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Contemporary Theory: Lacan & Freud
December 21, 1999
A Freudian Interpretation
-Victor Frankenstein –
In Mary Shelley?s Frankenstein, the main character, Victor, has a short, but important dream right after he brings his creature to life. I have chosen to interpret this dream for several reasons. Firstly, there is no need to doubt that Victor?s retelling of the dream is anything but the truth. Also, there would be no reason for Victor to be compensating for lapses in the dream by creating falsities. In order for the novel to work, these assumptions must be made. Also with Victor?s dream, there is no need to try to extract his past from the dream because in the four chapters before the dream we get that information. Victors retelling of his dream is this:
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 fist kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change and I thought that I held the dead corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the graveworms crawling in the folds of the flannel.
The first thing I identified in the dream was the symbolism. In his works on dreams, Freud often stresses the existence of sexual motivation in dreams. He identifies many symbols of genitals and sexual intercourse. One of the symbols for the phallis is a snake. I extended that symbol to include the graveworms that are mentioned in Victor?s dream. The existence of this symbol led me to examine the possibility that sexual feelings may have caused this dream.
The two characters that are mentioned in the dream are Elizabeth, his intended wife, and Caroline, who is his now deceased mother. The presence of Victor?s love object and his mother ensure the existence of sexual feelings in the dream.
The way in which Victor describes embracing and kissing Elizabeth implies that he has sexual desire for her. He may also have a genuine sense of love for her, but this aspect is not as clear. Victor?s feelings for Elizabeth could be expected by examining his childhood.
As he was growing up, Victor was quite sheltered. His only contact with women being his mother and Elizabeth. When Elizabeth was brought into Victors house his mother presented her as ? . . . a pretty present for my Victor.? Victor at one point also states that Elizabeth was ?the beautiful and adored companion of all my occupations and my pleasures.? The fact that Elizabeth was termed a present by Caroline, and Victor uses the word ?pleasures? seem to suggest that she was intended to be not only Victors playmate as a child, but also his ?plaything? as an adult. The fact that she was ?given to him? can be related to the euphemism of ?giving one?s self? which is to engage in sexual acts with a person.
I venture to say that the dream reveals that Victor?s lust was not confined to Elizabeth. I find evidence for this in the transformation of Elizabeth into Victor?s mother. Elizabeth?s image may have only been a way to mask his mother in a socially acceptable manner. In Victor?s mind it may have been his mother that he was embracing. He masks his mother with Elizabeth so that he does not have to consciously admit his desire for his mother. This theory comes from Freud?s Oedipal Complex. Following Freud?s theory, you could also say that the reason why Victor had an unstable relationship with his father is because he never resolved the feelings of rivalry that come from the complex. The rivalry may have continued because of the way in which Victor viewed the connection between Elizabeth and his mother.
The metamorphosis of Elizabeth in Caroline also suggests that Victor may see the women as one in the same. Elizabeth had assumed the role of woman of the house after Caroline died. She took on the many of the motherly duties Caroline had preformed. Victor may have continued to hold onto his desire for his mother through Elizabeth. When Elizabeth took over Caroline?s role, she may also have taken on Caroline?s spirit in the eyes of Victor. Victor may have felt that Elizabeth had to become Caroline in order to fill the void, and to pay Caroline back for saving her from scarlet fever. This would make is possible for Victor to love them both equally, and in fact as one being.
To move beyond the sexual aspects of the dream, you can also examine Victor?s character. Although Victor professes his love for Elizabeth throughout the novel, there are a few reasons why he may also harbor feelings of hate towards her. By seeing the existence of his mother in Elizabeth, it may serve as a constant reminder to Victor that Elizabeth is in part responsible for his mother?s death. By nursing Elizabeth back to health from scarlet fever, Caroline herself catches it and dies.
Since Victor also sees his mother in Elizabeth, he may be projecting his feelings of anger towards his mother onto Elizabeth. As a result of Victors sheltered childhood, he was very dependent and close to his mother. In his description of his mother, he idealizes her to a point of her almost being deified. When she dies, he is left feeling abandoned by her.
Victor?s anger towards his mother may have also been a result of his seeing her as a controlling influence of his life. When she first ?gives? Elizabeth to him he may have sub-consciously felt as though she had taken away his ability to choose his own companion. Although Caroline never stated the fact that she wished Victor to wed Elizabeth when they were children, she made that wish apparent when she was dying. She asked Victor to marry Elizabeth as her death wish. This made both Elizabeth and Victor feel morally obligated to fulfill this request regardless of their emotions. When Victor is reluctant to wed Elizabeth, he may have been trying to reconcile feelings of anger because his mother still had control over him when she was dead. His anger towards his mother for abandoning him and controlling him is then projected onto Elizabeth because of his seeing his mother?s spirit in her.
By seeing both Elizabeth and Caroline in Elizabeth, and having feelings of love and hatred for both women, Victor?s feelings towards Elizabeth become very complicated on both the conscious and sub-conscious levels. A prime example of the sub-conscious and conscious conflicting is present on Victor and Elizabeth?s wedding night.
Despite the numerous warnings from Victor?s creature that he would be there on Victor?s wedding night, Victor still chooses to leave Elizabeth alone in the hotel. Consciously, he has just finished a ritual that confirms his love for Elizabeth, making a vow to love and protect her. Sub-consciously he still feels that hatred and animosity towards both her, and the spirit of Caroline that she embodies. It is on the sub-conscious level that I believe Victor knew what consequences would be, and this is why he chose to continue with his actions. By knowing that the creature would inevitably kill Elizabeth, Victor was able to resolve his hatred for Elizabeth and his mother in an indirect manner.
Although Freud is not taught in the psychology classroom today, except in a historical sense, his theories have moved into the realm of literature. Today criticizing literature from a Freudian point of view is popular. I would venture to say that Freud is at use the most in our world today in the English classroom. By applying Freud?s theories to literature, we are able to have a greater understanding of it. With this example of examining Victor from Frankenstein, one can see how interpreting a work through Freud?s theories creates a fuller and more interesting piece of literature for the reader. Freud?s theories have allowed us to discover new aspects of things that may otherwise been left unfound.