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Frankenstein and Modern Criticism: the Myth of Inverted Narcissism

Victor Sage


Cet article traite des questions de narcissisme et de l’influence de Paradise Lost dans Frankenstein de Mary Shelley.

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1My talk falls into two halves. I want to begin by isolating two key incidents in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, because they seem to me, more than any other single passages perhaps, to illustrate the peculiar dynamics of this text. At the same time, they indicate the presence of a myth that has become a central, perhaps an indispensable, paradox of modern criticism, certainly during the 1980’s. And this will be the second, ’nonempirical’ section of what I have to say.

2The first of these incidents is perhaps the most famous sequence of the novel, which is also, reputedly, its origin, since Mary Shelley claims to have written this passage in the first flush of inspiration and then tacked on, around it, the complex surrounding penumbra of narratives which account for the origin of this text in a quite different way:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth were of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

  • 1  Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, repr. in Three Gothic Novels, Penguin English Library, Harmonsworth, 1 (...)

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured, and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain; 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. 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 beheld the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawing in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. (My Italics).1

  • 2  Op. cit., p. 279.

3The first thing that strikes one about this report of their first encounter is that Victor Frankenstein names the creature: ’monster’. The reader witnesses, not simply the creature, but also the process by which Frankenstein reaches for this seductive and powerful label. This is the first time the term is used in the book, even though the creature has been glimpsed, textually earlier, but narratively later, by Captain Walton on his voyage to the Pole and described, with calm objectivity, as’... a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature...’2

4The more we look at this passage, the more we see it as a projection of the speaker: there is a gap, as it were, between the semantic label and the phenomenon to which it is being applied. The reader is alienated from the speaker and looks beyond his words for other meanings that lie out of the reach of their confessional or self-expressive impact. The retrospective nature of the narrative is crucial to this effect, because it is almost as if the reader is invited by the ironic distance in the language to inhabit the gap, remove the label, and restore the creature’s being to his appearance. « It’s alright! » we cry, « You’re not really a Monster! »

5It is a commonplace that Frankenstein is deceived by the appearance of the creature, and, in particular, interestingly, it is the eyes of the creature which seem to be the focus of his revulsion.

6Many readers have noticed, of course, the overdetermination of the description of Frankenstein’s reactions. He tells us too much about his anxieties; there is too obvious an Oedipal subtext to his dreams — for example, the apparently coincidental transformation of his lover into his dead mother — for the pattern to be ignored by the reader. But in telling us too much, Frankenstein, the speaker, leaves the ironic gap provided by his own evident lack of self-knowledge for the reader to fill, with the result that we reverse the intention of the speaker, namely to explain, if not to justify, himself to his hearer, Walton. The passage, in effect, narrates the Fall of Frankenstein himself, not his creature: its hysterical rejection of the insistent but unspecified gaze of the creature, — to the reader, a reaction so wasteful, so unnecessary, when reported like this in retrospect, — has all the force of an originating fall of consciousness. He literally demonizes the creature, and in doing so reduces himself.

  • 3  By Marion Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their study, The Madwoman in the Attic, chapter reprinted in (...)

7The second passage I want to compare with this has a different speaker, and a different addressee. According to the narrative pattern of the novel, the narrators pass on the first-person narrative to one another, like a torch; the technique has been called evidentiary3 it is like a series of first-person testimonies, essentially dramatic, each speaker using a first-person, but, of course, a retrospective first-person, which, for the reader, has the effect of setting textual and narrative sequences against one another, and enhances the fissured, the splitting effect of the text as a whole.

8Now the conditions for the production and reception of speech are changed. The creature speaks to Frankenstein and the reader overhears:

  • 4  ’But Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions. I read it, as I had read the other v (...)

I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers — their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions; but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. (My Italics)4

9Again, the ironic gap in the text opens up in the key phrase I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am’. Here we want to cry: « No, no! Reality was only appearance ».

