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Text, Identity, Subjectivity

Finding Ourselves in Literature and Art

James Rovira, Author

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Creation Anxiety in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Note: this paper was originally delivered at the eighth International Conference on Romanticism in October of 2005. Portions of this paper are drawn from James Rovira's monograph, Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum 2010).  If you enjoyed this paper, please encourage your local library to order the book.

“An impudent woman is lookt on as a kind of monster; a thing diverted and distorted from its proper form” (Allestree, The Ladies Calling, 1:17)

The ongoing popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein since its publication in 1818 underscores how much the possibility of an independently thinking, willing entity created by human technology has haunted the western creative imagination, spawning plays, novels, films, and a host of iconic images. From R.U.R. to A.I., Metropolis to the Matrix Trilogy, not to mention the many film and television adaptations of Frankenstein itself, we seem enthralled by the myth that our creations might attain an independent consciousness and then turn upon us in an apocalyptic rage. The question, of course, is why? Why do we so persistently imagine that any independent being we might create will turn against us? Why do we keep returning to this narrative again and again? What is the source of our creation anxiety?  What particularly intrigues me is that authors who imagine that the human race may someday create a being with its own consciousness almost uniformly imagine a tragic end to their stories, as the new creation inevitably turns on its creator, or the creator upon his or her creation, or both.  It is this fear of our own created product that I am calling Creation Anxiety, specifically fear of a creation that has independent agency. That the paradigmatic text for Creation Anxiety, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arose from and gained popularity during the Romantic era is not coincidental. During this period the development of scientific technology brought along with it the coincident possibility of human beings creating an independent, conscious, self directed being, allowing this possibility to seize the creative imagination in ways never before imagined.

That this new creation is a technological and creative achievement rather than the product of occult practice and secret knowledge (as was the case with the Golem, to use one example) modernizes this anxiety and keeps it from being a simple mask for a parent’s fear of his or her own children, because Creation Anxiety carries the unique burden of attachment to an artificial product, a function and reflection of a Romantic disjunction between nature and artifice, so that Creation Anxiety serves as the obverse or mirror image of Romantic idealizations of nature and humanity within nature. The nature tradition within English Romanticism, especially as it is found in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley (with their own emphases) is a flight from Creation Anxiety. With its tendencies toward pantheism this impulse leads toward the creative dissolution of the self within nature, diverting Creation Anxiety by the creation of a poetic edifice that dissolves the poet within non-artifice, nature, so that there is neither the possibility of a creation independent of the poet nor the possibility of an artificial creation. This flight is an ambivalent strategy at best, because in bad faith it denies the human capacity and need for artifice while at the same time defining and preserving the human creative will within a construct of the natural that is, essentially, an artifice of its own.  

So English Romanticism is the root field in which to study Creation Anxiety, as the Romantic period in England is characterized by both the rediscovery of the creation myth as a poetic vehicle (see Cantor) and an imaginative confrontation with the rise of empirical science and the possibilities it poses for individual and social human development and redefinition.  While something like Creation Anxiety has always been represented in literature that confronted human creativity as an ambiguous good, the confluence of these two historical developments makes the English Romantics the first to express Creation Anxiety with a modern sensibility. The continual retelling of the Frankenstein story throughout the twentieth century is perhaps my best support for the accuracy of this observation.  

But Creation Anxiety has no proper and specific object since it remains an unrealized future possibility. We do not know what would really happen should we create an independent agent; stories representing Creation Anxiety are therefore projections of the possibilities we are able or willing to consider, not fears directed toward specific objects. This ignorance makes the study of Creation Anxiety a psychological study of the creative mind, not a study of created products. Since Kierkegaard’s definition of anxiety is a fear with no object, his Concept of Anxiety serves as a useful lens through which to examine Creation Anxiety.  This project will seek to answer the question why about Creation Anxiety.  Why do we consistently imagine the eventual creation of independent life through human technology will result in disaster? As will be seen, Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety answers the why in ways that both respect the individuality of each author, refusing to apply a uniform, mechanical answer without regard for differences in temperament, history, or experience, and in ways that understand each author as subject to inescapable historical and societal pressures, some of which Kierkegaard shared.

Kierkegaard’s relationship to Romanticism in general and English Romanticism in particular should be addressed before applying his Concept of Anxiety to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While there’s no question about the English Romantics having read Kierkegaard, whose major literary output did not begin until the 1840s and who was largely unknown outside Denmark and Germany until after his death in 1855, Kierkegaard did read some of the English Romantics and the German authors who influenced them. Among English authors, Kierkegaard regularly made appreciative reference to Shakespeare, Edward Young, Byron, and Percy Shelley. Since Kierkegaard did not read English (CA, p. 211), he read and usually quoted these authors in German translation. For example, Kierkegaard regularly quoted from Schlegel’s and Tieck’s German translation of the works of Shakespeare so that Shakespeare himself, as appropriated by German Romanticism, becomes a Romantic figure. Edward Young also provides an indirect connection to English Romanticism, as Kierkegaard quoted his Night Thoughts (e.g. CA, p. 108) from J.A. Ebert’s German translation of the Complete Poetry and Prose (1777). Night Thoughts was, of course, illustrated by William Blake. This too brief catalog of connections is not intended to define Kierkegaard as a Romantic, but simply to raise the possibility of shared literary sensibilities and influences that lead to thematic affinities between Kierkegaard and the English Romantics.

