Monstrous Autonomy and Mimetic Doubling in Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein”

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by guest author Louis Brodnik.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or the Modern Prometheus, Shelley gives rise to the autonomous creation of an autonomous will through the characters of Dr. Frankenstein and his creature. Neither Frankenstein nor his creature succeeds in obtaining what each separately wants, but through the story of their epic failure, Shelly presents the machinations and maneuvering of Girardian “monstrous” doubles doomed from the start. The story even highlights the monstrosity of their conflict with the surprising flourish that one of them is an actual monster.

Shelley herself was unaware of the triangular shape of desire. She was instead steeped in the Romantic Age of straight-line autonomy, which her good doctor believes he possesses in all of its audacity and bravado.  She then personifies his autonomous desire in the creature. When it rises to life the resulting singularity, the monadic self, lacking all relationality, the creature is seen as vile and not of human kind.  The realization that we desire what others desire leads to a transformation in the understanding of who we are, but those who come to that realization and understanding come from the false notion that they are autonomous.  Shelley strove to give life to that false notion of autonomous desire in order to watch it fail and expose the illusion. She might not have known the true nature of desire, but she knew what it wasn’t.

One being the creation of another is the defining operation of mimetic desire. Here the doubles are the physical representations of the mental process, the antagonistic figures of mimesis much like the many examples of warring brothers or twins Girard directs our attention to in mythic literature. Though not related by blood, the creature is synthetically but no less profoundly ‘of the doctor’ somewhat in the sense of a clone. He is a clone, however, not of body but of his creator’s supreme autonomous desire which, when given form, immediately appears monstrous to others and begins the search for its missing relationality. What first was the impossible desire of the good doctor – to possess life in all its human glory as a commodity – lives on as the equally impossible quest of the commodity to find the glory of human life as its own.

The reciprocity between the two becomes evident as the story unfolds. The creature without a name searches for his identity in the society of mankind and is dubbed a monster in the shrieking of villagers time and again with each encounter. He soon calls himself wretched and monstrous. He comes to see himself as others see in him, and it was his creator who first saw him vile. As the creature was made by his creator, so the creator is defined by the creature. Dr. Frankenstein soon calls himself the murderer his creature has become. In turns, both fail, both suffer, both regret and both attribute their anguish and frustration to the other which ultimately leads them to violence toward each other.

When the creature demands of Frankenstein another creation as a bride for himself, he affirms the original vaunted desire of the doctor and lures him into replicating his feat. Like all rivalrous doubles however, what each can enable each can also prevent, and the will to prevent leads to rage and violence.  When the creature sees Frankenstein destroy his half-created bride, he demands that he begin again shouting, “You are my creator, but I am your master. Obey!” These are monstrous doubles at their rivalrous height. The doctor refuses and the creature vows to reciprocate. He later does so in perfect parallel fashion. Bride for bride, he kills the doctor’s fiancée on their wedding night.

Worthy of Ahab, revenge and retaliation take them both around the world to roam the icy barrens and eventually the frozen arctic where still Frankenstein pursues and still the creature appears, finally over the coffin of his creator. In his last oration the creature declares, “I was the slave, not the master of the emotions I felt.  Love of virtue is what I first pursued. Now crime has degraded me. I am alone. I did not fulfill my own desires.” How autonomy fails us is Shelley’s story and in the telling she displays the inherent conflict of acquisitive mimesis among those who attempt it.

A final confirmation for the mimetic nature of the doubles in her work is provided not by Mary Shelley but her readership. It is a tribute to her scheme, and the Girardian explication of it,  that most people recognize the reciprocal nature of the two identities by conferring upon one the name of the other. Today the name Frankenstein is foremost that of the creature.

Image: Screenshot from Youtube: FRANKENSTEIN – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – Unabridged Audiobook 1831 Edition – FabAudioBooks. Image modified.

Louis Brodnik  discovered Girard a few years ago. He is a recently-retired prosecuting attorney and a married father of 2. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.” Articles published do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the staff at the Raven Foundation, but are selected primarily because of the way they enhance the conversation around mimetic theory.


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