Heroes and Mermaids: A Deep Dive into Jung’s Archetypal Ocean

If you’re a writer or lit lover (and if you’re reading this blog post, you’re likely both), you’ve no doubt heard of Joseph Campbell’s seventeen stage “hero’s journey.” Maybe you’ve used a “hero’s journey” map to outline a novel—or even your own personal quest! If so, you know that Campbell draws his pattern (just one of an endless number of archetypal patterns) from C. G. Jung’s theory of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

Jung believed that we are born with a psychological predisposition to understand our experiences in typical forms and patterns, and that these patterns bear striking resemblances to each other in cultures throughout the world. He theorized that these archetypal forms operate beneath our awareness in the very deepest layer of psyche—a murky, ocean-like psychological realm comprised of energies that shape all common human experience. This ocean, which he called the collective unconscious, is at once a repository for the experiences of our predecessors and the origin of everything we in turn will experience in our individual lives.

Though formless and invisible inside the collective unconscious, in the way that a magnet pulls fragments of metal to itself, the archetypes enter consciousness by clothing themselves in the events and situations of our personal and collective lives—that is, they appear to us as archetypal images or symbols.

Archetypal images depict both grand and ordinary events, characters and situations. The more common, the deeper the corresponding archetype lies inside the collective unconscious and the greater possible meanings it can hold. Take the archetype of the door or threshold, for example: when I walk through the door of my house at the end of the day I not only enter the place where I’ll have dinner and sleep, but I also encounter the accumulated power of the door/threshold archetype. As I turn the key, I unlock the closure that separates my life and work in the outer world from the much quieter and more private personal life inside my home. My door is more than a door; it’s a sacred portal into another world. When I cross the threshold I’m free to drop my public persona and orient myself more fully toward family and inner life.

“Crossing the threshold” is one of the steps (or archetypal situations) Campbell details in the first stage of the “hero’s journey.” Of course, in this context, the step marks a very different kind of crossing, one in which the hero leaves home for an adventure of a lifetime. The door/threshold archetype is so all-encompassing it very comfortably holds both of these meanings (this paradox), and countless others too.

Archetypes serve a psychological function that parallels the biological function served by our instincts. They are templates for understanding experience and orienting ourselves within our social-cultural world. They are also energies that seek to be consciously known and expressed and are therefore dependent on the human poietic or image-making impulse. Likewise, what is conscious, or nearly so, in us seeks connection to its imaginal source and meaning. With the language of archetypes we often find the words and images essential for expressing our otherwise inexpressible inner worlds of thoughts and feelings. Inner and outer constantly seek one another, and it is the sacred work of the artist, the writer in particular, to bring the two into creative relationship.

Any of a great number of images might be used to symbolize the archetypal writer, but at this moment I find one especially compelling—the mermaid. Thanks to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” these beings which are half-human, half-fish are most often depicted as maids, but given their ambiguous, fluid natures, we might rather think of them as merpeople. As denizens of the deep primordial ocean (a symbol of the unconscious), these mythic beings can breathe both water and air. They are able to dive deep into the generative waters of the ocean and onto its floor where live the mysterious artifacts of humanity’s shipwrecked past. Then they rise again to communicate with living humans and reflect on surface life. They are mercurial intermediaries, savers of drowning sailors, and beautiful sirens with sweetest voices. But they are people, too—people with the rare and fantastic ability for shapeshifting transformation.

Though we might not always dive so deep or sing as sweetly, as writers we dive into the imagination—into the collective unconscious—and bring back the resources, images, and language we need to tell our parts of the human story in a way that is archetypally familiar yet fundamentally personal and new. We strive, as Joseph Campbell says, to live the myth forward, to deliver fresh images and narratives that speak to the world’s current situation.


