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“Beyond the Usual Bounds of Reverie”? Another Look at the Dreams in Frankenstein
by Jonathan Glance, Mercer University


The interpretation of literary dreams presents certain problems for the cautious critic. We assume a character's dreams contain some significance, of course, but we may feel less certain what it is. We can consult the various psychoanalytic methodologies for interpretive guidelines, and these will often produce fascinating readings, yet we may experience a certain intellectual dissatisfaction with critical conclusions which are so alien to what the author and original audience of a text might have imagined the dream to have meant. Warnings against the intentional fallacy notwithstanding, an author's apprehensions of what dreams are, how they may be used in literature, and how readers will respond to them clearly matter in the process of composing a dream episode. These considerations suggest a cultural and historical approach, rather than a psychanalytic one. Perhaps no better test case for this approach exists than Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1816).

This novel not only contains a famous literary dream, but it also has its origins (according to the author) in an actual dream. The dreams in this text have received more psychoanalytic readings than those in perhaps any other novel, by critics who share the tacit assumptions either that Shelley intuited our modern understanding of dreams, or that literary dreams are sufficiently like real dreams to allow such a reading. [1]

The popularity of this approach is understandable; Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) revolutionized the study of this phenomena, and provided a framework for the deciphering of dreams. Because as modern readers we are familiar with his model of the unconscious and his theories of the underlying causes of dreams, our tendency is to apply Freud's paradigm to the dreams we find in texts written before 1900 as well as to those written after. Freud himself proposes this approach in "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva" (1907) in which he uses his methodology for the psychoanalysis of real dreams to examine the literary dreams in a story by Wilhelm Jensen; he asserts that creative writers can communicate wisdom not yet accepted by the scientists of the day, and that writers specialize in the human mind, and can have independent insights into its operation (44). Thus Freud suggests, and subsequent critics have accepted, that the fictional dreams of authors such as Mary Shelley anticipate a psychoanalytic understanding of dreams.

Cultural (and much new historicist) criticism, however, with its assertion that literary works are cultural documents which ought to be read in context with contemporary texts, suggests a different methodology altogether for discussing the dreams in Frankenstein. [2] Although this approach has not yet enjoyed the popularity of psychoanalytic readings, it deserves attention because it avoids two central weaknesses in that more prevalent critical method. Literary dreams are not real dreams (whether we define dreams as artifacts of the unconscious, random sparks of neurons, or messages from the great beyond), but conscious imitations of them, rooted in the cultural and historical apprehensions of their cause and content. Furthermore, a post-Freudian reader's response to an early nineteenth-century literary dream bears scant resemblance to the original reception of that dream, because these cultural apprehensions have altered so radically. A reading of the novel which acknowledges that shift in the paradgims of dream interpretation would provide a useful caution against ignoring those crucial differences. Therefore, in this essay I will examine Shelley's dream episodes within their historical and cultural contexts, taking as a guideline Jerome McGann's definition of a "historical reading" in The Beauty of Inflections as "an attempt to restore [a text] to our consciousness in something that approximates to its own original terms" (201).

The story of Victor Frankenstein's attempt to create life from dead matter, his success, and the catastrophic results of that success, are too well known to require retelling. The vision which Victor dreams at the completion of his experiments is equally famous; it would be helpful, however, to review this particular episode before analyzing its content. After nearly two years of effort, Victor completes his task: he reanimates the dead tissue, and creates a living being. He does not exult at his success, but instead confesses, "now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart" (57). He flees his laboratory, only to pace restlessly in his bed chamber, until at last "lassitude succeeded to the tumult" of his mind, and he is able to sleep. That sleep is not peaceful, for he experiences the following dream:

I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. 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 thought that I held 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. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon ... I beheld the wretch--the miserable monster whom I had created. (58)

This startlingly vivid dream vision has fascinated modern readers, who often consider it of central importance to the novel.[3] It is worth observing, however, that Mary Shelley's contemporaries did not seem to consider it noteworthy. Early reviewers do not mention it, and Richard Brinsley Peake's stage adaptation of the novel as Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823) replaces this striking scene with a much more conventional one.[4] One particular component of the dream--the transformation of Victor's fianceé, Elizabeth Lavenza, into the corpse of his mother, Caroline--has understandably attracted a host of psychoanalytic readings.[5] The incongruities between the contents of the dream and the dreamer's prior waking activities encourage these contradictory readings, by what Gerhard Joseph calls "the apparent inappropriateness [which] teases one into a reading" for deeper meaning (100). Several critics justify their psychoanalytic approach because, they note, the text itself sprang from a dream; Mary Shelley claims in her Introduction that the idea for the story came to her in a dream which she says "arose before my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie" (9). I wish to suggest another interpretive route, however, which traces historical assumptions about dreams and a series of literary analogues for both Victor's and Mary's visions. Both dream episodes, despite the author's claim, fall well within the conventional "bounds of reverie" as that subject was understood in 1816.

