English 738T, Spring 2015
Header image

Frankenstein: Walton and the Human Prosthetic

Posted by Denis Dodson on Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015 at 11:37 pm

While many of us probably have different variations on the work of Frankenstein, I became very interested in the cover of my Longman Cultural Edition, which I realized in class is the second edition, and promptly purchased the kindle first edition.  However, the cover featured the painting The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli.  The painting depicts a woman, sleeping sprawled across her bed, with a demon sitting on her chest with a ghostly horse peering through her bed curtains.  This eerie scene is commonly stated to be a possible influence on the death of Elizabeth at the hands of the creature in Frankenstein.  While interesting, I am more focused on the modern interpretation of the painting as depicting sleep paralysis – a form of nightmare in which the victim is awake, but immobile.  This concept of paralysis, at least in my opinion, is continually represented throughout Frankenstein as a whole, but most notably referenced through the desire for human emotion, going as far as building prosthetics of communication in the form of living and nonliving creations.

The work seems to be obsessed with the concept of communication, and the desire to sympathize with another human being.  Walton seems to exemplify this in his second letter, by stating:

“But I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil.  I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy…I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling.  I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me…” (8)

By stating that he isn’t able to “satisfy” “the absence of the object”, Walton seems to be stating that he is missing a part of himself by the lack of communication and connection.  He goes on throughout his other letters to describe how miserable he has become at the absence of simply a friend.  In this way, it can be  read that the absence of human contact is debilitating for Walton – not necessarily painful, but a form of depressing stasis or paralysis.  This is interesting, however, because Walton is saying these things in the form of written letters, an example of communication, to his sister.  Walton confronts this contradiction, however, by stating, “I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling”, which would lead the reader to believe that Walton doesn’t necessarily view writing as an incredibly viable form of emotional connectivity.  However, upon first meeting professor Frankenstein, Walton’s immediate response, rather than simply listening to the man, is to write down his story, seemingly verbatim.  In this way, I would argue that, because Walton’s first response is to write a story, it is a reflection of Walton’s desire for human contact.  Because Walton fills his “absence of the object” through this piece of writing, the writing is a reflection of, as well as the cure for, the desire for human contact.  If the reader infers that the work of Frankenstein is Walton’s personal cure for an “absence”, the work becomes an emotional prosthetic for Walden’s personal missing, or “absent”, piece of himself.  So I am therefore interested – in a work dedicated and obsessed with the concept of creation and prosthetic, what does it mean that the work itself, Walton’s writing, is a form of emotional prosthetic in itself?

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 You can leave a response, or trackback.

4 Responses

  • Kayla Harr says:

    I feel like I should apologize if this comment seems to head in a different direction from the main point you make about emotional prosthetic (which is really interesting and well articulated), but I was struck by your description of the book cover featuring The Nightmare in the first part of this post. I agree that paralysis is represented in Frankenstein in many ways, and this is perhaps where my interest in your post diverges from the form of emotional paralysis that you chose to focus on here. The image of The Nightmare is an extremely evocative cover choice for Frankenstein (as the editors who selected it no doubt realized). Most literally, it evokes the scene in which Victor lays, paralyzed in bed, as the creature stands above him and observes him. The Nightmare is essentially a literalization of the manner in which the creature arrests Victor in his sleep, taking the form of a waking nightmare. Comparing the image to the relationship between Victor and the creature emphasizes the creature’s role as a manifestation of Victor’s repressed sense of otherness within himself, and offers a complex reading of their relationship, positioning the creature as a product both of Victor’s hands and of his imagination. The connection to sleep paralysis paints the creature as an antagonist, but more importantly as an observer, as those experiencing sleep paralysis often experience the sensation of being watched, contributing to the idea of an evil force that is watching and constricting the sleeper as is represented in The Nightmare.

    Beyond the scene of the creature standing over the sleeping Victor, I’m interested in how the image represents the ongoing relationship between them as well. Victor’s experiences throughout the text could be likened to a waking nightmare, an extended period of being ill at ease because he knows he is threatened and observed by the creature, the very concept of which paralyzes him and prevents him from taking any real or effective action. The futility of any resistance to the creature, and of telling others about him as Victor finally attempts to do after Elizabeth’s murder, is itself an excellent representation of the suppressive force of sleep paralysis, in which the sleeper struggles without physically struggling, and is confined to the frantic but ultimately inactive flailing of the mind. Perhaps all I’m really doing is confirming that the choice of The Nightmare for a cover image was well justified, and reiterating the ideas that led to such a choice, but I think the image suggests a psychological reading of Frankenstein much in line with our discussion of the creature as the manifestation of all that Victor has abjected and tried to separate from himself. Such a reading, when applied to the text as a whole, offers an analysis of not only Victor’s feelings toward the creature, but also Victor’s ongoing act of self-repression and the paralysis the creature exerts on him.