You can experience a fine example of creative work that does just that in Actor’s Theatre’s production of The Mermaid Hour, a 2016 NuVoices finalist by David Valdes Greenwood. With pitch-perfect dialogue, this play explores the life of a family faced with making difficult choices for and with their twelve-year-old transgender daughter. The production opens Wednesday, May 2 at the Hadley Theater at Queens University and runs through May 19. Toni Reali, daughter of Charlotte Lit co-founder Paul Reali, plays the leading role of transgender tween Vi.

And, if you’re interested in learning more about Jung’s archetypes, you can join Kathie Collins and Paul Reali on May 2, 9, and 16 for a three-session class that examines the origins, expression, and creative potential of archetypal patterns. Registration and information is here.


Kathie Collins, Ph.D., co-founder of Charlotte Lit, earned her doctorate in Mythological Studies with an emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. A poet and lifelong student of Jungian psychology, Kathie thrives in the in-between space from which dreams and creativity emerge. She’s happiest when she can share that space with others and one of her great passions is bringing words and people together for transformative conversations. Kathie’s poetry has appeared in Immanence, Kakalak, BibleWorkbench, and Between. Her chapbook Jubilee was published by Main Street Rag in 2011.

3 Ways to Improve Your Writing

I spend a lot of time staring at a blank computer screen, my fingers poised over the keyboard, hoping the right words will find their way onto the page. I check my email every 30 seconds, waste time on Facebook, start typing, decide the writing is crap and hit delete, give up and read trashy magazines hoping for inspiration. Rinse, repeat.

When deadlines loom, I have no choice but to sit down and make magic happen (or at least get words on the page). Since I make a living selling words, sentences, and paragraphs, the articles I write need to shine.

Over the years, I’ve found that following three simple rules makes my writing much better.

Show, don’t tell. You’ve probably heard this before but it bears repeating. The best way to draw a reader into the story is through word art, painting a picture with your words.

In an essay about the thrill of completing your first marathon, you could tell the reader, “Running a marathon is hard” or you can show them what that means: “By mile 25, my legs wobbled, my breath came in jagged gasps and sweat dripped down my back. When I heard the distant cheers of the crowd waiting at the finish line, I felt buoyed by their energy and used it to help me finish the race.”

Drawing the reader into the story by creating scenes instead of just stating facts leads to more compelling writing.

Do a sensory scan.One of the faculty advisors I worked with in the MFA program at Queens University suggested this exercise and I’ve found it very helpful: After you finish writing a piece, go back over it and mark the places where there are sensory descriptions. Note uses of all five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste.

I recently finished a book about farming. During my sensory scan, I realized that none of the descriptions included scent. Farming is stinky! Writing the story without talking about the smells on a farm meant it was missing a key ingredient.

If your sensory scan reveals that you have only described the way things look, think about ways to incorporate descriptions of the other senses. You won’t engage all of the senses in every piece but it’s helpful to use descriptions of at least two or three.

Go on a media diet.The worst thing I can do when I’m working on an article or writing a book is read what others have written on the topic. The reason? When I read someone else’s work, their words echo in my thoughts and I lose my own voice.

When deadlines loom, I try to steer clear of the Internet, magazines, and books so that I can focus on how I want to tell the story. Sometimes I crawl into bed and write longhand in a notebook. My creative juices really flow when I’m not staring at the squiggly green line in MS Word that tells me I have a grammatical error on the page!

These creative techniques are the keys to telling—and selling—great stories.


Jodi Helmer. Journalist. Author. Writing teacher. Doggie momma. Beekeeper. Veggie grower. Vintage needlework collector. Napper. Eater. Canadian. Jodi has many roles and has built a freelance career by writing about them—and a host of other things that pique her curiosity. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Hemispheres, National Geographic Traveler, CNNMoney, AARP, Farm Life, Health,and others. She is the author of four books, including The Green Yearand Farm Fresh Georgia. Jodi teaches writing workshops, offers one-on-one consulting and query critiques, and speaks at journalism conferences to help other writers achieve their goals.

