Dreams are a recurring fixation in many of the works we’ve read thus far, and I’d like to discuss dreams in the context of Frankenstein.
Frankenstein centers on a Faustian figure that overleaps the bounds of the mortal world and has to suffer the consequences of his act of hubris. Victor Frankenstein aspires to be a god—to give life to that which previously did not possess it. Like many of the authors we have read thus far, the doctor is examining that which is “without example” (51)—the ineffable and the unprecedented. He desires, like the Indian prince in Hume’s essay, to “render [life’s seeming eccentricities consistent for ever.” (52) Frankenstein’s model of achievement is realized through science and a mastery over physical details.
Robert Walton, the frame narrator of Shelley’s work, subtly comments upon and relates itself to the central narrative of Victor Frankenstein. Walton is critical of those who live a purely physical existence, such as the Captain, who has “scarcely an idea beyond the rope and the shroud.” (56) As much as Walton desires the wisdom that Frankenstein seems to possess, his narration in his letters also serves as a sort of critique of Frankenstein.
Rather than through traditional means, Walton seems to come to knowledge through his dreams. He refers often to “day dreams” that “inspired by the wind of promise…become more fervent and vivid.” (51) A few pages later, he comments that his dreams became progressively “more extended and magnificent; but they want (as the painters call it) keeping.” (55, emphasis hers) This passage radically destabilizes the idea of dreams, emphasizing dreams as an aspect of humanity that Frankenstein had not even contemplated. Describing dreams in the language of art (of painting, specifically), Walton suggests that dreams were an as-yet untapped resource for understanding humanity.
Like Frankenstein, Robert Walton is a man with grand ambitions. He desires to “Tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man,” (52) and he does so in his travels. Like Frankenstein, Walton masters his physical existence, to some extent, “inuring [his] body to hardship.” (53) Interestingly, in a vision echoing and inverting Asimov’s land of darkness in Nightwood, Walton describes Petersburg as a land of perpetual light and “perpetual splendor.” (51) This image of a land of perpetual light is evocative of the human mind, in which, though the external world and the humans within it may sleep in darkness, images of light continue to flicker before us. The human may sleep, but the mind never does—not completely. By harnessing his dream visions, Walton is able to make contact with his deeper self in ways that he cannot express in writing.
The human dreamscape is the strange new world which Walton perceives, but Frankenstein seems to disregard, or at least in the first few chapters. The more difficult elements of humanity to dominate and understand are the less tangible elements of the psyche. Frankenstein can place dead muscle tissue in anatomically correct order, but this doesn’t mean that what he creates will be “human.” Walton self-effacingly calls himself “more illiterate than many school-boys of fifteen,” (55) and mentions that he is an autodidact. It’s interesting how much Walton emphasizes languages and illiteracy. Dreams become a sort of language that we try to decode, but are always a bit strange and foreign. Dreams are our world conveyed back to us, as we see it, but in a language that we cannot quite access. When thinking about dreams in Frankenstein, I couldn’t help but think back to a quote from Lamia—“It was no dream, or say a dream it was,/Real are the dreams of Gods, and smoothly pass/ Their pleasures in a long immortal dream.” This quote is suggestive of the power and potency of dreams, and their significance for our mortal lives.
Within a few pages, Doctor Frankenstein expresses multiple times the desire for a new beginning. The Frankenstein speaking in the frame narrative desires to “begin life anew,” (61) as he chases through the snow in pursuit of his creation. Then, on page 64, he tells how his father urged his friend, Beaufort, to “begin the world again” (64) with his aid. Though the possibility for a new beginning is never really promised for either character, it seems to be suggested that dreams might offer a new beginning. By accessing the art and science operating in chemical visions within one’s own mind, one might be better able to venture out and express that understanding of humanity to others. In other words, the individual mind is a world of its own that must be prodded and conquered before one can begin playing god. Deconstruct and master your own body and mind before you begin constructing new ones, or else risk bearing the albatross around your neck.