The Pathology of the Romantic Subject and Mary Shelley's Cure for Melancholia in Frankenstein and Matilda

by Mark E. Boren , Katherine Montwieler

December 24, 2012


Responding to serious depictions of the archetypal Romantic subject--the isolated, alienated genius alone in Nature--Mary Shelley lampoons Romantic egoism in her Frankenstein (1818) and Matilda (1819). This essay explores the psychological machinations of Frankenstein’s creature and Matilda, particularly as melancholia relates to their respective traumas and senses of guilt, and suggests that the flight of the Romantic subject into solitude comes from an inability to accept emotional ambivalence in interpersonal relationships, the fleeing subject of genius choosing instead to phantastically render intersubjectivity within, resulting in a morbid narcissistic interiority. Although solitude is necessary for intellectual and creative development, Shelley suggests the survival and emotional health of the self also depends upon authentic intersubjectivity and community. In a move that presages cognitive psychoanalysis, Shelley imagine--what is for her contemporaries a radical treatment for the Romantic being--a rejection of popular Romantic egoism for a more psychologically constructive subjectivity.


The Pathology of the Romantic Subject and Mary Shelley’s Cure for Melancholia in Frankenstein and Mathilda


By Katherine Montwieler and Mark Edelman Boren


Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein has frequently been cited as commentary on the monumental egos that surrounded the writer, but her 1819 Mathilda has received less attention.[1]  In the pages that follow we argue that reading both novels consecutively illumines more than Shelley’s critique of the Romantic ego; it allows us to understand how alienation and melancholia function for the archetypal Romantic subject in nature and opens another path for that subjectivity to take.[2] This essay begins by exploring the psychological machinations of Frankenstein’s creature and Mathilda, particularly as melancholia relates to their respective traumas and senses of guilt, and suggests that their flight into solitude comes from an inability to accept emotional ambivalence in interpersonal relationships, the fleeing subject of genius choosing instead to phantastically render intersubjectivity within, resulting in a morbid narcissistic interiority. Shelley suggests in Frankenstein and Mathilda that although solitude is necessary for intellectual and creative development, the survival and emotional health of the self depends, however, not on distancing oneself from others, but through inter-subjectivity, if not community.[3] 

Contrary to the myth propagated by her peers and still popular today, Shelley argues that it’s essential for stable egos to be in relation to other people, and that those relations be healthy.  In other words, to employ a popular Romantic metaphor, Shelley pulls the veil off the myth of individualism as a salutary enterprise, and instead posits that to be authentically, genuinely healthy one needs to be in relationships. Shelley’s critique of the traditional Romantic subject is radical for her time: a rejoinder to the egos that surrounded her, but it’s more complex than simply talking back or seeking the solace of others.  Within both novels, Shelley maps out how the idealized Romantic subject suffers from a condition similar to Freud’s melancholia, akin to our modern pervasive and ever-expanding diagnosis of depression.  That is, to divorce oneself from humanity, to see oneself as fundamentally apart, bespeaks not autonomy and greatness, but rather a kind of despair that, although perhaps generative, is more often destructive. This essay is not arguing we return to an archetypal Romantic subject, but rather accepts the remarkable endurance of the figure as well as its current stranglehold on the cultural imagination. Shelley herself decided to attack this through her writing, and although her relationship to the serious Romantic ego was certainly an ambivalent one, she nevertheless seeks a way beyond it. Through parodies of narcissistic melancholia throughout Frankenstein and Mathilda, and overt authorial “interventions” at the end of both texts, Shelley distances herself from the alienated subject and imagines a different way of being for some of her characters, and potentially for the reader.

            The two novels allow for at least two different explorations and incarnations of melancholia, which Freud describes as “a profoundly painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterances in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment” (153) and Kristeva defines as “an abyssal suffering that does not succeed in signifying itself and, having lost meaning, loses life” (189).  In Shelley’s first novel, the nameless creature suffers from repeated traumas—his initial abandonment, followed by a series of physically and emotionally painful rejections.[4]  The creature repeatedly tries to reach out to others—first Victor, then the village family—looking for community and connection, only to be forced into solitude, driven into the forest.  When he is finally rebuffed by the culturally-rendered “innocent” child, he turns to violence—ultimately killing every familial connection to his isolation.  Physically ostracizing himself, he survives as a kind of idiot savant feral child, a Romantic-poet if there ever was one—roaming the woods seeking and being sought by his creator.

            But if the creature somehow finds strength and autonomy on his solitary journey, in hers, Mathilda does not.  Like Shelley’s earlier creation, she, too, suffers abandonment, loss, and rejection, and turns to nature for solace.  But, unlike the creature, she does not destroy others but rather becomes self-destructive, receiving masochistic pleasure from her self-perceived tragic state.  In her musings on death, her history, and her isolation, she becomes a parody of the Romantic figure, one who highlights the narcissism and ridiculousness of such an existence.

Mathilda begins her self-reflections, “I am in a strange state of mind.  I am alone—quite alone—in the world—the blight of misfortune has passed over me and withered me; I know that I am about to die and I feel happy—joyous.—I feel my pulse; it beats fast: I place my thin hand on my check; it burns: there is a slight, quick spirit within me which is now emitting its last sparks” (151).  The novel’s very beginning shows how Mathilda internalizes and revels in her trauma.  A creature of sensibility, she is so bent on her own self-immolation that she is gratified by her physical and emotional pain.  Mathilda does not appear different from other humans, and yet her sadness is paralyzing, destructive, and deadly.  Kristeva signals us that Mathilda’s depressive turn inward “is the final filter of aggressiveness, the narcissistic restraint of a hatred that is unacknowledged not because of simple moral or superego decency, but because in sadness the self is yet joined with the other, it carries it within, it introjects its own omnipotent projection—and joys in it.  Sadness would thus be the negative of omnipotence, the first and primary indication that the other is getting away from me, but that the self, nevertheless, does not put up with being abandoned” (64).  If sadness masks Mathilda’s aggression, this is a particularly gendered response to trauma.  Reluctant to see her own hostility to suffering, Mathilda instead turns the hostility inward.

