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Shelley's Novel and Whale's Film

Home >> Frankenstein as Impotent Man and Omnipotent God...


by Gert Hans Wengel

The main character in Mary Shelley’s 1818 science-fiction novel Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus is Victor Frankenstein, who is studying science in Ingolstadt, and is obsessed with the idea of reviving dead matter and thus creating an artificial human. He collects body parts from graves, tombs, charnel houses and dissecting rooms, experimenting with them and ultimately piecing them together to form the body of a giant man, whom he brings to life using galvanic electricity. Mary Shelley’s novel serves as the literary basis for James Whale’s film Frankenstein, whose plot starts with the scientist facing a major existential stage of his life: He is to wed. At the time the film was made, in 1931, this generally meant more than it does today: Marriage marked the end of carefree bachelorhood and the start of a more serious life. A time when young men become fathers and take responsibility for their family, whom they must feed, meaning they must set themselves up professionally; they need to be role models for their sons. In the Western world, however, it was becoming increasingly common, even back then, for young men, particularly in more elite and educated circles, to shy away from taking this step. And this was also true of Frankenstein junior, whose first name in the film is Henry, not Victor. His obviously frail father, nearing death, wants an heir to perpetuate his flesh and blood, and so is constantly urging Henry to marry and give him a grandson. One of the times he does this is right before the wedding ceremony, when he tells Henry he needs to produce an heir so that the Frankenstein family can live on. With these words, he pins an orange blossom to Henry’s lapel as a decorative element for the wedding. It’s the same orange blossom Henry’s great-grandfather had worn at his wedding, and which his – unborn – son can in turn wear at his wedding. Observing the demeanour and facial expression of Frankenstein junior during this ceremonial speech, it’s striking to see the way he stands to attention like a soldier receiving orders, who is groaning inside but remains impassive on the outside and puts on a brave face. When the old baron finally proposes a toast to the hope of a son being born into the “House of Frankenstein”, Frankenstein junior’s glance shifts from his father to the floor, briefly revealing not the obligatory celebratory joy, but rather the fact that he feels burdened by what is expected of him.
One can imagine the father has been badgering the son with this for some time. Frankenstein initially escapes the demands of his father and society by making himself scarce at home, retreating to an old tower housing his laboratory, where he immerses himself in his experiments; his bride Elizabeth rightly feels neglected by him.
Even in the novel, Frankenstein junior does not appear ready for marriage, and is portrayed as an unstable young man who shies away from life’s demands and does a runner. Because once he has brought the dead body to life with electricity, in other words produced a son, he doesn’t take care of him. Instead of adopting the role of parent and raising his son properly, he leaves him to his fate, fleeing to his bedroom, where he falls asleep and has a dream which reveals a lot about his character:

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 chance, 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.

His bride Elizabeth is replaced by his mother, who is dead and buried. This says something about his feelings: That he is still attached to his mother. Freud discovered that the boy wants to have sex with his mother (or sister), but this is prohibited by the incest taboo. So he is forced to shift the object of his sexual desires from his mother (or sister) to a girl not related to him by blood. If he is able to do this, he will become an adult and a real man. The young Frankenstein is obviously unsuccessful here, even though his dream does start off promisingly:  He meets his wife in Ingolstadt and treats her as his wife by embracing her and kissing her on the lips. But he can only briefly keep up the active role of the husband who takes sexual possession of his wife. The dream then takes on a different theme: His desire to remain a child. This desire is stronger and ends up prevailing: The active man is suddenly transformed into a frightened boy who has run into the arms of his mother and latched onto her. His dream reflects his behaviour in real life: He has just become a father, but wants to remain a mummy’s boy, refusing to be a parent to his son, who has just come into the world. Instead of taking responsibility for him and raising him properly, he abandons him and seeks refuge in sleep, i.e. a regressive state where he hopes to feel safe and secure.
Upon emerging from his sleep, during which he sought to free himself by forgetting everything, he comes face to face with the monster, who approaches him like a helpless child and begs for his love and affection:

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. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs.

Mummy’s boy Victor, who, in his dream, ran into the arms of his mother like an infant, wakes up and sees his son, who has come into his bedroom and wants to get into his bed just like a small child does with his mother (1) – the roles are reversed; Frankenstein the mummy’s boy is suddenly to become an adult and take on the role of parent – that is the real horror.

