The Queer and the Creepy: Homosexual Desire in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Elizabeth Goldhammer

What began as an inchoate ghost story of a fantastic birth later took shape in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus, a canonical example of the gothic novel. Gothic fiction, from the first example of The Castle of Otranto to Dracula, provides a liminal space for authors and readers to explore deviant drives and desires outside of social expectations. Like gothic fiction, queer theory serves as means to identity the cultural otherness in gender and sexual orientation. Critical queer readings of Frankenstein convincingly point to Victor Frankenstein’s creation of a man of “gigantic stature” as the manifestation of the protagonist’s homoerotic desires, an act that ultimately leads to his Creature’s destruction of his family and Victor’s terror throughout the novel. These theorists then analyze the erotic undertones in Victor’s relationships with the other male characters in the novel. Queer readings primarily look at homosociality, or intimate male friendship, as “intense but ‘safe’ [spaces] for homosexual desire” (McGavran 49). Since the horror narrative is a cultural product of 19th century British patriarchy, it does exemplify some of the socially accepted tendencies of close male companionship, but I will extend queer discourse to examine the homosexuality inherent in the horrific birth in Frankenstein.

I will shift from considering those impulses that represent acceptable manifestations of homosocial desires in 19th century Britain to examining the socially deviant homosexuality evident in the Creator-Creature relationship that is possible in the space of gothic fiction. I will focus on Victor’s relationship with his Creature- a scientific creation that, as Ross Chambers describes, is “a supplement [that] complements and tends to complete an object that it does not replace, but in which the very existence of the supplement indicates some perhaps previously unnoticed lack or deficiency, a ‘fault’ that the supplement corrects” (19). The Creature is Victor’s supplement, a representation of his creator’s repressed sexuality. In his grotesque frame and inability to gain human sympathy and social acceptance, the Creature is Victor’s double, a manifestation of his creator’s sexual identity. This doubling reveals Victor’s paradoxical relationship with his repressed sexuality: he manifests it through the act of creation, then immediately shuns this representation. Throughout the text, Victor hides from his double as an act of rejection of his sexual identity, but conversely seeks his creature outside of the confines of civilized society. I will examine the pivotal moments in the text when Victor creates his Creature, struggles to repress the presence of his Creature in two courtroom scenes, and pursues his Creature in order to emphasize Victor’s oscillating repellence of and attraction to his culturally deviant sexuality. These specific moments in the text are dramatized by late 18th and early 19th century British cultural and judicial discourses of male homosexuality. By accounting for historical homophobia, Victor’s paradoxical relationship with his Creature throughout the text will elucidate the precarious position of the homosexual man during this time.

Early in Frankenstein, Victor is seized with the obsession to artificially create human life. Science provides a socially respected means for men to assert their intelligence and authority, yet Victor transgresses these constructed parameters due to the deviant nature of his obsession to create a human being. The protagonist explains, “one of the phaenomena which had peculiarly attracted [his] attention was the structure of the human frame” (Shelley 31). The “peculiar” attraction Victor has for the human, specifically male body signifies his deep-seeded desire to manipulate, explore, and control same-sex corporeality. Victor’s fixation on the male body leads him to conduct secret research at night, when the “darkness had no effect upon [his] fancy; and a church-yard was…merely a receptacle of bodies deprived of life…[he] was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend…nights in charnel houses” (Shelley 31). The churchyard, a respectable site for burial, is acted upon in a perverse manner as Victor defies the law against exhuming corpses.  Victor’s pervasive action on the burial plots and rotting corpses serves as a violent and penetrative act that denotes the male sexual desire to penetrate a receptacle. Because grave-digging is illegal and Victor recognizes that its illegality and his grotesque research had no effect upon “his fancy,” these actions locate his obsession in social deviance by which he transgresses patriarchal mores. In addition, the “restless, and almost frantic impulse [which] urged [Victor] forward” with “unrelaxed and breathless eagerness” (33) connotes Victor’s erotic anticipation or “pre-orgasmic language” (McGavran 61) in his manipulation of male body parts. The research process evokes sexual penetration that is grotesque and culturally forbidden. The manner in which Victor attempts to join a respectable scientific community is marred with his subversion of heterosexual regulations rather than his ability to fulfill an authoritative and acceptable masculine role.

