Erik Erikson developed simple-to-use psychological Stages of Growth that show us what ages human beings go through certain stages. Mother’s always say, “Oh, don’t mind him, he’s a teenager.” Erikson provided some answers as to what is going on behind those children’s eyes as they grow. Using Erkison’s theory, we can explore the minds and motives behind what literary characters do and say.
Using Erikson’s scale of growth, we’ll examine Merry Shelley’s title character Victor Frankenstein. Victor is interesting because he shows signs of having more than one problem. He is moody, hates socializing, likes to be in control of other people, and is so driven at some points that he forgets about his family and friends and drives at education mercilessly. Some of these symptoms, as we will later discuss, are signs of depression, bipolar disorder, and possibly show him as a sociopath. What could cause him to be the way he is? Does he have a savior complex or womb-envy? Why is he so driven and seemingly sociopathic? Does he have feelings or not? Erik Erikson’s theories and stages of growth can be used to analyze this fictional character’s life and actions to see what could possibly be troubling him and causing him to reach so far as to create life.
The first thing that must be examined is that Victor talks very little of growing up. He doesn’t mention too much in chapter one about his life. Instead he focuses on his parent’s life. He seems to be intellectualizing his parent’s biography to tell you why he doesn’t wish to speak about his life. But this is important to understanding Victor; his parents have a great effect on his development. His father had a friend who went into debt, bankruptcy, then hid to avoid the consequences of his actions (Shelley 27). Frankenstein Sr. found out the friend and brought him back and he died leaving his young daughter to the care of Mr. Frankenstein. Victor says that his father “is one of the most distinguished of that republic” and that he had “filled several public stations with honour and reputation” (Shelley 27). From this, a psychologist could infer that Mr. Frankenstein was a man of high standing and important in his community. He is used to being looked up to admired and asked for help. He is perhaps even the savior of others under him.
An example of his “savior” behavior can be seen when he marries his friend’s daughter Caroline. This could be signs of a messiah complex or what is called a grandiose complex (Diamond). He feels the need save because that is what he has been doing for some time in his offices of power. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg. These feelings of grandeur can come from and be aggravated by a bipolar complex, which is where the person has feelings of ups and downs that change at a normally rapid pace. Caroline’s father probably had developed bipolar disorder after he was saved by Mr. Frankenstein. Victor says that his grief would rise and fall until he was sick in bed and eventually consumed and killed him (Shelley 28).
Now Mr. Frankenstein feels he must take care of this woman. “Perhaps during former years he had suffered the late-discovered unworthiness of one beloved, and so was disposed to set a greater value on tried worth… [Caroline’s] health and even the tranquility of her hitherto constant spirit, had been shaken by what she had gone through” Shelley 28-29). Mr. Frankenstein felt he had to earn her love. These feelings of worthlessness are common bipolar disorder and in some savior complex’s. They feel they must work extra hard to get the approval and love of those around them. Where a savior complex will puff one up and make them think themselves a god-like being, bipolar disorder will pull in the other direction and make him think that he’s not good enough. So he must worship her and pamper to her. But she is already feeling so depressed.
Perhaps, Frankenstein Sr. didn’t have full out bipolar disorder, but he did have a savior complex and Victor’s mother was now ripe for depression to set in. Caroline could have easily developed depression too from the trauma of the life they must have lived while her father was running around avoiding debt and the law. This could have planted the seeds for her own depression or bipolar disorder which leads to her own savior complex and saving of Elizabeth later. These are the people Victor is surrounded by.
To alleviate the utter darkness in the Frankenstein home, Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein start to travel (Shelley 29). Amidst all of this, Victor is born away from home and is the brunt for all their mixed up emotions as he is an only child for some time (Shelley 29). He is now of course in Erikson’s stage of Trust versus Mistrust. During his first years, they still traveled and he says, “it was in their hands to direct happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me” (Shelley 29). The words that stand out apart from happiness are the directing of misery he speaks of. Is there a possibility that his parents were not always as sane as they should have been towards baby Victor? He may have had reason to mistrust his parents and begin to isolate himself from them.
