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    The Gnashing of Teeth and Gothic Doubling in Frankenstein (14 Jul 2015)
    By Ms Erika Rothberg

    In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the Monster and his creator are, in true Gothic form, doubles. The Monster is a nameless creature, often referred to as Frankenstein in popular culture (in large part due to the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff as The Monster.) This is indicative of the will to use metonymy to give a name to the nameless, taking his creator’s moniker and imposing it onto the creature himself. Victor, who created the Monster, is closely aligned with his creation, and since the two beings mirror each other, the Monster can be tender and kind-hearted while Victor is often more monstrous in his thought and actions than the Monster. One of the ways this is made apparent is Shelley’s use of the gnashing of teeth throughout the novel. This phrase is repeated five times: the first three are instances when Victor gnashes his teeth, and the latter two are when the Monster gnashes his (15, 59, 62, 99, 120).

    Both Victor and the Monster gnash their teeth when they are angered, but only in one instance does the Monster gnash his teeth not at Victor, but at mankind; all the other moments, the two gnash their teeth at each other. This is apparent from the first time Walton encounters Victor, as he notes that he “gnashes his teeth, as if impatient of the weight of woes that oppresses him” (15). When Victor hears Justine’s final speech before her execution, he says: “I gnashed my teeth, and ground them together, uttering a groan that came from my inmost soul” (59). This is non-verbal, and would seem to be more likely to be uttered by a monster, not a human. The monster’s reaction to his pre-verbal sounds scare him: “I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again” (71). Victor’s cry is deep and primal, but the Monster’s reaction to his non-verbal sounds is more reflective and self-aware: Victor doesn’t suppress his primal scream but the Monster suppresses his urge to speak because he is alarmed by the sound. The Monster doesn’t read as the monstrous in this pairing, but Victor does because of his reliance on non-verbal expression.  

    This “monsterization” of Victor continues on page 63: “When I thought of [the Monster] I gnashed my teeth, my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish the life which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed.” Again, Victor’s countenance is described in very monstrous terms, which continues to blur the line of the doubled Monster and Man. While Victor is becoming more monstrous, the Monster becomes more humanized. He only gnashes his teeth after he is shot while trying to save a little girl from drowning – a heroic action (99). He is shot while saving a human from death, a selfless action; Victor has selfishly created life from dead humans. Victor is punished indirectly, via the death of his loved ones, but the Monster is physically harmed by a potentially life-ending wound. This continues to connect the two, as they are both scorned for meddling in matters of life and death, even though The Monster does so for much more noble reasons.


    The final instance in which The Monster gnashes his teeth is on page 120, when Victor refuses to make a female companion for him. His speech is a condemnation of Victor and expresses a true longing for a lover and friend: “Shall each man…find a wife for his bosom, and each beast have his mate, and I be alone? I had feelings of affection, and they were required by detestation and scorn. Man, you may hate; but beware!...Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict.” This is perhaps the strongest role reversal/doubling we see in the novel. The Monster calls Victor “man” not “Frankenstein.” This makes his speech more godlike, as it can be read as directed to mankind, not just one man. Victor obviously has played God when creating this wretched being, and now, the creation plays creator by promising to wreak havoc on man. Shelley’s doubling of the two beings – especially in terms of the primal gnashing of teeth – warns us that in every man, there is a monster.


    Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: A Norton Critical Edition. ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996

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