A Psychological Analysis of Shelley’s Frankenstein, part 2

Continued from part 1 of this essay, also published on this site.

by Majken Hirche

It has repeatedly been observed that the literary value of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ mainly relies on a fortunate convergence of romantic and pre-romantic archetypes creating a powerful mythology of the self.[1] Claiming to be a tale about the modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley successfully blends Greek mythology as inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses (especially, it seems, book three on Narcissus and Echo) with other works such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Goethe’s Werther and Byron’s Manfred.[2] But the truly innovative aspect in Mary Shelley’s novel might lie somewhere else. Her description of Victor Frankenstein’s mental world and behaviour match the definition of a pathological narcissist to such a degree that it makes it quite improbable for her to have based the novel solely on well-developed religious and literary tropes. In other words, Shelley must have had real life experience with narcissism which she subsequently used as template for Victor Frankenstein.

According to Christopher Small, Victor Frankenstein is an intentional portrayal of her husband Percy Shelley: “Frankenstein’s first name is Victor, the same […] that Percy Shelley took for himself on a number of occasions in boyhood and later.”[3] Eustace Chesser has a similar hunch, suggesting that “Shelley was narcissistic, to such a degree that it was a barrier to the formation of other relationships.”[4]

However, according to Philip Ball[5] it is much more likely that Victor Frankenstein is a portrayal of Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, to whom the book was dedicated. Just like Frankenstein disowns his creature, Godwin abandoned Mary when she decided to get romantically involved with the married Percy Shelley who himself more likely was represented by Frankenstein’s faithful friend Henry Clerval.[6] This psychological constellation could explain why Frankenstein is described in such ambivalent ways, and why Mary Shelley never really condemns her two protagonists. It might also explain why the creature is described with such warm feelings, even though Frankenstein is the official narrator of the novel. Mary Shelley cannot but identify herself with the creature.

Whatever the case may be, understanding Victor Frankenstein as a narcissist might help to pinpoint the reason for the novel’s immediate popular success and its long term influence on many genres of literature, such as Gothic novels and science fiction.[7] In general, the romantic era was characterized by negative attitudes towards scientific rationalization of nature, and in contrast had positive attitudes towards emotions of authenticity, purity, awe, the sublime and similar introverted experiences boosting the feeling of the self.[8] Modern parents, when raising a child with such inclinations, would probably send it to a school psychologist who would diagnose it as a mild narcissist with escapist tendencies.

The cultural influences of ‘Frankenstein’ have been immense. Since 1982, 130 works of fiction based on ‘Frankenstein’ have been made, fifty fiction series, more than forty adaptations in film and more than eighty stage productions.[9] No wonder then, that the ideas derived from Victor Frankenstein and his creature have grown into a huge basket of adapted, distorted and sophisticated mythologisations. Although literary critic Chris Baldick has stated that “the truth of a myth is not to be established by authorising its earliest versions, but by considering all its variations.”[10] Enumerating them all would be a daunting task.[11]

What is of main interest from the perspective of a psychological analysis of Victor Frankenstein are the following two myths: 1) Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ constitutes the first prototype to the idea of the ‘Mad Scientist’, and 2) If the creator has a sick or corrupt character, his (and it is always a man) artificial creations will symbolise an act of hubris and become fatal.[12]

Today, the Mad Scientist is a well-known stereotype. With wild eyes, bristling white hair and always carrying a white lab coat, he is the quintessential lunatic with a brain of a genius. Often he is playing God, sometimes evil, but more likely just an unintentional villain. Examples in literature and films are legion, but some of the most popular ones are Lex Luthor, Dr. Strangelove, Doctor Who, Doctor X, Dr. Clayton Forrester, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Moreau, Hari Seldon and all villains in the James Bond movies. Also real life examples like Nikola Tesla and Josef Mengele have contributed to the myth of the Mad Scientist.

The problem with the Mad Scientist is that he not only is a megalomaniac trying ‘to play God’, his greater sin is his sick or corrupt character. This leads to the second important stereotype pervading the mythological ‘science of anthropoeia’: The Mad Scientist unconsciously knows that his motivation for creating an artificial being is a vane desire to create a grandiose version of himself. This is a sin. It erodes behavioural norms, and is the reason why he tends to hide his work behind a wall of stealth and secrecy.