With two bipolar parents now saddled with a child, the chances of Victor being ignored or even abused are high. This means that during his sensitive stages all the way through Erikson’s Autonomy versus Shame to Initiative versus Guilt phase (three to five years of age), he was the only thing around to receive the brunt of his father and mother’s mood swings and their outlandish behavior. The evidence later of his own mental disorders could be signs that he has repressed bad memories of his parents. From here, Victor will inherit his own disorder. According to the Ohio State University Medical Center, depression and bipolar disorder can run in the family. From this point on, Victor will begin his own downward spiral of disorders. He will displace his rage at his parents onto someone he can own and possess. Controlling others will help him cope, he thinks.
Over and over it says that his parents were good and gave and gave. That is how his father came to marry his mother Caroline. When they go back to Italy they visit the houses of the poor all the time: “Their benevolent disposition often made them enter the cottages of the poor. This to my mother was more than duty; it was necessity, a passion” (Shelley 29). This shows that they have that guilt complex also common in bipolar disorders. They feel guilty for what they have so they visit the poor all the time. Dr. Susan Whitebourne of the University of Massachusetts links it back to Freud: “The psychodynamic theory of Freud proposes that we build defense mechanisms to protect us from the guilt we would experience if we knew just how awful our awful desires really were. Specifically, Freud linked the feeling of guilt” (Whitebourne). His mother had suffered her traumatized past and was now displacing her grief onto the poor.
In this poor neighborhood, Caroline Frankenstein comes across a little English girl named Elizabeth who she decides to take under her wing while Mr. Frankenstein is out of town on business. Caroline’s savior complex and guilt come in again when she sees little Elizabeth in such poverty. “…but it would be unfair to her to keep her in poverty and want, when Providence afforded her such powerful protection” (Shelley 30).
When Caroline brings Elizabeth home, she says to Victor “I have a pretty present for my Victor—tomorrow he shall have it” and he replies, “I, with childish seriousness, interpreted her words literally, and looked upon Elizabeth as mine…since till death she was to be mine only.” (Shelly 31). At the end of chapter one, Victor is in full possession of Elizabeth and is being influenced for Erikson’s next stage of Industry versus Inferiority. His mother gave him something to possess and he has now started to morph into his controlling-womb-envying-savior-complex self. He has been given something (Elizabeth) since he was five years old to be master of and he is used to this high throne of authority, which could lead to his creation of the monster and his later projection of anger on the creature when it defies him and makes himself the master putting Victor in a place inferior to the monster.
Victor grows up over the next chapter where we can see his lust for control takes on the guise of knowledge. In Chapter II, he leaves Elizabeth behind when he wants more intellectual things: “Elizabeth was of a calmer and more concentrated disposition; but with all my ardour, I was capable of a more intense application, and was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge” (Shelley 32). By this point, he would probably be in Erikson’s Stage of Industry VS. Inferiority and getting to move into Identity versus Role Confusing. He wants knowledge over Elizabeth’s companionship especially since he probably can no longer control her every move. She is inferior and he must now find out who he is.
He turns to the ultimate complex device for knowledge and dominance over: Nature. He sees nature as a challenge that must be accepted. It holds secretes and he must uncover them or he will not be seen as “smart”—as Erikson would say, he would feel inferior. He is indeed in this stage because his brother is born “seven years in junior” and his parents become more depressed and give up on their wondering life, which may have been escapism and now they have to be tied down (Shelley 32). Things just get worse from there on out. His parent’s live in seclusion in the country now. And it was his tempter to avoid a crowd. He is anti-social as we will see in the later chapters when he goes to school.
We can see examples of his anti-social self in contrast with his best friend Henry Celrval. Henry is the opposite of Victor in that he loved stories of knights, tales of enchantment and he also loved danger for danger’s sake (Shelley 32, 33). This could infer that Henry is very outgoing and outspoken.
