The Uncanny and the Fantastic
The German word "unheimlich" is considered untranslatable; our rough English equivalent, "uncanny", is itself difficult to define. This indescribable quality is actually an integral part of our understanding of the uncanny experience, which is terrifying precisely because it can not be adequately explained. Rather than attempting a definition, most critics resort to describing the uncanny experience, usually by way of the dream-like visions of doubling and death that invariably seem to accompany it. These recurrent themes, which trigger our most primitive desires and fears, are the very hallmarks of Gothic fiction.
According to Freud’s description, the uncanny "derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but–on the contrary–from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it" (Morris). Freud discusses how an author can evoke an uncanny response on the part of the reader by straddling the line between reality and unreality within the fiction itself. In The Fantastic, Todorov goes to some length to distinguish his structuralist approach to this genre from a Freudian psychoanalytic approach; nonetheless, he shares many of Freud’s conclusions, especially in attributing literary terror to the collapsing of the psychic boundaries of self and other, life and death, reality and unreality.
Although Freud never mentions Gothic fiction in his essay, and Todorov partially excludes it from his, critics of the Gothic have drawn heavily upon both of them, often in conjunction with one another. Terry Castle’s article on the "other" in Radcliffe’s novels and Peter Brook’s essay on The Monk are two examples of this combined theoretical approach. Although Margaret Anne Doody does not mention Freud or Todorov specifically, her essay–which describes how Radcliffe blurs the distinction between dreams and reality within her novels–seems indebted to both of them. This emphasis on dreams is also essential to any analysis of Frankenstein, a text which is itself the product of a dream-vision and which seems to capture the very essence of the uncanny.
See also the excerpt on the Freudian uncanny by David Morris.
Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. & trs. James Strachey, vol. XVII (London: Hogarth, 1953), pp. 219-252.
When we proceed to review the things, persons, impressions, events and situations which are able to arouse in us a feeling of the uncanny in a particularly forcible and definite form, the first requirement is obviously to select a suitable example to start. Jentsch has taken as a very good instance ‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate’; and he refers in this connection to the impression made by waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata….Jentsch writes: ‘In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton, and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately." That, as we have said, would quickly dissipate the peculiar emotional effect of the thing.
The theme of the ‘double’ has been very thoroughly treated by Otto Rank (1914). He has gone into the connections which the ‘double’ has with reflections in mirrors, with shadows, with guardian spirits, with the belief in the soul and with the fear of death; but he also lets in a flood of light on the surprising evolution of the idea. For the ‘double’ was originally an insurance against the destruction of the ego, an ‘energetic denial of the power of death’, as Rank says; and probably the ‘immortal’ soul was the first ‘double’ of the body…. Such ideas…have sprung from the soil of unbounded self-love, from the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of the child and of primitive man. But when this stage has been surmounted, the ‘double’ reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death…The ‘double’ has become a thing of terror, just as, after the collapse of their religion the gods turned into demons.
Many people experience the feeling [of the uncanny] in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts….There is scarcely any other matter, however, upon which our thoughts and feelings have changed so little since the very earliest times, and in which discarded forms have been so completely preserved under a thin disguise, as our relation to death. Two things account for our conservatism: the strength of our original emotional reaction to death and the insufficiency of our scientific knowledge about it. Biology has not yet been able to decide whether death is the inevitable fate of every living being or whether it is only a regular but yet perhaps avoidable event in life. It is true that the statement ‘All men are mortal’ is paraded in text-books of logic as an example of a general proposition; but no human being really grasps it, and our unconscious has as little use now as it ever had for the idea of its own mortality….Since almost all of us still think as savages do on this topic, it is no matter for surprise that the primitive fear of the dead is still so strong within us and always ready to come to the surface on any provocation….
The uncanny as it is depicted in literature, in stories and imaginative productions, merits in truth a separate discussion. Above all, it is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life, for it contains the whole of the latter and something more besides, something that cannot be found in real life. The contrast between what has been repressed and what has been surmounted cannot be transposed on to the uncanny in fiction without profound modification; for the realm of phantasy depends for its effect on the fact that its content is not submitted to reality-testing. The somewhat paradoxical result is that in the first place a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place that there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.
