Growing up is a universal part of the human experience. A whole genre of literature, called the bildungsroman, follows this path from adolescence to adulthood. The term bildungsroman was not widely used until around 1870, but it was first coined in 1817 and aptly labels a long list of works stretching from the end of the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century ("Bildungsroman"). The root word bildung translated from German into English can refer to “development,” “education,” “apprenticeship,” “self-culture,” “acculturation,” or “formation” (Lyons 1). But although bildungsroman is a word with many meanings, its historical interpretation in eighteenth and nineteenth century British literature has narrowly defined what “growing up” entails. English writers often conceptualized maturation as a linear process with distinct milestones, featuring education, travel, and—most reliably—marriage and parentage. The archetypal coming-of-age story charts the protagonist’s interior journey “from youth to psychological or emotional maturity,” and love and friendship form crucial steps in the transition to adulthood ("Bildungsroman"). Thus, the British bildungsroman prescribes a life cycle that revolves around the presumed importance of forming secure social attachments.
Mary Shelley’s 1818 science fiction gothic Frankenstein may at first appear an unlikely heir to the bildungsroman tradition, but I follow scholar Isabelle Bour’s footsteps in identifying how Frankenstein experiments with the bildungsroman genre. Shelley’s classic novel tests the generic conventions of the bildungsroman by tracing the consequences of social isolation on Frankenstein’s and the Monster’s development. Here, the text seems to anticipate the psychosocial developmental theory that would be developed over a century later. Erik Erikson, a prominent psychologist from the mid-1900s, argued that the central developmental task from age eighteen to forty was overcoming the crisis of isolation and learning to nurture loving social relationships. His work exposed how homosocial bonds of friendship and heterosexual romantic affection undergird the progression from youth to adulthood. Both of Frankenstein’s protagonists display disrupted trajectories and fail to fully pass through manhood because they are unable to form essential interpersonal connections. Following the literary and psychological tradition, Frankenstein figures romance and male-male friendship as intrinsic developmental milestones. Social bonds wire us into life, and deprived of these life-giving relationships, both Frankenstein and the Monster shrink into vile shadows of themselves. Frankenstein’s obsession with animating matter—an act which subverts nature itself—leads to distorted, premature fatherhood. The creation or “birthing” scene arrives the coattails of Frankenstein’s withdrawal from society and marks Frankenstein’s social death, ultimately foreclosing Frankenstein’s chances at romantic love and thus natural procreation. The Monster is stuck in a similar limbo. Rejected by all of society (even his creator), the Monster resorts to violence, signaling the dire consequences of social isolation and inverting the paradigm of Romantic child, the paragon of benign innocence. Through their foreclosed social development, both Frankenstein and the Monster are doomed to a purgatorial state, each caught between stages of development and unable to pass from one to the next.
Shelley incorporates the desire for social connection by privileging friend and family relationships as significant, life-giving forces from the text’s outset. Socialization produces salutary health benefits. After months of isolation and private study culminating in the creation of his Monster, Frankenstein reunites with his friend Clerval. Their meeting reanimates Frankenstein, who praises, “A selfish pursuit had cramped and narrowed me, until your gentleness and affection warmed and opened my sense” (51). Shelley goes on to prove the necessity of friendship by showing the pain and loneliness suffered in its absence. In the first few pages of the novel, Walton bemoans, “But I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy; and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil. I have no friend, Margaret…I bitterly feel the want of a friend” (9). Walton’s unfulfilled desire parallels the Monster’s frustrated attempts at connection. Brokenhearted by the departure of the cabin family De Lacey, the Monster laments that they have “broken the only link that held me to the world” (113). Later, the Monster explains his pitiable state, “I have no ties and no affections…My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being, and become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded” (121). The use of the words “link,” “tie,” and, “chain,” all work to metaphorize social connection and belonging as a stabilizing force. These social bonds form the umbilical cord which joins us to life. This tethering imagery asserts an almost physical presence when Frankenstein first contemplates suicide. He recalls, “I was tempted to plunge into the silent lake, that the waters might close over me and my calamities forever,” but he is “restrained” when he thinks of Elizabeth, his father, and his brother (70). His family acts as a safeguard, pulling him back from the edge of despair. Frankenstein resolves life is still worth living when he is reminded of these relationships.
