Manifestations of Trauma and Madness in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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This is part of an essay I had to write for my Senior Capstone Course. The original essay is about 25 pages long, but this version is what I had to present to the English Faculty and Staff in order to graduate. I chose to write about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because I have read the novel several times, once as a senior in high school, and it’s one of my favorite classics in Gothic Literature during the Victorian Era.
Manifestations of Trauma and Madness in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1
The Monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley in a nightmare of “unbidden” images of a “student creating a living creature from dead human tissue” (Small 36). Shelley described the dream, “My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie” (Small 36). And thus, Frankenstein was born.  Interestingly, Shelley’s description of her creative process (a “possessed” imagination offering up “unbidden” images) predicts her main character’s creative compulsion as a “mad” scientist. Victor Frankenstein seems similarly “possessed” by his god-like drive to create: to hold the power of life over death by creating a living creature from dead tissue. However, when Frankenstein succeeds in bringing a creature to life from a collection of parts from corpses, he descends progressively into despair, seeing his creation as a monstrosity rather than a miracle. Frankenstein’s mental state, as he first excitedly “builds” his creature and then recoils from it in horror, can be analyzed in terms of phases of psychological illness, originating in trauma, progressing to mania, advancing to dissociation, and culminating in clinical depression. In examining Victor’s psychological states, one can see a larger theme that the novel suggests: the creator creates from the psychological space of madness, exhibiting a complete inability to predict, control, or even appreciate what he has created. 

            Shelley herself endured several traumas in her early life, contributing to the ways she characterizes Victor’s mental state of mind. Days after being born, Shelley lost her mother, the famous feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, to complications from childbirth (Seymour 29), and her mother’s death had a tremendous impact on Shelley as she grew up. She felt as if she had killed her mother simply by being born. When she became pregnant with Percy Shelley’s baby, she endured another trauma by giving birth two months early and losing the infant days later. Miranda Seymour explains a kind of survivor’s guilt that Shelley experienced:

            [She felt] that her own birth had killed a woman brimming with vitality; to bear and rear a child was the best recompose she could offer herself and to the Fates to whom her journal sometimes darkly alluded. Instead, she now bore the sense of a double murder; not only had she killed her mother, but she had allowed her own baby girl to die. The fault in both cases was felt to be hers. (130)

After the death of her daughter, Shelley wrote in her journal: “Dream that my little baby came to life again . . . I awake and find no baby. . . I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might, in process of time, renew life where death had apparently devoted that body to corruption” (Britton 4). Her words would soon be repeated her character Victor Frankenstein. In 1816, Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, committed suicide, and shortly after, Percy Shelley’s wife, Harriett, committed suicide, an event which caused Mary to feel guilty because of her relationship with Percy. All these traumatic events were a lot for her to handle, and Shelley’s own personal traumas are clearly mirrored in those of Victor Frankenstein. Victor, traumatized early in life by the death of his mother, displays many common effects of trauma, including isolation, obsessions, and recklessness. Eventually, as he completes his experiment and the creature comes to life, he goes on to demonstrate more serious psychological disturbances, including manic episodes, dissociation, and depression. 

As an adolescent, Victor loses his mother to scarlet fever, causing a psychological wound, but he is unable to process this trauma, and he avoids his grief and goes away to college immediately. At Ingolstadt, he alienates himself, describing himself as “unfitted for the company of strangers” (26). Victor says that during this time, his obsession with his studies “caused [him] . . . to forget those friends who were so many miles absent (33). As Thomas Schmid says, Victor’s “impulsive experimentation ultimately cuts him off from the rest of mankind” (23).  Victor’s isolation seems to feed his unrealistic obsession to create life from death.  In this quest, Victor’s thoughts mirror Mary Shelley’s after the death of her first child, as she wished to be able to “bestow animation upon lifeless matter.”Victor, responding to the trauma of losing his mother, now wishes to defeat death in the same way. After two years pursuing this obsession, he says, “Remember I am not recording the vision of a madman. . .. I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” (30). As Victor becomes more isolated and obsessed with a discovery that seems beyond human capability, he reaches a more serious psychological disorder, an extended manic episode.