In both novels, characters yearn for a transcendent reunion not with an equal companion but with a parent—a romantic retreat to a liebestod that will erase their earthly pain and suffering—a wish that Shelley deliberately leaves unfulfilled, even as the novels’ very endings suggest an alternative—a way of being in the world with others, necessarily mediated by incompleteness.  Within Frankenstein and Mathilda, Shelley explores what are gendered responses to trauma and gendered expressions of melancholia.  For if men can respond to trauma through physical exertion and prowess—even if that turns malignant—women, Shelley observes, respond to trauma through a kind of folding in, or reclusion. It’s important to stress that these are culturally gendered depictions, that for example Victor exhibits both feminine and masculine expressions. He is independent and active when pursuing his radical ideas, but as soon as the monster comes alive, he becomes hysterical and literally swoons. And until he finds the courage and strength to become the pursuer rather than the pursued, he continually withdraws from the creature and his friends emotionally, keeping his terrible secret from his friends and family, and physically—by allowing Justine to suffer and die without acting to save her, literally removing himself in stages across Europe.

            Equal in importance to the gendered responses is the construction of the actual trauma depicted within both texts.  It is no accident that the major characters in both novels suffer an initial trauma of abandonment.  The creature is left by the only birth-parent he knows (who reacts to him in a decidedly gendered manner); Mathilda’s mother dies on giving birth to her, and her father abandons his infant shortly thereafter.  But the other traumas suffered by the characters also seem peculiarly gendered.  The creature’s traumas are always physically embodied: like a child, he reaches out to others—poignantly the first time when he reaches for Frankenstein in his bed, his face wrinkling into what Frankenstein cannot identify as a smile, a sign of attempted communication.  We should consider the physical nature of his overtures to the De Laceys, the mother-lacking village family he attempts to join, and, even, his initial encounter with William.  Each of these interactions is physically manifested and child-like.  The creature literally reaches out, his hands and arms enacting not only a symbol of friendship, his vulnerability and his attempt at connection, but also materializing emotions.

This is something that Victor (once he’s created the monster, and is textually feminized) cannot do. We don’t have time within this paper to explore in depth how Victor Frankenstein himself is also a victim of trauma, though it’s clear that his “abandonment” by his own mother parallels the creature’s abandonment by Victor. His morbid dream in which his fiancée becomes his long dead mother while he kisses her and then a wormy corpse is certainly telling, and Victor’s creation, rejection, and attempted destruction of the creature is nothing if not the materialization of projected ambivalent feelings associated with the missing maternal figure in his life (though in assuming the role of progenitor he psychologically has agency—is the maker and destroyer rather than the made and destroyed).[5] Victor oddly assumes both an active shape (in his energetic studies, his making and destroying of creatures, and even his running away) and a passive form (fainting whenever he’s in danger, being paralyzed with indecision, often “shrinking” with fear and guilt, constantly intellectualizing in moments of crisis rather than acting). So there appears to be a physically active Frankenstein and a passive, interiorized one.

            Notably, each time the creature attempts to connect with another human being (and here we might remember that what he wants most from Frankenstein is a mate, a friend, someone who will be, in the words of Walton “a companion,” since his parent has left him), his others physically rebuke him: they hit him; they run away from him; they shoot him.  The catalogue of rejections is painful even in the listing.  Like the creature’s attempt to reach out, the rejections he suffers are also physically embodied.  Because he looks different, people are repulsed by him, and their bodies materialize their emotional reactions. 

            It’s important than that the creature also reacts to trauma physically.  He runs.  He runs after Frankenstein; he runs away from Frankenstein.  (This too is mirrored by Victor’s actions.) He forages in the woods, not destructive to animals, but only to human beings.  He becomes a Coleridgean wild man, a parodic figure whose superhuman powers enable him to live a kind of existence only imagined by Wordsworth, Whitman, or Thoreau.  He lives in active harmony with sublime nature—an original primeval man of genius.

            Just as important of course is the creature’s violence.  He learns violence from men, and he acts in kind: resorting to wreaking destruction throughout the novel.  In her analysis of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Kristeva asks the rhetorical question “how does such sadness become inverted into crime?” and proceeds to answer: “the seesawing between self and other [is] the projection on the self of the hatred against the other and, vice versa, the turning against the other of self-depreciation….. Crime is a defense reaction against depression: murdering the other protects against suicide” (196).  Kristeva contends that “the murderous act takes the depressive out of passivity and despondency by confronting him with the only desirable object, which for him is the prohibition embodied by the law and the master” (197).  Here we might remember that even if the creature is a projection of Frankenstein, he only hurts and kills those beings close to him. Thus even a projection materializes hatred.

            Just as his body shows his strength, it also shows his vulnerability.  For the creature’s poignant quest throughout Frankenstein is his search for human connection.  Deeply unhappy in his solitary life, all he wants is to connect with others.  For example, of the De Laceys, he tells Victor, “‘the more I saw of them, the greater my desire to claim their protection and kindness; my heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures: to see their sweet looks turned towards me with affection, was the utmost limit of my ambition’” (107).  Each rejection signals an ultimate, existential loss.  He cannot find a companion.  He cannot find a friend.  This suggests that the desire for intersubjectivity is itself part of the primeval state of man. The creature then is always looking externally for someone; he expects to find completion in another being, asking and then commanding Frankenstein to build him one:

"I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself: the gratification is small, but it is all that I can receive, and it shall content me. It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another. Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel." (120)


            With Mathilda, Shelley also wrestles with trauma, rejection, and its physical and emotional effects.  And indeed the eponymous heroine is not the only one to suffer trauma and melancholia within the text.  As in Frankenstein, various characters endure the consequences of nearly unbearable psychological pain, and the effects of these traumas ripple through the lives of their progeny.  Mathilda’s father, like Victor’s creature, is never named, and as Jacobus and Hoeveler have described, he experiences the initial traumas of loving and losing his mother and subsequently his wife.  Upon the second loss, he flees into a narcissistically formulated solitude, leaving a note for his sister bequeathing the care of his child to her, and quite Victor-like saying, “‘When I leave this place do not expect to hear from me: I must break all ties that at present exist.  I shall become a wanderer, a miserable outcast—alone!  Alone!’” (156). When he returns to claim Mathilda sixteen years later, he cannot come to terms with his abandonment of her and his recent history.  He claims that

There was a curious feeling of unreality… to his foreign life in comparison with the years of his youth.  All the time he passed out of England was as a dream, and all the interest of his soul, all his affections belonged to events which had happened and persons who had existed years before….  He talked of my Mother as if she had lived but a few weeks before; not that he expressed poignant grief, but his description of her person, and his relation of all anecdotes connected with her was thus fervent and vivid. (162)

Such disconnect exemplifies responses to trauma.  Here, it bears remembering that like Mathilda’s father, Victor Frankenstein has a myopic view of his childhood, seeing it not realistically, but through the eyes of someone unable to recognize his own pain.  Victor asserts, “such was our domestic circle, from which care and pain seemed for ever banished….Neither of us possessed the slightest pre-eminence over the other; the voice of command was never heard amongst us; but mutual affection engaged us all to comply with and obey the slightest desire of each other” (25-26).

