Freud’s concept of the death drive is a strange one. Originally he theorized that the id was driven entirely by the pursuit of pleasure, and called this law of behavior the pleasure principle. Later in his life, however, Freud decided that the id was also driven by a desire to return to rest and stasis through death. This much darker motive he called the death drive. Freud theorized that the death drive took over once the libido, or sex drive, was fulfilled. To support his claim he pointed out how insects often die immediately after reproduction. He said his theory explains “how similar the state following complete sexual gratification is to dying. …after the elimination of Eros through gratification, the death drive has a free hand for effecting its intentions” (The Ego and the Id).
Frankenstein’s creation of the monster is, I argued in my first paper, a form of autoerotic reproduction–a sexual act completed by one person. Frankenstein engages in this form of reproduction because he is a narcissist in the Freudian sense,a person whose libido is directed not outward and toward exterior objects, but inward and toward his own ego. Because narcissists look toward themselves as their primary source of pleasure, they fear death and the death drive even more than the average person. In fact, they are terrified by the death drive, because it threatens the survival of their own ego, which they value above all else.
Immediately following his creation of the monster, Victor is horrified. The creature he has made looks ugly and unnatural. It is a literal embodiment of death–after all, his body is composed from the limbs and organs of dead people. Victor realizes that his creation is already dying, that his act of reproduction has created a creature already on its way to the grave. Thus Victor comes to associate the monster with the death drive that follows the fulfillment of the pleasure drive. This is very upsetting to Victor. He has a nightmare:
“I slept indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms” (85).
Recall that Freud insisted all dreams are wish-fulfillment. How can a nightmare fulfill a wish? Well, remember that Elizabeth is Victor’s one object of love besides himself. He has abandoned her to complete an act of autoerotic reproduction, but right before his slumber he realized this project was a disaster. The death drive caught up with him, in the form of the monster, when he tried to satisfy his libido on his own. By contrast, in his dream his outward-directed libido, symbolized by Victor kissing his lover, also leads to death, symbolized by the corpse of his mother. It’s as if Victor’s mind is telling him, “See? Even if you tried not to be a narcissist and have your libido directed outward, you would still be disappointed. You still wouldn’t be able to escape the death drive. So it’s okay that you created a monster who is the literal embodiment of death.” Victor is trying to convince himself that he was right to give up on outward directed libido (“After all, everyone you love will just die, like your mother died!”), and therefore his decision to create the monster wasn’t so bad after all. Victor’s dream serves as a kind of self-justification of his creation of the monster by “proving” that outward-directed libido cannot be satisfied.
The dream also reveals the connection of the death drive to the pleasure drive. Victor’s sexual act of kissing Elizabeth is immediately replaced by her death, which transmutes into the death of his mother. This demonstrates Freud’s theory that the death drive follows the pleasure drive. When Victor wakes up–from images of maggots worming through his mother’s corpse–he immediately sees the creature staring at him (86). Thus Victor comes to associate the creature with the death drive he abhors and fears.
We can read the rest of the story’s conflict between Victor and the creature as the struggle between a narcissist and the death drive. Freud said that the death drive is sublimated by yearning for the destruction of other objects or people besides the self (see The Ego and the Id, pp. 2-3). Victor sublimates his death drive by becoming obsessed with the destruction of his creature. Eventually he states that the only thing keeping him alive is his desire to kill his creation. He thinks he is fighting the death drive, when really his desire to destroy it only reveals that drive within himself. In other words, the only thing that keeps Victor’s death drive from overwhelming him is the fact that his ego has managed to sublimate that drive toward the destruction of the monster.
But as Victor and his creature near the north pole, the narcissist comes closer and closer to confronting and accepting the death drive. Victor is kept alive by a trail of food and provisions left by the creature, symbolizing how the death drive can, in a paradoxical way, keep someone alive. But as the hope for vengeance fades, Victor’s health declines, and he eventually dies. Victor has lost a means to project his death drive outside of himself, so he succumbs to its power. As he and the monster converge, so Victor draws nearer to his submission to the death drive.
However, I’d like to add that the conflict between Victor and his creature is not a one-to-one allegory for a narcissist with the death drive. For instance, the monster has his own death drive. We see him sublimating his self-destructive impulses when he destroys the De Lacey’s home and garden, and when he vows vengeance on Victor. Without Victor , however,, he has no way to sublimate his own death drive. Therefore when Victor dies, the creature ignites himself on a funeral pyre. So we can’t make a simple-minded characterization along the lines of “Creature = Death Drive.” Nevertheless, Victor seems to make that characterization, projecting his fears of his own death drive onto another person. Therefore his pursuit of the monster, and his hatred of it, can serve as an interesting case study of how a narcissist deals with the reality of the death drive within himself.
One thought on “Frankenstein’s Creature as Death Drive”
Insightful analysis—and I especially appreciate the qualifications (for instance, how the creature might embody the d.d. for Victor while still being subject to drives in his own right).
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