The imaginative writer has this license among many others, that he can select his world of representation so that it either coincides with the realities we are familiar with or departs from them in what particulars he pleases. We accept his ruling in every case. In fairy tales, for instance, the world of reality is left behind from the very start, and the animistic system of beliefs is frankly adopted. Wish-fulfillments, secret powers, omnipotence of thoughts, animation of inanimate objects, all the elements so common in fairy stories, can exert no uncanny influence here; for, as we have learnt, that feeling cannot arise unless there is a conflict of judgment as to whether things which have been ‘surmounted’ and are regarded as incredible may not, after all, be possible; and this problem is eliminated from the outset by the postulates of the world of fairy tales…. The situation is altered as soon as the writer pretends to move in the world of common reality. In this case he accepts as well all the conditions operating to produce uncanny feelings in real life; and everything that would have an uncanny effect in reality has it in his story. But in this case he can even increase his effect and multiply it far beyond what could happen in reality, by bringing about events which never or very rarely happen in fact. In doing this he is in a sense betraying us to the superstitiousness which we have ostensibly surmounted; he deceives us by promising to give us the sober truth, and then after all overstepping it. We react to his inventions as we would have reacted to real experiences; by the time we have seen through his trick it is already too late and the author has achieved his object. But it must be added that his success is not unalloyed. We retain a feeling of dissatisfaction, a kind of grudge against the attempted deceit.
Tsvetan Todorov, The Fantastic (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975).
The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work–in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations….
The fantastic, we have seen, lasts only as long as a certain hesitation: a hesitation common to reader and character, who must decide whether or not what they perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. At the story’s end, the reader makes a decision even if the character does not; he opts for one solution or the other, and thereby emerges from the fantastic. If he decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we say that the work belongs to another genre: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous.
The fantastic therefore leads a life full of dangers, and may evaporate at any moment. It seems to be located on the frontier of two genres, the marvelous and the uncanny, rather than to be an autonomous genre. One of the great periods of supernatural literature, that of the Gothic novel, seems to confirm this observation. Indeed, we generally distinguish, within the literary Gothic, two tendencies: that of the supernatural explained (the "uncanny"), as it appears in the novels of Clara Reeves and Ann Radcliffe; and that of the supernatural accepted (the "marvelous"), which is characteristic of the works of Horace Walpole, M. G. Lewis, and Maturin. Here we find not the fantastic in the strict sense, only genres adjacent to it. More precisely, the effect of the fantastic is certainly produced, but during only a portion of our reading: in Ann Radcliffe, up to the moment when we are sure that the supernatural events will receive no explanation. Once we have finished reading, we understand–in both cases–that what we call the fantastic has not existed.
One might say that the common denominator of the two themes, metamorphosis and pan-determinism, is the collapse of the limit between matter and mind Thus we may advance a hypothesis as to a generating principle of all the themes collected [in this study]: the transformation from mind to matter has become possible.
…[In fantastic literature] a character will be readily multiplied….The multiplication of personality, taken literally, is an immediate consequence of the possible transition between matter and mind: we are several persons mentally, we become so physically.
Another consequence of the same principle has still greater extension: this is the effacement of the limits between subject and object. The rational schema represents the human being as a subject entering into relations with other persons or with things that remain external to him, and which have the status of objects. The literature of the fantastic disturbs this abrupt separation. We hear music, but there is no longer an instrument external to the hearer and producing sounds…
From The Mysteries of Udolpho
Retired to her lonely cabin, her melancholy thoughts still hovered round the body of her deceased parent; and, when she sunk into a kind of slumber, the images of her waking mind still haunted her fancy. She thought she saw her father approaching her with a benign countenance; then smiling mournfully, and pointing upwards, his lips moved; but, instead of words, she heard sweet music borne on the distant air, and presently saw his features glow with the mild rapture of a superior being. The strain seemed to swell louder, and she awoke. The vision was gone; but music yet came to her ear in strains such as angels might breathe. She doubted, listened, raised herself in the bed, and again listened. It was music, and not an illusion of her imagination. After a solemn, steady harmony, it paused–then rose again, in mournful sweetness–and then died, in a cadence that seemed to bear away the listening soul to heaven. She instantly remembered the music of the preceding night, with the strange circumstances related by La Voisin, and the affecting conversation it had led to concerning the state of departed spirits. All that St. Aubert had said on that subject now pressed on her heart, and overwhelmed it. What a change in a few hours! He who then could only conjecture, was now made acquainted with the truth–was himself become one of the departed! As she listened, she was chilled with superstitious awe; her tears stopped; and she arose and went to the window. All without was obscured in shade; but Emily, turning her eyes from the massy darkness of the woods, whose waving outline appeared on the horizon, saw, on the left, that effulgent planet which the old man had pointed out, setting over the woods. She remembered what he had said concerning it; and the music now coming at intervals on the air, she unclosed the casement to listen to the strains, that soon gradually sunk to a greater distance, and tried to discover whence they came. The obscurity prevented her from distinguishing any object on the green platform below; and the sounds became fainter and fainter, till they softened into silence. She listened, but they returned no more.
