An Exploration Of The Themes Of Sexuality, Power And Desire in Frankenstein And Dracula

Frankenstein, alias The Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley and Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker are the beacons of Gothic Literature. Much of this genre relies heavily on the themes of power and sexuality and the seminal texts of Dracula and Frankenstein are no exceptions to this rule. These heady themes are often a method of exploring the behaviour and indulgences of the time of the texts’ writing, but can have equally as powerful connotations in the present day. A key element that can be linked to power and sexuality is that of social taboos and their psychological impact on the human psyche. By applying Freud’s theories of narcissism and the Oedipal Complex to the texts, this essay aims to explore the motivations of the novels’ titular characters and also those of their writers.

Shelley gives her central character ultimate power of creation in Chapter Five, where Frankenstein describes his creation: “His limbs are in proportion and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!” (Shelley: 2008, 57). There is an ambiguity to Frankenstein’s description of his monster. One would expect Frankenstein to have a parental protection and love towards his creation due to him being the de-facto father of his monster. The affection though is far more confused than the natural, basic and protective instincts of a parent. Frankenstein could be seen as a narcissistic man who has conflicting feelings towards his creature. It is telling that his creation in the book is never referred to by name, merely as his monster, fiend, wretch, creature or creation. Frankenstein’s ego is such that his creation would only thus be known as his creation without an individual identity. His creation is like a subsidiary of himself; the beauty that Frankenstein sees in his monster is a beauty that he ultimately sees in himself. This is a symptom of Frankenstein’s sociopathic megalomania.  His narcissism is such that he believes he can expand his power and influence by a scientific conception of a living being, breaking all the consensual conventions and beliefs of natural pro-creation which are universally endorsed by all of the major organised religious establishments. In this respect, Frankenstein succeeds.

Through Shelley’s updating of the ancient Greek Prometheus legend (and indeed warning), there is an inadvertent insight into the future practices of artificial procreation which would have seemed a startling taboo in the eighteenth century. There are particularly links with the use of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) that was first successfully performed by Dr. Patrick Steptoe and Dr. Robert Edwards for the birth of Louise Brown in 1978. This method of pro-creation is now a common and accepted way of creating life that would have been unthinkable at the time of the book’s original publication in 1818.

The conflict in Frankenstein’s emotion towards his creation occurs very soon after his initial declaration of his beauty. Soon after the birth of his creature, he proclaims:

“Oh! No, mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again undued with animation could not so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then. It became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (Shelley: 2005, 58).

Such an abrupt outburst and change of feelings towards his creature could allude to a classic case of what is now known as post-natal depression. This is another conflict in Frankenstein, where he has both maternal and paternal instincts towards his creature. This further blurs the lines of gender demarcation and leaves Frankenstein questioning both his sexual and masculine identity, as explored by Kavka (2002):

 “It must also be understood as a blurring of boundaries between the masculine and the feminine, where monstrosity is associated with the copying, mirroring, or incursions and invasions of one gender form onto or into the other. In Frankenstein (1818), for instance, men undertake the female role of human reproduction” (Kavka, 2002: 211).

 There is also a conflict and corruption of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus Complex for the creature’s relationship to its parents:

“During the Oedipal stage, the baby boy focuses all his attention on his mother and wants her all to himself. Soon he realises that there is someone else, his father, in competition for his mother’s love. He begins to develop rivalrous and antagonistic feelings towards his father when he sees his mother’s attention is also directed towards his father (Thurschwell, 2000: 1897).

