My brother believes his body is inhabited by the devil. Lodged somewhere between vessel and bone, the devil makes a home for himself. This is something my brother can feel, and he says it’s as though a piece of himself has been carved away to make space.
At first it is unclear what messages the devil is sending, but it is apparent he is not one for silence. He keeps my brother awake until the early hours, and to drown out the rattle of his voice, my brother plays death metal on high, the speakers pulsing with snarls and heavy guitar riffs. To survive he must take this all in, lean from his bedroom window smoking cigarettes and pot to calm his nerves. He watches ash fall and go dark on the cold snow below.
It’s in these hours that I hide the kitchen knives. Sleep with the light on. Tuck the phone up close. There’s no telling what the devil will want in the night. In the dark.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley meet at the grave of her mother. It is here in Saint Pancras Cemetery, a place named for the saint beheaded on the Via Aurelia, they fall in love. They pass their hours amidst gray stone that is lit only by a cast of moonlight. Here, amongst all this sorrow, they pledge their devotion.
To understand the nature of corruption, Victor Frankenstein haunts charnel houses. Here he charts the progression of decay. It is only after this that he truly considers life. To create his creature, Victor unearths the dead, digs his shovel into the cold, hard ground to expose the wood of coffins. He melds the dead together, a collection of pieces that make one singular being.
The formula for life is held close to Victor’s heart, some combination of chemistry, electricity, and flesh. And when his creation is spurred into existence, it is unclear what kind of heart beats in his chest, but it is this singular muscle that recognizes his maker. And Victor, upon seeing his creature’s birth, does not recognize himself inside of this being. Despite his consciousness, despite his intelligence in thought, the creation is a fiend, Victor’s own daemon raised from the depths of hell.
One classic examination of the novel is to interpret Victor Frankenstein as a character unbound by gender norms. He becomes a way for Mary Shelley to explore traditionally female concerns through a male character. Victor “gives birth” to a creature, a task solely confined to the female realm. Victor breaks free of biological constraints but the results are horrific and ultimately destructive for Victor and his child. Neither Victor nor his creation can exist fully without the presence of the other. This co-dependent relationship seems to allude to the complex familial relationships existent in Shelley’s own life.
My brother purchases The Satanic Bible and The Anarchist Cookbook from the Occult section of our local bookstore, their black and red covers unbearably glossy before he begins his frantic exploration of their interiors. His fingers pockmark the covers with greasy prints and their interiors yellow as he adds the reading of these texts to his late night rituals.
The books travel together throughout the house, cover pressed to cover. Despite their constant presence, I leave them be, their pages too full of the scent of smoke and rancid sweat.
The books are a sign that the devil’s voice grows louder. And because of this I never stay after school for any of the eighth grade clubs, but instead return home every day to monitor my brother as he progresses from room to room. Take care of the house, take care of him. Take care.
Our afternoons begin with the closed door of his bedroom until he grows weary of the confines of those walls. Before long he takes to sitting with his books beside the woodstove, the door pulled wide, flames exposed.
Two weeks after Mary and Percy’s declaration, Mary’s father learns of their devotion. He forbids their love. Percy responds the only way he knows how: he threatens suicide as a complete act of severance from his beloved. Holding a bottle of laudanum, he bursts into Mary’s schoolroom. His hands shake as he asks her to share the bottle with him and then offers up a pistol. Mary declines, begs him to consider life, and vows her complete dedication to their love. Instead of embracing a romantic death, the couple flees to France, unfettered by the bonds of marriage.
It is in the dark that the creature awakens to the sound of rain on the window. He opens first one yellow eye and then the next. With his lips set in a straight black line, blood begins to move in veins riveted together by the mysteries of science. As the creature learns of life, Victor flees to his room closing the thick door behind him. He spends the night in troubled sleep, dreams of kissing the cold, dead lips of his beloved whose body transforms into the decayed form of his mother.