The idea of creating and possessing another male body appeals to Victor’s subconscious desires, but the moment the Creature animates results in the former’s forced recognition of his repressed sexuality. Culminating with the erotic frenzy of research, Victor assembles his artificial creature, whose “limbs were in proportion” and “selected…features [were] beautiful” (Shelley 35). The creature’s attractive artifice embodies a homosexual figure functioning as Victor’s sexual identity and an object of sexual desire, but when the body becomes its own agent, the perceived beauty becomes ugly and deformed. Upon the recognition of his sexual self, Victor reacts to his Creature with disgust: “Beautiful!-Great God! 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…his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips” (Shelley 35). The beautiful features Victor has selected as a representation of his double are, when animated as a social being, grotesque because the Creature is conceived from and birthed by his creator’s deviant desires to possess and control another man. When Victor’s creation fantasy turns into reality, he is forced to confront his latent homosexuality.

When Victor’s supplement assumes his own agency, Victor panics because he is forced to identify his homosexual desires. He claims that “the beauty of a dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (Shelley 36).  This horror, perceived in the Creature’s appearance, is a reflection of Victor’s own repression. Victor’s recognition of his repressed desires forces him to “confront… the horror that is oneself, the horror that one’s relation to the world is painfully inappropriate and distorting the privacy of self” (Haggerty 53). When Victor’s subconscious desires are materialized, the representation of his eroticism is grotesque because it greatly undermines his status according to patriarchy’s heterosexual norm. Victor’s supplement is inappropriate, unnatural, and forbidden in a homophobic era of Britain when the surveillance of suspected homosexuals pervaded the private and public spheres, and sodomy was punishable by death (Rigby 45). Thus, the Creature serves as a physical marker of Victor’s sexuality, and the fact that the former has agency not only forces Victor to register his own sexuality, but the Creature’s deformed presence also poses a threat to out Victor as a homosexual. Therefore, Victor cannot “endure the aspect of” the Creature’s visibility, so he “rushe[s] out of the [laboratory]” upon seeing his creation (Shelley 36).  Victor’s response exemplifies what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick terms “homosexual panic,” or “the fear and loathing that sets in whenever a man suspects either himself or another man of feeling homosexual desires” (McGavran 48). Victor’s fear indicates his knowledge of transgressing acceptable (and legal) sexuality; therefore, he quits the room as a means of shunning his supplement. When the Creature animates, he triggers Victor’s knowledge of his unspeakable sexuality; thus, Victor spurns his supplement to avoid identifying himself as a homosexual.

Victor’s nightmarish encounter with his animated Creature leads to his struggle to deny his creation’s existence for a lengthy section of Frankenstein, but his confrontation with his own deviant supplement prevents his repression. For example, when Henry Clerval visits Victor the day after the Creature awakens and expresses concern about Victor’s apparent illness, Victor informs him that he has “lately been so deeply engaged in one occupation, that [he has] not allowed [himself] sufficient rest…but [he] sincerely hope[s] that all these employments are now at an end, and that [he is] at length free” (Shelley 38). Victor’s sickness, a visible consequence of incessantly laboring over his Creature, represents the disease or “dis-ease” signaling the “sexual transgression” of cultural codes of heterosexuality and male conduct (Haggerty 45). The desire to be detached from his Creature and absolved from any cultural repercussions prompts Victor’s refusal to take accountability for his creation, but his illness marks both his obsession with creating another man and fear of having others discover his deviant creation. Freedom from his creation means the freedom to fit into his prescribed social role; thus, Victor denies the Creature’s existence to himself and others in an endeavor to repress the sexual desires represented by his Creature.

