In Man’s Licentious Image...Eroticism in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein - By Rowan Manzer
Rowan E. Manzer
Ellen J. Perry
8 March 2021
In Man’s Licentious Image: Physical, Emotional,
and Religious Eroticism in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
“There is no better way to understand death,” the infamous Marquis de Sade once wrote, “than to link it with some licentious image” (Bataille 11). Writers, storytellers, and mystics have each employed depictions of sensuality to navigate discourses surrounding the taboos of violence and death, though the interplay of these images has perhaps never been so overlooked as in the case of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Much of Frankenstein is built upon a foundation of eroticism and the complexities of desire. Frankenstein is a novel in which a young man seeks to create life without submitting to sexual desire, a monster goes on a killing spree after being denied a female companion, and a young woman is murdered on her marital bed; death and eroticism in tandem drive the work with more ferocity than even its theological influences.
Eroticism, as applied to the text, is the desire and acquisition of continuity between independent beings. All humans are discontinuous beings, defined by the borders of the body and the singularity of consciousness. The discontinuity of each person affirms a uniqueness, an individuality, in which he or she finds his or her identity. Although each individual person is affirmed and defined by his or her discontinuity, discontinuous existence breeds dissatisfaction. “Along with our tormenting desire that this evanescent thing should last,” Bataille notes, “there stands our obsession with a primal continuity to everything that is” (15). Continuity is gained in a few different ways: physical continuity may be gained through sex, emotional continuity though mutual affection, and spiritual continuity through a connection to one’s preferred deity by way of mysticism or religious rituals. These branches of continuity lead to different schools of eroticism, of course, and in turn lead to violence.
A discourse on eroticism cannot be had without acknowledging the connection between eroticism and violence.
Eroticism, as previously discussed, hinges on willing continuity between the desirer and the desired; it requires the obliteration of the individualism of its participants. Violence, in the same way, is an interruption of discontinuity. The act of killing allows the murderer to control the victim’s state of discontinuity- the killer’s violation of the victim’s discontinuity is a perversion of a lover’s willing sacrifice of his or her own discontinuity in favor of creating a continuity with his or her beloved. Violence and murder function as the acquisition of a victim’s discontinuity without the relinquishment of the assailant’s individuality; to the assailant, violence is the defensive alternative to intimacy. In both eroticism and violence, the destruction of discontinuity is unavoidable. Conflicting anxieties drive Shelley’s Frankenstein: the fear of losing discontinuity– which is personified in Victor– and the fear of never gaining interpersonal continuity, which is personified in the monster.
The case of Victor Frankenstein is a complex one; although he spends much of the novel distancing himself from physical and emotional eroticism, he desires to be the god on the receiving end of religious eroticism.
Victor dedicates much of his time to maintaining the discontinuity of himself and those surrounding him. He spends much of the novel in solitude while working on his studies. The use of a scientist character as a symbol of the wholly unerotic is no accident; in his own book, Bataille claims that “eroticism has a significance for mankind that the scientific attitude cannot touch” (7). The discontinuity of the human body and mind is observable. Continuity between humans, particularly when it is emotional or spiritual, is intangible and cannot be studied. Continuity moves away from the realm of the scientific and into the realm of the fantastical; continuity contradicts Victor’s worldview and therefore repulses him. The very creation of his monster is an act which eschews continuity. Theologians and literary critics have taken notice of the unnatural way Victor chooses to create life. In a theologist criticism of Frankenstein, David Hogsette posits that Victor’s creation of the monster “denies God’s natural design and moral law in an attempt to create life in the absence of woman after his own filthy image” (547). Hogsette’s assertion touches on the issue of reproduction. Sexual reproduction is unique in that it is emblematic of both continuity and discontinuity; the resulting creature is a discontinuous being which grows from the fusion of two discontinuous objects, the sperm and the ovum. Asexual reproduction is equally as complex. The cell which reproduces asexually must split itself apart to create new life, losing part of its own discontinuous being and becoming something other than its original self. Before Victor’s creation of the monster, there was no in-universe mode of reproduction which did not necessitate the growth of something discontinuous from the continuity of the sperm and ovum or the figurative death of the parent cell. Victor maintains his discontinuity by creating life without submitting to eroticism or death, becoming the only being besides a god (which Shelley does not explicitly depict in her novel) to do so.
