Begin the World Again

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.




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3 Responses to Begin the World Again

  1. fearthefin says:

    I really like this take on the first part of Frankenstein. I think it’s enlightening to bear in mind the potency of dreams that will “begin anew” the world or man as the book progresses, because (Spoiler Alert) the monster himself has a dream — in the form of a demand upon Frankenstein — for how to cast off his own lonely existence and begin life anew.

    Also, when it comes to beginning life anew, it’s interesting to look at the novel’s titular allusion. Shelley calls her book “The Modern Prometheus.” Why? Perhaps because Prometheus is credited in Greek mythology as creating the first man out of clay; like Frankenstein, he creates a new race from something dead (that is, something that does not possess the the so-called Bildunstrieb of life). For Romantics, Prometheus came to symbolize human striving, even if such a quest ends in tragedy. In this sense Frankenstein is again a “modern” Prometheus, a man striving for personal greatness through the advancement of mankind.

    There’s finally the fact that Prometheus’ punishment was to be tied to a rock upon a mountain, where an eagle would eat out his liver. Every day the liver would grow back and Prometheus would “begin” the process “anew.” So it seems that, like both Frankenstein and his monster, perhaps beginning life anew is not possible; or if it is, it will only end in renewed tragedy.

  2. I like your post and find it coincidental since this morning I woke from a dream that exaggerated some problems I am having with some people in my life. My daydreams, my perceived idea of how ridiculous these people are, became so much a part of my mind that it popped up when I was unconscious.

    I think in relation to Frankenstein, we might have to abandon using “dream” and “ambition” in the synonymous way we typically do. Walton, as you say, learns through dreams, but Frankenstein seems more interested in learning through experience, or what we would call science in this novel. He certainly still has ambition, but he does not dream because he doesn’t deal in the intangible.

    You say, “Frankenstein’s model of achievement is realized through science and a mastery over physical details.” He doesn’t seem to value the dreamscape, or anything other than the physical. Frankenstein has goals, but does not dream of an alternate reality. So far he only seems concerned with learning the “right” way, the way of chemistry and other sciences that only deal in what we can perceive with our senses.

  3. “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.”
    The connections that you have drawn here are intriguing. The idea that dreams are a “sort of language” that laymen, including Walton, are literate in (despite being a self-professed illiterate in an academic sense), is particularly interesting because it begs the question as to where does Victor Frankenstein’s dream language interpretative prowess fall in relation to the layman. The reality of Frankenstein’s dreams do seem to echo Keats’s sentiment in “Lamia,” as you point out, but what in particular does “Real are the dreams of Gods” say about Frankenstein? Should we believe that Frankenstein’s successful reanimation of the dead makes him a god? Or, with this “Lamia” based inter-textual reading in mind, could we make an argument that Frankenstein’s dream (with respect to the narrative) is not real, that is, the monster is only a manifestation of Frankenstein’s madness; the seemingly violent acts associated with the monster only coincidence made miraculous; and the collaborative testimony of the monsters existence merely symptomatic of a form of mass hysteria?

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