Even if the instrument of abandonment is similar, the form Mathilda’s wound takes is different in kind from the creature’s, and they react to their situations differently: the creature through his fierce code of independence found in nature.[6]  Mathilda initially tries this out as well.  Before her father returns home, like the creature, she finds herself peaceful only in nature, when not suffering the rejection of her aunt.  Mathilda’s aunt all but ignores this “Wordsworthian child of nature” (Bunnell 79), and this neglect catalyzes an intense relationship with her nanny and the world outside:

Under my good nurse’s care I ran wild about our park and the neighboring fields.  The offspring of the deepest love I displayed from my earliest years the greatest sensibility of disposition.  I cannot say with what passion I loved every thing even the inanimate objects that surrounded me.  I believe that I bore an individual attachment to every tree in our park; every animal that inhabited it knew me and I loved them.  Their occasional deaths filled my infant heart with anguish.  (157)

This passage highlights Mathilda’s narcissism, animism, and preoccupation with mortality. She is desperate to believe she is known and loved, speaking to the conditions of her infancy and young childhood.

The natural world offers the young girl brief respite from her lonely household: “My greatest pleasure,” Mathilda explains, “was the enjoyment of a serene sky amidst these verdant woods: yet I loved all the changes of Nature; and rain, and storm, and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with them.  When rocked by the waves of the lack my spirits rose in triumph as a horseman feels with pride the motions of his high fed steed” (158), perfectly at ease in liminal time, space, and gender.

            Once Mathilda’s father returns home, she finds herself in a new state: one of ecstatic happiness.  The love her father has for her is all-consuming and all-important to her: “And now I began to live.  All around me was changed from a dull uniformity to the brightest scene of joy and delight.  The happiness I enjoyed in the company of my father far exceeded by sanguine expectations.  We were for ever together; and the subjects of our conversations were inexhaustible” (161).  In this Edenic moment, Mathilda sees herself as complete in the eyes of her father—not realizing the limitations of the ego ideal she has internalized.  For, as Mellor points out, Mathilda’s happiness is temporary, illusory: the novel “shows us that a culture in which women can play no role but that of daughter, even in their marriages, denies its females the capacity for meaningful growth, since a woman’s future self—even her daughter—can only replicate her present self….  Mathilda’s necrophilia and subconscious suicide (or ‘self’-consumption) are the inevitable consequences of a patriarchal father-daughter relationship” (200).

            The death of Mathilda’s aunt catalyzes a chain of events that ultimately disrupts this paradisiacal idyll.  Three months after her father has returned, “passed away in this delightful intercourse, when my aunt fell ill” (162).  Mathilda attends the older woman, whose death leaves her “inconsolable”--for it uncannily indicates her own relationship with her father will end (which is of course a replay of the abandonment she suffered when her mother left her). She nevertheless comforts herself in this moment of crisis in the arms of her father: “But my father was beside me to console me and to drive away bitter memories by bright hopes: methought that it was sweet to grieve that he might dry my tears” (163).  According to Abraham and Torok, “the illness of mourning does not result, as might appear, from the affliction caused by the objectal loss itself, but rather from the feeling of an irreparable crime: the crime of having been overcome with desire, of having been surprised by an overflow of libido at the least appropriate moment, when it would behoove us to be grieved in despair” (italics theirs; 110).  This juxtaposition of feelings of relief, tenderness, sadness, anger, and guilt eventually reaches a boiling point, though for the moment, Mathilda’s father appropriates his daughter’s grief, comparing it “with his despair when he lost my mother” (163).

            After her aunt dies, Mathilda and her father repair to London, where he abruptly distances himself from his daughter.  Though he later claims it is the inappropriate intrusion of her suitor (upon their dyad) that discomforts him, following Abraham and Torok, we suggest that in addition to his being distraught by his feelings about the suitor or his feelings for Mathilda, it is also his sense of relief at his sister’s death he fears, which recalls his inappropriate response to his wife’s death.  The tenderness he expresses for Mathilda thus rekindles within him the guilt he felt at the relief on the loss of his wife, Diana, and underscores his ambivalence towards the trauma suffered.

            In London, Mathilda’s father’s withdrawal leaves her confused and saddened, lost in a world of civilization she doesn’t understand and completely isolated within this social milieu.  Neither parent nor daughter has the terms or tools to cope with the world and situation in which they now find themselves.  At this point, the father decides to return to his childhood estate where he initially lived with Diana.  In their residence, he continues “cold and constrained” with Mathilda, and yet she perceives his eyes as expressing “a living sadness.  There was something in those dark deep orbs so liquid and intense that even in happiness I could never meet their full gaze that mine did not overflow.  Yet it was with sweet tears; now there was a depth of affliction in their gentle appeal that rent my heart with sympathy; they seemed to desire peace for me; for himself a heart patient to suffer; a craving for sympathy yet a perpetual self denial” (168).  Mathilda’s words reveal the desire of the child to assuage the parent’s suffering, the signal of one who has been abandoned once, and who, rightfully, fears being abandoned again.  Yet, for the young girl the lack of a stable ego will make it impossible for her to live with these feelings or sustain her father.  Instead, she will be left with a fragmented sense of her own identity, forever feeling incomplete, devastated, and unable to cure her father’s sickness.[7]

            This doesn’t, however, prevent her from trying, as she relays the poignant struggles of a child to comfort her parent, “I wearied myself with conjectures to guess the cause of his sorrow” (19).  She trusts her feelings, again with all the egocentrism of a young girl, believing she can relieve him:

I said to myself, let him receive sympathy and these struggles will cease.  Let him confide his misery to another heart and half the weight of it will be lightened.  I will win him to me; he shall not deny his grief to me and when I know his secret then will I pour a balm into his soul and again I shall enjoy the ravishing delight of beholding his smile, and of again seeing his eyes beam if not with pleasure at least with gentle love and thankfulness.  (169)

Tenderness and gratitude are the emotions a parent needs to express to a child, and, yet, Mathilda finds herself in the obverse position—of trying to save her father.[8]  Her language reveals her unconscious desires of course as well.  But it is not her trust in herself or her desire that precipitates her father’s confession and the unraveling of their relationship.  It is his inability to maintain proper boundaries.  For when Mathilda pushes him to reveal the cause of his suffering, so that she can comfort him, he acquiesces, and in so doing, sketches a scene that she is ill prepared to handle.

