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Frankenstein humanitys doppleganger

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is widely hailed as literature’s greatest gothic novel, as well as its first science fiction work.  Written by a young woman in answer to a challenge from a circle of male authors (which included her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley), the tale is drawn from her personal experiences as well as from the writings of other authors.  The monster in the story is a multifaceted symbol for humanity’s fears, representing unchecked technology and the un-mothered child, among other things.  As a representative of these fears, the monster itself may be described as a doppleganger.

The word doppleganger is taken from the German dopplegnger, meaning “double goer.”  It appears as a reflection of a person, an apparition resembling a living being.  When it appears, it is often taken as a portent of death, as it was by Elizabeth I when she saw a pale vision of herself lying still upon her deathbed soon before she died (Encyclopedia Mythica, 1).  On a larger scale, Frankenstein’s monster could be described as a doppleganger of humanity, personifying our fear of ourselves and of our capabilities.  One classic example of a doppleganger is the reflected image seen in a window at night, sometimes mistaken for a prowler.  Frankenstein’s monster acts the part of this apparition when he appears to Frankenstein in his new bride’s window on her wedding night after killing her.
The doppleganger that is the monster takes on many forms in terms of what it represents.  One of these is the fear of science and its role in relation to God.

As scientific advancements were made in the field of medicine, questions arose as to whether or not man should try to perform acts that only God was previously capable of performing.  This moral issue is initially ignored by Frankenstein, overshadowed by his zeal for accomplishing his impossible feat of reanimation.  After he animates the creature and shuns it for its horrible appearance, it acts on its impulses for revenge.  As the story progresses, Frankenstein realizes that he should have thought more carefully before acting, and the repercussions of his dark deed eventually lead him on a self-destructive quest to ultimately attempt to annihilate his own creation.  By trying to ascend past his place in God’s universe, Frankenstein, in the end, destroys himself and all that he ever loved.
Another guise of the doppleganger is that of the child without a mother.  When she wrote Frankenstein, Shelley had already borne two children, one of whom had died early in life.  She had nightmares about her children and was always fearful about pregnancy. (Mellor, 175)

For approximately nine months, Frankenstein labored on the creation of his “child.”  Finally on a “dreary night in November, he witnesses the ‘birth’”: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”  Specific fears may be found reflected by the monster: What if my child is born deformed?  Could I still love it or would I wish it were dead?  What if I can’t love my child?  Am I capable of raising a healthy, normal child?  Will my child die?  Could I wish my own child to die?  Will my child kill me in childbirth?  Mary is expressing her fears related to the death of her first child, her ability to nurture, and the fact that her mother died having her.  In fact, Frankenstein is probably the first work of western literature to delve into the female anxieties of childbirth. After its exile, the creature is left with no parental figure to guide it and becomes violent, particularly toward its “family.”  This reflects the belief that any child left without maternal guidance will become a primitive animal, committing acts of violence and outrage. (Desert Aine 1, 1-3)

Mary was influenced in her creation of Frankenstein very strongly by Ovid and Milton.  Ovid’s influence supplied her with yet another doppleganger, this one resembling the monster’s mad creator.  The story that Victor Frankenstein was drawn from is that of Prometheus, who was the Greek creator of mankind and the one responsible for giving the gift of heavenly fire to his creation.  The creation of the monster is similar to this passage from Ovid:  “Whether with particles of heav’nly fire, the god of nature did his soul inspire; Or earth, but new divided from the sky, and, pliant, still retain’d the th’ ethereal energy; Which wise Prometheus temper’d into paste, and, mix’t with living streams, the godlike image cast… from such rude principles our form began; and the earth was metamorphosed into man.”  Lines from Frankenstein that reflect the above passage are; “I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”  “…that I may extinguish the spark which I so negligently bestowed.”  (Desert Aine 2, 1-2)

The spirit of Milton’s Paradise Lost permeates Frankenstein.  On page 240 the monster states; “the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.  Yet even the enemy of God and man has friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.”  The monster compares himself to Milton’s character of the devil, yet he sees himself as even lower because he has no companion in his solitude, whereas the devil has cohorts even in his state of damnation. (Desert Aine 2, 1-2)
Three themes appear from the two works that correlate with Frankenstein:
-The molding of a living being from clay
-The growth of malice and the desire for revenge
-The isolation of the hostile being and the consequent increase of his hostility
Shelley even had the monster study Paradise Lost in his period of isolation, and he quotes from it to compare himself to Adam: “Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other human being… I was wretched, helpless, and alone.  Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition.”  In her reference to these two works, Shelley suggests an image of man as both an ultimate source (Prometheus, Adam) and destructor (Satan) of life. (Desert Aine 2, 1-2)

Frankenstein and his abominable creation are two characters inexorably linked with eachother, as father and son, as inventor and invention, and even as reflections of eachother.  Their conflict deals with themes of the morality of science and the fears of child birth, and their characters are drawn from a wealth of experience and reading.  Shelley’s doppleganger of mankind is like a twisted vision of reality; based in some sense on reality but wildly taken out of proportion, the monster is so inhuman that it cannot reconcile itself with its master or the world of humanity.  Its tragic story serves as a warning of what mankind could become as well as a reflection of Shelley’s own personal demons, and her creation has changed the face of literature.


  • Desert Aine 1. 3/13/1999. 3/14/1999. http://www.desert-fairy.com/birth.shtml
  • Desert Aine 2. 3/13/1999. 3/14/1999. http://www.desert-fairy.com/franken.shtml
  • Encyclopedia Mythica. 3/14/1999. http://pantheon.org/mythica/articles/d/doppleganger.html
  • Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley, her Life, her Fiction, her Monsters.  New York: Routledge. 1988
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