The different anxieties that Kierkegaard describes include the anxiety of innocence, objective anxiety, subjective anxiety, the anxiety of spiritlessness, anxiety defined dialectically as fate, anxiety defined dialectically as guilt, anxiety about evil, anxiety about the good, masculine and feminine anxiety, and anxiety as saving through faith. Each of these anxieties are psychological states preceding a leap; either a leap from a state of innocence to a state of sinfulness, a leap from one state of sinfulness to another, or a leap from a state of sinfulness to a state of faith. Kierkegaardian anxiety is a psychological approximation that mimics the state the individual will take after her leap, and the leap itself consists of a transition from one existential orientation to another as the subject has a different existential center after her leap than she did before.      

So Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety can be laid as a psychological map over Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, uncovering the emotional terrain represented by the leaps its author and characters take. I will limit my examination to Shelley’s Creation Anxiety within the novel Frankenstein as her own “hideous progeny.” The first context Shelley establishes for her novel is intertextual: the quotations on the title page reflect Shelley’s desire that her readers read her novel against the Prometheus cycle of plays, especially Prometheus Unbound, and against Milton’s Paradise Lost. If Victor Frankenstein is the modern Prometheus, Adam’s complaint quoted from book X of Paradise Lost is intended to represent the voice of the monster, so that Victor Frankenstein seizes the creative power of God – the power to create life – and suffers the consequences as his monster voices the complaint of a fallen creation then acts.
Furthermore, Mary Shelley’s novel embeds the main story within a correspondence between a brother and a sister, so that readers receive the story second hand and understand Victor Frankenstein’s reckless ambition to create life as parallel to Robert Walton’s reckless and life-endangering ambition to discover the North Pole. Shelley effectively places her readers in the position of Margaret Saville as they read Frankenstein’s story from her vantage point, via Walton’s record of Victor’s tale and as an explanation and justification for Walton’s abandonment of his own ambitions to discover the North Pole, making Frankenstein a female observation of male agency.   

But displacing the telling of the tale so far from its source is to also displace the tale far from the novelist herself; by the time the reader has worked out the narrative relationships between Victor and Robert and the Creature, and Robert and Margaret, and Margaret and the reader, Mary has been forgotten.  Never mind that the author’s name wasn’t even listed on the title page of the 1818 edition, that Percy heavily edited Mary’s text, or that he wrote the preface to the 1818 edition, so that some assumed he was the author. Mary’s distance from her own text, a distance achieved through intertextual reference, an embedded narrative, anonymous authorship, and her husband’s intervention, is an expression of Mary’s Creation Anxiety toward her own text, as if she were pushing it away from herself as Victor did the monster. The idea that Mary Shelley conceived of herself as a Victor Frankenstein and her text as her monster is hardly new: Shelley’s reference to Frankenstein as her own “hideous progeny” (Shelley, Frankenstein, p. 25) in the 1831 introduction is enough to establish this relationship, not to mention Anne Mellor’s own perceptive discussion in “My Hideous Progeny.” The task at hand is, therefore, to demonstrate that Shelley’s attitude was exemplary of Kierkegaardian anxiety and how this identification sheds new light on Shelley’s text.

Shelley’s 1831 preface begins with a justification of her own work as an author, in response to a question Shelley had often been asked over the course of the previous thirteen years: “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?”  This question reflects a range of early nineteenth-century British expectations upon young girls that Shelley challenged with the writing of her novel. In the preface Mary describes herself as writing a short initial draft of Frankenstein at Percy’s constant prodding. While she admits to a desire at that time to follow her parents’ literary fame, she confesses reluctance to take the first steps toward serious literature. Shelley’s immediately given reason was lack of an idea, but her unwillingness to participate in the evening discussions between Percy and Byron point toward timidity as well. Her previous literary creations were not of the sort to earn her a literary reputation, being largely private and unpublished or simply “castles in the air,” waking dreams that served as a substitute for a dull reality.

Within this context Kierkegaard offers several relevant interrelated definitions of anxiety that may comment on Mary’s possible state of mind prior to and during the writing of Frankenstein. First, anxiety is a “sympathetic antipathy “and an “antipathetic sympathy”; the anxious desire what they fear and fear what they desire. Anxiety is also the vertigo experienced by the individual as she stands at the edge of freedom’s possibility and looks down into the abyss of an unknown and unimaginable future. Anxiety is furthermore the state in which spirit, dreaming in innocence, awakens. Mary Shelley as an author was undoubtedly one of her lifelong desires. Mary Shelley as an author standing in the shadow of her father’s and mother’s and future husband’s literary reputations was undoubtedly a lifelong fear. Authorship loomed over Mary as freedom’s possibility her entire life; the language of the waking dream that finally inspired her to write is the language of desire, antipathy, awakening, and vertigo:
My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a sudden vividness far beyond the usual bonds 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. […] His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. […]  I opened [my eyes] in terror. (Shelley, Frankenstein, p. 24)
All the elements of the Kiekegaardian leap are present here. Mary leaps from a person who imagines stories to a person who writes and publishes them, a leap to an existence that publicly resists convention. Her escape from England with Percy and Claire Clairmont is the more significant and more dramatic break with convention, but with the writing of Frankenstein she consciously adopts this break as a public persona, representing the break largely in her own words and voice as she writes a novel which itself narrates the ultimate destruction of a family comprised, like Mary’s own, of several families knit together as if from severed body parts.

