Lacan’s Stages and Dreams

Dreams in Frankenstein

(Victor) “I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in 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 corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror.”


(Victor) “Oppressed by the recollection of my various misfortunes, I now swallowed double my usual quantity and soon slept profoundly. But sleep did not afford me respite from thought and misery; my dreams presented a thousand objects that scared me. Towards morning I was possessed by a kind of nightmare; I felt the fiend's grasp in my neck and could not free myself from it; groans and cries rang in my ears. My father, who was watching over me, perceiving my restlessness, awoke me; the dashing waves were around, the cloudy sky above, the fiend was not here:”



(Creature) “I sank into a profound sleep; but the fever of my blood did not allow me to be visited by peaceful dreams. The horrible scene of the preceding day was forever acting before my eyes; the females were flying and the enraged Felix tearing me from his father's feet. I awoke exhausted, and finding that it was already night, I crept forth from my hiding-place, and went in search of food.”

The Monster’s Struggle to Escape: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Frankenstein

Although it may seem strange at first to analyze Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from a psychoanalytic perspective, the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan theories of The Mirror Stage and the Oedipal Complex enable Frankenstein to be read as a novel embracing psychoanalytic theories. A psychoanalytic reading of Frankenstein shows the reader that the novel is the monster’s struggle to escape from the Mirror Stage and enter the Symbolic stage.

There are three distinct dreams in the novel, all of which Freud would interpret in one of three ways: wish-fulfillment, condensation, or displacement. The first dream in the novel is a prime example of displacement. In his dream Victor sees Elizabeth approaching him and after he embraces her, she turns into his dead mother. This moment can be defined as the point at which, at least in Victor’s mind, Elizabeth assumes the role of his mother. The second dream is had by the creature and is preceded by his discovery in the cottage. It consists of the monster dreaming that he is being torn from the blind man’s feet. If the blind man represents a father figure and the monster dreams that he is being torn away from him then it is a representation of condensation and the monster’s fear of his creator, Victor, being taken away from him. The third dream is the simplest of all; Victor’s feeling of hands around his neck strangling him represents the manner in which the monster killed William and Clerval. Each of these dreams is associated with the stages of life. The first mirrors The Real stage, the second reflects the Imaginary stage, and the third The Symbolic stage.

According to Lacan, there are three stages of the first four years of one’s life. These stages: The Real, The Imaginary, and The Symbolic, are each important in the studies of psychoanalysis, but for our purposes we will be focusing on The Imaginary or, as it is more well known, The Mirror Stage. This stage occurs from 6 to 18 months and is the beginning of an individual’s realization that he or she is a tangible person who exists in the world. It receives its name from the concept that this stage typically begins when an infant sees himself in the mirror. At this point, the infant separates himself from The Real stage and his mother and begins identifying as “I.” This marks the infant’s consciousness of selfhood.

Shelley takes advantage of the Mirror Stage and applies it to the creature. After making himself a hiding space in the woods, the monster discovers a family of cottagers and takes interest in them, but in especially their reading habits. The monster longed to understand the books the cottagers were reading but was unable to do so. This signifies his entrapment in the Mirror Stage and his fight to enter the Symbolic, where he would become literate. Like an infant, the creature first entered Mirror stage when he discovered his reflection “but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started 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..” This scene in the novel is a literal representation of the Mirror Stage and allows the reader to view the monster as an infant first discovering himself as a concrete individual for the first time. However, this part of the novel, like all others, only occurred as a consequence of Victor’s abandonment of his creation. Meaning, it was Victor’s direct actions that allowed for the creature to leave the Real Stage and transition into the Mirror stage.  

During the Real Stage, an infant is incapable of distinguishing oneself from his parents. As a result, to move into the following stage, the Mirror Stage, the infant must learn that, while he may be an extension of his parents, he is also his own person. Shelley enables Victor to leave this stage by the death of Victor’s mother. Only after her death is Victor able to leave his home “My departure for Ingolstadt, which had been deferred by these events, was now again determined upon.” (Shelley 68) This is the culmination of Victor’s Real Stage. Her death allows Victor to separate himself from his parents, much like the infant who looks in the mirror.

            Like in life, Victor is unable to fully separate himself from his mother and rather than accepting her death he simply finds a replacement. Freud would interpret Elizabeth’s role as the surrogate of Victor’s mother as a branch of the Oedipus complex. Additionally, instead of Victor’s mother being portrayed as the ideal mother, Elizabeth is portrayed as such. Meaning, Victor never fully leaves the Real Stage.

The monster’s journey throughout the novel is his struggle to leave the Mirror Stage and enter the Symbolic Stage, the stage where an infant acquires language. This typically occurs anywhere from 18 months to four years of age. As can be seen in the novel, only once Victor hear the eloquence of the monster’s speech does he allow him to tell his tale, “I consented to listen, and seating myself by the fire which my odious companion had lighted, he thus began his tale.” (Shelley 122)

The creature’s telling of his tale focuses on the family of cottage dwellers that he forms an attachment to. It is where he enters the Mirror Stage and struggles to cross over into the Symbolic Stage. The last stage of the process involves the discovery of symbolic order, in which one learns the norms of his society. The monster attempts to accomplish this by observing the cottagers and succeeds until he is discovered, “At that instant the cottage door was opened, and Felix, Safie, and Agatha entered. Who can describe their horror and consternation on beholding me? Agatha fainted, and Safie, unable to attend to her friend, rushed out of the cottage. Felix darted forward, and with supernatural force tore me from his father, to whose knees I clung, in a transport of fury, he dashed me to the ground and struck me violently with a stick.” (Shelley 160) This encounter is a primary obstacle in the monster’s effort to cross over into the final stage.

A psychoanalytic interpretation of Frankenstein allows for it to be read inLacan’s stages of human development. The monster’s journey from the Real Stage to the Mirror Stage and his struggle to enter the final stage, The Symbolic Stage shape the novel. The three dreams in the novel parallel the stages the creature and Victor undergo allowing the novel to be interpreted using psychoanalysis.




  • The Mirror Stage


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Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Charles E. Robinson. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus: The Original Two-volume Novel of 1816-1817 from the Bodleian Library Manuscripts. New York: Vintage, 2009. Print.

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Video by: Mary Beth Dickerson