Terry Castle, "The Spectralization of the Other in the Mysteries of Udolpho," in The New 18th Century, ed. Nussbaum and Brown (Routledge: New York, 1987).
To be a Radcliffean hero or heroine in one sense means just this: to be "haunted," to find oneself obsessed by spectral images of those one loves. One sees in the mind’s eye those who are absent; one is befriended and consoled by phantoms of the beloved. Radcliffe makes it clear how such phantasmata arise….The "ghost" may be of someone living or dead. Mourners, not surprisingly, are particularly prone to such mental visions. Early in the novel, for instance, Emily’s father, St. Aubert, is reluctant to leave his estate, even for his health, because the continuing "presence" of his dead wife has "sanctified every surrounding scene" (22)….After St. Aubert dies and Emily has held a vigil over his corpse, her fancy is "haunted" by his living image: "She thought she saw her father approaching her with a benign countenance; then, smiling mournfully and pointing upwards, his lips moved, but instead of words, she heard sweet music borne on the distant air, and presently saw his features glow with the mild rapture of a superior being" (83). Entering his room when she returns to La Vallee, "the idea of him rose so distinctly to her mind, that she almost fancied she saw him before her" (95).
But lovers–those who mourn, as it were, for the living–are subject to similar experiences. The orphaned Emily, about to be carried off by her aunt to Tholouse, having bid a sad farewell to Valancourt in the garden at La Vallee, senses a mysterious presence at large in the shades around her:
"As her eyes wandered over the landscape she thought she perceived a person emerge from the groves, and pass slowly along a moon-light alley that led between them; but the distance and the imperfect light would not suffer her to judge with any degree of certainty whether this was fancy or reality." (115)
…When Emily’s gallant suitor Du Pont, the Valancourt-surrogate who appears in the midsection of the novel, traverses the battlements at Udolpho in the hope of seeing her, he is immediately mistaken by the castle guards (who seem to have read Hamlet) for an authentic apparition. He obliges by making eerie sounds, and creates enough apprehension to continue his lovesick "hauntings" indefinitely (459). Similarly, at the end of the fiction, when Emily is brooding once again over the absent Valancourt, her servant Annette suddenly bursts in crying, "I have seen his ghost, madam, I have seen his ghost!" Hearing her garbled story about the arrival of a stranger, Emily, in an acute access of yearning, assumes the "ghost" must be Valancourt (629).
Characters in Udolpho mirror, or blur into one another. Following the death of her father, Emily is comforted by a friar "whose mild benevolence of manners bore some resemblance to those of St. Aubert" (82). The Count de Villefort’s benign presence recalls "most powerfully to her mind the idea of her late father" (492). Emily and Annette repeatedly confuse Du Pont with Valancourt (439-40); Valancourt and Montoni also get mixed up. In Italy Emily gazes at someone she believes to be Montoni who turns out, on second glance, to be her lover (145). But even Emily herself looks like Valancourt. His countenance is the "mirror" in which she sees "her own emotions reflected" (127)….This persistent deindividuation of other people produces numerous dreamlike effects throughout the novel. Characters seem uncannily to resemble or to replace previous characters….Du Pont, of course, is virtually indistinguishable from Valancourt for several chapters. Blanche de Villefort is a kind of replacement-Emily, and her relations with her father replicate those of the heroine and St. Aubert…and so on. The principle of deja vu dominates both the structure of human relations in Udolpho and the phenomenology of reading.
One is always free, of course, to describe such peculiarly overdetermined effects in purely formal terms. Tzvetan Todorov, for example, would undoubtedly treat this mass of anecdotal material as a series of generic cues–evidence of the fantastic nature of Radcliffe’s text. The defining principle of the fantastic work, he posits in The Fantastic, is that "the transition from mind to matter has become possible." Ordinary distinctions between fantasy and reality, mind and matter, subject and object, break down. The boundary between psychic experience and the physical world collapses, and "the idea becomes a matter of perception"….
