Frankenstein: Humanity’s Doppleganger
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is widely hailed as literature’s greatest gothic novel, as well as its first science fiction work. Written by a young woman in answer to a challenge from a circle of male authors (which included her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley), the tale is drawn from her personal experiences as well as from the writings of other authors. The monster in the story is a multifaceted symbol for humanity’s fears, representing unchecked technology and the un-mothered child, among other things. As a representative of these fears, the monster itself may be described as a doppleganger.
The word doppleganger is taken from the German dopplegnger, meaning “double goer.” It appears as a reflection of a person, an apparition resembling a living being. When it appears, it is often taken as a portent of death, as it was by Elizabeth I when she saw a pale vision of herself lying still upon her deathbed soon before she died (Encyclopedia Mythica, 1). On a larger scale, Frankenstein’s monster could be described as a doppleganger of humanity, personifying our fear of ourselves and of our capabilities. One classic example of a doppleganger is the reflected image seen in a window at night, sometimes mistaken for a prowler. Frankenstein’s monster acts the part of this apparition when he appears to Frankenstein in his new bride’s window on her wedding night after killing her.
The doppleganger that is the monster takes on many forms in terms of what it represents. One of these is the fear of science and its role in relation to God. As scientific advancements were made in the field of medicine, questions arose as to whether or not man should try to perform acts that only God was previously capable of performing. This moral issue is initially ignored by Frankenstein, overshadowed by his zeal for accomplishing his impossible feat of reanimation. After he animates the creature and shuns it for its horrible appearance, it acts on its impulses for revenge. As the story progresses, Frankenstein realizes that he should have thought more carefully before acting, and the repercussions of his dark deed eventually lead him on a self-destructive quest to ultimately attempt to annihilate his own creation. By trying to ascend past his place in God’s universe, Frankenstein, in the end, destroys himself and all that he ever loved.
Another guise of the doppleganger is that of the child without a mother. When she wrote Frankenstein, Shelley had already borne two children, one of whom had died early in life. She had nightmares about her children and was always fearful about pregnancy. (Mellor, 175) For approximately nine months, Frankenstein labored on the creation of his “child.” Finally on a “dreary night in November, he witnesses the ‘birth’”: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” Specific fears may be found reflected by the monster: What if my child is born deformed? Could I still love it or would I wish it were dead? What if I can’t love my child? Am I capable of raising a healthy, normal child? Will my child die? Could I wish my own child to die? Will my child kill me in childbirth? Mary is expressing her fears related to the death of her first child, her ability to nurture, and the fact that her mother died having her. In fact, Frankenstein is probably the first work of western literature to delve into the female anxieties of childbirth. After its exile, the creature is left with no parental figure to guide it and becomes violent, particularly toward its “family.” This reflects the belief that any child left without maternal guidance will become a primitive animal, committing acts of violence and outrage. (Desert Aine 1, 1-3)
Mary was influenced in her creation of Frankenstein very strongly by Ovid and Milton. Ovid’s influence supplied her with yet another doppleganger, this one resembling the monster’s mad creator. The story that Victor Frankenstein was drawn from is that of Prometheus, who was the Greek creator of mankind and the one responsible for giving the gift of heavenly fire to his creation. The creation of the monster is similar to