In order to understand how nineteenth-century authors used dreams, we must first know what people of that time assumed dreams to be. The end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth saw an increasing interest in the subject, under the dual influence of the Romantic movement's fascination with states of marginal consciousness, and neuroscience's new theories and advances in the study of the brain. The change in long accepted paradigms of the structure of the nervous system, and the well-publicized work in organology and phrenology of Franz Joseph Gall and Caspar Spurzheim, "all helped to focus the attention of the layman as well as the scientist on the nervous system and, in particular, on the brain" (Clark and Jacyna 5). This attention encouraged speculation on the mysterious nature and meaning of dreams, and as a result scientific studies of dreams proliferated during the period in which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

The predominant physio-psychological paradigm for mental activity was associationism, which has its roots in Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1700 ed.), but which David Hartley popularized in his Observations on Man (1749). Hartley asserts that our impressions of external and internal sensations form our more complex intellectual ideas according to associative principles, so that the later recurrence of one of the sensations mechanically will produce the intellectual ideas associated with it, and he deduces three causes for dreams: the residue of daily impressions, the physical state of the dreamer's stomach and brain, and, most importantly, the associations of thoughts and images which always go on in the mind, but which are more vivid during sleep. He proceeds to explain various phenomena of dreams from these three originating principles (1.384-389). Associationism, and the related concept of sensationalism, were the two most widely taught and accepted empirical explanations of the mind's workings during the nineteenth century. Evidence suggests that Mary Shelley would have been quite familiar with these theories from her readings and contacts. Erasmus Darwin, a widely read scientist whose experiments she mentions in her Introduction to Frankenstein, speaks in Zoonomia of "the perceptual flow of the train of ideas which constitute our dreams" (199-200). Her husband, Percy Shelley, emphasizes the mental laws of association in his uncompleted Speculations on Metaphysics.[6] Furthermore her father, William Godwin, discusses "The Mechanism of the Human Mind" in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Here Godwin describes the workings of the mind as "a system of mechanism" in which a specific antecedent determines every consequent thought; he views dreams as analogous to the train of thoughts which speed through the waking mind, and asserts that the content of both is equally determined by "certain necessary laws" of association (1.398-420).

Certain general assumptions about dreams recur in the scientific studies from this period. One often repeated point is that dreams only occur in imperfect sleep, when the brain is disordered by certain irritants, such as strong emotions, prolonged study, approaching sickness or other states which impair sleeping; not coincidentally, all these irritants are present in Victor's dream episode. Thus scientists sought physiological explanations for what Hartley referred to as the "great wildness and inconsistency in our dreams" (1.385). The rationale seems to be that dreaming has to occur in an aberrant state of mind, because of the irrational nature of dreams. Hartley also asserts that during sleep, "the state of the body suggests such ideas, amongst those that have been lately impressed, as are most suitable to the various kinds and degrees of pleasant and painful vibrations excited in the stomach, brain, or some other part" (1.385). Early nineteenth-century scientific studies follow Hartley's lead in asserting that dreams originate in both previous mental associations and existing sensory impressions.

These assumptions about the nature, origin and meaning of dreams affected the fictional representation of dreams, as writers referred to these assumptions in order to make their episodes seem more dream-like. Victor's "wild dream" illustrates these theories in several ways. First, the author makes a point of establishing Victor's disordered mental state. He admits that in pursuit of his goal of creating life, "I had deprived myself of rest and health" for "nearly two years," and the "tumult" of thoughts which follow the horrible completion of his project clearly suggest the great physical and emotional stress he has undergone (57). Victor's convulsive waking from the dream, his sweats and chills, are not only medically appropriate responses to his nightmare but also symptoms of the "nervous fever" which will soon manifest itself and confine him to bed for several months. Thus Mary Shelley clearly emphasizes Victor's morbid physiological state as a possible explanation for his dream.

