A prominent theme in two romantic works of narrative breadth, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel, is the idea of possession and the ways in which acts of possession affect the characters in each of the texts. Considering the two works, a novel and a poem respectively, vary in length and content, how do they both reconcile the possessions of each character? Moreover, in what ways do the works view the act of possession; are possessions viewed in a positive or negative light? Also, how do the characters themselves deal with possession and what ramifications does possession have on their abilities to make decisions?
Shelley’s Frankenstein and Coleridge’s Christabel approach the theme of possession in two manners, however they arrive at similar conclusions about the act of possession. In Frankenstein, the word “possession,” some variant form of “possession,” or a word near in meaning, appears frequently throughout the text. In Christabel, on the other hand, the word “possession” itself never appears in the verse, although it is well hid behind metaphor and imagery. There are several forms of possession taking place in the two works: 1) Person possessing person. 2) Person possessing thing. 3) Thing possessing person. 4) Person possessing self.
In the first scenario, the act of person possessing person is evident in Victor Frankenstein’s dealings with the creature, and when the events take a turn in the latter portion of the novel, how the creature deals with his creator. When facing the creature after the murder of William and the execution of Justine, Victor exclaims, “Wretched devil! you reproach me with your creation; come on then, that I may extinguish the spark which I so negligently bestowed” (858). Victor, after seeing how his creation has taken the life of two that he has loved, wishes to amend the original error. He also believes that by taking the creature’s life he would remedy the situation easily and without much discord. Yet, later when the creature has obtain the control, he retorts, “Slave, I have before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember that I have power…You are my creator, but I am your master;-obey!” (896). The creature slowly gains the upper hand as he kills off each of those who Victor loved. The creature’s claim to be with Victor on his wedding night further increases the hold on his creator.
In Christabel, the theme of person possessing person is carried in a different fashion. Sir Leoline displays his possession in the embrace of both Christabel and Geraldine. His act of possession shows that he owns all that falls within his sphere of influence. “while he prest / His gentle daughter to his breast, / With cheerful wonder in his eyes / The lady Geraldine espies, / And gave such welcome to the same” (397-401). Although this act of possession is not as strong as the force between Victor and the creature, the undertones and possibly of further possession is present. On the other hand, there is a sense of motherly possession between Christabel and Geraldine, somewhat like the fatherly relation in Frankenstein where one character is a kind of de facto parental figure. The act of the embrace ties the two women together: “the worker of these harms / That holds the maiden in her arms, / Seems to slumber still and mild, / As a mother with her child” (298-301).
The second point, person possessing thing, is apparent in Victor’s endeavor to animate dead flesh and return the “spark” of life. Victor’s quest for knowledge leads him to a very dangerous and irreparable conclusion: “learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge” (833). Victor presents his tail to a Robert Walton, a captain who saves his life, in order to save others from the mistake that he made, as well as to hopefully ensure that the creature would be killed by others if he could not complete this task (924). Victor allows in his tale, “I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation,” however he quickly learns of his mistake and regrets it for some time (833). He claims on several occasions that he would give his own blood to stop the creature’s acts of revenge, but when given the chance, Victor never admits his own guilt to anyone but himself. Victor becomes very protective of his pursuit of knowledge, and when approached by M. Krempe suggesting that Victor has wasted his time studying “such nonsense,” Victor feels defeated (830).
The creature busies himself with the attainment of language, a skill he desperately needed. He works diligently on acquiring that skill from the De Laceys in a proxy-like manner because they are unaware of his presence. The creature says Victor, “I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds…this was indeed a godlike science” (865). The creature likens the use of language to the powers of a divine being, in effect comparing it to the power of Victor’s creationism. The creature is awed by the simple social act of speech, but he learns it rather quickly marking his intelligence. Even Walton is consumed by the possession of knowledge, even if perilous: “Sometimes I endeavoured to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation” (919).
Person possessing thing is also manifested in Christabel through the display of “power.” As Geraldine professes to Christabel in her “altered voice,” “‘I have power to bid thee flee'” (508). Geraldine’s admittance to possessing some sort of power relates her to Victor. In Frankenstein, Victor wielded the power to animate dead flesh, but Geraldine’s power is something more phantasmal. Her claim that “this hour is mine” unsettles Christabel and she falls to the Geraldine’s feet (211). Geraldine’s possession of power places Christabel under her possession.