            We see her emotional immaturity not in her immediate reaction to her father’s confession, which is understandable, but rather her assessment of their relationship afterward: “My rashness gave the victory in this dreadful fight to the enemy who triumphed over him as he lay fallen and vanquished.  I!  I alone was the cause of his defeat and justly did I pay the fearful penalty” (169).  Mathilda here reveals her self-protective narcissism, her need to believe that she alone is responsible for her father’s behavior.  He encourages this reaction in her as we shall see, but her response is also the expected one of a young girl with a damaged sense of self, one who through lack of stable relationships has been unable to create a secure ego.

            When Mathilda speaks to her father in order to comfort him, she is—although unaware of it—at sea because as a child in a necessarily hierarchical relationship with her parent; she simply cannot fulfill the role both she—and he—want her to play: that of healing interlocutor.  To her father, Mathilda says, “‘Your kindness to me, my dearest father, and the affection—the excessive affection—that you had for me when you first returned will I hope excuse me in your eyes that I dare speak to you, although with the tender affection of a daughter, yet also with the freedom a friend and equal’” (170).  But it is the blurring of these lines—as her rhetoric so touchingly illustrates—that Mathilda cannot accommodate.  Within their relationship, Mathilda cannot be a “friend” or an “equal” as much as she so desires it.  The phantastical assumption of the position of the wife/ mother is in conflict with reality. In her insistence on hearing the reasons for his sorrow, Mathilda acts with all the impetuosity and intensity of a child, and in her self-centered (if accurate) assessment of their situation, she presciently asks, “‘Am I the cause of your grief?’” (171).

            Her father’s response of course is “yes.”  Mathilda assumes that she can assuage her father’s sorrow and begs him to allow her to do so.  When he replies that she cannot, the devastated Mathilda asserts, “‘you hate me!’”  His reply is equally thoughtless:

“Yes, yes; I hate you!  You are my bane, my poison, my disgust!  Oh! No!”  And then his manner changed, and fixing his eyes on me with an expression that convulsed every nerve and member of my frame—“you are none of all of these; you are my light, my only one, my life.—My daughter, I love you!” (173).

Both father and daughter assume that their love is incestuous, and that the burden that is too heavy to bear for both the father and (later) Mathilda is the illicitness of this desire.  We’d like to posit however that it is not the heightened erotic charge between them that is so problematic for these characters, but their ambivalence for each other.  The father’s contradictory reaction to Mathilda: his love for and hatred of her is too difficult for him to control or to make sense of.  Like his daughter, he claims he was blissfully happy in his apparent prelapsarian state when only the two of them existed for each other.  We contend that with the arrival of a suitor, Mathilda’s father doesn’t realize that his own intentions are impure, but rather becomes conscious that he cannot keep Mathilda in this oedipal relationship.  His despair stems from his realization that he is unable to keep her young and non-sexualized, and he hates her for this.  This perception is doubly traumatic for him because it recalls Diana, his wife and Mathilda’s mother, whose death was the direct effect of their sexual activity.  Had she not born (him) a child, Diana would still be living.  And, as Diane Long Hoeveler points out, for her father, Mathilda is “the living embodiment of his wound, his loss of his wife” (371).  The arrival of the suitor thus reminds Mathilda’s father of his own role in effectually killing his wife and of the likelihood of Mathilda’s suffering a similar fate—and, importantly, the libidinal charge that corresponds to their respective “deaths.” (Morbid emotions and fears associated with birth and love are not at the time uncommon for we need only remember that half of nineteenth-century pregnancies led to stillbirths or the deaths of mothers).  The suitor recalls the father’s abandonment by Diana and presages a future abandonment by Mathilda, whether through marriage or death—an abandonment he already hates her for.[9]

            In order to counter this eventuality, he “confesses” to a love for her that is destructive—a love that demands that he in fact leave his daughter.  But his confession is incomplete; while both he and Mathilda assume his love is “monstrous,” he doesn’t actually say so.[10]  Rajan contends, “by making the father a subject of desire, Shelley marks him as incomplete, inscribing not patriarchy but masculine Romanticism as haunted by a lack that is disfigured or negatively troped in the (ab)use of women as figures in a cultural Imaginary” (50).  He also ensures that Mathilda in fact will stay in the prelapsarian, oedipal state that he wishes, though “by flattering his daughter with the promise of an ethereal fantasy life he robs her of life as a woman of flesh and blood” (Davis 179).  Ultimately, he gets his desire.  Mathilda does not grieve her father’s death, so much as fantasize about her ultimate reunion with him.  His death allows her to do so: it gives her an imaginative freedom that she does not possess while he is still living.  Yet Mathilda cannot admit the relief she feels at the loss of her father.  Instead she cathects into a construction of her own making: a celibate existence on the margins of society. 

It is this same ambivalence that we see when Victor creates his monster—his love is coterminous with his hatred and his repulsion: “Now that I had finished,” Victor remembers, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (39).  That both men find their relationship with their offspring unbearable is evident in their subsequent physical responses.  Victor collapses in a faint and Mathilda’s father drives himself to suicide.  It is not the confession of desire that paralyzes the parent but the confession of hatred for his child—and it is this ambivalence that Mathilda later internalizes that becomes too much for her to bear as well. Ambivalence and the different responses to it, we think, are central in the construction of the different Romantic subjects.

            Mathilda’s response to her father is notably hysterical.  When he asks to die in her arms, she despairs:

For the first time that phantom [despair] seized me; the first and only time for it has never since left me—After the first moments of speechless agony I felt her fangs on my heart: I tore my hair; I raved aloud; at one moment in pity for his sufferings I would have clasped my father in my arms; and then starting back with horror I spurned him with my foot; I felt as if stung by a serpent, as if scourged by a whip of scorpions which drove me—Ah!  Whither—Whither? (173)

This passage emblematizes the impossible position of a child’s reaction to her parent’s incomprehensible speech and her adoption of his issues.  She echoes his ambivalence, but transforms the tenderness and hostility into self-destructive physical symptoms—tearing her own hair and raving.  At the same time the confession also devastates her existentially as she asks, reminiscently of Victor’s creature, “Where am I?  And where do I go from here?”

