Inside Frankenstein’s Mind: Akankha Basu Roy and Radhika Biswas

Akankha Basu Roy

(A Psychoanalytic Study of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with respect to the play staged by National Theatre) 

 

Abstract:

Psychology as a subject flourished under the influence of the controversies that were stirred up by Freud and his influential school of thought, known as psychoanalysis and a few years later, Lacan revamped the ideas to establish his own course of psychoanalytic ideologies. A century later, they have expanded their influence not only over their parent subject field but also Literary criticism. This article intends to study some of the most revolutionary theories of psychoanalysis, psychosexual stages of personality development, the dream mechanisms of “Condensation and Displacement” and how it impacts the study of literature. The piece chosen for this in-depth study is a dramatic rendition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by the Royal National Theatre of London in 201, adapted by Nick Dear. The characters have been scrutinized and examined at their very core to establish these theories pragmatically.

 

I am where I think not.”

Radhika Biswas
With the advent of psychoanalysis as introduced by Sigmund Freud, psychology as a discipline underwent radical changes, offering the world a fresh perspective into the human psyche and behaviour. Drawing a novel parallel to compare the structure of the mind to that of an iceberg, Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, laid the foundation which aided him to venture into the explanation of conflicts, personality traits and the fundamental functioning of the mind as causes attributed to innate sexual desires. The key to understanding the individual in the entirety is to dig deeper in the unknown domains of the unconscious which is a storehouse of the individual’s deepest and darkest secrets. Freud went on to introduce the threefold structure of personality, comprising the id, ego and superego that he claimed are fuelled by the principles of pleasure, reality and morality respectively.

Psychoanalysis, ever since. has emerged to be a strong school of literary criticism. It aids one to understand the character inside out and mould emotions towards it accordingly. We empathise, sympathise, like or dislike a fictional character only when we have a complete access to the mind, thoughts and ideas of the character in question. Come Frankenstein, Mary Shelly shocked the world when her gothic novel challenged the limitations of human thinking. It revolves around a young anatomy student who stitches together various parts of different bodies to create a man-like creature which is then brought to life through the use of electricity. The creature born with innate goodness, ultimately turns evil to cause the downfall of Victor’s family. A play on the same was adapted by the National Theatre, London and staged in 2011. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was streamed online on youtube for seven days and certain changes adapted to fit the running length of time were noticed. Instances like the portrayal of the creature’s birth at the very beginning, the way Elizabeth was killed to seek revenge and the very ending of the play, provides a wider scope for psychoanalytic study when compared to the text. The paper aims to exploit such deviations to seek answers to some questions from the psychoanalytic point of view.

According to Freud, personality developed as one transitioned from the psychosexual stages - oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital fuelled by libidinal energy. In the event of fixation at any particular stage, there are considerable effects on the personality. Victor Frankenstein exhibits a stunted feature of his personality, not having had the chance to deal effectively with his Oedipus complex. He acts as a resistance on the monster’s path to seek female companionship. “What do you know of the power of love?” he mocks his creation. Besides preventing his creature to walk on the road of procreation, Frankenstein abstains from it himself. This interesting character trait can be owing to the fact that his own mother Caroline Beaufort posed as a daughter-figure to his father - Alphonse prior to their marriage, the effects of which are manifested in his own relation with Elizabeth, which can be said to be closely resembling an incestuous sibling bonding. We are informed of the same when Frankenstein’s father laments the loss of his youngest child and the drastic change in his eldest. It was his last promise to his wife that he would see Victor “marry his cousin, Elizabeth.” A seeming trend that runs in his family where the potential sexual partner must be included within the family preceding their undertaking of a sexual role. Contrary to Victor’s approach to this aspect of his life, the monster has a need to establish partnership. The effect of having his sexual drive denied, his anger channels him to seek revenge in a way that is innately Oedipal in nature if we take into consideration Frankenstein as the creature’s male parent. He could have chosen to end his creator’s woman by a simple twisting of the neck as seen in the case of William Frankenstein, Victor's younger brother. Instead, his sexual urges direct his course of actions and paints him as a perfect Freudian product, determined to gratify the ‘perverse child’ within; a situation that the text merely hints at.