            In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, mania is described as a “distinct period during which there an abnormally, persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood and persistently increased activity or energy. . . inflated self-esteem is typically present, ranging from uncritical self-confidence to marked grandiosity, and may reach delusional proportions” (127-128).  Victor demonstrates several manic symptoms, including the inflated sense of self in almost playing God, but perhaps the most important feature of mania is a pronounced feeling of euphoria, a sense that one can and will do impossible things of great significance.  As noted in the DSM-5, manic episodes are “often described as euphoric, . . . or feeling ‘on top of the world,’ and [as if one is] able to do or accomplish anything” (127).  Victor does indeed succeed in doing the impossible and conveys that manic euphoria when he says:

No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. 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 their’s. (32)

Victor’s ideas here clearly approach “grandiosity,” and in life, they would certainly reach “delusional proportions,” but in the magic of fiction, his grandiose delusions actually come true. Even as Victor sews the inanimate body together, he does not seem to note its monstrosity. Caught up in his mania, he is here, too, clearly delusional, believing that somehow this collection of parts will be beautiful when animated.

Victor’s accomplishment becomes a disaster when he sees the creature open his eyes, and he rejects the creature in horror at his hideous appearance. Almost at once, Victor’s mania gives way to a full emotional breakdown. In fact, he experiences trauma yet again when he sees his creation come to life as a horrific monster instead of a beautiful creation.  Shortly after realizing his creation is a monstrosity, Victor has a dream:

I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking 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 dead corpse of my mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave worms crawling in the folds of the flannel” (34).

In the nightmare, Victor’s focus is not on the monster (the cause of his secondary trauma) but on those he loves, particularly his mother.  One could read the dream as symbolizing Victor’s failed hopes of creating life to alleviate his grief from not being able to save his mother. The monstrous creation and his mother seem to become one in his mind, images of death and horror. The two traumas, his mother’s death and the unexpected horror of his creation, negatively affect Victor’s state of mind, which continues to deteriorate after the monster’s birth. Victor’s psychological state here represents the beginning of serious mental illness, including “hysteria,” which we today would call “dissociation,” and clinical depression.

Colleen Hobbs describes that in the nineteenth century, “doctors increasingly defined hysteria as a ‘nervous disorder’ associated with insanity” (152). Immediately after his experiment is complete, Victor is described as experiencing hysteria when he leaves his apartment and walks around Ingolstadt in a daze. Victor says, “I traversed the streets, without any clear conception of where I was, or what I was doing. My heart palpitated in the sickness of fear; and I hurried on with irregular steps, not daring to look about me” (35).  He then runs into his friend Clerval, and when they return to Victor’s apartment, he becomes agitated and incoherently “hysterical.”  When Clerval asks Victor for the reasons behind his behavior, he responds, “Do not ask me,” but he tells the reader, “I thought I saw the dreaded spectre glide into the room; ‘he can tell—Oh, save me! Save me!’ I imagined the monster seized me; I struggled furiously, and fell down in a fit” (37).  At this point, Victor falls into a “nervous fever” (37) that lasts for weeks. Victor says, “The form of the monster on whom I had bestowed existence was for ever before my eyes, and I raved incessantly concerning him” (37-38).

            Victor’s behavior in the aftermath of the creature’s coming to life fits what today we call dissociation, especially his seeming to see the monster before his eyes though he is not in fact present.  The DSM-5 describes dissociation as “symptoms such as unbidden intrusions into awareness and behavior and an inability to access information or to control mental functions” (291). Those experiencing dissociation sometimes “disconnect” from reality by avoiding or denying it; they may feel that reality is “unreal,” and they may feel that they, themselves, are not real.  The state of mind Victor is in at this point validates that he is suffering from “discontinuities in identity and memory that may not be immediately evident to others or are obscured by attempts to hide dysfunction” (DSM-5 292). Victor’s antipathy to his studies, even to the words “natural philosophy,” and his horror at the sight of his scientific equipment amount to the “avoidance” associated with dissociation, and his refusal to share his knowledge of the creature even after he causes the deaths of Victor’s brother William and his friend Justine Moritz, despite feeling responsible, suggests to a sort of denial, another aspect of dissociation noted above.