The way Victor was raised is part of the reason he becomes a mummy’s boy. As Susan Coulter rightly states, Victor grows up “indulged and spoiled by his parents”, and, until the age of five, as an only child. His first memories include his mother’s “tender caresses” and his father’s “smile of benevolent pleasure”, with both of his parents raising him with “kindness and indulgence”. The introverted child lacks “social skills”, says Susan Coulter, rendering him unable “to mature and be a more social and compassionate individual”. This was evident right from childhood, when “he chooses not to mix with the other local children”. Susan Coulter refers to this sentence in chapter 2 of the novel here:

It was my temper to avoid a crowd and to attach myself fervently to a few. I was indifferent, therefore, to my school-fellows in general

According to Coulter, this is Shelley’s way of warning parents to not only raise their child with love and leniency, but also with “discipline and guidance”, so that he/she can become a social person “who can be assimilated into the wider society”. This unfortunately did not happen with Victor, who became “selfish and too introspective”, and was unable “to mature and develop self-discipline”. The over-“cosseted” child lacks “true sense for his actions”. And Susan Coulter is right: Victor is a nerd who tries to make up for his unmanliness and social shortcomings by excelling in his specialist field of knowledge. The film also frequently shows Frankenstein as being weak, passive and indulged. The first time he finds himself alone with his bride, he is sitting in a chair in an idyllic garden like a convalescent, with Elizabeth crouching at his feet, offering him a cup of tea or coffee to drink, and giving him a lighter so he can smoke a cigarette – she cossets and looks after him like a nurse would a patient. And even shortly beforehand, when being fetched from his tower, he collapses and is laid on a sofa, given cognac to drink, with Elizabeth stroking him like a child in need of comfort and consolation. Psychoanalysis interprets this molly-coddling with luxuries like coffee, tea, cigarettes and cognac as being a regression to the oral development phase of childhood when the mother’s breast was the most important object of love for the infant. And Frankenstein junior even becomes addicted to opium in the novel, trying to lull himself to sleep with Laudanum every night.
In the closing scene of the film, the old baron finally proposes a toast, expressing his hope for a grandson, and in doing so looks through the open door to the bridal room. The viewers follow his gaze, and what they see is not exactly promising: Frankenstein junior once again lying limp in bed, in need of care, and Elizabeth cosseting him like a nurse.
But Frankenstein junior doesn’t always appear as a wimp in the film. While he is passive, weak and in need of indulgence as a groom, he is energetic, dynamic and venturesome as a scientist. When the film shows him and Elizabeth in his laboratory – she as an observer of his impressive act of procreation which brings the inanimate body to life amidst flashes of lightning –, Henry is also confident, strong-willed, and exuding authority, commanding the respect of his visitors and even Waldman, his former teacher. But it’s a completely different story once his “son” disappointingly proves to be a monster, which Henry cannot use to impress anyone, and which he prefers to keep locked away so that his father and bride never see it. When he comes face to face with Elizabeth again, he collapses almost immediately.
As a scientist whose innovative technical feats have produced a forbidding, superhuman son amidst a flurry of flashes and thunderbolts, he is an omnipotent god. But alone with Elizabeth in the matrimonial bed, without his flashes and technical equipment, he would likely be an impotent man. It can thus be concluded that he uses his scientific experiments to make up for his human shortcomings, and that he artificially produces a son in his laboratory (because he can’t do it naturally) so that, despite his impotence, he can still feel like a proud father, i.e. a real man:

No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. 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.

The act of procreation in the laboratory is thus a show of his masculinity and omnipotent virility, not serving science or progress, but rather his own personal vanity. This is evidenced more clearly in the film than the book, with the film portraying him as demonstrating his godlike power to create life in front of three witnesses:
The first is his friend, Victor, who doubts him and the success of his experiments, calling him “crazy”, and who also has designs on Elizabeth, thus acting as his love rival. But he sure shows him!
The second his Professor Waldman, who, though not his father, is a father figure, with Frankenstein junior having studied under him. He boasts to him about his scientific discoveries, which he uses to create life.
And the third, of course, is Elizabeth, his wife, whom he loves and from whom he seeks admiration.
These three people, who are made witnesses to his grandiose act of creation on that stormy night, are instilled with not only admiration but also horror by his life-producing flashes and thunderbolts. And this horror reflects the primal fear of thunder and lightning, which was originally a religious fear, an awe, of the archetypical god of skies and storms, whose thunderbolts could both create and destroy, and whose anger and spite were terrifying, appeased only by victims. The fear Frankenstein awakens in Elizabeth, Victor and Professor Waldman is a primordial religious experience. We thus want to further examine the thunderbolts Frankenstein uses to frighten and create life like an omnipotent god, and highlight the role it plays in religion.