            The answer, as Mathilda finds out, is nowhere.  Though she finds the monetary support to lead an existence on the fringes of the social and physical world, she is unable to cope with her father’s words and actions.  Once he dies, she leaves their home, determined to live a sequestered nunlike existence, apart from the world of man.  But while she fends for herself physically to a great extent, she finds she cannot emotionally cope—lacking the awareness to move beyond this second annihilation.

Unlike the creature’s solitary existence, Mathilda’s is self-chosen.  That Mathilda chooses to inhabit a preoedipal, presexualized costume and habitation is significant.[11]  Unlike the creature, who longs for companionship and is completely unhappy in his desire for others, Mathilda chooses to be alone, out of relationship with others, fantasizing about her fully internalized continued communion with her father.  She no longer sees herself as pure but as bearing the mark of sin. According to Mary Jacobus, “what Mathilda and Oedipus have in common is not so much incest as their ‘feeling of culpability’, a guilt that is incommensurate with any actual crime committed, and which strictly speaking precedes it” (sic 174).   After her father kills himself, Mathilda takes on what he (and she) assumes is guilt: “Infamy and guilt was mingled with my portion; unlawful and detestable passion had poured its poison into my ears and changed all my blood, so that it was no longer the kindly stream that supports life but a cold fountain of bitterness corrupted in its very source” (196).  She has, of course, nothing actually to feel guilty about. 

Freud sheds some light on Mathilda’s feelings.  He suggests that guilt such as she feels is not for her desire, but rather for her unarticulated feelings of hostility towards her father.  The weight of these feelings preys upon her, and she perceives the emotional heaviness of them as a kind of sexualized guilt.  Freud explains that “where there is a disposition to obsessional neurosis the conflict of ambivalence [which Mathilda cannot admit] casts a pathological shade on the grief, forcing it to express itself in the form  of self-reproaches, to the effect that the mourner himself is to blame for the loss of the loved one, i.e. desired it” (161).[12]  In other words, Mathilda cannot come to terms with her ambivalence for her father: her love for and hatred of him—her desire for reunion and her desire for his departure. Another way of saying this is that there is at her heart ambivalence based on the need for solitude and for intersubjectivity.

It is crucial to our reading of the novel—and Shelley’s rendering of trauma—that Mathilda never suffers a physical act.  Unlike the creature whose trauma is physically manifest, Mathilda’s trauma is emotional in scope.  That is, her father “confesses,” but he does not act, though according to Kerry McKeever, Mathilda’s “father inseminates her with the forbidden knowledge of incestuous desire, which formulates the topography of her ‘fall’” (198).  His only physical act is not a moving towards her too closely—a violation of her physical space, in the way that the creature’s physical space becomes violated each time he tries to connect to a human being—but a moving away from her, an attempt to run away from her so that he will not be hurt again. In effect, Mathilda suffers a tertiary abandonment when he leaves her after his confession.  And what Mathilda cannot do is “to meet her father’s confession with detached sympathy,” because to do so would be “to assert her independence, to achieve the ideal of an unsoiled integrity of self that returns no image of itself to others.  Yet Matilda, while not identical to her father, only finds her way to selfhood through the articulation of his desires” (Fran?ois and Mozes 72).   Unknown—at least consciously—to the father, however, his very confession has paralyzed Mathilda: his speaking the words he does is that act from which she cannot recover—that act that ultimately scars her, and that scars her in a way that is uniquely feminine.[13]  Although she runs away in a typical Romantic gesture, she cannot survive this Romantic existence.  Whether Shelley suggests the feminine body lacks the strength of the male creature or that the outdoors has become the sole sphere of the male, Nature is inhospitable to the heroine—she offers no sustenance to Mathilda.[14]

            Nature, that substitute mother for so many Romantic figures, ultimately fails Mathilda the same way she unconsciously perceives her mother as failing her and ultimately killing her.[15]  She is weakened in a way that the creature is not, weakened perhaps because of her humanity (like Frankenstein himself, she cannot survive outside), but, more particularly because of her gender.[16]  Mathilda simply cannot survive outside.[17] 

Why is she so devastated?  Abraham and Torok’s ideas open Mathilda’s despair to us: “A symbolic allusion to another object of fear must be involved, an object that is the more unknown for not being derived from the child’s own desires or drives but from another place: the father’s or the mother’s unconscious, in which are inscribed the parents’ unspoken fears, their apprehensions, the reasons for their enslavement, their hidden faults.  Inscribed there is also the fact that parents are not at all the gods of coherence and consistency, courage, and power that their young offspring would wish” (180).  Mathilda’s very wandering and isolation, her drive to suicide may be the result of having “no way of directly evoking the contents of [her] crypt….The only resolution available to [Mathilda] is to use [her] own body in a quasi-hysterical fashion, thereby avoiding the fantasy of endocryptic identification” (italics theirs; 163).  If, pace Jacobus, what Mathilda exhibits but cannot articulate because she does not understand it is her father’s incestuous desire for his own mother (another woman he loves before her), then instead she becomes hysterical—driven to unexplainable, self-destructive behavior that unconsciously in its association with mothers, works narcissistically to both kill and save Mathilda in her union with it.

            Mathilda’s lonely existence is an elegy then to her father, her mother, and also her very childhood.  According to Abraham and Torok,

The ego begins the public displace of an interminable process of mourning.  The subject heralds the love-object’s sadness, his gaping wound, his universal guilt—without ever revealing, of course, the unspeakable secret, well worth the entire universe.  The only means left by which the subject can covertly revive the secret paradise taken from him is to stage the grief attributed to the object who lost him….The more suffering and degradation the object undergoes (meaning: the more he pines for the subject he lost), the prouder the subject can be: “he endures all this because of me.”  Being a melancholic, I stage and let everyone else see the full extent of my love object’s grief over having lost me….If there is any aggression at all, it is shared between the love object and the melancholic subject in being directed at the external world at large in the form of withdrawal and retreat from libidinal investments. (Abraham and Torok 136-7)

 While Mathilda waxes melancholic, she asserts that all of her sadness is focused on her father, particularly his secondary abandonment of her.  Mathilda cannot admit the equally painful memory of her initial (and then repeated) abandonment by both parents (the choosing of one another as primary love object, and then their subsequent deaths).  For example, while she imagines how he felt on the death of his wife, she doesn’t recall how she felt on the death of her mother: 

