Arts Editor, Molly Openshaw, demonstrated a Freudian reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, implementing the idea of the id and the ego in the tale of the modern Prometheus.
I recently reread Frankenstein and found it shocking how perfectly it falls in line with Freud’s idea of the psyche. And whilst I am not in agreement with Freud’s ideas, I find it fascinating how we can see this theory mirrored in literature. In 1818 Mary Shelley wrote her most famous novel, Frankenstein, a novel following the callous Victor Frankenstein in his quest to create life. Later in her career, Shelley also wrote Mathilda in 1820, which was published posthumously. In both these novels, the psyche is represented as tightrope-walking between misery and happiness, it is conflicted. We can see how morality, or reality, can become obstacles to happiness and desire. In reading Shelley’s writing, we can begin to understand the paradox of happiness and misery, situated alongside desire, and the lengths her characters will go to for their pleasure
In Frankenstein, the principal character Victor is ambitious in his academic pursuit, dedicating two years to infuse ‘life into an inanimate body’. Through the act of creation, Victor achieves his personal desire, however, this is not gratifying, and Victor’s pleasure is short-lived. Victor’s desires were selfish, instead of thinking of the implications of reviving the dead, Victor craves academic achievement. In the aftermath of his creation, Frankenstein’s desire is replaced by regret and guilt as ‘the beauty of the dream vanished’; there is a sense of futility, an ephemerality to desire. These selfish urges are only desirable when they have not yet been achieved. In his ambition, Victor was blinded to the extremity of his personal desire, not realising the consequences.
We can implement a Freudian analysis of Victor’s guilt as a manifestation of the conflicting desire and morality. Freud dictates that desire is led by the pleasure principle or the id. The id conflicts with the ego, or the morality principle: ‘the form of conscience [designed] to exercise the moral censorship’. These two forces are mediated by the superego, attempting to bridge the gap between desire and wider good. With Victor being drawn to creation as well as seeing the monstrosity of his acts, he is conflicted in what is right. Tension between selfish desire and the greater good produces remorse as ‘the tension between the demands of conscience and the actual performance of the ego is experienced as guilt’. In Victor’s desire-led creation, he was ignorant to the consequences of his actions but through the actualisation of his amoral desires he has uncovered his guilt. Through acting on the desire, Victor has demonstrated the power of the pleasure principle, yet by his extreme remorse and disgust, it is evident that the morality principle remains powerful. Victor’s monster personifies the id, this creation is an irrational impulse that has been materialized, his creation embodies pleasure and selfish desire. Through attempting to escape his monster, Victor exemplifies the workings of the ego by understanding that his creation is wrong and dangerous. Amorality is a pendulum seemingly crossing between good and bad, creation and death. Through Victor acting on his desire, he displays the failure of the ego, thus showing how the conflict in the superego cannot be won simply through acting on desire but acting on them without guilt.
Freud’s explanation of the superego epitomises the mediation between pleasure and morality as the cause of conflict. ‘From the point of view of instinctual control, of morality, it may be said of the id that is totally not moral, of the ego that it strives to be moral, and of the superego, that it can be super moral and then becomes as cruel as only the id can be’. Both Victor and the monster are stuck between these desires and the improbable actualisation of them. Freud’s model remains stuck, with no apparent solution to the internal debate of the id and ego there is no method of being happy as well as enabling the complete fruition of desire. With the superego constantly attempting to resolve conflict, Freud’s model concludes that one cannot be both moral and happy. Shelley’s novels also display the family unit as in conflict, unable to support the mediation of morals and pleasure, these characters seek pleasure elsewhere. The importance of the family in these novels acts as the reason for morality as Victor protects his family from his creation.
Written shortly after the publication of Frankenstein, Shelley’s Mathilda continues the exploration of family and unhappiness. With Frankenstein surrounding the desire of ambition, Mathilda revolves around the desire to be loved in a family setting. Telling the story of a daughter struggling between desire and morality, Mathilda follows the individual after the death of the mother. Like Frankenstein and Shelley’s genealogy, we once again see the mediation of desire and morality in happiness. After being estranged by her family in her early years and living under the melancholy guardianship of her governess, Mathilda is reunited with her father.
Both of Shelley’s novels surround longing, and the failed attempt to get rid of the feeling of ennui. Through trying to solve their dissatisfaction in life, the protagonists create situations born from their desire which ultimately causes their downfall. When looking at the novel as a form, we are often encouraged to see it as complete and resolved, a problem and then a solution. Shelley’s narratives are incomplete. In Frankenstein, Victor is unfulfilled and eventually dies, we are left in melancholy, pessimistic bathos. Mathilda has the same jarring start with the preface of the protagonist on her deathbed introducing the novel with disappointment and unfulfilled desire. Mathilda, as a novel, feels incomplete. Frankenstein is arguably more whole than Mathilda, revolving around the failed actualisation of desire and the futility of such, whereas Mathilda does not get that far, it is not resolved as the desire remains in conflict. Whilst Frankenstein is stuck in its guilt of the fruition of desire, Mathilda remains stuck within the desire itself.Through the discussion of both Mathilda and Frankenstein, Shelley’s works rotate around the narrative of desire, in which desire is driving the plot and these characters to their eventual ruin. The representation of desire as damaging and dangerous is quite unusual, it is often that desire is represented in conjunction with love. Freud encapsulates the idea of being stuck in the expression of the superego, how the psyche attempts to dismiss the whims of the pleasure principle by contrasting it to that of morality, thus resulting in a split desire. The exhaustion that comes from guilt drives our characters to death, showing that this conflict cannot be resolved. Shelley’s use of the fatal, ephemeral ending is haunting, yet is reminiscent of the works of her mother. Shelley’s Frankenstein and Mathilda display the conflict between the id and ego, pleasure and morality resulting in guilt that can never be resolved. Shelley uses the conflict between want and desire to show how happiness often comes alongside death and misery. Shelley’s novels depict human selfishness and its universality especially in the family, exemplifying how the attempt to balance both selfish desire with the moral is futile and ultimately ends in failure or death. With this understanding, we can see how Freud’s theory of the conflicted mind can be implemented in novels and writing, underpinning a whole new layer to Shelley’s creation.