10The reader here is invited to restore the creature to himself by the perception of the gap in the text which has already closed, in the act of utterance, for the speaker. The pathos of this passage comes from the fact that we are made to (over)hear the creature condemn himself to monstrosity by internalising the merely superficial judgements about his appearance which Frankenstein has already made. Ironically, as he looks in the mirror, he sees himself as a monster, and in a second, in a flash, he has fallen, his consciousness deceived into taking appearance for reality in exactly the way that Frankenstein’s rejection of him had done earlier.

11Now the creature demonizes himself.

  • 5  So Adam, for example, has no means of replying to her when she desires to wander from his side, be (...)

And he demonizes himself, he falls, that is to say, before he has read Paradise Lost, which he proceeds to do three chapters later when he is able to read books.5

12Now I don’t want to rehearse the external evidence here about Mary Shelley’s reading of Paradise Lost, and indeed most of the rest of Milton, before she wrote the novel. It is well known that this last passage is an allusion to Paradise Lost, Bk IV, 11.449-480, Eve’s first vision of herself in the pool, which is itself an adaptation of Ovid, Metamorphoses, iii, 11.402-36. Mary Shelley, argue Gilbert and Gubar, is rewriting the Milton passage, inverting the received (Christian/Patriarchal) rewriting of Ovid, in order to remove or at the least problematise, the ideological power of Milton’s mysogenistic propaganda:

That day I oft remember, when from sleep
I first awaked, and found myself reposed
Under a shade of flowers, much wondering where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.
Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound
Of waters issued from a cave and spread
Into a liquid plain, then stood unmoved
Pure as the expanse of heaven; I thither went
With unexperienced thought, and laid me down
On the green bank, to look into the clear
Smooth lake, that to me seemed another sky.
As I bent to look, just opposite,
A shape within the watery gleam appeared
Bending to look on me. I started back,
It started back, but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love; there I had fixed
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warned me, What thou seest,
What there thou seest fair creature is thyself,
With thee it comes and goes: but follow me,
And I will bring thee where no shadow stays
Thy coming, and thy soft embraces, he
Whose image thou art, him thou shalt enjoy
Inseparably thine, to him shalt bear
Multitudes like thyself, and thence be called
Mother of human race: what could I do,
But follow straight, invisibly thus led?
Till I espied thee, fair indeed and tall,
Under a platan, yet methought less fair
Less winning soft, less aimiably mild,
Than that smooth watery image...

13Gilbert and Gubar see the key phrase as ’pined with vain desire’, which they take as the point at which Milton’s propaganda becomes visible: it is a commonplace that Eve falls here before the Fall, she falls textually, that is, before she falls narratively, because the passage narrates in coded form a myth of origins, the birth of woman’s vanity, or woman’s sin — ’vain desire’thus becomes the entry point at which the Christianising of the pagan myth of Narcissus occurs.

14I think this idea, however, though undoubtedly true, gives too simple a role to the reader in this instance, because there is a bigger gap in the text caused by a multiple perspective. ’Vain’is a Latinate pun on ’empty’and therefore, ’insatiable’, thus preserving the pathos of an unassuageable longing from Ovid’s pre-text; and the reader of Milton needs to understand this as a pun, because this passage, through its adaptation of the myth of Narcissus, ironically dramatises Eve’s independence, her liberty to have rejected Adam.

  • 6  « If this be our condition, thus to dwell

15The significance of the allegorical encounter, if you read it like this, is that self-awareness, self-regard in the best sense, is essential for self-knowledge before obedience. It was Shelley himself who wrote ’Never let it be forgotten that Milton was a republican, and a bold thinker’. Eve’s Narcissism is at one level in conflict with her capacity to sin, because, without self-regard, she has no liberty, no independence of spirit.6

16Thus, from the very liberty of Eve comes the occasion for, and the choice of, Sin. This is one of the central paradoxes of Milton’s poem, which, as William Empson has shown, he cannot ultimately control. The propaganda point about woman’s vanity has to be tied, I am suggesting, to the myth of Narcissus as a theory of knowledge in which the insatiability of self-desire is the basis of freedom. And freedom is the basis of Sin. The propaganda is better, and worse, than Gilbert and Gubar say it is.