From the moment of my mother’s death until his departure [my aunt] never heard him utter a single word: buried in the deepest melancholy he took no notice of any one; often for hours his eyes streamed tears or a more fearful gloom overpowered him.  All outward things seemed to have lost their existence relatively to him and only one circumstance could recall him from his motionless and mute despair: he would never see me.  He seemed insensible to the presence of any one else, but if, as a trial to awaken his sensibility, my aunt brought me into the room he would instantly rush out with every symptom of fury and distraction. (155)

Again, it may be her father’s symptoms that Mathilda later interpolates as a way to endure her own suffering.  Kristeva characterizes the melancholic in the following way: “When I say that the object of my grief is less the village, the mother, or the lover that I miss here and now than the blurred representation that I keep and put together in the darkroom of what thus becomes my psychic tomb, this at once locates my ill-being in the imagination.  A dweller in truncated time, the depressed person is necessarily a dweller in the imaginary realm” (61).  So Mathilda lives—dreaming of her death, a limbo-like existence, that she blames completely on herself.  Her perceived self-absorption is characteristic of the melancholiac according to Freud who also suffers “an extraordinary fall in his self-esteem, and the impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale…He reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and chastised.  He abases himself before everyone and commiserates his own relatives for being connected with someone so unworthy” (155).  Mathilda isolates herself in order to obtain the punishment she believes she deserves, sentencing herself to a solitary prison of interiority, talking only to herself, which phantastically reassuringly suggests both a speaker and an absolutely sympathetic listener.

            What both Mathilda and the creature miss, but that they cannot say, perhaps because of events within Shelley’s own life, is the dyad with their mother. Mathilda claims that “as the sensation of immediate suffering wore off….I began again to wish for sympathy; not that I was ever tempted to seek the crowd, but I wished for one friend to love me….sweet and mutual affection; smiles to cheer me and gentle words of comfort” (195).  Mathilda attributes such characteristics to a companion, but we contend that she associates this relationship with friendship because she has never known her mother.  Building on Freud’s recognition that “melancholia is in some way related to an unconscious loss of a love-object” (155), Jacobus claims that “the mother’s death is Matilda’s missed event, its buried and unknowable ‘beyond’—displaced, however onto the imaginary loss of an infant ‘Me’ to the father who also abandons her in his grief.  The incestuous substitute narrative, at once, occupies and obliterates the site of a founding (but unnarratable) loss” (sic 175).[18] Mathilda significantly claims she will find a reunion after death with her father—in the arms of mother nature. 

The creature never acknowledges missing a maternal figure, instead only articulating his desire for a father (though textually Victor is at this time in the text gendered feminine), a friend, a wife, or, implicitly, a son.  According to Kristeva, “depressive denial…affects even  the possibilities of a representation of narcissistic coherence….There remains only the masochistic domination of narcissistic folds by a mediationless superego who condemns the affect to remain without object, even a partial one, and display itself to consciousness only as widowed, plunged into mourning, full of pain” (49).  In other words, Mathilda cannot articulate such a loss because to do so would be devastating.  Incest is an easier pill to swallow than abandonment, and the contemplation of matricide or patricide with all the attending guilt and self-loathing allows a narcissistic relationship—the chance for an internal “unaloneness” with one’s self.  Abraham and Torok write, “there can be no thought of speaking to someone else about our grief under these circumstances.  The words that cannot be uttered the scenes that cannot be recalled, the tears that cannot be shed—everything will be swallowed along with the trauma that led to the loss.  Swallowed and preserved.  Inexpressible mourning erects a secret tomb inside the subject” (130).  Mathilda’s very confession then is a decoy that masks that which cannot be articulated.

            And yet both Mathilda and the creature speak.  The creature tells his story—first to Frankenstein and then to Walton.  Mathilda finally writes her story to Woodville, her “confession” the very occasion of the novel.  Freud contends that the “trait of insistent talking about himself and pleasure in the consequent exposure of himself predominates in the melancholiac” (157).  Mathilda’s story is not a confession of actual guilt, for she has done nothing wrong, but her confession lets her assume a guilt that alleviates her abandonment.  Hoeveler points out “the need to write arises out of the gap between the experiences of a trauma and our ability to work though and out of it.  In the act of writing a literary text we transform the trauma, but we never process it to the point that the trauma can or ever will disappear” (372).  Mathilda’s and the creature’s suicides then are not unexpected, but the articulation of their confession does not absolve them either consciously or unconsciously of anything. Indeed their confessions serve narcissistic purpose. 

Kristeva posits, “Because I am separated from my unconscious through a new transference to a new other or a new ideal I am able to write the dramatic unfolding of my nevertheless unforgettable violence and despair” (italics hers, 206), and that is why neither the creature nor Mathilda can forgive themselves even in their acts of telling their stories, for that would silence the talking, which as Jacques Lacan has shown us is what fills the lack created by our departing mothers. Not wanting to terminate their neurotic talking and endure silence, they leave the forgiveness for their listeners and their readers.  As Pamela Clemmit points out, “It is this state of psychological arrest that sets [Mathilda] apart from Woodville, and, indeed, from all humanity, and makes her unable to respond to new experiences” (165).  Mathilda’s traumas have infantilized her—if she’s articulate, in spite of her verbosity, her language still functions as the ineffective babbling of an infant crying out for her mother.

There are, however, other interpretations of Mathilda’s state. Diana Edelman-Young offers an alternative take on Mathilda’s talking, claiming that Mathilda “seeks potency for herself.  Her aim is to create her own subjectivity in order to reject the alienating subject-positions imposed upon her by language, but she does not desire, like the male Romantic poets, that her voice remain intact” (122), and Kathleen Miller, too, suggests that Mathilda is a heroine “whose performative activities code her as a powerful actress or artist rather than as a submissive victim” (292). We are less easy with Mathilda’s utterances than Edelman-Young or Miller, seeing them not as unifying or articulating a kind of subjectivity, but more fragmented, deeply depressed cries.[19]  As Mellor posits, “the fathers [in Shelley’s later novels] produce, not monsters, perhaps, yet still mutilated lives, women whose selves are less than whole.  However loving, these fathers seduce their daughters into a relationship in which they remain forever dependent upon and subsidiary to a male” (178). 

Another possibility is that both Mathilda and the creature suffer anxiety because, “unbeknown to themselves, [they] carry the concealed shame of their families.  These people are prey to strange and incongruous words or acts, transferred from events unknown to them, events whose initiator was an other” (Abraham and Torok 188).[20]  After all, in a remarkably self-conscious moment for Victor, following learning of William’s death, he considers, “the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and powers to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me” (57).  Like Mathilda and his own creature, Victor is fraught with an emotional ambivalence he does not understand. His love and loathing are beautifully rendered in his dreams:

I thought I saw Elizabeth in the bloom of health walking in the streets of Ingoldstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I beheld the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel (39).