With Frankenstein effectively taking on both the maternal and paternal roles, the creature has the conflicting urges that Freud alludes to in his study of Oedipus Complex, all aimed at one person. Through this interpretation, both the creature’s potential power and psychological problems are increased two-fold. Shelley seems to suggest that Frankenstein’s power over his creation is absolute. The power that Frankenstein maintains over his creation acts as an aphrodisiac for him. This feeling and emotion simultaneously appalls and invigorates him. Frankenstein wants to conform or to at least appear to desire the accepted norm in sexual practice. When it comes to sexuality, Frankenstein is confused. He tells his father that he “loves Elizabeth and looks forward to our union with delight…I will consecrate myself in life or death, to the happiness of my cousin” (Shelley: 2008, 190). On his wedding night when in martial convention and tradition, he should have been consummating his marriage, he was instead frantically searching after his creature. The search could have been pursued due to his love of the creature, an unhealthy obsession or his fear of the creature and the revenge he had previously vowed. The most obvious contravention though is his neglect of his spouse and her desires and needs. The fact that Frankenstein was marrying his cousin is interesting in a modern day context. When the book was published in 1818, marriages between cousins were perfectly acceptable socially and indeed were a frequent occurrence in aristocratic social circles. In the modern era, marriage between cousins whilst mostly not illegal, are frowned upon in Christian society. On a further note, it is perhaps also interesting to consider why Shelley changed the status of Elizabeth from cousin to adopted sister in redrafts – either way both suggest that Shelley is deliberately courting taboo and transgressive aspects of challenging social norms. Looking at the marriage through modern social convention would lead to the thought that Frankenstein had no qualms with an intimate familial relationship. As Hessel (2007) explains:

“As a child, Frankenstein is in a state of narcissism, later his mother is reserved with libido by him. As he matures into adolescence, he is not interested in other sexes, only sciences. When he is seventeen, his mother dies and the target of his libido is missing”. (Hessel: 21, 2007).

As Frankenstein reached sexual maturity, his initial Oedipus Complex which normally concludes before a boy’s tenth birthday is still evident. It could easily be speculated that Frankenstein may have used his marriage to Elizabeth as a cover for his deeper love, that of his creation which not only points to an incestuous homosexual desire but also to his previously alluded narcissism. Frankenstein is fascinated by his creature because he does not see him as an individual but as a subdivision of his own personality. Ideally, Frankenstein would like to have an intimate relationship with himself in a more physical sense than masturbation, the typical method of sexual self-satisfaction. His creature is representative to him of that desire.

Frankenstein’s creature has the emotional and physical desires of a naturally conceived human being. Feeling alone and rejected, he craves the love, attention and affection of a female and implores Frankenstein to create a mate for him in the same manner that Frankenstein created himself. He begs Frankenstein, stating:

 “you must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being…I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse to concede” (Shelley: 2008, 144).

Frankenstein’s creature is an intelligent being who has been spurned both romantically and socially throughout his existence. When the alleged ‘fiend’ says “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” (Shelley: 2008, 145), it could easily be construed as a statement of self-pity but in reality, it is also one of genuine disillusion. The statement finishes with a rhetorical question of which the answer is obvious to Frankenstein, his creation and the reader. He is not loved or accepted because he has no known pedigree familiar to any potential friends, peers or girlfriends. This is an example of the insular nature of human beings, a predisposition that the vast majority have and a predisposition that an equal number are loath to admitting to having. Through time immemorial, human beings gravitate towards a known quantity. As children, humans make friends with neighbouring children, children of parent’s friends, fellow schoolchildren and cousins who dwell nearby. Subconsciously, human beings of all ages are suspicious of what cannot be verified. Frankenstein’s creature cannot be verified due to nature of his birth and conception, leading to suspicion along with rejection both socially and romantically. When Frankenstein spurns his creature’s longing for a mate, his creature warns “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear and chiefly towards you, my arch enemy” (Shelley: 2008, 145). Frankenstein knows that this threat is more than a tantrum – but surely his own creation, his own child could not hurt him. However, the creature decides to hurt Frankenstein in the most painful way possible without actually physically hurting him at all. This is achieved on Frankenstein’s wedding night when Frankenstein returns from his frantic search for his creature, to find his newly wed wife “lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed…” (Shelley: 2008, 195). Frankenstein’s creature exacts vengeance with a savagery on an innocent woman, which affects Frankenstein’s psyche irrevocably. Ultimately, Shelley shows that the power of the father has passed on to the child.

Comparatively, sexual deviancy and taboo desires are a frequent occurrence in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, originally published in May 1897 by Archibald Constable. Dracula is a vampire of who has an overpowering desire for power combined with a strong and sexually dominant personality which crosses the line into sadism. Like Frankenstein, Dracula’s prime motivation is a dictatorial dominance over human beings. The main difference between the two is that whilst Frankenstein would be aroused by power, it is Count Dracula’s raison d’etre.