Radcliffe’s fictional world might be described as fantastic in this sense. The mysterious power of loved ones to arrive at the very moment one thinks of them, or else to "appear" when one contemplates the objects with which they are associated–such events blur the line between objective and subjective experience….But the fantastic nature of Radcliffe’s ontology is also manifest, one might argue, in the peculiar resemblances that obtain between characters in her novel. When everyone looks like everyone else, the limit between mind and world is again profoundly undermined, for such obsessive replication can only occur, we assume, in a universe dominated by phantasmatic imperatives. Mirroring occurs in a world already stylized, so to speak, by the unconscious. Freud makes this point in his famous essay "The Uncanny" in which he takes the proliferation of doubles in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s "The Sandman" as proof that the reader is in fact experiencing events from the perspective of the deranged and hallucinating hero….
[Later in his study, Todorov] uncovers one of the central themes of the fantastic: "To think that someone is not dead–to desire it on one hand, and to perceive this same fact in reality on the other–are two phases of one and the same movement, and the transition between them is achieved without difficulty.” Only the thinnest line separates the experience of wishing for (or fearing) the return of the dead and actually seeing them return. Fantastic works, he argues, repeatedly cross it. Here indeed is the ultimate fantasy of mind over matter.
Just such a fantasy–of a breakdown of the limit between life and death–lies at the heart of Radcliffe’s novel and underwrites her vision of experience. To put it quite simply, there is an impinging confusion in Udolpho over who is dead and who is alive. The ambiguity is conveyed by the very language of the novel: in the moment of Radcliffean reverie, as we have seen, the dead seem to "live" again, while conversely, the living "haunt" the mind’s eye in the manner of ghosts. Life and death–at least in the realm of the psyche–have become peculiarly indistinguishable….
From The Monk
…Alarmed at the [sexual fantasies of Matilda] which He was indulging, He betook himself to prayer; He started from his Couch, knelt before the beautiful Madona, and entreated her assistance in stifling such culpable emotions. He then returned to his Bed, and resigned himself to slumber.
He awoke, heated and unrefreshed. During his sleep his inflamed imagination had presented him with none but the most voluptuous objects. Matilda stood before him in his dreams, and his eyes again dwelt upon her naked breast. She repeated her protestations of eternal love, threw her arms round his neck, and loaded him with kisses: He returned them; He clasped her passionately to his bosom, and…the vision was dissolved. Sometimes his dreams presented the image of his favourite Madona, and He fancied that He was kneeling before her: As He offered up his vows to her, the eyes of the Figure seemed to beam on him with inexpressible sweetness. He pressed his lips to hers, and found them warm: The animated form started from the Canvas, embraced him affectionately, and his senses were unable to support delight so exquisite. Such were the scenes, on which his thoughts were employed while sleeping: His unsatisfied Desires placed before him the most lustful and provoking Images, and he rioted in joys till then unknown to him.
Peter Brooks, "Virtue and Terror: The Monk," ELH 40 (1973): 249-63.
[In The Monk,] the experience of the eerie and the uncanny coincides so closely with Freud’s description of the Unheimliche (the uncanny) that we are impelled to consider the Freudian derivation. For Freud, the Un–this sign of negation which makes the heimlich into something strange–represents an act of censorship which turns into the weird and uncanny what is in fact too familiar, too close to home: a repressed primal experience. So in The Monk: the novel makes it clear that the world of the supernatural which it has evoked, from the Bleeding Nun to Matilda’s satanic traps, is interpretable as a world within the characters themselves, and that Ambrosio’s drama is in fact the story of his relationship to the imperatives of desire. His tale is one of Eros denied, only to reassert itself with the force of vengeance, to smite him–in the manner of folktale and Greek tragedy-through and in his very claims to superiority, which are in fact denials, repressions, psychic disequilibrium. Matilda, disguised as the innocent and adoring young novice Rosario, makes her first approach to Ambrosio precisely through his piety and loathing for the impurity of the secular world, and works his downfall through his confidence in his own purity, his failure to recognize the repressions that it represents. The narcissism of his proud chastity will lead to–lead back to–the erotic narcissism which is incest. Matilda’s masterstroke is to have her own portrait painted in the disguise of the Madonna: underneath Ambrosio’s passionate adoration of the sacred icon there will be, unbeknownst to him, a latent erotic component, which Matilda will need only to make explicit. The painting of the Madonna/Matilda is in fact a kind of witty conceit demonstrating why God can no longer be for Ambrosio the representative of the Sacred: spirituality has a latent daemonic content; the daemonic underlies the seemingly Holy. And the daemons represent, not a wholly other, but a complex of interdicted erotic desires within us. The tremendum is generated from within. Lewis’s consistent understanding and demonstration of this generation constitutes his major claim to our attention.