Holding with Abraham and Torok’s logic of intergenerational neuroses, it only makes sense that the creature (himself literally an amalgamation of physical parts of previous lives) inherits the effects of Victor’s ambivalent feelings and (without the restraints of social inhibitions) acts upon them. One can’t help but note Victor is able to speak his great love for his younger sibling (and rival for his Elizabeth/Mother’s attention), only after his creature kills the boy.

            And Mathilda cannot speak her hostility towards her father.  According to Hoeveler, “the illness from which she truly suffers and has suffered throughout the novella…is hatred toward her father and guilt for that hatred.  His early desertion and long absence are never forgiven” (372).  But, if we follow Abraham and Torok, what complicates this text is that which haunts Mathilda, that is not only her hostility towards her father, but also his hostility towards her: "what haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secret of others” (171).

This is not to say however that the books are to be despaired over.  In both novels, Shelley hints at a way out of morbid melancholia—a cure, if you will.  Almost as a coda, at the end of Frankenstein, Walton follows his men’s suggestion, and turns his ship towards home.  This turn to an intersubjectivity that is not solely interiorized and thus doomed, this acceptance of community indicates that unlike Frankenstein, who does not approve of this decision, Walton has learned the importance of listening to and negotiating with others.  Mathilda is not so lucky.  After she attempts to seduce Woodville to suicide, he speaks to her as a preacher would: “‘We know not what all this wild world means; its strange mixture of good and evil.  But we have been placed here and bid love and hope.  I know not what we are to hope; but there is some good beyond us that we must seek; and that is our earthly task’” (202).  Woodville’s speech—so very different from all the others within the novel—gives Shelley a platform for another point of view, one that leads out of the devastating experience of depression.  In this passage, which stands out as much as Walton’s sudden reversal, Shelley suggests that if it’s too late for Mathilda, it is not too late for  the reader, or, for Woodville, to find alternative ways of being in the world.[21]  Mathilda finally feels gratitude to Woodville for his tenderness, and on her last walk, thinks of him with gentleness before contemplating the beauty and impermanence of the natural world around her, associated with “our Universal mother” (207).[22]  While dying, she sees herself as childlike, articulating her lack of independence, her inability to see her own agency as she asks nature to “bless thy child even in death” (208). 

Even if her main characters are doomed, at the end of Frankenstein and Mathilda Shelley is direct with her authorial “interventions.”  Walton’s example speaks for itself: it indicates his own learning curve, and that he will take a path different from that of his idol.  His different course is mapped physically.  And in Mathilda, Shelley spells out the significance of the importance of community, and perhaps signals that the only way to regain health is not through isolation but through helping others.[23]  Granted, neither Walton nor Woodville are the most interesting or compelling characters in either novel. Indeed, if reading the novels separately, they are respectively easy to dismiss as peripheral, figures that function as framing devices. But in reading both novels together, we see that Shelley is clearly, if quietly, voicing an alternate way to exist in the world: one based on forgiveness, on empathy, on reaching out, in a way that differs profoundly from the existence lived by Frankenstein, the creature, Mathilda, and the legion heroes created by her canonical contemporaries.  Kristeva writes, “forgiveness gathers on its way to the other a very human sorrow.  Recognizing the lack and the wound that caused it, it fulfills them with an ideal gift—promise, project, artifice, thus fitting the humiliated, offended being into an order of perfection, and giving him the assurance that he belongs there” (216).  And this returns us to the confessions: for in forgiving, the talking—at least about the trauma of abandonment—is done, which indicates closure and with it a security in an ability to move on.

Walton, however, is too blinded by the creature’s ugliness in form and deed to offer him any such forgiveness; and yet, he forgives his shipmates their mutiny, and he turns back; he submits to their wishes.  Woodville, perhaps because of Mathilda’s beauty, perhaps because of his eroticized attraction to her, perhaps because he is created later than Walton, can offer a solution to Mathilda’s despair and narcissism—a final “bid for love and hope.”[24]  To return to Kristeva: “love, all in all, beyond judgment, takes over from sadness, which is nevertheless understood, heard, displayed, ….[for] it is possible to forgive ourselves by releasing, thanks to someone who hears us, our lack or our wound to an ideal order to which we are sure we belong” (216).  While within the story, it is not clear that Mathilda reaches this state of forgiving herself for her appropriation of guilt and her response to trauma, perhaps in the very penning of her “confession,”—and then letting it go—she effects through the reader the release of which Kristeva speaks. Thus Shelley’s characters’ articulated confessions before a witness (the reader) anticipate Freud’s “talking cure” and perform an effect of psychoanalysis. “Writing,” according to Kristeva, “causes the affect to slip into the effect….Because it is forgiveness, writing is transformation, transposition, translation” (italics hers; 217).  And if readers are loath to identify with either Walton or Woodville, the characters’ final actions of forgiveness nevertheless arguably are the most heroic within both novels.[25]

[1] Anne Mellor points out, “when Mary Shelley subtitled [Frankenstein] ‘The Modern Prometheus,’ she forcefully directed our attention to the book’s critique both of the promethean poets she knew best, Byron and Percy Shelley, and of the entire Romantic ideology as she understood it” (70).  See also Jacobus and Edelman-Young. Although Shelley originally used two spellings for her title character (“Mathilda” in the text and “Matilda’ in the title), the novel was subsequently published under both titles (Clemmit); for the sake of consistency, we’ve used “Mathilda” throughout.

[2] Here we might remember the “Preface” to Frankenstein, actually penned by Percy Shelley, which asserts the  novel “affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield” (3).

[3] In her sustained study of Shelley’s ideology, Anne Mellor notes that Shelley “is profoundly committed to an ethic of cooperation, mutual dependence, and self-sacrifice…. Mary Shelley’s ethical vision thus falls into that category of moral thinking which Carol Gilligan has recently identified as more typically female than male” (125).

[4] The creature is not the only person to suffer from melancholia within the text.  Frankenstein and Walton both, we believe, suffer the same symptoms.  Alice Miller writes, “Behind manifest grandiosity there constantly lurks depression, and behind a depressive mood there often hides an unconscious (or conscious but split off) sense of a tragic history.  In fact, grandiosity is the defense against depression, and depression is the defense against the deep pain over the loss of the self that results from denial” (33-34).

