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Unspeakable Sin: Homoerotic Desire in Frankenstein

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The Gothic movement has long been a host for the uncomfortable, the uncanny, and even the unspeakable. Being buried alive, damsels in distress, madness, and supernatural beings have been prevalent and long-standing tropes of the Gothic. Underlying and sometimes even overt eroticism has also been a common trope, especially unusual and abnormal eroticism such as incestuous relationships. The idea of sexual deviancy is a taboo; it is repressed in society and in individuals, and thus it is mysterious and exciting. Homoeroticism, although largely undiscussed in the criticism of Gothic literature, falls into the category of sexual deviancy and is a common theme commonly produced by the Gothic. The production of this theme is important: in the words of Chris R. Vanden Bossche, one possible approach to examining Gothic literature is “to examine not how the Gothic gets repressed but what kinds of institutions and discourses it produces,” (Bossche 85). This paper will examine the presence of homoeroticism as a Gothic trope in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in terms of how the genre of the Gothic produces a homoerotic discourse as well as how homoeroticism heightens the effect of the Gothic.

In Frankenstein, Shelley gives the reader a multitude of strong male relationships that can be interpreted as homoerotic. Almost immediately upon the opening of the novel, our initial character, Robert Walton, says that he longs for a “friend…I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me; whose eyes would respond to mine,” (Shelley 11). After meeting Frankenstein, he lovingly refers to him as “attractive and amiable…I have found a man who…I should have been happy to have possessed as the brother of my heart,” (18). This homoeroticism, although strongly hinted at, is still not overt. It is masked by the “friendship problem,” as described by Louis Crompton: a male homoerotic relationship that is covered by the possible appearance of nothing more than a close friendship.

Yet Walton does not simply want a casual friend to converse with on his journey; his language makes it seem as though he is searching for his soul mate. Indeed, he describes Frankenstein as such: the idea of sharing a heart or soul with another person is a recurring idea[1] that is used in many romantic love stories. Furthermore, Walton does not simply want to love Frankenstein, he wants to “possess” him – this word choice has a strong connotation of monogamy, jealousy, and attachment, as well as alluding to the act of being possessed in a supernatural way. He wants Frankenstein as his and nobody else’s. The line between a homosocial and a homoerotic relationship is blurred, and it leaves the reader feeling unsure and possibly even uncomfortable as homoeroticism lurks in the subtext of the novel. Indeed, the realm of homosexuality is often placed in the category of abnormality[2], thus inducing further fear and discomfort. This abnormality also lends itself to the possibility of the supernatural: are homoerotic relationships so abnormal that, perhaps, they may not even be considered human?

Homoeroticism as an abnormal and supernatural entity becomes even more apparent as Frankenstein recounts the creation of his monster. Many critics have read this creation story as laced with eroticism, and the language that Shelley uses undoubtedly points it in this direction. As Frankenstein becomes obsessed with his monster, his “heart and soul” are engaged in nothing else (43) as he collects male body parts from “charnel houses,” (42). Victor attempts to create a male body that is subservient to him; he wishes to create and possess a man for himself, however subconscious this desire may be. He wants this man to be attractive, taking “infinite pains and care” to select proportional limbs and “beautiful” features (45). Indeed, Frankenstein appears to want a creature that he is attracted to.

As the creature is finally brought to life, “it breathed hard” and is agitated by “a convulsive motion,” (45), words that are strongly reminiscent of an orgasm. This orgasm occurs as the two men are both first fully awakened in the room yet still completely separated from society; this pleasure is secretive and constitutes an awakening. This awakening reflects the awakening of Victor’s repressed homoerotic desires. However, Frankenstein’s creature is “hideous” once fully brought to life (46) – what was acceptable in theory, or perhaps subconsciously, is unacceptable once introduced to reality. As Victor’s “beauty of a dream” vanishes and “breathless horror and disgust” (45) fill his heart, he is repulsed by his own self – the creature is indeed a materialization of his own wants – and he flees from his desires as they are brought to his immediate attention. Victor refuses to truly recognize his homoerotic longings, which manifest in the form of the creature being brought to life, to himself or to others throughout the story, despite the toll that it clearly takes on his mental health. The supernatural is thus combined with Victor’s descent into madness (another common Gothic trope). These elements allow for Victor’s terror to become fully fledged: on the surface, he is nothing more than a mad scientist who has erred tremendously, yet on a deeper level he is struggling with his repressed homoerotic desires.

After Frankenstein’s breakdown upon the creation of the monster, Henry Clerval reenters the story and “for several months…Henry was [his] only nurse,” (49). Instead of Elizabeth, who is Victor’s future wife, or a hired nurse coming to help him back to health, Victor’s “Dearest Clerval” (50) stays with him for the duration of his illness and takes on a typically female role, thus effeminizing his character. Here we encounter the “friendship problem” again, and thus much of the homoeroticism present between the two men is easily denied, repressed, and masked by the idea of a close male friendship. Yet Victor’s underlying desire for a homosexual relationship becomes more pronounced when we observe his relationship with Elizabeth. He refers to her as a “shrine-dedicated lamp” in the 1831 edition, who is present solely to “bless and animate” him and Henry in their conversation (Shelley). Elizabeth becomes an inhuman object who is there for the pleasure of the two men, but not their sexual pleasure. She is useful to them just in their conversation and nothing more.