17To clarify what I have been saying so far. I’ve been insisting on the rhetorical structures of these passages as reversible and the role of the reader as the means by which this effect of dramatic irony is accomplished. This textual level is distinguishable, I have been arguing, from what I might call the structural myth of the mirror-effect. That is, it is clear that Mary Shelley’s text in the case of the second fall, inverts the myth of Narcissus: instead of falling in love with himself, the monster becomes a monster-in-the-pool and thus demonizes himself, and, effectively, loses himself or becomes his own demonic Other.

18But what of the first passage from Frankenstein? Does this display the same mythic structure? After all, there is no mirror there.

Here, too, it instructive to return to another passage in Milton to help explain the structure of the first passage from Mary Shelley’s novel.

19This is the incident in which Satan, dispatched by God to lay seige to Adam and Eve, reaches the gate of Hell and there encounters two monstrous figures, the Gatekeeper and her equally hideous Son:

  • 7  PL, Bk 11, 11.746-766.

To whom thus the portress of hell gate replied;
Hast thou forgot me then, and do I seem
Now in thine eye so foul, once deemed so fair
In heaven, when at the assembly, and in sight
Of all the seraphim with thee combined
In bold conspiracy against heaven’s king,
All on a sudden miserable pain
Surprised thee, dim thine eyes, and dizzy swum
In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast
Threw forth, till on the left side opening wide,
Likest to thee in shape and countenance bright,
Then shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed
Out of thy head I sprung: amazement seized
At first, and called me Sin, and for a sign
Portentous held me; but familiar grown,
I pleased, and with attractive graces won
The most averse, thee chiefly, who full oft
Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing
Becamest enamoured, and such joy thou took’st
With me in secret, that my womb conceived
A growing burden.7

20In this encounter between Satan and the monstrous figure of the ’portress of hell’, Satan is reminded that this unrecognisably repulsive figure is his own creature; more, his own reflection who sprang, in a parody of Athena from the head of Zeus, from his own head.

21The phrase that links the passage explicitly to Narcissism is the line: ’...who full oft thyself in me thy perfect image viewing/Becamst enamoured.’ Here Milton uses the myth of Narcissism, the trope of reflection, to explain the origin of Sin, a fall, a loss of self-knowledge, and the concomitant splitting of the Self in the mirror, which proves the split to be, by a process of retroaction, self-generated. And again, the reader is obliged to reverse the words of the speaker so that Satan, the listener, becomes aware of the monstrosity of his own sin, ie that Sin’s appearance and her reality are ironically the same. The irony of Sin’s change of appearance from fair to monstrous shows the ability of Satan to misunderstand his relationship to himself. He himself is falling, throughout the poem, without knowing it, and it is only when he is made by Sin’s reflection to see his own monstrous, originating image, that he has the opportunity — an opportunity which, it should be said, with impeccable allegorical logic, he rejects — of seeing the true relation between appearance and reality.

22Again, the inverted Narcissism of this complex passage is essential to its allegorical logic, because Satan fell in love with his monstrous Other, and in so doing denied his own monstrosity, because the other was himself. Now, when confronted with the true image of his own self-love, he denies the confrontation and treats cunningly with Sin, thus confirming his own onward and downward plunge into self-blindness.