On the other hand, Victor’s temper, he says, was sometimes violent. In a large, revealing chunk of text, Victor confesses, “My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law in my temperature they were turned, not towards childish pursuits, but to an eager desire to learn” (Shelley 33). This could be his reaction to his thoughts and feelings that come with bipolar disorder. He doesn’t know how to deal with them and all his parents do is spoil him, which is not what he wants. He says he was violent and vehement and yet those feelings were turned towards knowledge. This could show where he is angry that he doesn’t understand himself and his feelings. So he feels the need to learn about them. But it isn’t simple things like politics and government that attracted his pursuits, no those things would be too simple for high-functioning Victor. He wants to learn “the secrets of heaven and earth” (Shelley 33).
From a high flying temper and violence, Victor then plummets into what psychologist say is the depression side of bipolar disorder. “I might have become sullen in my study, rough through the ardour of my nature, but that she was there to subdue me to a semblance of her own gentleness”; simply, he raves, is angry, violent and then falls into sullen moods where he is probably locked away in his room being moody and only Elizabeth can sooth him and sometimes Henry as well (Shelley 33).
Another example of Victor’s strong anti-social behavior can be seen on the next pages when they go to a party where he also discovers the books that will set him on fire for his passions of the ultimate knowledge and even a search for the Elixir of Life and immortality.
When Victor is thirteen years old and approaching another phase of Erikson’s growth chart: Identity versus Role Confusion is in full swing as Victor makes contact with books that will inspire his studies. The family goes to Thonon, a resort in France, and is confined to an inn there due to the weather. This upsets Victor no doubt because of his antisocial tendencies and so he does what any knowledge-craving boy his age would have done: he sits down with a book to read and avoid the people. Victor reads a book by Cornelius Agrippa and “a new light seemed to dawn upon my mind” (Shelley 34). Victor runs to his father, excited about his finding only to be brushed off by his father. When a depressed person gets brushed aside, they either let go or retaliate with a fierceness that cannot be guessed (Wexner). Victor did the later.
“If instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded…I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside” (Shelley 34). If his father had explained it, perhaps Victor would not have delved so deeply and largely into the well of unknown sciences and gone on to other studies. But his father suffers from the same disorders as Victor and could not be bothered to give an explanation to his young, energetic son. Perhaps Victor was more frightening when excited about scientific things his father had no idea how to handle and thus Frankenstein Sr. had no other defense mechanism but to try to shut Victor down.
Victor hits fifteen and is still in Erikson’s Identity Vs. Role Confusion stage while he eats away at the hunger for knowledge. He is high-functioning and never satisfied at this point. The quest for knowledge had inflated his head even more as he pursued higher levels of writings: “they appeared to me treasures known to few besides myself…Those of his successors in each branch of natural philosophy with whom I was acquainted appeared, even to me boy’s apprehensions, as tyros engaged in the same pursuit” (Shelley 35). Here Victor is saying that he is the only one who know about this great knowledge. No one else could know, especially no one else his age. And now, he has studied so long that the writings of other great scientists are like novices compared to what he knows. But sadly, he was left to struggle with a child’s blindness (Shelly 35). He has no one there with him as is often the case with manic depressive people, which only adds to the aggravation of the condition (Wexner). Victor’s symptoms and behaviors have gone on too long untreated just as his parents have and which he has been exposed to while floating in this delusion of grandeur.
He moves to pursue things greater than this physical life; “the elixir of life; but soon the latter soon obtained my undivided attention. Wealth was in inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame” (Shelley 36). This coupled with his next pursuit of trying to contact ghosts and devils which he eagerly sought shows his descent into madness. When one begins to rave and delve too deeply into things usually seen in society’s eyes as odd and not normal, one is normally described as mad. They begin “reasoning with insufficient data or rigidly defending the wrong theory” (Daw). Thus, all Victor needs is one more push and he will be over the proverbial edge.
When the lightning storm strikes at the end of chapter two, Victor then moves on to school in Ingolstadt. He is about to enter into the young adult phase for Erikson and Intimacy Vs. Isolation and it is ironically the last stage of his life. His mother dies no doubt causing a massive trauma to young Victor. He is delicately on the verge of pure insanity at this point as he is need of intimacy more than ever. His mother has died and he is young and unbalanced according to Erikson. He must mingle with people if he is to survive. But he does not. When Victor is in the Intimacy Vs Isolation Stage of Erikson’s theory, he shuts himself away instead of spending time with Henry and making friends at school with his mates. He has no one “worthy of my consideration” (Shelley 37).