Ann Radcliffe, The Italian (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1968).
Satisfied with this conclusion, [Vivaldi] again laid his head on his pillow of straw, and soon sunk into a slumber. The subject of his waking thoughts still haunted his imagination, and the stranger, whose voice he had this night recognized as that of the monk of Paluzzi, appeared before him. Vivaldi, on perceiving the figure of this unknown, felt, perhaps, nearly the same degrees of awe, curiosity, and impatience that he would have suffered, had he beheld the substance of this shadow. The monk, whose face was still shrowded, he thought advanced, till, having come within a few paces of Vivaldi, he paused, and, lifting the awful cowl that had hitherto concealed him, disclosed–not the countenance of Schedoni, but one which Vivaldi did not recollect ever having seen before! It was not less interesting to curiosity, than striking to the feelings. Vivaldi at the first glance shrunk back; –something of that strange and indescribable air, which we attach to the idea of a supernatural being, prevailed over the features; and the intense and fiery eyes resembled those of an evil spirit, rather than of a human character. He drew a poniard from beneath a fold of his garment, and, as he displayed it, pointed with a stern frown to the spots which discoloured the blade; Vivaldi perceived they were of blood! He turned away his eyes in horror, and, when he again looked round in his dream, the figure was gone.
A groan awakened him, but what were his feelings, when, on looking up, he perceived the same figure standing before him! It was not, however, immediately that he could convince himself the appearance was more than the phantom of his dream, strongly impressed upon an alarmed fancy.
Margaret Anne Doody, "Deserts, Ruins, and Troubled Waters: Female Dreams in Fiction and the Development of the Gothic Novel," Genre 10 (1977): 529-73.
…In eighteenth-century English fiction, until the appearance of the Gothic novel, it is women, not men, who have dreams. Masculine characters rarely dream; those who do are usually simpletons whose dreams can be jocosely interpreted. Heroes are not dreamers….Women, weaker than men, not in control of their environment, are permitted to have dreams…Women are often seen as living an inward life rather different from that of men, whose consciousness is more definitely related to the objective world and to action within it. Women, less able to plan and execute actions, are seen as living a life closer to the dream-like, and closer to the dream-life….It was left to later (I certainly do not say superior) novelists to deal extensively with fear, desire and repression in terms of the nightmare images used by earlier novelists only occasionally to provide momentary glimpses into the perturbed depths of the feminine psyche. That is, the occasionally-glimpsed landscape of feminine dream was to become the entire setting in another, non- realistic, type of novel.
The writers of the Gothic novel could give their full attention to the world of dream and nightmare–indeed, the "real world" for characters in a Gothic novel is one of nightmare. There is no longer a common sense order against which the dream briefly flickers; rather, the world of rational order briefly flickers in and out of the dreamlike. There is no ordinary world to wake up in….All the imagery we have met in these fictional dreams of women is to be found in the Gothic novel: mountain, forest, ghost, desert, cavern lake, troubled waters, ruined building with tottering roof, subterraneous cavern, sea, "howling and conflicting winds," snowy wastes, the bleeding lover, orange groves, corpse, iron instruments, invisible voices and dread tribunals–and, with these, sudden changes of place, preternatural speed, irresistible forces. In the Gothic novel these things are not the illusions which result from momentary feminine weakness–they constitute objects and facts in the "real" outer world. whose nature it is to create dread….
In what is probably [Radcliffe’s] best work, The Italian (1797) the reader shares the separate experience of both Ellena and Vivaldi, and the hero’s experience is even more frightening than the heroine’s. Everyone remembers Vivaldi’s being brought into the fortress of the Inquisition, and the scenes of his interrogation before mysterious tribunals, in the depths of the labyrinth behind iron doors. These scenes touch on our terror of being tried, of facing accusation without defence, of being tainted with unspecified guilt while innocent of crime….[They are] capable of shocking the mind with the dread of what is fearfully unreasonable and painful in consciousness, from which one cannot be dismissed by awakening, while at the same time conveying the fact that the public world is inescapably harsh, crushing the individual in the name of order and reason, attempting to make both masculine and feminine sexual identity and inner existence into guilt. The hero is really afraid, and, when he "at length found a respite from thought and from suffering in sleep," he has a frightening dream in which the unholy monk appears, holding a bloodstained poniard. When he awakens he finds "the same figure standing before him" although in this reality into which the dream has melted, the monk does not at first seem to be holding a dagger. It is only after the strange conversation with Vivaldi that the intruder shows him a poniard and asks him to look at the blood upon it: "Mark those spots. . . Here is some print of truth! To-morrow night you will meet me in the chambers of death!" (p. 323). Clementina had looked for marks of blood that were not there: reality and dreaming melancholy were separate. Now within the environment of nightmare man as well as woman is the victim, and dream and reality are indistinguishable.