Victor’s denial of his Creature is significantly manifested in the courtroom when Justine is tried for the murder of William Frankenstein. By refusing to speak of his involvement in his brother’s murder, Victor conveys the unwillingness to out himself, both literally and figuratively, as the creator of the (sexually) aberrant murderer. William’s death precipitates the destruction of the Frankenstein clan—the heteronormative family unit that is threatened by Victor’s perverse homosexuality. Victor privately identifies his culpability for William’s death, but admitting his guilt to the jury would out himself as a threat to heterosexual patriarchy, and therefore as a criminal. Justine’s trial occurs in an era when “it [was] dangerous to know, or admit to knowing, too much” (Rigby 40) because of the punitive illegality of the deviant sodomite. Nevertheless, Victor’s silence is a way to deny his sexuality: if the public is ignorant of his deviant Creature, spawned from erotic urges, then the public will continue to be ignorant of Victor’s erotic desires towards men. In addition, Victor lies to Elizabeth when he assures her that Justine’s innocence “shall be proved; fear nothing, but let your spirits be cheered by the assurance of her acquittal” (Shelley 53). By repeatedly refusing to admit his involvement in his brother’s murder, Victor evades criminal prosecution for what his double embodies: the moral transgression of the boundaries of a heterosexual orientation. Victor’s denial of his knowledge of the crime and his refusal to come forward as a witness alludes to his fear of coming out as a homosexual at a juncture in Britain when the definition of a homosexual offense was increasingly obscure while penalties for sodomy were more severe (Cocks 19).

Victor denies his double to circumvent criminal prosecution, but the Creature’s physical presence forces Victor to confront the paradoxical feelings with which he regards his repressed sexuality. After the trial, Victor feels a sense of security in his ignorance of his double, but the Creature seeks him out when “he bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which [Victor] had walked with caution…[Victor] was troubled: a mist came over [his] eyes and [he] felt a faintness seize [him]…[he] trembled with rage and horror, resolving to wait his approach” (Shelley 64). Victor’s response to the visual sign of his Creature is both physical and emotional: his Creature invokes trembling and faintness–a corporeal response that resembles the experience of orgasmic pleasure– and a panic and fear at the sight of the source that causes this paradoxical pleasure. The Creature engenders Victor’s “masculine fear of being dominated by another man [which] combines with powerful but unconscious homophobic feelings of panic and loathing” (McGavran 47-8) when Victor is forced to confront the reflection of his homoerotic desires.

This confrontation forces Victor to accept his Creature as his sexual double; although Victor is still horrified by the Creature’s presence, he looks at his sexual double and listens to his requests. After the spurned Creature requests an artificial female companion, Victor immediately responds, “I do refuse it…and no torture shall ever extort a consent from me. You may render me the most miserable of men, but you shall never make me base in my own eyes” (Shelley 101). Victor’s reply mirrors his conflicted reaction to his Creature’s presence: on the surface, he refuses to create another Creature who could physically dominate and threaten him and his family. However, Victor’s covert reason for refusing to create a female portends to the repressed desire of being sought out by his Creature, because granting the Creature a mate would eliminate the Creature’s dependence on his creator and solidify Victor’s freedom from his Creature. Although Victor is disgusted by the representation of his deviant sexuality, without his Creature he would be disconnected from consummating his queer urges in his relationship with his Creature.