 Building on the theory of the fragmented mind and the three-tiered personality, an interesting approach to the story may be analysed by allowing the characters to be looked at from a new lens. The id,ego and the superego are represented or signified by the characters of the monster,Victor Frankenstein and society respectively, bringing them to life. The monster corresponding to the id is driven by the pleasure principle, creating havoc and chaos wherever he treads; closely resembling the repressed forbidden arena engulfed within the ‘unconscious’. Turning erratic, the monster grows increasingly demanding, seeking instantaneous gratification. The society and the people in general who are of the opinion that a grave crime has been committed act as the voice of morality. They step in as the superego, trying to weigh the pros and cons,the rights and wrongs. Victor Frankenstein, torn between the id and superego personifies the ego; constantly battling to strike a balance. Like, after losing his younger brother to the vices of the creature, Frankenstein finally goes to meet it. He is torn between his emotions of pride, at the magic of “science”, and his guilty conscience (“morality principle”) that keeps reminding him of his blunder. He addresses his creation as an “experiment gone wrong; an experiment that must be curtailed” in the beginning of the scene but gets amused at how well the creature turned out to be, in the following lines. Much to the likeness of the ego that shelters our conscience from the forbidden demands of the id, the concept of “dilemma” between ambition that serves the self and the morality of the act, stands a ground. He attempts to compensate for his lack of better judgement at every step of the way with little success.

While speaking about the unconscious realm and its understanding, Freud’s successor Jaques Lacan corresponds the idea of it to a language system- an orderly yet complex structure. In order to prove his point, he comes up with the examples of metonymy and metaphor to explain the dream mechanisms of “Displacement”and “Condensation”, respectively. A metonymy, or Displacement in terms of Lacanian thought process, is what Barry describes it to be “a part standing for the whole.” It is as common as referring to Monarchy or Royalty as “the crown”, while a metaphor includes compressing several images into one.Returning to the analysis of the play, the young doctor’s obsession towards science, power, immortality and perfection and his reality principle pushing his unnatural yearning further into the unconscious takes the shape of the creature, a metonymy for the same. Time and again, the characters, through their conversations, keep guiding the audience towards a psychoanalytic study of Victor Frankenstein and leave it there. “I have defeated death” screams the protagonist when his newly wedded wife tries to confront him about his creation; his demeanour takes a turn when he expresses how he “stripped nature of her secrets” while creating life. He attributes the source of his experiment to “a vision” and the turnout of this vision to an unbelievable feat of “strength and achievement”. Frankenstein is under the impression that he has “...surpassed in scientific endeavour.” The last jolt comes from the creature who confronts his father/master over his own birth. On the other hand, “Condensation” or the language idea of metaphors, it includes two or more imageries clubbed together in a single sequence or concept. For example, Peter Barry cites the example of “the ship ploughed the waves” where two imageries of a ship cutting through the waves and a plough cutting through the soil is combined together. When we come to think of it from the perspective of the play, Victor is also a family man who holds his loved ones close to him, fearing death albeit once he realises the danger of it all. Throughout the play, through several instances, it appears as if he is desperate to defeat death. His fear of losing life is probably what compelled him to run away from the scene of the experiment. He claims that he was “terrified at what I had done” but we can go underneath the layers to attribute it to his fear of what the monster could do to him. This thanatophobia, or the phobia of losing his own self and his family to death, is condensed with the metonymy of a creature, described above, to paint a metaphor, which, in fact, forms the entire content of the performance in analysis, here. Therefore, one can only dare to name the play as a reflection, or quite simply, Victor Frankenstein’s dream where his repressed thoughts find their way into an artistic expression through the writer’s pen.

 Though the school of psychoanalysis involving the conscious, unconscious, id and ego, is no less than a dark abyss, it does, however, leave enough space for examining a character beyond the revealed. Science fiction and Gothic literature redefined itself when Frankenstein dissolved the barriers between natural and unnatural by merging science with human psyche. Might it be just a fragment of his unconscious or a narrative of his dreams, it is after all, undoubtedly, a revolutionary portrayal of the present world where science and practicality lead while emotions take a back seat. Something we are all familiar with as artificial intelligence. With progressing times, as men come to be heavily relied on for unnatural ways of life, can we imply Frankenstein as an oracle narrating the future doom of men in the hands of science?

 


References:



1.    Bangerter, A. (2003). Freud and the Monster. Public.asu.edu. Retrieved 9 April 2021.

2.    Barry, Peter (2018). Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (4th ed.). Viva Books.

3.    Klages, Mary (2006). Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum International Publishing Group. 

National Theatre Live. (2020). Official Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature Free National Theatre Full Play108 [Video]. Retrieved 8 April 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjJxpuPsrYs&t=1582s.
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Akankha Basu Roy is a second-year student pursuing her graduation in BA Performing Arts, English and Psychology from Christ (Deemed to be University), Bangalore. She originally hails from Kolkata and is an ardent literature and psychology enthusiast. Her hobbies include learning new languages and reading books that fuel her literary passion.

Radhika Biswas is a second-year student pursuing her graduation in BA Performing Arts, English and Psychology from Christ (Deemed to be University) Bangalore. Born and brought up in Kolkata, she has always been inclined towards a creative outlet in her life. Be it dancing or acting on stage. She takes keen interest in learning new skills and connecting with those around her. 

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