23What I think I have been saying is, first, that Mary Shelley has indeed in Frankenstein retold the myth of an inverted Narcissism, in which the Self is ironically mistaken for the monstrous Other. And I think I can accept Mary Poovey’s point here, that there is a critique of Romantic (ie male) egotism in Mary Shelley’s text which lies behind this inversion of Narcissus. If you look at Percy Shelley’s poetry, the whole project of a Neo-Platonic liberation of the Soul is built on an infinitely positive Narcissistic reproduction of the Self, the multiplication of images in a fragmented mirror which makes for a movement out of the Self, of which Victor Frankenstein’s isolation from family and domestic concerns is almost a parody. Mary rewrites Percy Shelley’s Milton as well as her own.

24But secondly, at a completely different level, I have been describing a characteristic tension between speaker and reader: a tension, that is, between what I think of as the myth of a primal encounter between the Self and the monstrous Other, mediated in each case by a speaker, and the variety of textual functions performed by the reader.

25So far we have explored this myth of inverted narcissism only in relation to literary texts themselves, but the shape of this encounter in the mirror with the monstrous Other is an informing shape in the commentary on literary texts, too.

26Recently we had a graphic reminder of this. Professor Mulryne of Warwick, in Paris to lecture on Renaissance Discoveries, gave us an inspired and impromptu aside on the current RSC production of The Tempest, in which he mentioned with evident relief the fact that, in his view, this production is getting away from the reductive pressure to present the play as if it were a showcase for the encounter between Caliban and Prospero, the schematic Western Self and its Monstrous Other, or, as Professor Mulryne interestingly put it, the Defining Other.

27In recent years, we have seen a reaction against the surviving Victorian cult of Ariel and the main axis of the play’s analysis of power has been regarded as lying, almost exclusively, between Caliban, the Island’s original owner, and Prospero, the Western usurper. The character of Ariel has tended to become less interesting to commentators. Here, for example, is the conclusion of one of the most oft-quoted of recent commentaries on the play, an essay by Paul Brown, entitled, « ’This Thing of Darkness I acknowledge Mine...’«  which privileges the psychoanalytic content of Prospero’s final remarks about Caliban: and plunges us into a world of paratactic uncertainty, in which Prospero, as prime representative of the play’s colonialist narrative, ’requires and produces the other’ - an other which continually destabilises and disperses the narrative’s moment of conviction:

  • 8 Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. J. Dollimore and A Sinfield, Manches (...)

True civil subjectivity is declared: the encounter with the forces of otherness on the island produces a signal victory. Yet the architect of that victory is to retire and die, his narrative a mere entertainment to while away the last night on the isle, his actor reduced in the epilogue to beg for the release of applause. When apportioning the plebeians to the masters, he assigns Caliban to himself, saying ’this thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine’ (V.i.275-6). Even as this powerfully designates the monster as his property, an object for his own utility, a darkness from which he may rescue self-knowledge, there is surely an ironic identification with the other here as both become interstitial. Only a displacement of the narrating function from the master to a simpler, declarative civilian courtier can hope to terminate the endless struggle to relate self and other so as to serve the colonialist project. At the ’close’ of the play, Prospero is in danger of becoming the other to the narrative declaration of his own project, which is precisely the ambivalent position Caliban occupies.8

  • 9  The source for much of this recent tradition is Edward Said, Orientalism.See Brown, however, for a (...)

28Here, Prospero’s rather contemptuous remark about Caliban, is constructed quite clearly in the shape of a repressed, inverted narcissism: the encounter in the mirror with the monstrous Other. And it is this shape which, in Brown’s view determines the shape of the play’s ending, and the nature of its investigation of power. In the eyes of Brown and others9, Caliban has risen to become the anti-hero, the dark other of the play, and this view has conditioned recent performances. The moment in which Simon Russell Bean, as Ariel, spits in Prospero’s face in the RSC production may well thus be the sign of a shift of gravity in which performance is beginning to change, or at least reflect a challenge to, recent commentary on the play.

29Now, the point here is not to challenge this reading of the play so much as to observe the determining shape of that reading. The Tempest is a pretty obvious historical source for Frankenstein, and it may be that what is happening here is a loop, or feedback, whereby the central encounter of the Gothic has become a critical instrument and is being re-projected, through a mixture of psychoanalytic and political discourse on to the Shakespeare text.