Victor does not wake alone. Standing over his bed is his creation, arms outstretched, perhaps asking for an embrace. Victor flees, hides in the courtyard of his home and eventually, as the day dawns, leaves to find his friend, Henry. He later returns to the scene of his machinations, the rooms empty and his daemon departed. He breathes in his freedom, but the specter of his work remains and he falls into a nervous fever, succumbs to ill health for months. And all this while, his creation continues on without him, unguided in his new existence.
In complicating the gendered presentation of Victor, Shelley forces the reader to reconsider traditional gender roles. Many scholars read Victor’s illnesses, his maladies of the heart, as a stand-in for hysteria, a genre of illnesses that were typically only ascribed to women. Hysteria was typically understood as a form of insanity. Romantic and Victorian-era diagnoses of hysteria were so common that physicians suspected, and indeed prescribed for, this illness when no other disease presented itself. Diagnoses of male hysteria were not without precedent, but this form of hysteria was considered to be brought on by exterior forces, rather than simply being a condition of the sex. Frankenstein’s interior confessions and instability, perhaps resulting from his mother’s early demise, indicate that Shelley may have been playing with the presumption of a clearly defined connection between gender and mental illness, recasting the illness as one equally pervasive in the male population as the female.
Victor Frankenstein continually succumbs to pains of the heart, his grief palpable in the narrative. This grief, whether wrought by true affection or simply by the forces of guilt, goes beyond typical affliction and renders our main character incapable of participating and actively working to resolve his own situation. The continuous return of Frankenstein to his convalescences allows us to conclude that Victor’s character transcends the typically gendered diagnosis of interiorly motivated hysteric insanity.
My brother begins to receive communications through the radio and his nightly music sessions grow louder. We believe it is his devil making contact through electronic means. Soon the crosses in the house, remnants of a familial affinity for Catholicism, disappear. The family bible, a white leather version obtained during my father’s deployment in Germany, vanishes.
Locked in his bathroom, my brother delves a needle deep into his skin. This sharp divining rod working over and over in a pattern known only to him. Under the single fluorescent light he leans over the avocado-green sink and pours India ink onto his arm. Red blends with black as he rubs it in to reveal the final image. Three rough skulls hold dominion over four joined circles. Nestled inside each, four small pentagrams.
In the Year Without a Summer the world is blanketed by volcanic ash. Rivers flood. Crops fail. And while the people of Switzerland go hungry, Mary begins to contemplate the wonders of galvanism. The sharp pierce of electrical current through dissected muscles. She dreams of ghosts and the animation of the dead. And as the rain keeps coming down, she begins to write, spurred by the vision of a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out,” who, by “the working of some powerful engine, shows signs of life, and stirs with an uneasy, half vital motion.”
A cabin in a clearing. This is where the creation finds himself, alone. He hides in a rough lean-to and casts his gaze through a small chink in the wall. There a slight woman busies herself around a too-sparse room, clattering about to make the space seem more full. A man comes and goes, his rough labors taking him into the dense forest. And another man, blinded by age, seats himself by a fire. Together their voices ring with false hope. Alone they cry.
In many ways, of course, the De Lacey family structure represents an aspect of human life that the creation has been denied through Victor’s perfidy. His physical form makes him unfit for participating in family life. This makes Victor doubly guilty in failing the monster, once through his absence and again through his inability to master the science necessary to gift him with beauty.
Despite the De Laceys’ amiable dispositions, they are unwilling to accept the creature into their lives. They view his form and manner with disgust and fear and they flee. In this moment, the creature realizes that a whole and vibrant family structure will always be denied to him and it is this distance between desire and reality that drives him to react malevolently toward a world that will not embrace him.
We have just come home from school when my brother tells our father that the voices he hears are so loud he can no longer think. He pulls at the bleached orange-blonde hairs of his goatee and then runs his fingers through his hair, his nails so long they catch on the greasy strands. “I think I’m going crazy,” he says.
