Veronica holds a Master's Degree in Literature from American University, and has a passion for literary and film analysis.
Human Mitosis in 'Frankenstein' and 'The Double:' Reanalyzing the Doubled Protagonist in Fantastic Myth
Many stories of the fantastic use “doubling” as a literary device that often calls attention to the protagonist’s fragmented nature. Whether physically identical or psychologically similar, the “double” often represents a splitting of self that brings about horror and ruin for the main character. Doubling is not typically viewed, however, as a reproductive act that has links to eroticism. In this essay, however, I use Georges Bataille’s theories of eroticism to demonstrate how the doubling that occurs in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a type of asexual reproduction that internalizes erotic behavior and results in total loss of identity for the protagonists. By applying Bataille’s theories, I attempt to push Rosemary Jackson’s “Frankenstein myth” of the modern fantastic (58) to new limits, and rework her analysis of Dostoevsky’s protagonist as a mere “negative image” of his “ideal other” (135). Instead of reframing the function of the double, my goal is to reanalyze the position of the self/protagonist by showing how Mr. Goliadkin and Frankenstein forfeit their original life and unintentionally become two entirely new and separate selves through doubling, shedding new light on their motivations as characters.
In the “Introduction” to Erotism, Georges Bataille states that “the fundamental meaning of reproduction” is the “key to eroticism” (12), suggesting that the significant events surrounding reproduction, and doubling, are connected to notions of eroticism. Briefly in this chapter, Bataille explains the asexual reproduction of elementary organisms, e.g. amoebas1, and discusses how, through mitosis2, “two new beings” are derived “from one single being” (13). Bataille explains that the two new beings “are equally products of the first,” but, through the creation of these beings, “the first being has ceased to exist” (13). Interestingly, Bataille puts single-celled reproduction into human terms, and asks his readers to:
[…] imagine yourself changing from the state you are in to one in which your whole self is completely doubled; you cannot survive this process since the doubles you have turned into are essentially different from you. Each of these doubles is necessarily distinct from you as you are now. To be truly identical with you, one of the doubles would have to be actually continuous with the other, and not distinct from it as it would have become. Imagination boggles at this grotesque idea. (14).
Bataille’s description of human, asexual doubling is valuable when considering the fictional doubling that occurs in the fantastic. Equally valuable are Bataille’s notions of “continuity” and “discontinuity” within eroticism. According to Bataille, all human beings are “discontinuous beings,” meaning that humans are born alone and die alone, but consistently yearn for continuity and connection “with everything that is” (15). Continuity means both a sense of unbroken unity and endlessness. With eroticism, “the concern is to substitute for the individual isolated discontinuity a feeling of profound continuity” (15), but “the domain of eroticism,” and the attempt of continuity, is violent, violating, and puts “existence itself” at stake (17). Bataille suggests that the only way to achieve true continuity is through death, or, if the creature is a single-celled amoeba, through the single instant in which one being becomes two, the moment right before the original being ceases to exist.
1 This is my example. Bataille never mentions amoebas specifically.
2 Bataille never uses the word “mitosis” in his essay, though the process he describes, of a single-cell splitting into two cells, is mitosis in scientific terms.
Bataille’s human mitosis and notions of discontinuity correspond with Rosemary Jackson’s description of the myths of the modern fantastic that she discusses in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. In her chapter “The Fantastic as a Mode,” Jackson describes two types of myths derived from Todorov’s “groups of fantastic themes, those dealing with the ‘I’ and those dealing with the ‘not-I’” (58), targeting the relationship between self and “other.” Jackson describes one of the myths as “the Frankenstein type of myth” in which the “self becomes other through a self-generated metamorphosis, through the subject’s alienation from himself and consequent splitting or multiplying of identities (structured around themes of the ‘I’)” (59). Though Jackson refers primarily to Frankenstein in her description of this myth, she later compares Shelley’s and Dostoevsky’s use of dualism and finds that their doubled protagonists similarly articulate “feelings of estrangement” (137), essentially classifying The Double as a Frankenstein-type myth. Bataille’s theories surrounding “the domain of eroticism” have the potential to push Jackson’s myth even further, explaining the fluctuating relationship between the double and the protagonist and placing emphasis on doubling as both the outcome and the catalyst of the main character’s extreme isolation and longing for continuity.
In the first volume of Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein fundamentally tells the story of his ambition to reproduce asexually – an aspiration that correlates with his youthful desire to cheat death. As he relates his childhood to the sea-faring Robert Walton, Frankenstein describes himself “as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature,” recounting his fascination with the “search of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life” (21). Frankenstein blames these early studies of “natural philosophy” for “the birth of that passion, which afterwards ruled my destiny” (20), and by relating these beginnings he is associating the psychological doubling that is to occur later, with passion and longing for continuity. Frankenstein’s passion/ambition is both non-sexual and erotic – he longs for a sense of power over nature and constancy outside of death, but instead of seeking this continuity through sexual activity, he seeks it in isolation and within himself. As if foreshadowing the events of his mitosis, Frankenstein tells an anecdote from when he was fifteen and witnessed an old oak tree getting struck by lightning:
[…] on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak […] and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump […] It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed. (22)
What is interesting about this image is that the “stream of fire” seems to come from the oak tree, as if it has profound power within it to destroy itself. What is also noteworthy is that the tree had produced “thin ribbons of wood” as if mimicking the notion of one being becoming many beings, and becoming thoroughly obliterated in the process.