30Let us take another example of a currently influential book about renaissance literature, Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning. Here, the central encounter of the book is given its mythical shape in the form of schematised axioms:

3. Self-fashioning is achieved in relation to something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile. This threatening Other — heretic, savage, witch, adultress, traitor, Antichrist -must be discovered or invented in order to be attacked and destroyed.

4. The alien is perceived by the authority either as that which is unformed or chaotic (the absence of order) or that which is false or negative (the demonic parody of order). Since accounts of the former tend inevitably to organize and thematize it, the chaotic constantly slides into the demonic, and consequently the alien is always constructed as a distorted image of the authority.

5. One man’s authority is another man’s alien.

6. When one authority or alien is destroyed, another takes its place.

7. There is always more than one authority and more than one alien in existence at a given time.

8. If both the authority and the alien are located outside the self, they are at the same time experienced as inward necessities, so that both submission and destruction are always already internalized.

9. Self-fashioning is always, though not exclusively, in language.

  • 10  Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, London, 1980.

10. The power generated to attack the alien in the name of the authority is produced in excess and threatens the authority it sets out to defend. Hence self-fashioning always involves some experience of threat, some effacement or undermining, some loss of self.10

31Greenblatt’s concept of ’self-fashioning’, the governing trope of his commentary, despite its dialectical structure, looks uncannily like an infinitely regressive version of the myth of inverted narcissism.

32The concept of the Other is probably, at the moment, the most overdetermined concept in modern criticism. It is not limited to any one critical approach, but acts almost as a neutral site between discourses that seek to be exclusive. There seems to be a struggle going on to appropriate this concept from different directions. Consider the following passage, taken at random from a recent publication on the Gothic, in which the author, using a kind of psychoanalytic shorthand in order to show how the Sublime in the Romantic Tradition becomes fissured and gendered, appeals to the moment of narcissistic encounter in which the reader becomes a witness to the internalization of the Other:

  • 11  R. Miles, Gothic Writing 1750-1820, London 1992 p.75.

The significance of Lacan’s reworking of Sartre should now be evident. Lacan inserts Freud’s theories of the sexual instincts into Sartre’s theory of the gaze. In voyeurism, the guilty act of seeing, a masochistic subject-position emerges as a complicating factor. The subject sustains himself in a function of desire by the introduction of an ’extraneous subject’, the new object brought in to assume the active or masculine role, is not to be understood as the literal other, but as the ’Other’, for Lacan a residue of the Father. In Gothic narratives Freud’s ’extraneous subject’, necessary for masochism or exhibitionism, becomes ’a gaze imagined’by the subject ’in the field of the Other’. The reason for this is that the eighteenth century sublime virtually encodes the ’Other’in the structure of sublime response’; when the veil is withdrawn the reader witnesses the female or passive soul, ravished, ecstatic, caught in the gaze of the Other.11

33Here the reader, assigned a strangely androgynous position, looks over Eve’s (ie ’the passive female subject position’s’) shoulder into the pool of discourse, and sees that she is ’ravished’, made to suffer ecstasis, by the returning gaze of her imagined Other, her active, masculine self. That masculine self is not explicitly monstrous, but the threat of rape is hinted at in the way the writer interprets the metaphor ’ravished,’ and, since the mechanism of the account is borrowed from Freud’s account of masochism, it threatens the subject with extinction and brings us close to the fear exhibited in the primal scene of Frankenstein.

34N. Holland and Ms L. Sherman, in another oft-quoted piece, take a more empirical Winnicottian/Kleinian approach to the process of reading pulp Gothic, and yet their analysis reads remarkably like some of the previous passages in the mythic role it assigns to the reader in its primal encounter:

  • 12  N. Holland and L. Sherman, ’Gothic Possibilities’, NLH, 8: 1977, pp. 278-294.