The symbol of the destroyed female Creature reflects the social consequences Victor must face as an aberrant homosexual and reintroduces the theme of public punishment of cultural deviance as evinced through Justine’s trial. After Victor disposes of the dismantled female corpse, a mass of townspeople swarms upon him and accuses him of Clerval’s murder. Since Victor’s actions are driven by heated conflict with his Creature, he has forsaken the silence and inaction necessary to fit into the fold of society; thus, he is symbolically punished for his transgression. When the townspeople discover Victor near the scene of his Creature’s crime, their collective accusation of Victor embodies cultural attitudes towards suspected homosexuals. In his analysis of the public pillorying of accused sodomites, Haggerty asserts that the victims of the assault “were transformed into monsters to the degree that they threatened heteronormative culture with the dark, unknown otherness of sexual transgression” (47). In the townspeople’s identification of Victor as a monstrous murderer, there is an echo of public punishment because of Victor’s latent homosexual conflict with the murderous Creature. Victor’s proximity to the site of Clerval’s murder may arouse suspicions, but the townspeople’s conviction of Victor as a detestable villain further reflects homophobic views of gays since the historical conception of sodomy “appears to have had a very precise definition, [but] other related charges like assault with intent to commit sodomy, inciting someone to the act, or conspiring or soliciting the act could be extended to cover all sorts of sexual acts or words” (Cocks 32). Thus, the association with immoral and forbidden acts garners public hatred and punitive legal punishment in terms of homosexual behavior; therefore, when the public sees Victor, they associate him with the criminal activity of the murderer/sodomite. Due to the enculturated view of the homosexual as morally abhorrent and unnatural, citizens, acting on numerous motives reported suspicious homosexual behaviors and acts to the courts (Cocks 19). Therefore, the townspeople take Victor to the Court Magistrate where he is imprisoned and awaits trial.

The Court Magistrate ultimately releases Victor because he identifies Victor as a respectable (heterosexual) man and expresses sympathy for his situation. This release functions as Victor’s figurative exoneration from imprisonment or death and precipitates the pursuit of his Creature outside of the bounds of civilized society. With the Frankenstein family’s destruction and the freedom from criminal prosecution, Victor is now able to express his sexual desires by searching out his supplement. Released from his jail cell, Victor claims that “liberty had been a useless gift to me had I not, as I awakened to reason, at the same time to awaken to revenge” (Shelley 143). The Creator ostensibly commits himself to destroy his Creature for murdering his family and friends. However, the liberty from familial ties and legal prosecution enables Victor to pass as a respectable and law-abiding gentleman, leading to his “awakened” desire to reunite with the Creature he had previously sought to avoid. This shift from social conformity to freedom of expression finds Victor chasing after his Creature in the barren, uninhabited Arctic.

The Arctic serves as an ideal backdrop to the sexually heightened chase that positions Victor as the obsessive seeker and the Creature as the taunting hider. On the far fringes of civilized society, the Arctic is a barren and icy environment upon which the Creator-Creature can project their repressed desires. This uninhabited space serves as one of the “liminal spaces [which is] never entirely exterior to the normal world, but can be recognised [sic] as constituting places of difference” (Rigby 46). Isolated by white plains and ice, Victor and the Creature’s relationship is different because they can only maintain and fulfill their bond outside of the confines of the heteronormative patriarchy. Victor projects his attraction onto his sexual double, and this attraction is heightened when his double taunts him. For example, the Creature inscribes on a tree: “Follow me; I seek the everlasting ices of the north, where you will feel the misery of cold and frost, to which I am impassive. You will find near this place…a dead hare; eat, and be refreshed. Come on, my enemy” (Shelley 147). As the hider, the Creature exploits the inhospitable environment in order to subvert the power relations of the Creator-Creature relationship and to induce Victor’s physical suffering. However, the Creature also provides Victor food so he can sustain energy to endure “hard and miserable hours” (147). This paradoxical taunting, both threatening and coy, spurs Victor through the polar climes in the quest to possess his Creature. In this liminal space, Victor arguably enacts the repressed fantasy of erotic submission to his dominant Creature. Victor is fully conscious of the Creature’s superior strength and cleverness for survival in the wild; by following him, Victor expresses the subconscious desire to be overpowered by his supplement. Because he cannot wield power over his creation, Victor acquiesces to a submissive role in order to consummate his same-sex desires.