Shelley also reveals her knowledge of the theories that dreams originate from mental associations as well as physical sensations. The clearest use of associationism as a model for dreams occurs after the De Laceys spurn the Monster's pleas for friendship. He has a dream which stems from his distraught emotional state, but which contains the train of associated thoughts most dominant in his mind: "I sank into a profound sleep; but the fever of my blood did not allow me to be visited by peaceful dreams. The horrible scene of the preceding day was for ever acting before my eyes; the females were flying, and the enraged Felix tearing me from his father's feet. I awoke exhausted" (137). Less clear, perhaps, is the transformation in Victor's dream of Elizabeth Lavenza into Caroline Frankenstein, yet it too follows an associationistic explanation of dreams. Several passages in the text link the two women with the theme of death; after all, it is Caroline's watchful ministrations at the sick bed of Elizabeth, who has scarlet fever, which save the patient but cost Caroline her life (43). It is her sudden demise which prompts Victor to call death "That most irreparable evil" (43), and to seek in his studies for a way to overcome that evil. These studies lead him to observe the abhorred cycle of life and death, which Victor describes in terms closely related to the content of his dream. He says, "I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain" (51). His dream explicitly follows the same pattern of images when Elizabeth's features change from "the bloom of health" to "the hue of death." It is not surprising that his fianceé transforms into the particular corpse Victor associates with both Elizabeth and his just-completed work, for Caroline's death has saved the life of Elizabeth and motivated Victor's labor. The dream episode thus contains images which the text has previously established as closely associated in Victor's mind, and so it would be natural for Victor to dream of these two women.

Another important question, however, is why Victor has this dream at this particular moment. It would seem more natural, perhaps, for him to dream of his new creation, in keeping with the associationist theory that the most prominent waking thoughts influence the content of our dreams. This would be reasonable if Victor were a real person dreaming an actual dream, but as I emphasized before, literary dreams must not be confused with real ones. The historical assumptions about actual dreams formed only one context for Mary Shelley's literary dreams; also important was the context of previous literary representations. Numerous Gothic texts contain instances in which a dream has seemed inconsistent with a character's previous thoughts, but which actually exists to impart a warning or foretell subsequent events.[7] Nineteenth-century literary dreams almost invariably contain true premonitions, whether or not the dreamer recognizes the warning. Thus while the dream episode may suggest the neuro-physiological state of a character, its primary function is usually to further the plot or to anticipate later events. Victor's dream warns of the death of Elizabeth. By his kiss, which will later seal their marriage vows, he seals her doom; the dream portrays this later event in a symbolic, but nevertheless in a clear, form. The timing of the dream is not accidental. It directly follows the creation of the monster who will later transform the bride into a corpse. Mary Shelley skillfully suggests the scientific explanations of dreams, and creates a convincingly "realistic" literary dream, but she derives Victor's dream essentially from previous literary models of dreams which forewarn, but do not prevent, a later tragedy.