What the scene with the oak tree proves is that brief continuity can be achieved through asexual reproduction, but this continuity comes at the cost of a violent thrusting into non-existence or complete loss of self. With a fear of non-existence underlying the attempt to defy natural law, Frankenstein’s story can be reduced to terms associated with physical eroticism, where desire turns to terror, and terror to desire. Bataille’s defines eroticism as “assenting to life up to the point of death” (11), and it is clear that Frankenstein’s extreme desire to create life is a perversion of this notion – eroticism through asexual reproduction means creating life through death. The moments leading up to his mitosis, however, almost inverts the sexual act that he has surpassed: “I became nervous to a most painful degree […] I shunned my fellow-creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime. Sometimes I grew alarmed at the wreck I perceived that I had become; the energy of my purposes alone sustained me: my labours would soon end” (34). Such phrasing almost evokes a non-enjoyable sex act, and since Frankenstein is portrayed as almost completely non-sexual throughout the novel (he does not even seem to consummate his marriage), this description of “labour” for the sake of reproduction seems fitting. Once Frankenstein is ready to “infuse a spark of being,” he experiences “anxiety that almost amounted to agony,” evoking the desire and pain associated with eroticism.
From the moment that the creature opens his eyes, mitosis begins, and leads to a full destruction of the “old” Frankenstein. Two new beings emerge that are psychological doubles of one another, yet completely separate from one another and the original Frankenstein. When Frankenstein sees the “dull yellow eye of the creature open” (35), a significant shift in character occurs, as if suggesting that he is also now a product of asexual reproduction, another aspect of the original Frankenstein’s self, but discontinuous from that self. From this point on, Frankenstein seems naïve, irresponsible, and totally disinterested in his previous goals. Looking at the creature he is horrified and disgusted by what he originally thought was beautiful, and abandons the creature that he had been toiling over for years: “dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!” (36). As a result of the exchange of life, Frankenstein becomes ill, abandons all responsibility concerning the creature, and tries to regain the elements of his past life. As if trying to collect the shattered aspects of his self and become the man he once was, Frankenstein changes from being a man that preferred isolation to a man that desperately longs for his family, as they are taken from him one by one by his double.
Viewing post-creation Frankenstein as discontinuous from pre-creation Frankenstein accounts for the relationship he has with the creature in the text. Whenever the two come together it is during moments of sublime and dream-like terror, as if nature is reacting to their interaction. When the creature first reappears, Frankenstein is mourning the death of his little brother William in the middle of a thunderstorm. Alluding to the oak tree from his childhood, lightning strikes and Frankenstein sees the “gigantic stature” (50) of the creature. He is instantly filled with hatred, terror, and disgust, and from then on their relationship becomes a kind of power struggle more prevalent among mortal enemies than that of parent/child. Both characters are equally in agony, equally forced into isolation, and by the end of the novel, the creature recognizes that they can only find the continuity they’ve been lamenting through the finality of death: “I shall die, and what I now feel will be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct […] My spirit will sleep in peace” (166). Though they actively sought to take vengeance on one another, new Frankenstein and the creature equally lived for one another, and their hatred seems to ignite from their inability to reclaim the lost moment of continuity1 at their birth. The creature especially serves as a reminder for new Frankenstein, not only of his impending mortality and weakness, but his loss of a stable identity. Like the creature, new Frankenstein is lost, isolated, and cannot reclaim his place within society or within his being.
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1 This moment of continuity occurs in the instant that the one being separates into two. According to Bataille, at that moment all three experience continuity.
Mr. Goliadkin from Dostoevsky’s The Double also undergoes a human mitosis, but in a more literal sense. While Frankenstein’s mitosis resulted in psychological doubles, Mr. Goliadkin’s transformation results in physical doubling, though he experiences similar feelings of terror, agony, and isolation. The catalyst for Mr. Goliadkin’s doubling is different from Frankenstein’s; instead of wanting to escape death, Goliadkin wants to escape from himself, and from his own personal nature that he cannot control. In beginning of the text, Goliadkin shows a passionate desire to be someone else, but is dominated by the realization that he cannot control his body, his awkwardness, or his fate. When Goliadkin travels the streets in his “droshky” and notices that his boss is looking into his carriage, the happiness he experiences up until this point changes to extreme anxiety, and he ardently wishes to be someone else:
[…] seeing that Andrei Filippovich recognized him perfectly well, was looking at him all eyes, and it was simply impossible to hide from him, blushed to the roots of his hair […] pretend it’s not me but someone else strikingly resembling me, and look as if nothing has happened? Precisely not me, not me, and that’s that! […] it’s not me at all, Andrei Filippovich, it’s not me at all, not me, and that’s that.’ (8).
