It is a great pity that Peggy Webling’s stilted, stupid 1927 play midwived James Whale’s Frankenstein, thus robbing the film of considerable intellectual merit from the get-go and ill serving the brilliant 1818 novel by Mary Shelley upon which the film was ostensibly (at whatever remove) based. Praising the thin, if evocative, and slightly mawkish popular entertainment that Whale, marshaling a plethora of creepy effects, wrought is a roundabout way of disrespecting what in fact is the most substantial British Romantic novel. Worse, Whale’s film spawned an industry of Frankenstein movies that similarly have little or nothing to do with the work of genius that Shelley at a very young age wrote.
Unlike Whale’s rickety film, which confines its intelligence to Shelley’s warning against reckless scientific experimentation (such as attempts to create life from scraps and organs of the dead) as a usurpation of Nature’s prerogatives, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is about more than that. One of its boldest suggestions remains a shocker: that all sexual or love relations are incestuous at root. In the framing part of the narrative, Robert Walton—whose elimination renders any version of Frankenstein, like Whale’s, deficient*—writes to his married sister from the ocean to which he has taken in ostensibly scientific pursuit:
I desire the company of a man who could sympathise with me; whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend.
But, of course, Walton has just left such a friend: the woman to whom he now writes. His wish for a comrade refers back to his sister and her spouse, who, owing to a transference of unresolved oedipal feelings, have supplanted his parents in his unconscious. The friend, the companion, that Walton now seeks might hopefully reconcile him with the brother-in-law he has mentally cuckolded by becoming a substitute for the sister from whom incestuous dread has driven him. Shelley writes, then, of imagined incestuous love, that is, love felt for someone who is unconsciously identified with a family member or, generally, a role such as a family member—say, a mother or a brother—might occupy.
By leaving home like Walton, Victor Frankenstein (and not Henry, as the play and Whale’s film would have it) leaves in particular Elizabeth Lavenza, his love for her having grown fearfully confused as a result of their having been raised as though they were kin. Since she grew up in a household that included a stepbrother, stepsister, half-brother and half-sister, Shelley herself may have experienced, to some extent, the confusion (which re-emerges in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights) that Victor’s account of his dying mother’s request crystallizes:
She joined the hands of Elizabeth and myself:—“My children,” she said, “my firmest hopes of future happiness were placed on the prospect of your union [in marriage]. This expectation will now be the consolation of your father. . . .”
Under pressure from these remarks, Victor flees and begins creating in secret his unsexual “man” as a safe substitute for his sister-beloved—the procedure itself is a means of sublimating his passion for her—and as an external thing (a substitute for the child he dares not have with her) upon which to project the incestuous guilt. In the frame, Walton’s mission to find the North Pole parallels this endeavor.
Inevitably, the evil thing that Frankenstein so lovingly creates causes repeated delays of his marriage and, realizing one of its most terrible threats (“I will be with you on your wedding-night”), eventually Elizabeth’s death. His and Elizabeth’s “child” after all, the monster may be a parodic reminder of the old wives’ warning that incest yields offspring that are deformed monsters. Nevertheless, Victor’s hopes had been otherwise:
A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.
Victor is speaking grandiloquently with the voice of God. It is as though his mission had been to purge us all of Original Sin by re-creating man without the frailties that had made him susceptible to temptation in Eden. However, Victor’s attempt to create a redemptive “human being,” a modern era’s new Christ, ends instead with the creation of a repulsive beast:
His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth 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.
Question: How can these features shock Frankenstein? Are they not the very ones that he scavenged from the dead and stitched together? In reality, this “child” is Victor’s self-measure, a reflection of the monster that his love for Elizabeth has turned himself into in his own mind. There is something else one must point out—an element of the book without which no film version can legitimately lay claim to the title Frankenstein. The “monster” is a ghost, a nothing that absorbs whatever impressions its tortured creator projects onto it, its opening yellow eye suddenly becoming one of a pair, watery and almost dun white. Shifting shadow rather than substance, the monster is seen only by its creator until Walton, who has absorbed Frankenstein’s personal history, in a sense, identity, while nurturing a similar incestuous dread, falls heir to Frankenstein’s obsessive vision—a “vision” that Shelley repeatedly undercuts. For instance, Victor recalls that when he flung open the laboratory door to check on the monster that he has so recently animated, “nothing appeared.” Indeed, the fantasy seizing him at his first sight of the monster, once “the beauty of the dream [had] vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart,” is even more revealing. Having fled to bed, “endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness,”
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 held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel.