Our father leaves me home and drives my brother to the hospital emergency room. I imagine my father, his small body in the driver’s seat, his hands steady on the wheel as the miles course past. And my brother, his hands shaking against the blue dashboard from being too long without a cigarette.
Inside the emergency room they hurry my brother and father from the waiting area. My brother is not fit to be among the quiet public with their small flesh wounds and bouts of dizziness. A nurse takes him into a private room and asks him to provide blood and urine samples. This is a matter of following procedure. The wait is not long. When the toxicology screens come back he tests positive for ten different drugs; his system is in overload.
The drugs, they believe, are the problem. So when my brother pulls medical equipment off the room’s wall and threatens to kill the attending physician, they don’t suspect the devil that has taken residence inside his body. Security arrives and my brother is physically restrained. I imagine several strong men, each grabbing at my brother’s limbs while his combat-booted feet flail against the brown-flecked white tile. The barring of his yellowing teeth. They wrestle him onto a gurney where he is strapped down and wheeled to an ambulance. Outside, it is so cold that his breath plumes the air.
We drive through the night chasing the ambulance’s red taillights. It’s 179 dark miles to a treatment center that specializes in drug addiction. Overhead, I find Orion for the first time. The hunter bold in the night sky, shield pulled to his chest to protect the beating of his heart.
Mary writes her novel in a year of death:
Fanny Imlay – Mary’s half-sister overdoses on laudanum at an inn in Swansea. She is just 22, yet already unlucky in love. Percy and Fanny were once romantically entwined, a relationship he ended by the time he takes to France with Mary. Fanny visits him while he is staying in Bath wearing stays that once belonged to her mother. They are embroidered with Mary Wollstonecraft’s initials. He rejects her a second time.
Harriet Westbrook – Percy’s first wife drowns herself in the Serpentine, a river located in Hyde Park. She is in an advanced stage of pregnancy, a result of a new romantic entanglement after Percy abandoned their family. She is missing for weeks before her body is found.
Victor Frankenstein fails the women in his life:
Caroline Frankenstein – The heat takes her. Brings sweat to her brow and washes her in delirium. Victor at 17 is too young to know the intricacies of the human body, so when scarlet fever consumes his mother, he is unable to save her.
Justine Moritz – Sweet Justine, beloved servant of the Frankenstein family, wanders the fields. It is easy to become lost in the dark wilderness and she falls asleep in a barn, her head resting on hay, the scent of animals around her. This is where the creature finds her, her beauty so different from his own monstrous form. There, in the shadows, the creature slips a locket into her pocket, implicating her in the death of young William Frankenstein. She is hanged for this crime.
Elizabeth Lavenza – Lively as summer, Elizabeth is made to be loved. She receives Victor’s deadly devotion warmly. Opens her arms to him on their wedding day, the last day of her life. She is waiting for him in their bedchamber when she is murdered by Victor’s own creation, her body left draped across the bed.
The female presence within the text is one characterized by absence and sacrifice. The women are undefined, ambiguous beings, powerless within their own narrative. Their spectral existences, and ultimately their deaths, are subject to the needs and desires of the male characters. Their stories are filtered: transmitted to the reader through Victor Frankenstein’s retelling of his story to Captain Robert Walton, who then writes the tale to his sister Margaret Walton. This means that the stories of Caroline, Justine, and Elizabeth must pass through two male characters before reaching the reader. Margaret Walton herself is merely the recipient of these tales and remains silent throughout the novel. This flattening of the female perspectives leaves many critics to situate Mary Shelley’s novel as an anti-feminist text or, at the very least, one that positions the male role as one of greater import.
As part of my brother’s treatment plan, our family is assigned to meet with the drug addiction counselor. The winter roads are unpredictable and the drive takes up most of the day. For this I miss school. The couches we sit on are cheap, their springs unforgiving on our road-weary bodies. The counselor sits just the way I would suspect, his notebook resting on his crossed knee, his pen poised over the paper. He asks us questions and waits for the answers. But we have none. This whole process too tidy for the presence of evil.