Because the castle presents a markedly untrustworthy Other that encompasses the entire not-me, physical escape becomes the only way of meeting its threats. From that logic comes the paradigmatic pattern of the Gothic: persecution followed by flight, flight being the outward turn from threatened sexual penetration or intrusive parental care. « I will not let the castle force itself into me — I will put myself outside it. » The gothic thus offers for our recreation a dialectic of its geometry, both that of the castle and the exterior landscape which is the escape from the castle.12

35Of course, there are some important differences here. The reader doesn’t read against the grain of the text this time, exposing its gaps, (these authors are not talking about literary gothic) but cooperatively re-creates the monstrous Other, assisting the readerly, not the writerly, paradigms of the text. But nevertheless the ’untrustworthy Other that encompasses the entire not-me’reads like the myth of inverted narcissism in a particularly pure form.

36But there is a distinction to be made between the notions of an Other, and the Other, even if in each case the other is given archetypal uppercase. After all, it might be objected, there is nothing particularly contemporary or especially surprising about Otherness in itself. It is perhaps one of the perennial instruments of thought. Compare two counter-examples, for the sake of clarity. Here is Bakhtin invoking the concept in order to polyphonize the monologism of classical discourse:

  • 13  M. Bakhtin, ’From The Prehistory Of Novelistic Discourse’, first published in Russia in 1967, repr (...)

Indirect discourse, however, the representation of another’s word, another’s language in intonational quotation marks, was known in the most ancient times: we encounter it in the earliest stages of verbal culture.13

37and here is the more ambiguous example of Julia Kristeva in a famous essay employing a much less relativistic version of the opposition between Self and Other, in which the poetic text itself, filed by the State under ’other’(miscellaneous) in order to render it harmless, becomes the untrustworthy Other surrounding the entire not-me, threatening the self-appointed order and authority of a repressive political and academic establishment (she is thinking of the reasons why Stalin needed to persecute poets):

  • 14  Julia Kristeva, ’The Ethics of Linguistics,’ Desire in Language: A Semiotk Approach to Literature (...)

There is, however, an other, modestly filed away though among the ’objects of research’, as if to safeguard the sovereignty of the scholarwarden standing watch over the structures of communication and sociality; there is an other besides the irony of the learned man; there is the poem, in the sense that it is rhythmn, death, and the future.14

38Readers seem to be absent from this scene, described by Kristeva as ’merely a symptom of the drama experienced by the Western subject’. Here we see metalanguage, which corresponds in the political sphere to bureaucratic repression, encounter its irreducible Other, the speaking subject, and from the very egoistically repressive manoevre to marginalise comes the return of the repressed, the Poem emerging as the monstrous Other, the unconscious of all metalanguages and linguistic systems.

39I’d say this last is a transitional example in which we are invited to watch ’an other’become the Other, and assume the mythic shape of inverted narcissism: we end up with the Totalizing System whose monstrosity is reflected by the Poem. Nevertheless, it also demonstrates by contrast the difference between the totalizing myth, and the humanistic relativism visible in Bakhtin’s concept of an other.

40My last example, however, is not at all ambiguous and shows the shape of the fully-fledged myth, as it were, migrating from discourse to discourse, casting its synthesising shadow in a series of paradoxes:

  • 15  Franco Moretti, "The Dialectic of Fear’, New Left Review, 136, 1982, PP. 67-85

Such, for Marx, is the relation between capital and wage labour. Such, for Freud, is the relation between super-ego and unconscious. Such, for Stendhal, is the bond between the lover and the illness he calls ’love’. Such is the relationship that binds Frankenstein to the monster and Lucy to Dracula. Such, finally, is the relationship between the reader and the literature of terror. The more a work frightens, the more it edifies. The more it humiliates, the more it uplifts. The more it hides, the more it gives the illusion of revealing. It is a fear one needs: the price one pays for coming contentedly to terms with a social body based on irrationality and menace.15