In Victor’s mind, Elizabeth, his dead mother, and the beast composed from the dead all fuse into one shifting, ghostly, ghoulish image. The connection between the monster and Elizabeth repeatedly suggests itself. Mrs. Frankenstein had taken into her home this motherless child, “a creature who seemed to shed radiance” (as Victor later would hope that his “human being” might), an “apparition,” an angelic ghost—the opposite side of the same coin as the future “dreaded spectre.” Small wonder, then, that the Lavenza child should prove to be a sort of demon also, bringing death to her two mothers, the one who (like Shelley’s mother) had died giving birth to her, and Victor’s mother, who had caught Elizabeth’s scarlet fever while nursing her back to health. Mrs. Frankenstein’s deathbed joining of her children’s hands provides the conclusive bond of love, death and incest that her son’s wild nightmare will echo.
The Lavenza child is nearly duplicated by another angel-demon, Justine, whom Mrs. Frankenstein later takes into her home because the child’s own mother “through a strange perversity . . . could not endure her.” Following her husband’s death (Justine “had always been [his] favourite”), Justine’s mother treated the girl “very ill”; maternal jealousy was apparently this woman’s “strange perversity.” Interpreting her other children’s deaths as a “judgment from heaven to chastise her partiality” against Justine, however, Justine’s mother turned penitent and, mostly to assuage loneliness, summoned back her sole surviving child, a passive little angel throughout this reunion—so it seems. The mother “sometimes begged Justine to forgive her unkindness, but much oftener accused her of having caused the deaths of her brothers and sisters.” The implication darkens that Justine’s retaliatory jealousy against her siblings may have (magically) slain them once her mother also dies.
This hinted witchdom achieves ominous fruition with the murder of William, Victor’s little brother, and Justine is charged, tried and executed. To Frankenstein, the monster, having learned to speak with a vengeance, later confesses to having murdered the boy and having planted the incriminating evidence on Justine, all as part of its plot to deprive Frankenstein of all those whom he loves. (The monster’s hilarious loquaciousness is surely the novel’s surest indicator of the degree to which Frankenstein is projecting onto it whatever appears or sounds, to him, to be there.) But we do not need to invoke a phantom beast to explain a crime that any of a number of characters may have committed, including Justine. Why not Elizabeth? When he sends Victor the tragic news, Victor’s father mentions that Elizabeth
told me that that same evening William had teased her to let him wear a very valuable miniature that she possessed of your mother. This picture is gone, and was doubtless the temptation which urged the murderer to the deed.
How deeply ran Elizabeth’s competition with William for the memory of his mother? When she sees “the print of the murderer’s finger” on the boy’s neck, guilt for having at least lent him the miniature prompts her to cry out that she has murdered her “darling child.” Motherless, has she reclaimed the picture (which gives her authority for acting the mother herself) at William’s fatal expense? Ernest Frankenstein can claim a similar motive. He had been playing with his brother but returned home alone, explaining “that William had run away to hide himself, and that he vainly sought for him.” Then did sibling rivalry move the older boy to secure sole symbolic possession of their dead mother? Did he plant the picture on Justine to eliminate her competition and to cover up his tracks? One thing is certain: despite the “confession” that Victor imagines, or hallucinates, that he hears, a non-existent monster could not have committed the crime. Rather, in this instance the phantom beast merely embodies the ambiguity surrounding the crime.
But what crime, and what of all these characters? The 1931 film, like subsequent versions, strips down Shelley’s narrative complexity and replaces it with something more rudimentary: a boo-show. Boris Karloff’s name may not have appeared in the original credits (coyly, a question mark replaced it), but his character definitely exists. In a scene of considerable pathos, intending only to play with her, it tosses a little girl into a lake, drowning her. A posse takes after it with torchlights in darkness. In a way, this character anticipates Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. However, it has nothing to do with Shelley’s extraordinary book.
* Kenneth Branagh’s sweepingly romantic 1994 film version restores Walton to the material’s cast of characters but without quite knowing what to do with him.
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