The ancient sky god, whom the Greeks called Zeus and the Romans called Jupiter, creates life with thunderbolts. One example of this is the myth about the origins of Alexander the Great, who is said to have been created by a thunderbolt which penetrated the body of his mother, Olympia (2). This myth, which demotes Olympia’s husband, King Philip II of Macedon, to the status of foster father, revolves around a cult of personality:  “The uniqueness of the conqueror that was Alexander the Great required an explanation. People did not believe he could have come from a human being, so the story went that he was created by the sky god in the form of a thunderbolt” (3). Alexander the Great is thus the child of God and a mortal woman; a demigod of superhuman power. Frankenstein’s monster, whose creator feels like a god in the film, similarly displays superhuman strength.
The god Dionysus was also created by a thunderbolt. His mother, Semele, was Zeus’ lover. Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse and talks Hera into mistrusting Zeus, plunging her into a state of unhappiness. How could she be sure her lover really was Zeus and not an impostor masquerading as the most supreme god of the sky and storms? For proof, she would have to ask him lie with her in the same form he takes with his wife Hera, the supreme goddess. So Semele asks Zeus for a present, and he swears by Styx, the river of the underworld, to give her whatever she desires. She expresses her wish, and the desperately unhappy Zeus cannot refuse, for he is bound by his oath. So he approaches her as god of storms, and the mortal woman is unable to cope with his phallus (the thunderbolt) and burns to death. But the child, Dionysus, created by the thunderbolt survives, is taken in by Zeus, and becomes a powerful deity.
Zeus goes back to what he originally was, a natural power which thunders and flashes, fertilisers Mother Earth (embodied by Hera), gives and takes life in accordance with the laws of nature, creates it with his celestial fire (lightning), and destroys it.
The dual nature of the thunderbolt portrayed in the Semele myth – its manner of creating and destroying – was also addressed in chapter 2 of Shelley’s novel: During a fierce storm, a 15-year-old Frankenstein junior watches lightning hit a magnificent old oak tree and burn it to a cinder. The same way Zeus, as a thunderbolt, does to Semele. At this same time, a prominent scientist has come to visit the Frankensteins. Inspired by the lightning strike, he talks a lot about nature and the effects of galvanism and electricity. It is not until later, with the wisdom of experience, that Victor understands this as being his guardian angel warning him of the murderous powers he is unleashing with his experiments –these powers, in the form of the monster he has created through galvanism,  end up murdering Elizabeth and others. But seeing the tree destroyed by lightning does not put the teenager off for long - his fatal interest in galvanism only wanes briefly, before instantly sparking up again at university and taking hold of him. As such, the thunderbolt Frankenstein uses to create his monster is more than just a physical phenomenon. For the people of ancient times, it was considered the weapon and phallus of the sky god, who uses it to create and destroy life. And this ancient view, which both admires and fears lightning, continues to exist deep in the soul of even modern, educated people, who are often unable to suppress their irrational primal fear during storms. The fact that Frankenstein catches the thunderbolts coming down from the sky, and uses them to bring the dead body to life, is evidenced by bizarre technical equipment in his laboratory. The gadgets are electrically charged during storms, causing them to crackle eerily, spark, emit a flashing light that blinds and startles the three observers, and produce electrical discharge which hisses and flickers. Anyone who gets too close to the equipment without permission may suffer a deadly electric shock. The thunderbolts see Frankenstein instil fear in his three observers, who had dared to doubt him, and simultaneously create life. He makes the sky god’s phallus into his own procreative phallus; the entire storm scene, in which Frankenstein breathes life into the dead body, oozes a phallic grandiosity which has gone to the head of the young man who, having been so afraid of failing on his wedding night, now proclaims himself to be an omnipotent god: "It's alive! It's alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!" These words were deemed blasphemous and had to be censored. The thunderbolt Frankenstein uses to create life requires further examination, for it is an archetype, i.e. an age-old idea innate in all humans. In ancient times, lightning was considered a celestial fire. But the ancient sky god, whether known as Zeus or Jupiter, was not just a god of storms; he was also a sun god. As such, the celestial fire he radiates also includes the light of the sun. This, too, can be used to create life, and the sunrays are similarly an expression of his virility, his masculinity, and his divine power. At the start of time, this sky god himself was the sun, a natural force indispensable for life on earth, as described by Native American Indian Sitting Bull: 

Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love! Every seed is awakened, and all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being …

The phenomenon mentioned here by the Sioux chief is something religious scholars call hieros gamos. The term consists of two Ancient Greek words: Hieros, meaning “sacred, divine”, and gamos, meaning “wedding, love union, sexual act”. A hieros gamos is thus a “sacred wedding”, a sexual act between two gods. In the hieros gamos, Sitting Bull describes, Mother Earth is the female deity upon which the male sun god casts his light and warmth to create life. The idea of sex between a husband and wife as a procreative act being related to the Sacred Wedding between the natural forces of the sky and earth is an ancient belief. Even Plutarch attests to this in his biography of Cato the Elder (4). He would only embrace his wife, i.e. lie with her, during storms; he felt happy when Jupiter was thundering. Cato and Frankenstein thus both create life during a storm – but that’s the only thing they have in common; their relationship with nature makes them polar opposites.
Cato, a Roman statesman yet to become worldly and sophisticated, wants to feel at one with nature, part of nature, when making love and creating life. Frankenstein, on the other hand, represents the decadent Western man who has alienated himself from nature to the point where he can no longer create life naturally, and must instead manipulate nature’s forces and make them useable to him. During sex, humans, no matter how intellectually evolved they may be, become animals again, a part of nature, and that’s something not everyone likes, particularly many Western men who are used to controlling and exploiting nature, not just in their own country, but also the nature and people living in harmony with nature in the Third World. Scientist Frankenstein is one of these Western men. He is scared of any nature he cannot control, including the nature within his own body and soul. He doesn’t trust it, because he doesn’t want to be at its mercy, doesn’t want to be humiliatingly left high and dry by it – so he prefers to create a son in the laboratory rather than the marital bed. As documented by Herodotus, the Ancient Egyptians also believed in the procreative power of the sky god, who is said to have created the sacred Apis bull with a ray of light:

This Apis, or Epaphus, is a calf born of a cow that can never conceive again. By what the Egyptians Say, the cow is made pregnant by a light from heaven, and thereafter gives birth to Apis. The marks of this calf called Apis are these: he is black, and he has on his forehead a three-cornered white spot, and the likeness of an eagle on his back                                   (5)  

The word translated as “light” appears as “selas” in the original Greek text, meaning the shining light produced by the sun, a thunderbolt or a meteor. Readers can thus imagine this procreative light to be a sunbeam, a flash of lightning, or the light of a meteor. This is all Celestial Fire or “ignis caelestis” – the term used by another ancient writer to describe the ray of light which created the Apis (6).

Ovid also knows that Zeus was the sun initially, whose light and heat are of a phallic character. In his Metamorphoses (I, 588-597), the god desires the beautiful Io and asks her to keep herself ready for him in an umbrageous forest, namely when „the sun at his zenith’s height is overwarm“ (7). The time of love’s union is hence meant to be noon, when the potency of the sun is at its greatest.  

Zeus also appears as a procreative god of light in the myth of Danae. According to Sophocles (8), Danae is being held captive by her father Acrisios in a grave-like room underground, locked away from the “sky’s light”, to prevent her from falling pregnant. But Zeus, god of light and the sky, impregnates her with his “gold-streaming seed” (9), which penetrates through her prison walls and into her womb. This is usually imagined as golden rain – “imber aureus“, as Hyginus (Fabula 63) calls it. The life-giving light is perceived as a liquid seed, because it creates life both in Danae and on the earth. It can thus be considered “light sperm”. But just as was the case for the selas that created the Apis, it can also mean fire: “On the other hand, gold represents fire, so the Danae myth could also be expressing the idea of fiery seeds from the sky” (10). A schizophrenic patient of psychoanalyst and Carl Gustav Jung pupil Sabina Spielrein similarly found the sun’s warmth and light to represent the effects of a potent male god. The patient identified with Mother Earth, who, frozen under a blanket of snow, is brought back to life and saved by sunshine and is penetrated by a sunbeam (11). C.G. Jung’s Analytical Psychology certainly does not dismiss these ideas as absurd or worthless. For Jung and his pupil, the notion of a sunbeam being the phallus of the male sky god is an archetype, i.e. an ancient idea innate in all humans. Another fantasy conjured up by Spielrein’s patient expressed the archetypal notion of the sunbeam as a phallus: “Jesus Christ has shown me his love by tapping at the window with a sunbeam” (12). The sunbeam has become hard, virtually erect – enabling the Christian male god to use it to tap on her window and ask for permission to enter her room (and body) (13).
Spielrein’s patient identified with Mother Earth, which is fertilised by sunlight. Men, particularly when they become megalomaniacs, tend to identify with the sun god. This is the case with Frankenstein. His ideal is conveyed in Professor Waldman’s words: These are scientists who “penetrate into the recesses of nature” and, like the storm god Zeus, “can command the thunder of heaven”. So it is no surprise that Frankenstein’s fantasies of almightiness include the notion we addressed in relation to the Danae myth: The archetype of raining gold or light as the celestial sperm of the procreative sun god:

No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. 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.

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.

These ideas prompt Frankenstein, who is putting together a human body out of real body parts, to bring it to life with electricity. At a superficial level, the image of the “torrent of light” of course signifies a scientist bringing light to unexplored realms of nature in order to gain control over them. But the following two sentences reveal that he feels like a procreating father; that his scientific curiosity is sublimated sexuality, and by pouring the “torrent of light” “into our dark world”, he is penetrating Mother Nature and creating new life. Nature of course includes the earth, which is also perceived as a female, a mighty goddess: Mother Earth, Gaia. She, too, is penetrated by Frankenstein when he digs up graves to find body parts – though it still gives him the creeps, because he can sense he is transcending boundaries:

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave…

This quote contains the religious term “unhallowed”, the past participle of the verb “to unhallow”, which is a synonym for “to desecrate”. The holy cemetery soil is defiled by Frankenstein because he penetrates it; he is a tomb raider. Katey Castellano has a similar view here: “Shelley intensifies this Gothic horror as Victor’s scientific discovery further requires his intrusion into the ‘unhallowed damps of the grave’ – unhallowed because of his intrusion and subsequent mutilation and manipulation of dead bodies” (14).
The earth penetrated by Frankenstein is damp – this ensues from the noun “damps”, but also from the verb “to dabble” whose meaning in our quote is defined by COLLINS as follows: “to dip, move, or splash (the fingers, feet, etc.) in a liquid”. Freud explains it as follows: The holes Frankenstein digs at cemeteries symbolise the vagina, because the archetypical notion of the earth is one of a woman’s body, and Frankenstein penetrating it to find buried bodies is a sexual act; he is penetrating the cemetery soil to become a father – the monster becomes his child. This also fits with the “damps of the grave”, since the vagina gets moist during sex.
But the moisture in the womb of the earth can also be interpreted in the context of an Ancient Roman wedding custom described by Varro (Delingua Latina V,61):

Therefore the conditions of procreation are two: fire and water. Thus these are used at the threshold in weddings, because there is union here, and fire is male, which the semen is in the other case, and the water is the female, because the embryo develops from her moisture, and the force that brings their vinctio ‘binding’ is Venus ‘Love’. (15)

Varro’s explanation once again mentions the notion of fire as a male procreative principle, as light sperm, for “the fire element was particularly seen as an expression of male power and the masculine principle in ancient times” (16). But water represents the amniotic fluid of the uterus in which the unborn child is growing. Even Mother Earth’s womb is moist because, according to ancient beliefs, a dead person has penetrated it in order to be reborn (17) – this is part of the circle of nature Frankenstein is tampering with.
For the young Victor, digging around at cemeteries is thus substitutive gratification to replace the sex he cannot have with his wife Elizabeth due to him being impotent. And by bringing a dead body to life in his laboratory, he creates the son he cannot produce naturally, so that he can still feel like a proud father. Shelley’s novel is thus inspired by the archetype of Mother Earth, which we will be examining further.

People have always seen the earth as being a fertile woman, calling her Mother Earth, Gaia or “universal mother earth” (18). The farmer who rips her open to sow seeds in her furrows plays the role of the man in a sexual act. The earth is impregnated by him, and bears him children, the field crops. “Attic religion clearly attests to the fact that the sowing and harvesting of fruit was equated with human procreation and birth, that is to say, they were seen as one,” writes Albrecht Dieterich in his essay Mother Earth: an essay on folk-religion, still considered fundamental to this day. Of the many examples listed by Dieterich (19), one in particular is worth mentioning. In Sophocles’ drama The Women of Trachis, Deianira is the wife of Hercules, bearing his children but still feeling neglected by him, as the adventurous hero is rarely at home with her; she compares herself to a distant field, with him as the farmer:

And then children were born to us; whom he has seen only as the husbandman sees his distant field, which he visits at seed-time, and once again at harvest. (20)

The archetypal image of the field, which is female, and of ploughing, which symbolises procreation, also inspired Shakespeare, who, in his Sonnet 3, urges a handsome young man to father a son to perpetuate his own beauty, which fades with age:

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
Forwhere is she so fair whose unear’d womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?