The Gothic novel as Mrs. Radcliffe developed it takes the images of nightmare and gives them a strong embodiment; they are the framework of life, they are reality. The images and their concomitant emotions are no longer the figments of a particular feminine consciousness within the novel, nor do they, as in The Recess, provide an environment for feminine consciousness alone. They cannot be dismissed as symptoms of a peculiar psychological state….The Gothic novel has a value in this alone in making accessible what was strange and elusive, and so paying full attention to what had been underdeveloped in the work of earlier novelists…Adolescent heroines had previously been shown as troubled by dubious fears and mysterious dreads upon their coming to maturity. Mrs. Radcliffe also associates fear with maturing, and assumes, quite calmly, that men can be afraid.
[From Mary Shelley’s 1931 Introduction]: "We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us….I busied myself to think of a story — a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.
…Night waned…and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect if any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.
I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around….I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story — my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!
Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow." On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, It was on a dreary night of November, making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking thoughts.
[From the text]: 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 myself 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 was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I though 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 graveworms crawling in the folds of the flannel.
Aija Ozolins, "Dreams and Doctrines: Dual Strands in Frankenstein," Science-Fiction Studies 2 (1975): 103-10.
There is ample evidence in the novel that the creature functions as the scientist’s baser self. Frankenstein’s epithets for him consistently connote evil: devil, fiend, demon, horror, wretch, monster, monstrous image, vile insect, abhorred entity, detested form, hideous phantasm, odious companion and demoniacal corpse. Neutral terms like creature and being are comparatively rare. Most important, there is Frankenstein’s thinking of him as "my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me". And after each murder Frankenstein acknowledges his complicity: "I not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer".
One sure sign of the double is his haunting presence. Maria Mahoney characterizes the feeling as "someone or something behind you, an ominous adversary dogging your footsteps…[a1 sinister and truly evil figure lurking in the dark." Even though Frankenstein initially flees from his creature and even though their direct confrontations are few, the monster is nevertheless a ubiquitous presence in his life. When he agrees to fashion a mate for his creature he is told to expect constant surveillance: "I shall watch your progress with unutterable anxiety; and fear not but that when you are ready I shall appear" . After breaking his promise he is even more oppressed by a sense of the monster’s presence; even his days take on a nightmarish quality: "although the sun shone," he felt only "a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared" at him.
The psychological motif of the double is reinforced by several visual tableaux that hint at a secret sympathy between the monster and his maker. At the beginning of her dream Mary saw "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together," but at its conclusion the positions are reversed, with the "horrid thing" standing at the student’s bedside and "looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes". This picture is repeated at the end of the novel when the monster stands sorrowfully over the corpse of Frankenstein. Similarly, there are three moonlight encounters between the two. Although meetings by lightning and moonlight are a conventional part of the Gothic landscape, Mary’s conjunction of man, moon, and monster is traceable to her dream and serves to emphasize the close relationship between them. Also, because most of these moonlight encounters are preceded by a crime, they spotlight the creature’s jeering, malevolent form.
The last and most important point regarding the double is the necessity to confront and recognize the dark aspect of one’s personality in order to transform it by an act of conscious choice. Ideally, the Shadow diminishes as one’s awareness increases. "Freedom comes," according to Mahoney, "not in eliminating the Shadow…but in recognizing him in yourself." Prospero acknowledges Caliban–"This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine"–but Frankenstein’s typical reactions are first to flee, then to kill. His rejection of his creature is crucial, both in the present psychological context and in the sociological context we shall consider later. Frankenstein, as Philmus says, is always "fleeing from self-knowledge," always seeking "to lose himself in the external world," and thus denying, in Nelson’s words, the "nether forces for which he should have accepted a fully aware responsibility."