Henry sees the signs which are evident when he tries to pursued his own father to allow him to accompany Victor to school (Shelley 39). Victor’s determination is seen just before this when he insists that even though his mother is dead, he still had duties to attend to and perform (Shelley 39). Finally, Victor states, “I threw myself in to the chaise that was to convey me away… I was now alone” (Shelley 40). He has reached the height of what he desired: He is alone and in a realm of smart-things and people where he can run rampant with his experiments. He is depressed, swinging from manic and back, never learned to control himself, and suffers from grandeur and a savior complex. There is nothing left but for him to do the ultimate act and creat life. He met a professor who would, unknowingly give him all he needed to finish off his mad desires:
“He then took me into his laboratory and explained to me the uses of his various machines, instructing me as to what I ought to procure and promising me the use of his own when I should have advanced far enough in the science not to derange their mechanism. He also gave me the list of books which I had requested, and I took my leave. Thus ended a day memorable to me; it decided my future destiny.”
From here, Victor goes on to gather dead bodies and try his best to create life. This last act of his nearly sane mind could have been his ultimate hate: it would seem the only thing Victor could not do is create life. He tried to call to the dead, attempted the elixir of life, learned all he could about science and yet there was nothing that would make him a god. His nature was nurtured into a high level of savior complex and fed anger by his bipolar disorder causing him to think he had no other goal than to creat life.
Whatever trauma his parents may have caused him in his childhood he has shut out, but it has led to his pursuit of perfection and ultimate control over his and other’s lives. His youth shows that he sought solitude and projected his anger onto others, particularly Elizabeth and Henry. Victor sought control and got it but his high-function nearly sociopathic mind was not satisfied until he had reached so far that he fell over the edge.
Daw, Jennifer. “Why and How Normal People Go Mad.” http://www.apa.org. American
Psychological Association, Nov. 2002. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.
Dr. Daw discusses in a brief essay the reasons that can cause people, normal and productive, to drop off the edge into clinical insanity. She describes the descent as one that can be triggered by many things but mostly as blows to one’s self esteem. She warns against false madness cues and discusses in brief biological reasons for madness.
Diamond, Stephen, Dr. “Messiahs of Evil (Part Three).” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers,
20 May 2008. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Dr. Diamond discusses a theory about how fanatic religious leaders from all over the globe could possibly have had a messiah complex. He informs the reader of the definition of a true messaiah complex and likens it to delusions of grandeur. He also provides research in Jung and Erikson’s theories.
Erikson, Erik. “Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages Summary Chart.” Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages
Summary Chart. Ed. Kendra Cherry, Dr. About.com, Web. 25 Nov. 2013.
A summary chart of Erikson’s theories with hyperlined examples and further discussion. For the essay, simple the names and order were taken from this chart.
Martin, Chris. The Scientist. Coldplay. Rec. 2001. Ken Nelson, 2002. MP3.
The song about a man who loves but cannot identify the feeling as it cannot be explained by science so he considers giving up or just going with it. Title was used as well as the line “pulling the puzzle apart” to symbolize Victor’s diagnosis as bipolar.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. New York: Barnes
and Nobel, 2003. Print. Barnes and Nobel Classics.
An annotated version of the original classic with essays and historical clips in the back of the book for further study.
Wexner Medical Center. “Manic Depression / Bipolar Disorder.” Wexner Medical Center. Ohio
State University, Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
The University of Ohio’s medical page for students who think they may be, or no someone who may be, suffering from depression or bipolar disorder. It gives symptoms, cures, and therapies. It also discusses in depth how such illnesses can be passed or spread through prolonged exposure.
Whitebourne, Susuan, Dr. “The Definitive Guide to Guilt.” Psychology Today. Sussex
Publishers, 11 Aug. 2012. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Dr. Whitebourne gives a different look at guilt in this short essay. Rather than explain how people manipulate a person, she explains what people plagued with guilt do. She explains how people afflicted with guilt live their lives and how they see tasks before them as essential to curing their guilt. She also likens it to the psychodynamic theory of Freud.