The third postulation, thing possessing person, is posited throughout the works. In Frankenstein, often the characters are described as being possessed by certain traits: Walton’s men are “possessed of dauntless courage” (817), Victor was “possessed” by extreme joy when finding that the creature he brought to life departed (838), and the “horrid anguish” that possessed Victor while in Justine’s cell (852). These traits, however, often lead the characters to act in a certain respect. Essentially, Victor’s inherent traits of self-education and the anguish from the loss of his mother led him to the creation of a “monster,” which, in many respects, mimics himself. The creature, possessed by the want of another to share his feelings and to befriend him, attempts to abduct a child who is uncorrupted by the human reaction to ugliness: “If, therefore, I could seize him, and educate him as my companion and friend, I should not be so desolate in this peopled earth” (882). But the creature is angered by the child’s reaction and kills him due to his being possessed by loneliness. Also, this loneliness clouds his judgment when he threatens Victor into creating a partner for him, thus making the same error as his creator.
Bracy’s dream possesses him, in a sense, for when he awakes he cannot rid himself of the image for the “dream…would not pass away” (558). The dream is rather frightful and the notion that fright is gripping is comparable to the possession of the traits in Frankenstein. Another act of thing possessing person is the control of the spell. The spell over Christabel controls her and she cannot do anything: “For what she knew she could not tell, / O’er-mastered by the mighty spell” (619-20). The spell introduces a kind of oppression over Christabel and she is taken over by it, leaving Geraldine to do what she will.
The final act of possession, person possessing self, is rather important to both texts in character revelation. Victor’s primary act of self-possession is derived from the creature. The creature’s mimicry, a quasi-act of parent passing on traits to the child, edifies Victor’s own characteristics. The creature’s want of a female reenacts Victor’s own interest in creating life and thus makes the same mistake as Victor in that the creature is not taking into consideration the consequences of his actions. Victor, in observing the creature’s reactions, soon realizes the error in his own actions and dumps the body into lake before ever bringing it to life. Victor recognizes himself in the creature and corrects a mistake that could have been made again.
The creature encounters a point where he must reconcile his outward appearance in order to come to possess himself: “How was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I start back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification” (866). The creature’s self-revelation was inevitable and ultimately leads to his actions of terror, however, it was an important event in the creature’s development to realize his own nature. If the creature did not realize how different he was, then he would eventually have gotten killed while trying to interact with humans.
In Christabel, The act of self-possession takes place in the moment that Geraldine “folded her arms across her chest / And couched her head upon her breast, / And looked askance at Christabel” (579-81). This act of self-possession, as with the realization of the creature, turns dangerous and the narrator exclaims, “Jesu Maria, Shield her [Christabel] well!” (582). Geraldine’s self-actualization ultimately leads to Christabel being bound by the spell. This moment is the point where Geraldine takes control of the tale.
In both works, the act of possession often breeds an oppression in that which is possessed. Victor, when “possessed” by the creature, often felt the oppression associated with the control. He explains the troubles of his situation as “a shadow of the feelings that oppressed me” (911), that he was “oppressed by the recollection of my various misfortunes” (905), and that he was suffering from a “sickening oppression of the most terrible reveries” (896). Victor’s demeanor shifted through the course of the novel from the possessor to the oppressed. These same feelings were emulated by the creature early in the novel before the roles were reversed. The creature states that “My sufferings were augmented also by the oppressive sense of the injustice and ingratitude of their infliction” after saving a small child from drowning (882). When facing nature for the first time, the creature recognizes that, “the light became more and more oppressive to me” (860) and that “I was oppressed by cold” (861). The creature was not prepared for reality of not being in control, in effect, not possessing one’s self or another.
Coleridge’s poem also shows how the possession by men leads to an oppression of women. Sir Leoline’s embrace, as mentioned earlier, suggests the domination of the male over the female. In addition, Bracy’s dream sequence also includes an act of possession, where the snake is coiled around a dove squeezing it to death. The image of the predator possessing the prey also lends to the idea that the man is strangling the woman. However, like Frankenstein, the tables are turned and the woman, Geraldine, becomes the possessor. At the end of the poem, Sir Leoline is under Geraldine’s spell and in fact is no longer in the realm of self-possession.
The two works, Shelley’s Frankenstein and Coleridge’s Christabel, handle the different acts of possession quite diversely, however, they arrive at a similar conclusion. The two works share that often possession leads to a form of oppression and the feelings associated with oppression can spiral dangerously out of control. The act of possessing can be damaging to all parties involved and cannot be taken lightly or without the realization of the possible consequences. The characters in theses two narratives are shaped by the possessions they have or by the oppressions place upon them. And in both cases, the act of possession did not lead to prosperous conclusions.