            The DSM-5 describes clinical depression as pronounced feelings of sadness or “emptiness,” “accompanied by somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function” (155).  Common symptoms of a major depressive disorder include “low energy or fatigue . . ., low self-esteem . . . [and] feelings of hopelessness” (DSM-5 168). The connection between major depression and traumatic experiences is well-known, often resulting in feelings of “despair” and feeling like a person is at “rock bottom” and that things will never get better in the future (Omnigraphics 283). After William’s death, Victor slips progressively into a severe depressive state from which he never recovers. Victor constantly feels “very melancholy,” and though he tries to seek comfort in nature, as Andrew Smith mentions, “Shelley challenges the notion of sublime transcendence that Frankenstein repeatedly pursues as an antidote to his melancholy suffering” (81); basically, Victor is punishing himself and knows he is responsible for the deaths his creature has caused because if he did not create the monster, they would still be alive. He frequently says such things as “rose early, but felt unusually melancholy. The rain depressed me; my old feelings recurred, and I was miserable” (63).  When Victor agrees to create a mate for his monster, things only become worse.  Where there was manic excitement and delusional hopefulness the first time, Victor now experiences only anxiety, depression, and, ultimately, despair.

            After the deaths of Clerval, Victor’s new bride Elizabeth, and his father, Victor enters complete despair, saying such depressive things as “Why did I not die?” and “I am sorry that I am still alive to feel this misery and horror” (122-123). In his despair, Victor is determined that he has no reason to live except to track down the creature and destroy him, and then Victor does not care what happens to him or whether he even lives or dies.  In the last days of Victor’s life, Captain Walton repeatedly describes Victor exhibiting classic signs of clinical depression: “his eyes have generally an expression of wildness and even madness”; “he is generally melancholy and despairing; and sometimes he gnashes his teeth, as if impatient of the weight of woes that oppresses him” (14); “He is often overcome by gloom, and then he sits by himself” and “his dejection never leaves him” (16). These descriptions suggest extreme depression. Victor at one point says to Captain Walton, “I have lost every thing, and cannot begin life anew” and he considers himself “broken in spirit” (16).  Being in such a state of sadness and despair and feeling “broken in spirit” and worthless as Victor does reveals clear symptoms of what we now recognize as major depressive disorder.  When Victor realizes he can never catch up with his creature and gain vengeance and has nothing else to live for, he simply dies.

            In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein has the ambition to create life from death, with the influence of trauma leading him to utter madness. His desire becomes an obsession after his mother’s unexpected death, which forms “unbidden images,” leading to a euphoric impulse to engage in magic and perform miracles. Victor’s obsessive quest to complete the impossible causes him to neglect his responsibility to his creature when he comes to life, wreaking havoc on his family and friends and the community at large; unfortunately, Victor’s actions are controlled by his madness throughout most of the novel. After examining Victor Frankenstein’s psychological states, making himself isolated from others to create a being originating out of a traumatic experience, then progressing into a state of mania, leading to dissociation, and then his downward spiral into depression takes him to a place of being forever broken. Readers can see a larger theme that a creator creates from a psychological state of madness, demonstrating the complete incapability to foresee, control, or even appreciate what the creator has formed.

Works Cited

American Psychiatric Association., and American Psychiatric Association. DSM-5 Task Force. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Print.

Britton, Ronald. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: What Made the Monster Monstrous?” The Journal of Analytical Psychology vol. 60, no.1, 2015, pp. 1-11. MEDLINE with Full Text. <>.

Hobbs, Colleen. “Reading the Symptoms: An Exploration of Repression and Hysteria in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 25, Summer93, pp. 152-169. EBSCOhost,

Omnigraphics, Inc. Stress-related Disorders Sourcebook: Basic Consumer Health Information About Stress and Stress-related Disorders, Including Signs, Symptoms, Types, and Sources of Acute and Chronic Stress, the Impact of Stress On the Body, and Mental Health Problems Associated With Stress, Such As Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, Substance Abuse, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and Suicide; Along With Tips for Managing Stress, Assistance for Coping With Stress-related Disorders Using Complementary and Alternative Medicine Therapies, a Glossary of Related Terms, and a Directory of Resources for Additional Help and Information. Fourth edition. 2016. Print.

Schmid, Thomas H. “Addiction and Isolation in Frankenstein: A Case of Terminal Uniqueness.” Gothic Studies, no. 2, 2009, p. 19. EBSCOhost,

Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. 1st Grove Press pbk. Ed. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2001. Print.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and J. Paul Hunter. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Nineteenth-Century Responses, Modern Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Print.

Small, Christopher. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth. [Pittsburgh]: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973. Print.

My Copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Manifestations of Trauma and Madness in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 2
A Norton Critical Edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

External Links

The Stange and Twisted Life of “Frankenstein”

Frankenstein: The 1818 Text by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

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