“If the count may be read as a predatory homosexual, then two contrasting critical possibilities present themselves. On the one hand, the novel may express a fear of the homosexual, a dread of being penetrated and made other by the vampires contact” (Hughes: 2009, 50).

Whilst Dracula has a strong homosexual desire, it is not a loving or affectionate nature, more of power, control and humiliation. When Count Dracula encounters Jonathan Harker by surprise, Harker explains:

”I had hung my shaving glass by the window and was just beginning to shave. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard the counts voice saying to me, ‘good morning’. The man was close to me and I could see him over my shoulder. When the count saw my face, his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury and he suddenly made a grab at my throat” (Stoker, 50: 2002)

This is the first instance of Dracula asserting physical control over Harker, having already established a psychological grip by effectively imprisoning Harker in his castle. Harker is helpless and this stimulates Dracula’s libido, not necessarily through physical attraction but through psychological control. Dracula tells the three women who have entered Harker’s room that “this man belongs to me” (Stoker, 62: 2002) as he banishes them from Harker’s room. Harker is completely under the hypnotic spell of the Count. Dracula also has a penchant for haemotolangia.  In full view of Harker, Dracula applies the coup de grace to Harker’s dignity by seizing physical control of Harker’s wife.

Dracula grip’s Mrs. Harker’s arms “by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast, which was shown by his torn open dress.” (Stoker, 283: 2002).

The colour of Mrs Harker’s nightdress is symbolic of an innocence and purity which contrasts sharply with the counts actions and desires. That the nightdress is “smeared with blood” (Stoker, 283: 2002) as opposed to being covered in blood also gives a psychological image of red and white, blood and purity which gives a more stark mental vision of something deliberate and in no way accidental. Whilst Dracula gleefully maintains that power, he is also “endowed with a magic beyond his own. He possesses the secret traditions beyond his culture, while the women they captivate seem not just enfeebled but culturally naked” (Auerbach, 16: 1982). Dracula penetrates Mrs Harker but not in a sexually conventional way. Instead of vaginal penetration, he penetrates her skin in full view of her emotionally enraptured and physically encaptured husband. This serves a dual purpose for Dracula. He is having a sexual liaison with a woman in which he is in full control whilst at the same time delivering the ultimate humiliation to the husband of the woman he is penetrating by performing his action in front of him. Jonathan Harker is impotent to the point of feeling numb about Dracula’s action on his wife. It is a ménage à trois in which Dracula exerts full control. Through these actions, it is hard to ascertain exactly which gender Dracula has a preference for sexually. It is possible that he does not really have a sexual preference for male or female, more a preference for power, control and carte blanche humiliation over another human being.

Dracula’s sexual appetite is not set in the traditional sexual practice of mutual satisfaction; it is a love for himself and his own desires that motivate his libido. It is a narcissism which he shares with Frankenstein but they indulge their narcissistic behaviour in differing ways. This is where the ‘Uncertainties about the nature of power and sexuality dominate Gothic fiction’ (Botting, 1996, 5). The ultimate consequence to the actions of both Frankenstein and Dracula is one of inestimable suffering for the object of their indulgences. Every living being that they come into any contact with suffers in the most horrendous way just to satisfy their own desires and needs for power and control.


Primary Sources

Shelley, Mary Frankenstein (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 2005)

Stoker, Bram Dracula (Boston MA, Bedford/St Martins: 2002)

Secondary Sources

Auerbach, Nina Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Massachusetts: HarvardUniversity Press, 1982)

 Botting, Fred, Introduction: Gothic Excess and Transgression In Gothic: The New Critical Idiom (London: Routledge, 1996)

Hessel, Tina Frankenstein and the monster: Two independent characters or two souls in one body? The attempt of a psychoanalytical interpretation (Munich, Grin Verlag GmbH: 2007)

Hughes, William Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Reader’s Guide (London, ContinuumInternational: 2009)

Kavka, Misha Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, The (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2002)

Thurschwell, Pamela Sigmund Freud – Routledge Critical Thinkers (Oxford, Routledge: 2000)

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