The interpretation of Victor as a creature adjacent to God is the correct one. It is his intention to become the sole creator of a new race.
It is his wish that “a new existence would bless [him] as its creator and source; many happy and excellent creatures would owe their being to [Victor]” (Shelley 40). He is not truly God, however, as he must construct his new race from parts and pieces of corpses; he is repurposing human bodies rather than creating an entirely original creature. Victor’s godhood is not challenged by philosophy alone but by the insubordination and irreverence of his creation. The desire for reverence and praise from inferior creatures is what distinguishes a longing for godhood from a longing for parenthood. Victor makes his position clear, remarking that “no father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve [his creations’]” (Shelley 40). His initial and only creation disappoints him. Victor cannot accept the affection of the creature because he is ultimately repulsed by continuity. The relationship between the creator and the creation is too intimate, too reminiscent of a wholly continuous relationship. Victor remarks that the appearance of the creature is what offends him but is haunted by a nightmare about his fiancée. The night on which Victor experiences continuity for the first time, he dreams that he kisses Elizabeth and kills her in the process (Shelley 46). A kiss is a tame sort of physical continuity, but it is enough to terrify Victor. In his dream, he links the brief moment of continuity with Elizabeth’s death; for a moment, her discontinuity was surrendered, and the result was her demise. Victor’s nightmare echoes a question posed by Bataille: “what does physical eroticism signify if not a violation of the very being of its practitioners? – a violation bordering on death, bordering on murder” (17)?
While Victor struggles with his obsession with discontinuity, the creature is burdened by an insatiable longing to find some being which will be continuous with him. Within the first few moments of his life, the creature experiences rejection from his Creator, the being with which continuity is supposed to be guaranteed. The loss of his continuity with his Creator leaves an emotional void which the creature is desperate to fill. When he speaks of the De Lacey family, whom he hopes to find sympathetic companions in, the creature expresses a desire to “claim their protection and kindness” (Shelley 119). The creature uses explicitly possessive language- he wishes to belong to this family as much as he wishes to own its love. Having lost his spiritual continuity with Victor, he pursues emotional continuity with the De Laceys. Ultimately, the De Lacey family is repulsed by the creature and he loses his chance to form a continuity with them. The creature’s reaction to this rejection is violence. He longs to bring “injury and death” to those who rejected him and all of humanity (Shelley 125). With continuity out of reach, the monster endeavors to end the discontinuity of those around him. In doing so, he rejects the ideals of his Creator and satisfies his own hatred for endless discontinuous life.
Of all the creature’s murders, the murder which most draws on erotic expectation is the killing of Elizabeth Lavenza. The scene of her death is equally repulsive and erotic. Her corpse lays passively on her marital bed, covered in blood and gore. Bataille’s grim question is raised once again: “what does physical eroticism signify if not a violation of the very being of its practitioners? – a violation bordering on death, bordering on murder” (17)? Shelley’s choice to turn the bedroom of a newly married couple into a scene of violence emphasizes the intersection of sensuality and death. Elizabeth’s true death at the hands of the creature mirrors her imagined death in Victor’s dream. The male thieves of her individual personhood remain comparatively unviolated, perhaps in a commentary on Victorian ideals of female chastity.
There is no aspect of Frankenstein which is untouched by erotic desire. The themes discussed and expounded upon by critics, particularly human nature and religion, are rooted in the pursuit and escape from interpersonal continuity. To leave eroticism and sexualized violence out of discussion concerning the novel is to ignore its beating heart in favor of its blood and brain. Frankenstein is about God, human nature, and arrogance, but above all, it is about desire.
Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. Translated by Mary Dalwood, City Lights Publishers, 1986. Print.
Hogsette, David S. “Metaphysical Intersections in ‘Frankenstein’: Mary Shelley's Theistic Investigation of Scientific Materialism and Transgressive Autonomy.” Christianity and Literature, vol. 60, no. 4, 2011, pp. 531–559. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44314873. Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. 1818. Stonewell Press, 2013. Print.