The blank slate of the Arctic enables Victor to project his masochistic, queer desires for his supplement outside of the confines of society, and Victor’s sexual impulses are apparent when Walton rescues him. For example, Victor informs Walton that he “was possessed by a maddening rage when [he] thought of [the Creature], and desired and ardently prayed that [he] might have him within my grasp to wreak a great and signal revenge on his cursed head” (Shelley 143). The rage and drive to physically dominate and exert control over his Creature is unattainable with the gigantic and powerful supplement. Victor’s need to capture the Creature bespeaks his desire to possess his Creature’s corporeality, but the knowledge that the Creature is superior in size and power indicates that Victor desires to be sexually dominated by his Creature rather than destroy him. Furthermore, he informs Walton that a “vengeance, that burned within me, died in my heart, and I pursued my path towards the destruction of the daemon, more as a task enjoined by heaven, as the mechanical impulse of some power of which I was unconscious, than an ardent desire of my soul” (147).  The “mechanical impulse” that spurs Victor to seek his Creature locates the creator’s need as an underlying sexual punishment. Because Victor cannot possess/find his Creature, engaging in this game with his Creature provides an overwhelming bodily excitement. In conjunction with this mechanical impulse, Victor’s admission of his “ardent desire” to capture his Creature expresses his homoerotic attraction to his Creature/the representation of his sexual identity. The admission of and action upon his desires and impulses proves Victor is no longer repressing his sexuality but is fully engrossed in expressing it with his Creature.

Victor’s contradictory homosexual impulses serve as the linchpin of what constitutes Frankenstein as gothic fiction. The aberrant conception of the Creature embodies Victor’s subconscious desires to both express and act upon his deviant sexuality, but once Victor understands the nature of his fixation, he recoils from it. Throughout the text, the foreboding judicial definitions of the unnatural homosexual consistently remind Victor, and the reader, that a sexual identity that threatens the institutionalized patriarchy is forbidden, and if convicted, punitively disciplined. However, Victor’s ability to pass as a heterosexual man allows the flexibility to reunite with his Creature as he did in the latter’s conception process. Free from the restrictions of familial ties and social consequences, Victor seeks his supplement on the cultural boundaries. This hide-and-seek manifests Victor’s desire be sexually punished by his Creature—the need to be punished for the sexual deviancy the judicial system could not detect, and the yearning to be physically dominated by another man. However, the double deaths of Creator-Creature at the end of the novel echo homosexuality as forbidden in Mary Shelley’s Britain.  Therefore, Victor is ultimately punished by death for his homosexual identity.

While Victor and his homosexual identity die every time a reader uses this text, queer theory is a space of revival for considerations of Mary Shelley’s sustaining work. Frankenstein has a long and rich history of criticism, including criticisms that specifically address gender. Queer readings traversed a once liminal, perhaps arctic space, for interpreting Victor’s homosexuality, the same spaces horror allows for its creators and consumers in order to explore impulses otherwise considered at odds with social norms. Here, I work to provide that this homosexuality is not only possible but also inherent in the text. Exploring the characterization of homosexuality in the novel’s original context as a controlling feature of Victor’s interactions with and feelings about the Creature allows that neither the Creator nor Creature possess ultimate power in the hide-and-seek dynamic. Both entities suffer marginalization and death under the larger socially constructed forces that condemned a sexually expressed male love. This control is so pervasive that Victor internalizes and enacts the expectations of society. If this novel at all suggests an unconscious absorption of destructive cultural forces through horror, a reading, which critically expresses the effects of those forces, needs queering.

 

Works Cited

Chambers, Ross.  “The Queer and the Creepy: Western Fictions of Artificial Life.” Pacific Coast Philology 40.1 (2005): 19-35. JSTOR. Web. 10 Dec. 2012

Cocks, H.G. Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century. London: T.B. Tauris, 2003. Print.

Haggerty, George E. Queer Gothic. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2006. Print.

McGavran, James Holt. “Insurmountable Barriers to Our Union: Homosocial Male Bonding, Homosexual Panic, and Death on Ice in Frankenstein.” European Romantic Review (2000): 46-67. Web. 10 Dec. 2012

Rigby, Mair. Queering the Gothic. Ed. William Hughes and Andrew Smith. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. Ed. J. Paul Harris. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.