  • Ruth says:

    I was similarly interested in the cover choice for my version of the text.Maybe an interesting project or comparison might be done on the various covers that have been used for different editions of Frankenstein to discuss how a cover of the book makes us assume certain themes or ideas about the work itself. My own cover is part of a painting titled L’ange du Destin by Odilon Redon. I will link below a copy of the cover as well as the entire painting. The painting is just as provocative, I think, as The Nightmare, but for different reasons. For one, the focus of the painting is not on a female subject suffering from paralysis, but on the image of the supposed angel of destiny who looks more like what one of Blake’s fallen angels might appear as than the heavenly angels we might typically imagine. But why choose this particular image for the cover of Frankenstein?
    When you look at the entire image it becomes clear that the angel is actually sitting in a small boat that is moored partly on land which the angel seems to be crouching on (although it is difficult to tell right away whether the angel is inside or outside of the boat). In this position the figure potentially represents Victor’s creature during his journey to the North or any time that he might have been following Victor either in Geneva or Scotland. In that context the creature’s expression seems almost conniving as if planning his next move to torture Victor. The angel on this cover reminds me of the small demon in The Nightmare since they are in similar crouched positions and have the same kind of expression on their faces. Why include these monstrous images on the cover of Frankenstein? What do these images make us assume about the nature of the book we are going to read or make us question those assumptions afterwards?
    The angel on the cover certainly does not fit the description of the creature from the text who is described by Victor with ardent distaste:
    “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair
    was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these
    luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion, and straight black lips” (39).
    Yet, even if the description is not exact, the figure on the cover does seem to be a pretty good representation of how the reader might potentially imagine Victor’s creature to be. It has the yellow eyes, pale sockets, and stretched skin after all. I guess I am interested in how these images seem to present recognizable ‘monstrous’ figures even without being tied to Frankenstein. What is it in these images that is frightening or monstrous? In The Nightmare we might be afraid for the figure on the bed since she is unaware of the potential danger around her, but what about in the second painting? Is the figure ‘monstrous’ merely because it shares certain features with Victor’s creature or because it looks like a mortified human or something to do with Freud’s ‘uncanny’? A recognition of something familiar but cast out in order to be forgotten? Certainly Victor’s relationship to his creature is what Freud describes as the relationship between a person and the “double” or that part of the ego that is cast off only to reappear on another figure or apparition. I think, given the artistic representations of ‘monsters’ on both of these covers that it might be interesting to think of an aesthetic of monstrosity. Not only to look at how monsters are represented in art, but how we then perceive or interpret those monsters as monstrous or frightening.



    Full painting:


  • Ruth says:

    And, I would like to just add in some more cover art that appears on different versions of Frankenstein, because all of them are interesting choices:

    There is this one that depicts the kind of horror scene we might expect from a pop-culture based Frankenstein:

    This one that seems to have a more ‘true’ image of what the creature might have looked like, but obscured as a profile filled with another image that might be meant to refer to his creation?

    This one which depicts Victor looking pretty monstrous himself:

    This one, which definitely brings up feelings of the ‘uncanny’:

    And, this one, which seems very medical to me:

    There are so many editions and printings of the book with so many different kinds of covers each of which alludes to different aspects of the story. I don’t have a wider point here, since I already wrote my comment above, but I do really like how a book can be represented in so many different ways. To me, this is one reason why print texts are fascinating because of the production that goes into them to choose these covers to create a ‘bound’ story that makes sense. Of course, ebooks also have covers, but they are not bound to the text in the same way… if you pick up a print text the cover is more apt to be on display in a way that it is not for an ebook.

  • Maura-Kate Costello says:

    I really like your point, here, Denis, that while Walton, to his sister, devalues the act of writing as a means of communicating feeling, and privileges instead, the “company of a man” to share in his joys, he in any case writes down Victor’s story as an act of friendship and “emotional connectivity.”

    I think it’s interesting to note that the story of Frankenstein, framed and transcribed by Walton, comes out of an encounter—in the flesh—between Walton and Victor. Victor’s desire to procreate without a woman’s body, his creation of the monster and his own preference for male relationships, is interesting to look at set against Walton’s creation of Frankenstein through his union with Victor. In fact, that union and the creation cannot occur one without the other, and this makes me wonder about the implications of this for the parallel act of Victor who retells the creature’s story in the creature’s own voice, much like a transcription, much like what Walton does with Victor. For Victor, the act of story-telling unites him to the creature perhaps more intimately than the act of creation. What does this mean for Victor? Is his retelling of the creature’s tale another kind of emotional prosthetic? Does his retelling of the creature’s tale allow him to inhabit the experience of the creature in a way that the rest of his consciousness fiercely rejects? Does it make a difference that the one committing the story to paper is not Victor, but Walton, even if Victor is retelling it? In any case, if Victor’s retelling of the creature’s tale is another kind of emotional prosthetic, the way for him to experience things he is otherwise unable to experience (i.e. the humanity of the creature), it would seem that this prosthesis is unsuccessful since Victor so vehemently rejects the creature and is not ultimately won over by his tale and is still severely emotionally handicapped. Perhaps his inclusion of the creatures’ tale in his narration to Walton (and in such vivid detail! perhaps even more detail than the parts of his story that are strictly his own) and at the same time his abhorrence and rejection of the tale’s contents and convictions parallels his pursuit of the creature into the Arctic circle—stuck in the constant dissonance of being tied to the creature in this pursuit he, at the same time, deeply rejects and hates all that the creature is. For Victor, the act of retelling the creature’s tale creates a union with him, an overlap of their voices, that participates in the creation of Frankenstein, in the same way that Walton and Victor collaborate in the same creation. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how this writing is the emotional prosthetic (I keep thinking of prosthetic limbs and the image is not helping!), but perhaps the prosthesis is the voice, and perhaps, therefore, internal identity. This could be a really fruitful way of looking at how these narrations and narrators are so intimately linked.

Leave a Reply