The underlying power of family can also be seen in the role that reproduction plays in the text. Reading the creation scene through the lens of human development, we recognize Frankenstein’s attempt to realize manhood through procreation, but his attempt is grotesque and premature. Scientific discovery inflates his ego, and Frankenstein muses, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (37). Frankenstein seems to view offspring as resources with which to satisfy his narcissistic need for adulation. This perversion of procreation leads to a desire which is unnatural, immoderate, and overreaching. Frankenstein admits that his single-mindedness takes its physical and psychological toll, recalling, “I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I have deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation” (39). Frankenstein withdraws from domestic life to sustain his obsession. In this, birth masks his social death. He resolves to “procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed” (37). Neglecting his relationships leaves Frankenstein “lifeless,” but his reunion with Clerval offers a rewriting of the birthing scene, for “nothing but my friend could have restored [Frankenstein] to life” (43). Shelley’s resurrection imagery underscores the vital need for homosocial friendships. At the same time, the Monster paints his ostracization as criminal and accuses Frankenstein of denying him familial affection: “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded” (78). Frankenstein, unable to perform the proper role of father, drives the Monster deeper and deeper into despair.
Taking a case study approach to the Monster’s social development, we observe the severe consequences that Frankenstein’s abandonment has on the Monster’s integration into society. First, the Monster’s socialization is foreclosed from the outset because he had no childhood. Skipping over infancy provides an interesting challenge to the bildungsroman structure which foregrounds the metamorphosis from child to adult, contributing to what scholar Zoe Beenstock describes as an “impossible situation [where] an inherently sociable being cannot be socialized” (Beenstock 406). The Monster laments, “But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses…From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed intercourse with me” (97). All who see him run from him, and Beenstock further explains how the Monster’s hybrid appearance “bars [him] from participating in the model of sociability for which he was destined” (Beenstock 413). She writes:
The effect of horror is produced by the contrast among the creature’s diverse parts, which have no prior relationship to each other and apparently belong to several different species…The creature experiences rejection because he is himself a figure of social anomaly—formed of individual parts that share no common background and are discordant and disturbing to all who behold him. (Beenstock 414)
The only one of his kind, the Monster is bereft of community. Without a biological family to nurture and guide him, the Monster must learn to survive entirely on his own.
To invoke another renown social psychologist, the Monster quickly ascends Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchic theory of basic needs in 1943, which is often depicted as a five-level pyramid (Block 913). From bottom to top, Maslow’s needs are Physical (air, water, food, and rest), Security (shelter, safety, stability), Social (need for belonging, inclusion, being loved), Ego (self-esteem, recognition, prestige), and finally Self Actualization (need for development, creativity). These needs are chronological, so once one meets the first, they pass to the second, and so on. The first four represent physiological needs, while the last step of self-actualization is associated with psychological needs and personal growth (Block 913). The Monster swiftly fulfills physical and safety needs by foraging for berries, slaking his thirst in a nearby brook, sleeping, and later finding an abandoned cabin where he takes up residence for many months (81-82). Finding social belonging and love—Maslow’s third step—however, presents an insurmountable roadblock. Maslow states that “People seek to overcome feelings of loneliness and alienation. This involves both giving and receiving love, affection, and the sense of belonging” (Block 914). The Monster ardently desires to participate in the De Laceys’ social network, and he fantasizes, “By my gentle demeanor and conciliating words, I should win their favour, and afterwards their love” (91). After months of closely watching the family, he becomes fixated on winning their friendship. “My heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures,” says the Monster, “To see their sweet looks turned towards me with affection, was the utmost limit of my ambition” (107). When the Monster attempts to form a social bond, the De Laceys reject him. Tormented and spurned, he seeks out Dr. Frankenstein and demands that he make him a companion. The Monster describes social connection as a right, required for survival: “You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This alone you can do; I demand it of you as a right you must not refuse” (118, emphasis mine). Deprived of these relationships, the Monster blames his vice on his perpetual loneliness. In a moving speech, the Monster tells Walton,
The fallen angel becomes the malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am quite alone… [My desires] were ever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and still I was spurned. I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. (189)
Living without social attachments hardly constitutes life at all. Imagining himself as an abortion, the Monster powerfully signals back to Frankenstein’s incomplete and distorted fatherhood; the absence of recognition or relationship from his creator is life-ending.
