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  • Preface:Beyond Misprision
  • Laura L. Knoppers

Sympathize as we might with the forlorn Creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, most of us would not consider ourselves to share his mode of reading Milton. When the Creature fortuitously finds in the woods a leather portmanteau containing a copy of Paradise Lost, he evinces the Romantic fascination with the rebel Satan, struck with "wonder and awe" at "the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures."1 The reader might smile knowingly as the Creature takes the action of Paradise Lost to be a true history, along the lines of the human history he has heard while eavesdropping on the DeLacey family through a chink in the wall of his hovel. The Creature's bitter ruminations, as he compares and contrasts the "several situations" of Milton's characters to his own, might seem both unique and unpromising as a reading strategy. Like the newly awakened Adam, he has no links to any other being; yet Adam was "a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator," while the Creature finds himself "wretched, helpless, and alone." Indeed, he many times considers "Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition." Learning about Eve both torments the Creature ("no Eve [End Page vii] soothed my sorrows nor shared my thoughts") and inspires him to demand his own companion, one "as deformed and horrible" as himself, again a seemingly unique readerly response.2

Yet it is worth considering further how the Creature uses Milton in a struggle with his Maker. As the Creature self-consciously quotes Paradise Lost to contest and rewrite Frankenstein's implicitly Miltonic narrative, his reading practices might be seen as a type of what Harold Bloom has defined as strong misreading or misprision.3 The Creature, after all, uses Paradise Lost against his own precursor and progenitor, Victor Frankenstein, striving to replace Frankenstein's self-absorbed narrative of himself as doomed and his Creature as unredeemable with a narrative in which the fallen Creature is an Adam who belatedly gets his Eve and turns away from evil. When Frankenstein abruptly ends that narrative, tearing the almost-completed mate into piece, and not recognizing the Creature's human longings and capacity for good, the Creature seems to embrace his role as malignant devil, killing off Frankenstein's loved ones in a protracted and vengeful battle against his Creator.

In this agonistic struggle, Frankenstein's Creature parallels Milton's Satan, whom Bloom views as the paradigmatic misreader and first modern poet.4 Arguing in The Anxiety of Influence that Milton's Satan "begets" himself as a poet through misprision of the divine decree exalting the Son, Bloom (echoing the Romantics) is as sympathetic with Satan as he is unsympathetic with Milton's God: "Satan is that modern poet, while God is his dead but still embarrassingly potent and present ancestor, or rather, ancestral poet."5 Bloom expands on the point in A Map of Misreading, declaring the proclamation of the Son to be "the ultimate Scene of Instruction," a poetic version of the oedipal primal scene, and suggesting that "Satan, like any strong poet, declines to be merely a latecomer. His way of returning to origins, of making the Oedipal trespass, is to become a rival creator to God-as-creator."6 Mary Shelley's own reading of Paradise Lost has been similarly seen in Bloomian terms as a "despairingly acquiescent 'misreading'" that seems to repress Eve but in fact turns her into the monster that Milton implies she is.7 [End Page viii]

Yet I would suggest that both Mary Shelley and her Creature, in the end, use Milton to move beyond anxiety and misreading toward something more constructive and enabling. In a final swerve from Frankenstein's narrative, and an embrace of Miltonic reconciliation, the Creature comes to the deathbed of his Maker, weeps, and asks for forgiveness. The Creature rewrites the end of his own story, moving past the satanic role to become a repentant Adam, albeit one who, without his Eve, can only despair and embrace death. This is no Bloomian swerve. Rather, the Creature recounts to a listening Walton the exquisite self-torments...


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