[5] In The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller explores how children who suffer trauma develop “the art of not experiencing feelings, for a child can experience her feelings only when there is somebody there who accepts her fully, understands her, and supports her.  If that person is missing, if the child must risk losing the mother’s love or the love of her substitute in order to feel, then she will repress her emotions.  She cannot even experience them secretly, ‘just for herself’; she will fail to experience them at all” (10-11).  Here, we might recall Victor’s insistence that his childhood was perfect.

[6] This is expected, for as Jacques Lacan decidedly argues, the entrance into language and subjectivity is unavoidably gendered.

[7] Shelley here depicts what will only in the late twentieth century be identified as a common psychological enmeshment syndrome between parents and their children that often results in neuroses and/or depression for the child. See Patricia Love; Kenneth Adams.

[8] This of course is a typical position for women in families, particularly Shelley’s families.  Victor relays of Elizabeth Lavenza, ‘I never beheld her so enchanting as at this time, when she was continually endeavouring to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself” (27).

[9] Kerry McKeever notes, “Mathilda is tantamount to a pre-Freudian era casebook which illustrates the descent of at least two of its characters into melancholia and then records its tragic effects” (191).

[10] According to Tilottama Rajan, “Unable to represent the Real, the text encrypts it, communicating on the level of affect rather than content” (44).  By abandoning Mathilda a second time, which he does after the articulation of this confession, he ensures that she will not abandon him—that he will not suffer an additional rejection. 

[11] Edelman-Young offers an alternative interpretation of Mathilda’s clothing, contending she “adopts a dress that transgresses the clearly defined boundaries of male and female, which further suggests a rejection of the symbolic” (137).

[12] This leads to another reading of the novel: perhaps it is not guilt for incestuous feelings that haunt Mathilda’s father, but rather what haunts him is his hatred of her.  That is, he cannot admit to himself how he hates his daughter and in being unable to come to terms with this emotion, he sublimates it to the more culturally acceptable feeling of desire.

[13] According to Jacobus, “Matilda’s tragedy is not just her father’s guilty passion for her, nor is it her paralyzing, idealizing, and finally murderous love for her father.  It is the fact that her father’s story becomes hers (he is actually the one who has loved his mother in Oedipal fashion, and who sinks into mute despair when his wife dies).  Incest is structured in Mathilda as the intergenerational repetition of a prior romance and as an always prior trauma; the second generation takes on the burden of this past” (sic 174).  Freud contends that “if one listens patiently to the many and various self-accusations of the melancholiac, one cannot in the end avoid the impression that often the most violent of them are hardly at all applicable to the patient himself, but that with insignificant modifications they do fit someone else, some person whom the patient loves, has loved or ought to love” (158).

[14] Perhaps (Mother) Nature shuns only the corrupted female (daughter), for she was receptive to Mathilda in her earlier state of innocence.

[15] Here we must remember that Mathilda’s father kills himself.  Driven by his perceived guilt, he wanders into the sea, an action that manifests his own melancholia, which as Freud contends has the tendency “to turn into a mania” (164).

[16] Critics have also suggested that Mathilda is over led by her reading.  For example, Julie Carlson notes, “if Freud discovers the force of psychical reality in the process of abandoning the seduction theory, Shelley uncovers the role of literary classics in enforcing Oedipal phantasies.  They at once inform such phantasies and are the only means through which they are (not) known….  For Shelley the seductiveness of the classics is arresting in both senses: they convey heightened modes and forms of passion, often before a young reader has ‘real’ experiences of them; they traumatize by bringing to consciousness desires and experiences that have been repressed both in the subject and by literary culture” (paragraph 12).

[17] Freud suggests that “the self-torments of melancholiacs, which are without debt pleasurable, signify, just like the corresponding phenomenon in the obsessional neurosis, a gratification of sadistic tendencies and of hate, both of which relate to an object and in this way have both been turned round upon the self” (162).

[18] Jacobus goes a step further, and following Abraham and Torok, suggests that the secret within Mathilda that cannot be uttered is the father’s incestuous love for his mother.  In their discussion of “Hamlet,” Abraham and Torok contend that the secret the ghost reveals to Hamlet “masks another secret, this one genuine and truthful, but resulting from an infamy which the father, unbeknown to his son, has on his conscience” (189).

[19] Healey also observes that Mathilda and the creature’s self-education “confirms and perpetuates the[ir] very inferiority” (38).

[20] This certainly makes sense in relation to both novels.  Victor Frankenstein’s strange familial lineage includes a father who marries a daughter figure.  And Mathilda’s father’s relationship with his mother may be suspect as well.

[21] Healey contends, “Shelley is thus constructing a critique of the indoctrination of female minds which ensures that dependent women lack the power to liberate themselves; indeed they lack a sense of their own self—their very self-recognition is impeded by the patriarchal system” (42).

[22] Beyond fainting spells and fantods the gendered textual parallels between Mathilda and Victor are many. Before becoming being “awakened to revenge” by the monster’s killing of Elizabeth (and assuming the masculine role of pursuer), Victor is committed to a madhouse, which he describes in ways that closely resemble the psychological elements of Mathilda’s melancholic state:

            What then became of me? I know not; I lost sensation, and chains and darkness were the only objects that pressed upon me. Sometimes, indeed, I dreamt that I wandered in flowery meadows and pleasant vales with friends of my youth; but awoke and found myself in a dungeon. Melancholy followed, but by degrees I gained clear conception of my miseries and situation, and was then released from my prison. For they had called me mad; and during many months. As I understood, a solitary cell had been my habitation (168).

[23] Fran?ois and Mozes see the ending differently: “In short, Shelley offers Matilda as an exposition of the limitations of Enlightenment faith in the saving powers of communication—not only that of Rousseau but also that of Wollstonecraft” (sic 68).

[24] According to Kristeva, forgiveness “arises in the wake of erotic enlightenment and appears not as an idealizing movement repressing sexual passion, but as its working through” (199).

[25] This idea finds some confirmation in Syndy McMillen Conger, who writes of Shelley, “her ultimate aim [is] the moral conversion of all citizens from an ethic of individual rights to an ethic of social—and especially familial—responsibility” (82), but we use “arguably” here because we vehemently disagree with each other on such an ending.


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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Mark E. Boren and Katherine Montwieler "The Pathology of the Romantic Subject and Mary Shelley's Cure for Melancholia in Frankenstein and Matilda". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: August 9, 2012, Published: December 24, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Mark E. Boren and Katherine Montwieler