The Koran (The Cow, 2:223)also compares a wife with a field cultivated by her husband; although not expressly stated, the archetypal analogy insinuates that sex not only conduces to lust, but also procreation:

Your wives are a tilth for you; so approach your tilth when and how you like

This also includes the ancient and once widespread wedding custom of throwing seeds (or in today’s Western world more commonly rice grains) over the bridal pair (21). The rice grains which fall on the bride’s body as if on a seed plot celebrate life. Because they say to her: Do as Mother Earth does and become fertile! And to the groom: Be a diligent farmer! Then your marriage will be blessed with children, and wherever there are children, there is nature and life. One woman refuses to do this is Eleanor Rigby in the song of the same name by the Beatles. She doesn’t bother with reality, and instead “lives in a dream”. As such, no man is ever good enough for her and she remains alone. She dies and, as she has no children and therefore also no grandchildren, no one comes to her funeral. The song begins with the pious Eleanor Rigby cleaning her church, picking up the rice grains which have been thrown over a bridal pair during a wedding – in contrast to the infertile, lonely existence of the old spinster. The song is depressing, for it addresses the themes of single life and childlessness, both of which are becoming increasingly prevalent in the Western world.
Given the body of a young woman is akin to a field, then the furrow in which the seed is sown is her vagina. For instance, the name of the Indian goddess Sita, who epitomises a flawless wife, comes from Sanskrit and literally means “furrow”; she was originally an earth goddess who represented fertility and rich harvests (22).
Also symbolic of the vagina are the holes dug by the native Wachandi people of Australia as part of a fertilisation ceremony in spring: They dig a hole in the ground, so shaping it and setting it about with bushes that it looks like a woman’s genitals. Then they dance round this hole all night, holding their spears in front of them in imitation of an erect penis. As they dance round, they thrust their spears into the hole, shouting: Pulli nira, pulli nira, wataka! (Not a pit, not a pit, but a c____!)” (23).
One question which continues to be raised is that of why what Frankenstein does with the earth at cemeteries is considered objectionable, forbidden, even sacrilegious, when the same attitude does not apply to what Shakespeare or the Koran advise men to do or what the Beatles sing as being natural: namely making the woman the seed plot.
The answer is as follows: The reason what Frankenstein does is unnatural and forbidden is because it is something incestuous; he is penetrating Mother Earth. But won’t yet suffice as an explanation, for the earth due to be impregnated with the sperm of the husband (as per the Koran) or the worshipped youth (as per Shakespeare), and into which the Wachandi thrust their spears or which the Beatles compare with a bride, is also a mother; Mother Earth. But there’s one key difference: In the examples listed above, the woman into whom the man drives his sperm is actually a mother or mother-to-be, namely the mother of his children. The earth that Frankenstein penetrates, however, represents his own mother. This is revealed to us by the nightmare he has straight after bringing the monster to life, when he dreams of kissing his wife Elizabeth:

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 chance, 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.

The dream replays what Victor used to do every day, namely dig up graves to find dead bodies, which is something that also causes him sleepless nights due to the raw “horrors” it has left in his mind:

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave…

He felt these “horrors” because, in his subconscious, he knew he was transgressing two boundaries: He was defiling the cemetery’s earth and also violating his mother. His actions are incestuous because he wants them to make him a father without him having to overcome his attachment to his mother. Frankenstein transgresses the boundary set by the incest taboo by penetrating the “hiding places”, the “recesses of nature”, of Mother Nature. His enquiring mind has sexual overtones, and prompts him to commit male acts of violence against the female nature in order to colonise her: “Penetration into ‘the recesses of nature’ equates the scientific mastery of nature with the sexual mastery of women” (24). In our eyes, a man who, in ancient times, cleared a primeval forest in a heroic act of force, often having to fight wild animals and even dragons, in order to establish a city and gain farmland, is definitely not considered a mummy’s boy, even if it means he is burdened with the original guilt as a result of this attack on nature; he is instead seen as being healthy and masculine, as a mythical role model and culture hero like Heracles or Cadmus. In the case of Frankenstein, however, the penetration of Mother Earth and Mother Nature is something unmanly because it is incestuous, since Mother Earth, and Mother Nature in general, represents his own mother. She is his actual sex object, which he ends up attaining in his dream by penetrating the earth. She is covered in a burial shroud; in other words, she is an object he wants to unveil, to disrobe, in order to take sexual possession of her. The same is true for Mother Nature, which Victor seeks to fight even as a pubescent school pupil with his scientific curiosity:

The most learned philosopher knew little more. He had partially unveiled the face of Nature, but her immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery. He might dissect, anatomise, and give names; but, not to speak of a final cause, causes in their secondary and tertiary grades were utterly unknown to him. I had gazed upon the fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly and ignorantly I had repined.

The fantasy of the pupil wanting to “unveil” nature recurs in his dream as a university student: His mother is veiled, i.e. is something capable of being unveiled, but he is prevented from accessing it because of the incest taboo, which intervenes as a censor in the dream. As a result, the dream does not continue, and he instead wakes up. This personal, incestuous guilt is joined by the original guilt of the human being who defiles nature in order to colonise it – and these two guilt categories are closely related, for only it is only through the mastering and intensive exploitation of nature that the Western man, embodied by Frankenstein, has become addicted to consumption, softened by wealth, and, essentially, a decadent mummy’s boy. This dual guilt gives rise to the Western man’s masochistic need for punishment, which similarly characterises Shelley’s novel and Whale’s film – namely, the notion that nature strikes back in the form of the monster.

1) Cf. Susan Coulter, who argues that Frankenstein fails as a “parent”: ‘Frankenstein’ – a cautionary tale of bad parenting: “…the creature made his way to Frankenstein’s bedside … as a small child does to their mother”.

2) Plutarch: Alexander 2

3) Wolfgang Speyer: Die Zeugungskraft des himmlischen Feuers in Antike und Urchristentum, p. 241f.

4) Plutarch: Live of Cato the Elder 17,7; cf. Speyer, loc. cit., p. 243 and Otto Schönberger: Der glückliche Cato. In: Rheinisches Museum 112 (1969) p. 190

5) Herodotus III, 28

6) Pomponius Mela: Chorographia I, 49

7) Translated by Frank Justus Miller (The Loeb Classical Library)

8) Sophocles: Antigone 944 ff.

9) Sophocles: Antigone 950 - translated by Blake Tyrrell and Larry J. Bennett

10) Wolfgang Speyer: Die Zeugungskraft des himmlischen Feuers in Antike und Christentum, in: Wolfgang Speyer: Frühes Christentum im antiken Strahlungsfeld, p. 242 f.

11) Sabina Spielrein: Über den psychologischen Inhalt eines Falles von Schizophrenie. In: Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen 3 (1912), p. 375 and 382 f.

12) Cf. C. G. Jung: Symbols of Transformation, § 637-638 – translated by R. F. C. Hull

13) Jung, loc. cit.

14) Katey Castellano: Feminism to Ecofeminism: The Legacy of Gilbert and Gubar’s Readings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Last Man. In: Annette R. Federico (ed.): Gilbert & Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic. After thirty Years. 2009, p. 83

15) Translation: Roland G. Kent (The Loeb Classical Library)

16) Speyer, loc. cit., p. 240

17) “God’s acre” is a churchyard or burial ground. Its original meaning is “Field of God”. It is based on the archetypal idea that the buried body waiting to be reborn or resurrected is like a grain seed sown into the earth. This archetype was the inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem God’s Acre. In order for the seed to grow and the plant to thrive, the soil must be moist, which is why Gaia is also known as “Мать сыра земля /Damp Mother Earth” in Russian folklore.

18) Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound 90 - translated by Smyth, Herbert Weir (Loeb Classical Library Volumes)

19) Albrecht Dieterich: Mutter Erde. Ein Versuch über Volksreligion, 3rd edition, 1925, p. 46f.

20) Translated by Richard C. Jebb

21) Cf. Dieterich, loc. cit.; p. 102

22) Cf. C. G. Jung: Symbols of Transformation, § 306

23) C. G. Jung: Symbols of Transformation, § 213 -translated by R. F. C. Hull

24) Castellano, loc. cit., p. 82