The next time we come, snow builds on the windows outside while the therapist lauds my brother’s progress. The drugs have left my brother’s system, and he sits quietly across from us. They are helping him develop methods of coping with the world that don’t involve narcotics. The voices aren’t mentioned and we are left to wonder if the devil has finally fallen silent.
The therapist shares some writings my brother has done inside the bricked walls of this facility. In these pieces he mourns my absence in his life, my growing distance. He writes of times I refuse to be alone with him. Times I cannot sit at the table next to him. The therapist implores me to spend more time with my brother.
I shift in my seat. Behind my brother’s eyes I believe I can see the devil still rattling about. Waiting. The therapist can’t see it, that sharp disconnect between our reality and my brother’s.
“But I don’t want to,” I say once, twice.
The therapist leans forward again, a slip of a smile crooking the corner of his mouth. This is the answer he’s wanted.
Because this therapist supports the notion of autonomy for his patients, he advocates for my brother’s decisions as long as they don’t involve drugs or self-harm. My mother questions the Satanism, the heavy presence of my brother’s devil in our lives. The therapist doesn’t bother to write because this is an issue he feels confident addressing.
“You have to let him keep his beliefs,” he says.
Mary Shelley loses her husband to the sea. Fifteen miles from the Italian coast Percy’s boat, the Don Juan, sinks in a storm. It takes ten days for Percy to wash ashore, and by then he has lost his face and hands. His body is placed under quarantine, a requirement for bodies the sea rejects. As part of a funerary custom for sailors who find land in death, a furnace is carried to that lonely stretch of beach just outside of Viareggio.
Mary is not there when her husband is placed inside the fire, and Lord Byron, overcome by the heat of the day and grief, submerges his own body in the ocean. It is Edward John Trelawny who remains beside Shelley when they light his body. And though Percy’s flesh burns, his heart rejects the flame. Trelawny reaches into the furnace, removes the carbonized organ. The act causes burns to his hands. He cools his sizzling flesh and the iron machine of Percy’s body in the sea.
They say Mary Shelley kept Percy’s heart wrapped in a poem on her desk. Upon her death, she passed the heart to their son, who took what was left of his father with him to his own grave.
The Arctic. Blessed cold and desolation. To here, at last, Victor has chased his creation. Weakened, Victor falters. His body is spotted against the white landscape by Captain Robert Walton and his men who fish Victor up from the ice. His body warms and recovers enough so that he is able to speak. He relates his tale to Walton, his dying confessional.
The ends of the earth are unpredictable in their nature. The ship becomes entombed in ice. The men aboard are desperate to return home to their families. They can see the specter of death looming. Victor begs them to continue, to bring an end to this life he has made. They refuse and finally, left without hope, Victor succumbs to illness and exhaustion.
Here, in the bitter air, the creature has lingered. Held vigil as he waited for his creator to draw his final breath. This world is no longer meant for him. He vows to lend his body to flame, end the hellish existence he has been locked into.
The authorial decision to set the final action of the novel in the Arctic brings together many of the symbolic references within the text. The bleak landscape isolates the characters from one another and from the outside world. This world is distant from our own, but for Nineteenth Century readers the concept of Arctic travel would have seemed even more radical. It represents how far Victor Frankenstein is willing to go to murder his own creation, and the distances he will go to separate himself from his family. Though this last is an effort to keep them safe, it is not enough to cast him as the hero of the narrative.
Spring comes. My brother is still gone. I slosh through puddles, the damp seeping in through my boots. Behind the barn I find the bible peeking out from beneath melting snow. Its pages turned to ash. Its cover burned black.
In the months that he is gone I finally sleep, my body uncurled on the bed, ribcage and organs left vulnerable. And out there in his world, his heart beats and beats.