reflected in the additions, substitutions, and corrections that he made to Mary's draft. Yet Veeder mentions only one instance (p. 122): Percy's insertion of the words "bridal bier." It would have furthered Veeder's argument for him to have found out that the line "Neither of us possessed the slightest pre-eminence over the other" in a passage that he quotes and comments on (p. 185) is one that Percy is responsible for. Moreover, its egalitarian sentiment is in accord with what appears to be the largest of Percy's additions to Frankenstein, the passage in Chapter 5 beginning: "The republican institutions of our country have produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it...." Veeder might also have profited from knowing that in another passage he quotes (p. 141), the word "parents" appears to be Percy's alteration of Mary's word "father."

Nevertheless, Mary Shelley & Frankenstein is an exceptional example of well written and carefully structured scholarship and critical insight. And in spite of the fact that Veeder has been slightly pipped at the post by another book also offering an androgynous interpretation of Frankenstein (and also issued by the University of Chicago Press)--William Patrick Day's In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of the Gothic Novel (1985)--I fully endorse James Rieger's blurb about Veeder's book: "When the dust has settled, neither the Shelleys nor this novel will ever look quite the same again."

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