Mary’s contradictory desires, the desire to break with convention by publishing such a novel, and the desire to simultaneously push the novel away from herself rather than own it, as Victor simultaneously desired to create the monster then pushed him away from himself once created, is exemplary of Kierkegaardian sympathetic antipathy and antipathetic sympathy; simultaneous fear and desire expressed toward the same object, the object provoking anxiety. Frankenstein (the novel) may then be Mary’s imaginative reconstruction of her own projected future after the novel’s publication, a description of the dark shapes she perceived as she looked into the abyss of freedom’s possibility, which in her case consisted of the seizing of a literary identity separate from her father and from her husband.  

So Mary’s fear of her own hideous progeny, her own Creation Anxiety, is fear of the self she created by becoming a published author, a second self in the form of a public persona projected through the publication of the novel Frankenstein but uncontrollable once released. Mary’s identification with Victor Frankenstein is also revealing of the specific type of anxiety Mary suffered. Victor Frankenstein’s hideous progeny resulted, ultimately, in the loss of freedom – because his life was bound to the creature’s from the moment of the creature’s awakening. In Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety, anxiety which fears the loss of freedom is anxiety defined dialectically as guilt, the anxiety of the religious genius. According to Kierkegaard, the religious genius first turns toward herself and discovers her guilt, and “the greater the genius, the greater the guilt” (p. 107). On this point, Shelley’s authorship of Frankenstein served as a turning toward herself to the extent that I have argued it served as a defining moment for her self. This turning inward, I should add, was accomplished by the reification of Mary’s interior in the form of a novel. Mary’s self creation produced a self capable of being subject to scrutiny.  

It is at the moment of this turning inward that the religiously oriented self discovers her freedom. This freedom is not to do but to be, in Kierkegaard’s words, “freedom to know of himself that he is freedom” (CA 108). The rise of this freedom brings along with it, however, the rise of the fear of guilt, for guilt “alone can deprive [the religiously oriented] of freedom” (CA, p. 108). But these relationships are anxieties because freedom and guilt are still only possibilities considered when the individual turns toward herself, not actualities within the individual’s life. So anxiety defined dialectically as guilt fears and imagines the loss of freedom, and this form of anxiety is precisely what was imagined for Victor by Mary when he created his hideous progeny and, by extension, by Mary of herself when she created hers, the novel Frankenstein.  

It undoubtedly seems odd to describe Mary’s consciousness as religious given her parentage, but I would suggest her religious consciousness came from two sources: an acceptance of English moral strictures against leaving England with a still married Percy Shelley in spite of herself, and the influence of her Catholic stepmother. We might find some expression of Mary’s own religious consciousness embedded in the text of Frankenstein in the forms that Victor’s and the Creature’s prayers take: Victor’s prayers are usually to the “gods” while the Creature’s are to a male monotheistic deity, either the Christian God as represented in Paradise Lost or Victor himself, so that part of the novel’s commentary and anxieties is the perception of technological progress as a rebirth of paganism, the Creature’s revenge being a response from a now-displaced Christian religious consciousness. Mary’s religious consciousness, at any rate, was in the very moral air she breathed even if she didn’t consciously appropriate it as her own. Just as Mary Wollstonecraft’s and William Godwin’s radicalism didn’t prevent them from marrying, neither did the Shelleys’ own radicalism prevent Mary from thinking she was supposed to be married, or being affected by the fact that Percy was. So her self-perception as a newly born creator included horror at freedom’s possibility, a horror inspired by guilt which, in turn, inspired the horror of her novel.                 

This bare sketch only begins to address the novel, of course. Much still needs to be said about Victor’s leap from a member of a family to Promethean creator, a move which essentially isolated him from the entire human race one murdered friend and family member at a time. Victor’s anxiety would be defined in Kierkegaardian terms as anxiety defined dialectically as fate, an anxiety particularly appropriate to a pagan framework. Or about the Creature’s leap from a state of innocence to a state of sinfulness, or about the decisions the female characters in the novel face and make, and ultimately about Robert Walton’s own series of anxieties, decisions, and their consequences. All of may be ultimately reflective of Shelley’s own leaps in being, hers the mind and spirit seeking and defining itself through fiction with every anxious stroke of her pen, so that Mary herself, ultimately, isn’t to be found in any one or two of the novel’s characters but in the complex dialectic established by their interrelationships, but in the novel as a whole.

References may be found at the sitewide Works Cited page.

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