When we analyze the language that Victor uses to describe Elizabeth versus Henry, his lack of romantic interest for her is further elevated. While Elizabeth is “dear,” (57), Henry is dearest, his “favourite companion,” (58), his “beloved” (179) who calls “forth the better feelings of [his] heart,” (58). Victor says that “the idea of an immediate union with my Elizabeth was one of horror and dismay” due to his “engagement” (147) with his creature. The creature, still representing his repressed homoerotic desires, causes him to be horrified at the prospect of marrying Elizabeth. However, Frankenstein is more than happy to travel alone with Clerval for two full years while fulfilling his engagement with the creature, yet again showing his preference for his male companion. Homoeroticism continues to lurk throughout the novel, just as Frankenstein’s monster lurks in the English countryside, waiting to reappear.

The creature does reappear, and it refuses to allow Frankenstein to forget its existence (and therefore the existence of his homoerotic desires). As it kills all of Victor’s loved ones one by one, Victor remains silent. Although Victor admits to himself that he is responsible for these murders, he cannot tell anyone else about his involvement. If he did, he would be outing himself for the creation of this deviant and abnormal creature who was designed for his own pleasure.

Victor is given an alternative to these murders by the monster itself. It has one request: a “companion…of the same species” (135). After some persuasion, Victor initially agrees to this request, wanting to rid himself of his own repressed pain. Yet he soon realizes that this cannot be done. On a basic level, of course, Victor refuses to bring another terrible creature into the world to torture himself and his family. However, on a deeper level, Victor does not truly want his creature to leave him alone. In a somewhat masochistic manner (another form of sexual deviancy often used in the Gothic), Victor still wants his creature to depend on its creator. The creature reminds Victor of his repressed homoerotic urges, and he cannot rid himself of the painful pleasure of his desires.

Thus, Victor destroys the female body that he is in the process of creating. In jealousy, he destroys the only other companion that the creature may ever know while also ridding himself of another female before she is even brought to life. This destruction leads to the destruction of another female body: that of Elizabeth’s. Upon seeing what Frankenstein has done, the creature declares, “…remember, I shall be with you on your wedding-night,” (163). This is laced with eroticism, and Frankenstein interprets it similarly: on his wedding night, he thinks only of his own possible encounters with the monster and completely ignores the possibility of the monster attacking Elizabeth until he hears her scream and “the whole truth rushed into [his] mind,” (189).

Frankenstein must then face his desires head-on; Elizabeth is no longer there to mask his homoeroticism. He must leave society and venture into the Arctic in order to do so; he still cannot admit his sexually deviant creation to anyone but himself. Victor then engages in a game hide-and-seek with the creature, in which the creature taunts him with messages and paths of food while Victor excitedly follows him with “unabated fervour” (199). Victor needs to possess the creature again and regain his dominance. He quite literally dedicates his life to his creature, and in doing so he unreservedly follows his own desires. Yet Victor is punished for doing so: at the end, both the creator and (supposedly) the creature die. Homoeroticism is forbidden in their society, and they are punished for their sins. Indeed, this largely reflects much of the sentiment towards homosexuality in 19th century Europe[3].

The tropes and language of the Gothic easily lend themselves to homoeroticism. The Gothic is expected to make the reader uncomfortable, unsure, and fearful. The element of the homoerotic relationship adds to this discomfort and uncertainty for the reader as it is combined with other classic tropes. In the common Gothic act of doubling, for example, the already present uncanniness is heightened by the addition of a forbidden love. A male/male or female/female relationship allows for the tropes of doubling and eroticism to be combined to produce an even greater effect. Abnormality and the supernatural, which are already unnatural, can similarly be combined with homoerotic themes to further their unearthly effect.

Just as homoeroticism adds to the ‘creepiness’ of the Gothic, the Gothic gives homoeroticism a platform. In stories that are meant to shock, confuse, and frighten the reader, homoeroticism fits in and adds to the theme of the story. However, it fits in only as an unnatural and perverse identity as opposed to being accepted or promoted. The Gothic does not show us homoerotic relationships that are healthy and acknowledged by society, rather they are repressed and viewed as something to be ashamed of. Yet the homoeroticism is nevertheless present and cannot be ignored.


[1] Most famously, in Wuthering Heights, Cathy asserts that Heathcliff is “more myself than I am. Whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same,” (Brontë).

[2] See Katz’s “Invention of Heterosexuality” for further reading on the categorization of homosexuality as abnormal.

[3] Capital punishment was only just phasing out of use for crimes of sodomy in the early 19th century. See Pickett for further reading on this.

Works Cited

Bossche, Chris R. Vanden. Religion & Literature, vol. 40, no. 3, 2008, pp. 85–88. JSTOR.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Project Gutenberg, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2019.

Church, Joseph. "To Make Venus Vanish.” American Transcendental Quarterly 20.2 (2006). ProQuest. Web. 18 Feb. 2019.

Crompton, Louis. Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in Nineteenth-Century England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985

Katz, Jonathan Ned. “The Invention of Heterosexuality.” The Matrix Reader: Examining the Dynamics of Oppression and Privilege. Ed. Abby Ferber. New York: McGraw, 2009. 231-242. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” 1839. Poestories.com. Web. 15 Feb. 2019.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” 1841. Poestories.com. Web. 15 Feb. 2019.

Pickett, Brent. "Homosexuality." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Stanford: Stanford University, Spring 2018. Web.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Project Gutenberg, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2019.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstien: The 1818 Text. New York: Penguin, 2018. Print.

Comments

charity mtisi from Johannesburg on March 01, 2019:

Great article, great analysis . I found it really interesting. Victor must have been an eccentric scientist.

Stanley Johnston on February 27, 2019:

Well written, insightful, professional, and academic. Love the notes and bibliography as well. Reminds me of assigned readings and essays during my university years. Excellent.

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