41The reader is finally subject to this primal encounter between the Self and Monstrous Other, because it is clear from this passage that the myth of inverted narcissism is continuous with our own critical discourse — it is perhaps one of the indispensable paradoxes of modern criticism that to see ourselves in a text at all, we have to see the otherness of its language, the hermeneutic Other, so to speak, the antithesis within the phrase, the gap, the famous slippage between signified and signifier. Texts are mirrors full of watery eyes that stare back in a plea for self-recognition which, as readers, — like Frankenstein, like his creature, like Satan — we are bound to deny.

42It may be that the history of modern criticism is a series of footnotes to the history of the Other. This suspicion has received some confirmation recently: I have just discovered, during the course of a quick, random survey, that in the newest dictionary of literary terms to appear on the shelves of Gibert, the term Other has finally made its appearance, as an ideological and gender term, situated between Ostranenie and Ottava Rima; we all know, I am sure, that dictionaries are the boneyards of myth. Could this be the first sign that the shadow of the myth is passing over, if we are beginning to recognise it as such?

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1  Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, repr. in Three Gothic Novels, Penguin English Library, Harmonsworth, 1968, ed. Mario Praz, pp. 318-319.

2  Op. cit., p. 279.

3  By Marion Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their study, The Madwoman in the Attic, chapter reprinted in The Gothick Novel: A Casebook, ed V. Sage, London, 1990, p. 153. Op. cit., p. 379.

4  ’But Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions. I read it, as I had read the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history.’ Ibid., p. 396.

5  So Adam, for example, has no means of replying to her when she desires to wander from his side, because he doesn’t understand that wander is another (Spenserian) pun on Latin ’erro’, ’I wander from the truth’:

6  « If this be our condition, thus to dwell

In narrow circuit straitened by a foe, Subtle or violent, we not endued Single with like defense, wherever met, How are we happy, still in fear of harm? » IX, 322-6.

It is hardly surprising that Adam can’t reply to this: these are Milton’s own arguments about liberty from his pamphlets.

7  PL, Bk 11, 11.746-766.

8 Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. J. Dollimore and A Sinfield, Manchester, 1986 p.68.

9  The source for much of this recent tradition is Edward Said, Orientalism.See Brown, however, for a complete bibliography of the influences which lie behind his essay. For a recently-expressed dissenting view, in which the modalities of power in the play are examined without the mythic shape of the encounter in the mirror, see A. A. Husain, Types of Time and shukespeare: A Study of Machiavelli, Man’s Character and Power Plays, 1991, (Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of East Anglia).

10  Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, London, 1980.

11  R. Miles, Gothic Writing 1750-1820, London 1992 p.75.

12  N. Holland and L. Sherman, ’Gothic Possibilities’, NLH, 8: 1977, pp. 278-294.

13  M. Bakhtin, ’From The Prehistory Of Novelistic Discourse’, first published in Russia in 1967, repr. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, (1981), trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, collected in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed David Lodge, London 1988, pp. 124-156.

14  Julia Kristeva, ’The Ethics of Linguistics,’ Desire in Language: A Semiotk Approach to Literature and Art, (1980), repr. in Lodge, op. cit, pp. 223.

15  Franco Moretti, "The Dialectic of Fear’, New Left Review, 136, 1982, PP. 67-85

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Victor Sage, « Frankenstein and Modern Criticism: the Myth of Inverted Narcissism »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 1 | 2000, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2013, consulté le 30 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Victor Sage

Reader à l’Université d’East Anglia à Norwich (Angleterre). Il est l’auteur de Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition (MacMillan, 1988) et l’éditeur de The Gothick Novel (MacMillan, 1990). Il a publié des pièces de théâtre et des romans : Dividing Lines (1984), A mirror for Larks (Secker and Warburg, 1993), Black Shawl (Secker and Warburg, 1995).

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