Goliadkin’s desire to separate from himself, to be the “not me,” demonstrates a longing for unity among his peers – a unity he cannot accomplish because he overly aware of his discontinuity and the “gulf” that exists between individuals due to “fundamental difference” (Bataille, 12).
Goliadkin seems to simultaneously wish to not exist and to be someone else, a wish that can only be fulfilled through mitosis. This desire is articulated after he is kicked out of the party of his peers for trying to dance with Klara, a young woman that he is drawn to. Standing alone, completely isolated on a bridge during a blizzard, the narrator states that “Mr. Goliadkin now wanted not only to escape from himself, but to annihilate himself completely, to be no more, to turn to dust” (44). Shortly after this declaration of his desire, Goliadkin experiences a Frankenstein-like torment and toil that results in a splitting of self: “It is known only that at that moment Mr. Goliadkin reached such despair, was so broken, so tormented, so exhausted and sagging in what remained of his spirit, […] that he forgot everything […] the thing was done, finished” (45). Goliadkin reaches the height of anguish, and at that moment, a split occurs. Very “suddenly” Goliadkin shudders all over and jumps, believing that at that moment “someone had been standing there next to him, also leaning his elbow on the rail of the embankment” (45). Shortly afterwards, Goliadkin feels different, a “new sensation echoed” in his whole being (46) and he perceives someone “like him” coming towards him. He has reproduced, but unknowingly and unintentionally. His desire for continuity among his peers has resulted in a discontinuity within the self, fulfilling his dream of becoming both non-existent and the “not me,” but causing further isolation in the process.
After Goliadkin doubles, he goes through a transformation and endeavors on a circular journey just as Frankenstein does. In separating the self, he simultaneously creates life and loses all sense of identity. Though even from the beginning he never came across as a fully formed self, after his doubling his world becomes even more confused and menacing. Just like Frankenstein, he slowly loses all the aspects that made up his former life because of his doubling. Again we see desire turning to terror and terror turning to desire. The original Goliadkin longed to be free from his identity in order to achieve continuity among his peers, but the creation that results destroys his original being and causes the new Goliadkin to be further isolated and continuing to yearn for continuity with his peers, and himself.
Though often terrified of his double, Goliadkin desires to be reunited with him – a need that is awakened when he invites Mr. Goliadkin Jr. to his home. During their conversation, Goliadkin Sr. acknowledges that he and his double originate from the same parts (66). Once they start drinking together and taking opium, the protagonist realizes that he is finally “extraordinarily happy” (70). During this scene, Goliadkin seems to experience the unity and acceptance among peers that has been lacking in his life, and he is only able to do it through the dream-like, false unity with the discontinuous aspects of his self. Goliadkin holds on to this brief happiness as hope throughout the novel, forgiving Goliadkin Jr.’s destructive behavior in anticipation of a future brotherhood. His double, however, is an adamantly discontinuous being who is often repulsed by any sort of unity with Goliadkin Sr. – something he demonstrates when he accidentally shakes hands with him: “without any shame, without feeling, without compassion and conscience, suddenly, […] tore his hand from Mr. Goliadkin Sr.’s hand” (122). At the end of the novel when they touch again, Goliadkin Jr. gives Goliadkin Sr. a handshake and a kiss right before the latter is taken away to a mental institution. This gesture mocks Goliadkin Sr. with the false hope of continuity that he will never achieve, and recalls the mitosis that brought them into being:
[…] his perfidious friend was smiling […] there was something sinister in the face of the indecent Mr. Goliadkin Jr., that he even made a grimace at the moment of his Judas’s kiss […] it seemed to him that a multitude, an endless string of completely identical Goliadkins was bursting noisily through all the doors of the room; but it was too late. (167).
It seems at this moment that Goliadkin comes so close to recapture an achievement in continuity, only to be deceived by his double, again demonstrating the agonizing yearning for impossible continuity that is seen in Frankenstein.
Within the fantastic, The Double and Frankenstein are able to create imaginative tales of human longing and shattered being through grotesque misapplications of simple biology. Applying Bataille’s theories of eroticism to the fantastic makes doubling a reproductive act that adds depth and motivation to the doubled protagonists, making them active participants and byproducts of the doubling instead of victims. Such a perspective also makes the double a powerful equal to the protagonist, rather than a child-like figure, and instills a terror of self and nature that is hinted at through Jackson’s Frankenstein myth. Asexual reproduction also explains the protagonist’s complete loss of identity and his desire to reunite with the double he both pities and hates. The Double and Frankenstein both trace the journey of discontinuous beings that yearn for continuity outside of sexual human nature and the finality of death, and by invoking these notions they highlight the futility of such pursuits. Their doubled protagonists emphasize the paradoxical nature that lies within all individuals – a yearning to assent to life beyond the boundaries of death.
Bataille, Georges. "Introduction." Erotism: Death & Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights, 1986. 11-24.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Double and The Gambler. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 2005.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.
© 2018 Veronica McDonald