It may seem reductive to classify Victor's marvelous dream, which other critics have employed as an exotic window into dark unconscious drives, as a conventional premonitory warning. Nevertheless, if we are to restore this novel to its historical and cultural context, we must be aware of the uses its author makes of conventional devices. Five literary analogues for Victor's dream collectively suggest that Elizabeth's transformation is less a sign of unconscious urges than of conscious borrowing. While none of these earlier episodes are exact sources, taken together they indicate a pattern of images which coalesce in Frankenstein. The analogues originate in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1740); late in this novel Lovelace dreams that he tries to embrace the heroine, but an angel ascends with her "to the region of seraphim" while Lovelace tumbles into a pit, clasping only her robe (1218). Matthew Lewis consciously imitates this scene in The Monk (1794), when Lorenzo dreams that he is about to marry the heroine, Antonia. A monster interrupts their embrace and carries her off, but she sprouts angelic wings and flies heavenward, while the monster who grasps only her robe sinks into "an abyss vomiting forth clouds of flame" (54). Lewis later presents another variation on this dream in his drama, The Castle Spectre (1798). The villainous Osmond dreams that he pursues Angela, the heroine, into his family tomb; when he attempts to embrace her she transforms into her dead mother Evelina, whom he had killed. This spectre says "Now rush to my arms, but first see what you have made me!--Embrace me, my bridegroom! We must never part again!" Lewis characteristically adds, in a Gothic detail with clear parallels to Victor's dream of Elizabeth's transformation, the following description of the spectre: "While speaking, her form withered away: the flesh fell from her bones; her eyes burst from their sockets; a skeleton, loathsome and meagre, clasped me in her mouldering arms!" (197) Two later and more obscure analogues continue the juxtaposed images of weddings and funerals, of lovers transformed into corpses, of an attempted consummation that ends in death. In Charlotte Dacre's Zofloya; or, the Moor (1806) the "proud, passionate and cruel" protagonist is Victoria, a female version of Lewis' Ambrosio. She lusts for her brother-in-law, and in a dream she replaces his fianceé at the altar, while the displaced bride, "no longer the blooming maid, but a pallid spectre," flees "shrieking through the aisles of the church" (2.113). Victoria reaches for the groom's hand, but beholds him "changed to a frightful skeleton" (2.114). The final and closest analogue to Victor Frankenstein's dream occurs in Percy Shelley's Zastrozzi (1810), a Gothic romance closely patterned on Zofloya. One character, Matilda, not only resembles Victoria but even has similar dreams. She also suffers from unrequited love for the hero, Verezzi: "At one point she imagined that Verezzi, consenting to their union, presented her his hand: that at her touch the flesh crumbled from it, and, a shrieking spectre, he fled from her view" (5.70-71). Mary Shelley's journal indicates she read three of these novels not long before composing Frankenstein--Clarissa in 1815, and The Monk and Zastrozzi in 1814 (34, 85, 90). All five texts feature images and themes analogous to those in Victor's dream, and in all five the dreams encode in symbolic form later events, and specifically foretell tragic deaths. Victor's dream, when read as part of a context of literary analogues, may be considered the first of the many ominous warnings which foreshadow the death of Elizabeth on her wedding night. Like the grim warning the Monster later gives to Victor, this premonitory dream is also unheeded, with tragic consequences.

It is not only in Frankenstein that we find evidence of Mary Shelley's conventional handling of dreams. At least two other literary dreams in her works follow the tradition of warning dreams. In her novel Mathilda (1819), the heroine is forewarned of her father's suicide in a dream (35-36). Spurred by her vision of his death she pursues him to the sea, but cannot prevent him from drowning himself. In the tale entitled "The Dream" (1831), the heroine decides to marry a particular suitor because of a dream which warns that if she does not, he will die in prison (82). These episodes reinforce the possibility that Victor's dream may also be a conventional premonitory warning.

A final dream episode in Frankenstein which requires comment does not occur in the novel itself, but in Mary Shelley's 1831 Introduction to the novel, where she states that the inspirational core of the narrative came to her in a dream. She describes, in this famous anecdote, how Byron, Polidori, her husband and herself agreed each to write a ghost story, while spending the rainy summer of 1816 in Switzerland. Her Introduction relates how she pondered for days in search of a subject for her tale, but without success. She relates the context of her thoughts, mentioning the party's discussions about natural philosophy, Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia and the galvanic reanimation of corpses. She then details a vivid, waking dream which came to her, and which became the inspiration for her story: "My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw--with shut eyes, but acute mental vision--I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together" (9). She finally describes how this vision became the beginning of her tale, claiming she made "only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream" (10).

There is, unfortunately, no objective proof to support the veracity of this anecdote. The entries of the author's journal, from May 14, 1815, to July 20, 1816, are missing, and the pertinent passages would fall within this gap (Journal 50n). We have only Mary Shelley's word that she had this dream. That authority is indeed sufficient for many critics.>[8] The fact that the oneiric origin of the novel is only recounted sixteen years after initial publication, however, raises some questions about its accuracy. James Rieger, for one, offers a strong attack on the Introduction. He compares Mary Shelley's recounted memories of the summer in Switzerland, and the days spent composing the ghost stories, with entries in the diary of Dr. John Polidori for the same period. Rieger finds the diary much more trustworthy, and concludes that the account in the Introduction is "an almost total fabrication" (461). He emphasizes the fact that "No statement in her account of the writing party of the Diodati or even of the inception of her own ideas, can be trusted" (465). Rieger's denunciation is harsh, but he does provide sufficient cause to question whether the account of the dream is credible. That the 1816 Preface to Frankenstein makes no mention of this origin is not in itself noteworthy, but in conjunction with Rieger's essay it should increase our suspicions.