The hubris of self-creation has become a virulent meme in the literature since ‘Frankenstein’. When motivated by vanity or pride, all scientific and artistic creations will become dangerous and fatal. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray exemplifies this trope from an artist’s point of view. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an example from the perspective of a scientist. Jekyll confesses that “Had I approached my discoveries in a more noble spirit, […] all must have been otherwise, and from these agonies of death and birth I had come forth an angel instead of a fiend.”[13] Also Dr. Moreau in H. G. Wells’ novel The Island of Doctor Moreau hides away his ‘House of Pain’ where he creates terrifying dehumanised creatures called the ‘Beat People’[14]. While the original culprit of the myth of the Mad Scientist, Victor Frankenstein, never shows any sign of remorse, he still has the wish to hide away: “I shunned my fellow-creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime.”[15], he says, because deep down in his conscience he knows that he is doing something very unacceptable. Nowadays this stereotype of the mad scientist and his hidden narcissistic weaknesses represents the most persistent and annoying myth about science, but also a most funny one, at least in the spheres of fiction where many additional stories are bound to be told.


[1] Bloom, An excerpt from a study of ‘Frankenstein: or, The New Prometheus’, 611-18.

[2] In: Shelley, Frankenstein, xxiii-xxxix.

[3] In: Berman, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Narcissus, 77.

[4] Eustace Chesser (1965). Shelley & Zastrozzi – Self Revelation of a Neurotic. Gregg Publishing, London, 25.

[5] Ball, Unnatural – The Heretical Idea of Making People, 75.

[6] Ibid., 75.

[7] ”Frankenstein” The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

[8] “Romanticism” The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Edited by Dinah Birch. Oxford University Press Inc. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  Copenhagen University Library. 19 December 2011,

[9] Ball, Unnatural – The Heretical Idea of Making People, 88-89.

[10] Chris Baldick (1987). In Frankenstein’s shadow. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 4.

[11] Trying to enumerate them anyway, the most important myths are probably: 1. The consolidation of the naturalistic fallacy: Artificial creations contradict natural order, and natural order is by definition good. Thus, artificial creations are unnatural and unnatural things are bad things, and bad things are evil, and evil things should be exterminated; 2. The takeover of civilization: Artificial creations are not only evil. They will take over the world and cast us aside. Modern fear of biotechnology, cloning and genetic modifications owe a great deal to the rationalization of Frankenstein, that if he creates a mate for the creature they will proliferate out of control, and we all will die; 3. The dangers of science and technology: Artificial beings are created by science and technology, and since we already know that artificial creations are unnatural, science and technology are potentially dangerous; 4. The noble savage with a blank slate: Our artificial creations might be more human than we are. But they will always be corrupted by us because they by definition do not belong. The Replicants in Blade Runner are modern examples of such noble savages who cannot but turn evil.

[12] Ball, Unnatural – The Heretical Idea of Making People, 90.

[13] Robert Louis Stevenson (1979). The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Other Stories. J. Calder (ed.), Penguin, Harmondsworth, 85.

[14] H. G. Wells (1896/1996). The Island of Dr. Moreau. Orion Media, London.

[15] Shelley, Frankenstein, 57.

Bibliography

Baldick, C. (1987). In Frankenstein’s shadow. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Baldwin, T (2010). “George Edward Moore”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Ball, P. (2011). Unnatural – The Heretical Idea of Making People. The Bodley Head, London.

Berman, J. (1990). Frankenstein; or, the Modern Narcissus. In: Narcissism and the Novel. New York University Press, NY, 1990.

Bloom, H. (1965). An excerpt from a study of Frankenstein: or, The New Prometheus. Partisan Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Fall, 611-18.

Chesser, E. (1965). Shelley & Zastrozzi – Self Revelation of a Neurotic. Gregg Publishing, London.

”Frankenstein” The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Edited by Dinah Birch. Oxford University Press Inc. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Copenhagen University Library. 16 December 2011.

Millon, T. et al. (2004). Personality Disorders in Modern Life. 3rd ed., John Wiley & Sons, NJ.

Millon, T. & Grossman, S. (2007). Overcoming Resistant Personality Disorders. John Wiley & Sons, NJ.

Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 3rd ed., 2009.

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., 2003; online version December 2011.

“Romanticism” The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Edited by Dinah Birch. Oxford University Press Inc. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  Copenhagen University Library. 19 December 2011.

Shelley, M. (1818/1831/1992). Frankenstein. Penguin Classics, London.

St Clair, W. (2004). The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stevenson, R. L. (1979). The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Other Stories. J. Calder (ed.), Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Wells, H. G. (1896/1996). The Island of Dr. Moreau. Orion Media, London.

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