Neither character walks away unscathed. Frankenstein’s frustrated fatherhood consumes him, ultimately thwarting the romance plot and foreclosing the possibility of natural procreation. The Monster’s lurking presence disquiets him, and Frankenstein recalls, “Sleep did not afford me respite from thought and misery. Towards morning I was possessed by a kind of night-mare; I felt the fiend’s grasp in my neck, and could not free myself from it; groans and cries rung in my ears” (155). Frankenstein warns readers early on against the dangers of obsessive pursuits, cautioning, “No man [ought to be] allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections” (38). This injunction takes on new resonance when read against Frankenstein’s romantic fate. In later chapters, Frankenstein’s misery prevents him from participating in the joys of domestic life. Both his father and Elizabeth notice his distraction. His father writes, “Yet you are still unhappy, and still avoid our society. Yesterday an idea struck me…You, perhaps, regard her as your sister, without any wish that she might become your wife. Nay, you may have met with another whom you may love” (125). Indeed, Frankenstein is reluctant to marry Elizabeth, fearful of “enter[ing] into a festival with this deadly weight hanging round my neck, and bowing me to the ground” (126). This inverts the tether imagery seen earlier; rather than provide a life-giving social connection, the Monster’s hold over Frankenstein seems to physically restrain Frankenstein from full participation in family life. His corrupted fatherhood, haunted by the Monster, cripples Frankenstein’s ability to engage in heterosexual romantic love. Sensing his distance, Elizabeth joins Frankenstein’s father in challenging his affections, “Do you not love another? I confess to you, my friend, that when I saw you last autumn so unhappy, flying to solitude, from the society of every creature, I could not help supposing that you might regret our connexion” (158). His obsession with the Monster perverts the attempted romance; Frankenstein’s failure to consummate his marriage—he abandons Elizabeth on his wedding night to walk the halls searching for the Monster—creates the opportune opening for her murder. While Frankenstein ruins his own chances at love and procreation, he determinedly resolves to deny the Monster the same pleasures, lest “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror” (138). What he fears most in the Monster—his reproductive ability—he then precludes in himself.
At the end of the novel, both Frankenstein and the Monster are doomed for their inability to achieve the bildungsroman conclusion. Shelley denies them closure and leaves them to bemoan their pitiable state. Frankenstein, reflecting on his lost relationships, sorrowfully concludes, “The cup of life was poisoned for ever” (153). He laments to Walton, “I—I have lost every thing, and cannot begin life anew” (16). Walton tries his best to befriend Frankenstein, who rejects his overtures, “When you speak of new ties, and fresh affections, think you that any can replace those who are gone? Can any man be to me as Clerval was; or any woman another Elizabeth?” (180). Frankenstein’s inability to form new social connections traps him in a miserable inertia. He goes mad from the social isolation, and Frankenstein communes with his lost loved ones in sleep, where the line between fantasy and reality blurs:
My life, as it passed thus, was indeed hateful to me, and it was during sleep alone that I could taste joy…During the day I was sustained and inspirited by the hope of night, for in sleep I saw my friends, my wife, and my beloved country; again I saw the benevolent countenance of my father, heard the silver tones of my Elizabeth's voice, and beheld Clerval enjoying health and youth. Often, when wearied by a toilsome march, I persuaded myself that I was dreaming until night should come and that I should then enjoy reality in the arms of my dearest friends. How did I cling to their dear forms, as sometimes they haunted even my waking hours, and persuade myself that they still lived! (173)
Frankenstein has been reduced to a shadow of his former self. He is sustained by dreams, which offer momentary connection to family.
Typically, the bildungsroman ends with completed maturity and acceptance into society, but Shelley subverts readers’ expectations. Withdrawn from the rest of the world, her protagonists persist in a never-ending game of cat and mouse. For each, the other is his only surviving bond, and yet their relationship is a perversion of both the homosocial and romantic connections seen earlier in the text through Clerval and Elizabeth. Frankenstein and his Monster’s relationship is built on mutual loathing, not love. The Monster leaves “marks in writing on the barks of the trees, or cut in stone” to keep Frankenstein on his trail, a detail which echoes the playful courtship conventions of pursuer and pursued (174). Their disrupted trajectories, foreclosing growth and completed development, point towards the basic human need for social connection and acceptance. Thus, Frankenstein can be read as a cautionary tale against the detrimental effects of isolation and ostracization. The benign, nurturing relationships of friends and family safeguard against our own monstrosity: when these life-lines are cut, we risk sinking all the way down to Hell.