Mary Shelley would certainly not have required a dream to inspire her writings. We need merely recall the intellectual circles into which she was born, and in which she traveled. Moreover, she was a voracious reader--her journal lists an impressive catalogue of the books which she had read and reread. Burton R. Pollin points to her familiarity with novels, poetry, and philosophical and scientific treatises in order to counter the idea that Frankenstein originated solely in a dream.[9] This range of material in her reading, combined with the intellectual discussions of the Diodati, would provide sufficient cause for her initial idea for the novel, without necessitating faith in oneiric inspiration.

What is perhaps a more interesting question than whether the novel originated in a dream is why she would claim that it did. The answer may lie in the glorification of the imaginative, inspiring power of dreams which she could have read prior to her Introduction, in such works as the Preface to Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" (1816) and in De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (London Magazine 1821). Both of these authors attributed their imaginative works to their dreams, and in both cases critics have raised doubts that the described dreams actually occurred. It seems almost as if the tendency to write in artificially composed dreams was a literary vogue of the time. The account Mary Shelley gives of the origin of her novel has definite similarities to the account Coleridge creates for the origin of his poem. Coleridge provided for "Kubla Khan" in 1816 a famous anecdote which alleges first how he was slightly ill, and took an "anodyne"; how this treatment caused him to fall asleep in his chair in the middle of reading certain lines of "Purchas's Pilgrimage"; and then how a remarkable dream came to him. He claims that during his "profound sleep, at least of the external senses," he composed between two and three hundred lines, "if that indeed can be called composition, in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort." When he awakened, Coleridge continues, "he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole." Mary Shelley echoes this account in her Introduction. She emphasizes the "unbidden" images from her imagination which "arose" in her mind "with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie"; she also stresses her "acute mental vision"; and finally she claims, like Coleridge, that her tale is "only a transcript" of her vision (9-10). There appears to be a clear pattern which both authors follow in describing the origins of these imaginative works.

The possibility that Mary Shelley may have followed a literary model in accounting for the inception of her novel raises further doubts about the truth of her account. Elizabeth Schneider, in Coleridge, Opium, and Kubla Khan, compounds these doubts when she presents a convincing refutation of the veracity of Coleridge's Preface. She draws on a vast range of sources which fail to corroborate the alleged dream origin of this poem. For example, she notes that Coleridge told the anecdote of the poem's origin to none of his friends before 1816; that none of the references to his dreams in his notebooks mention this one; and that the sole poem there that he does claim to have come to him in a dream is a doggerel epitaph (81-2). She also points out that the Preface to "Kubla Khan" echoes, apparently consciously, the theories of dreams which Coleridge had read in Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia--she argues that the Preface "was phrased strictly in accordance with Darwin's definition of true sleep and sleeping dreams" (103). What we find when we examine Mary Shelley's 1831 Introduction to Frankenstein is a trail of external precedents which, although they cannot provide a definite refutation of her account, should at the very least encourage skepticism of the dream. It seems hazardous to assert, as one critic does, that all the various elements of the novel have an unconscious connection, that "all indirectly point back to Mary's seminal dream" (Ozolins 103), if we cannot be sure that the dream ever occurred. If the alleged dream vision can no longer serve as a reliable account of the origin of Frankenstein, it may serve another purpose. It suggests that by 1831 dreams had become an accepted, even a conventionally preferred mode of literary inspiration.[10]

In the end we are left with a choice between methods of reading the dreams in this novel. We may follow the majority of critics, who have employed ever greater subtleties of psychoanalytic methods to reveal the unconscious contents which they are sure must be present in the dreams, or we may attempt the radical step of re-examining the text within its historical and cultural contexts. These two methods of reading Frankenstein must pursue very different goals. Readers may well choose the psychoanalytic method, because of the vantage point we all share in this post-Freudian world; furthermore, this method gives free rein to imaginative speculation and requires relatively little historical grounding. The value of examining the cultural and historical contexts of the dream episodes, however, is that it forcibly reminds us that Mary Shelley and her audience did not share this paradigm. It is anachronistic to assume that they did. Marilyn Butler emphasizes, "A genuinely historical perspective discourages dogmatism, by obliging us to foreground the differences between our circumstances, aims, and language, and those of the past" (44). Only by recognizing those differences, and by attempting to approximate in our consciousness the original contexts which produced Mary Shelley's novel, can we hope to understand the meaning of the literary dreams, rather than project meaning upon them.

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