Becoming Human: A White Person’s Reckoning with Race

Book Review: Debbie Irving’s Waking Up White and Finding Myself in a Story of Race


As a life-long lover of books, it feels particularly special to stumble across a book that profoundly shifts my world view, my approach to life, or my thoughts in a new direction. Waking Up White was one such book.

As a woman from a lower-middle class family situated in the beautiful, rolling hills of North Carolina, I’ve struggled with the stereotypes I grew up with, having relationships with people of color—including a best friendship with a woman of color in college, and through a job in which I faced data and stories that clearly showed racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Before reckoning with my own race and history, I experienced the sting—the Zap Factor—of conversations with this best friend, who praised Malcom X (someone I had learned was a terrorist) and tried to explain how she was watched in stores (I wondered what she must have been doing wrong). As I read through the chapters, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief and feeling encouraged that there is a way out of racial tension. By understanding ourselves a little more fully, we can find harmony with others who are different from us; and in embracing those differences, we will co-create a future that is more successful, beautiful, and rich for all of us.

In her book Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, self-described WASP Debby Irving recounts her liberating, yet heart-wrenching coming to terms with racism: “Racism’s ultimate grip on me came not just from my conditioning to ignore it but from the inverse story that I was told about it.”

In this memoir-like account, Irving walks readers through the process of her transformation from a white person with no racial identity to having a profound sense of her history, privilege, and role in supporting anti-racism. Rather than lecture readers on what she has learned, Irving takes us deep into her journey. Her step-by-step account allows readers to reflect on their own journeys and invites them to embark on their own personal transformations. While some readers may be offended by her criticism of white culture, Irving’s commentary provides a contrast to her long-standing perception of white culture always being “right.” She offers no critical analysis of other racial or ethnic groups. The focus is inward, self-critical, and at times, uncomfortable.

In telling her story, Irving describes key themes or revelations that are common to the white experience. Each chapter provides an insight that builds on the next. She explains the failure of “color-blindness” and how she perpetuated racism by being unaware of the benefits brought by her skin color, and writes about “Robin Hood syndrome,” defined as “‘dysfunctional rescuing,’ helping people in ways that actually disempower them.” Her numerous examples of this syndrome may help altruistic white people recognize where this may come into play in their own civic engagement or volunteerism.

Irving introduces an idea she calls the Zap Factor––the sting of discomfort and embarrassment that occurs when white people experience misunderstandings or recognize their own ignorance during cross-racial conversations. By labeling these experiences and providing concrete examples from her own life, Irving enables readers, particularly white readers, to finally understand why their interactions with people of color may be uncomfortable and seemingly unproductive.

Irving also delves into the “dominant white culture” and elucidates the values and character traits that America’s dominant white culture has retained from early colonists. While these traits may not fit every white person, the underlying message is critical: There are cultural differences that impact cross-racial interactions. White people who are cognizant of their own dominant cultural traits while being sensitive to the cultures of people they interact with, will experience a greater degree of progress and partnership.

As Irving’s recount of her own racial enlightenment progresses, she lets go of labels and tells more personal stories. Later lessons seem to be still fresh and not quite established in her vernacular or approach. She describes a moment in which it became evident that her socialization as a white person remained so embedded with cultural differences her conversations still had the power to alienate people of other races and ethnicities. At the same time, when she realizes a mistake or blunder, Irving is able to model vulnerability and transparency. Concrete examples from her own life allow readers to share in her embarrassment and confusion, while also allowing them to identify with her efforts to overcome life-long blocks to wholehearted relationships with people of other races and ethnicities.

Irving doesn’t attempt to smooth over any of her experiences, and empathetic readers will struggle, particularly if Irving’s experiences resonate with them. But the book ends with a powerful, refreshing call to action: “Self-examination and the courage to admit to bias and unhelpful inherited behaviors may be our greatest tools for change. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to expose our ignorance and insecurities takes courage. And love. I believe the most loving thing a person, or a group of people, can do for another is to examine the ways in which their own insecurities and assumptions interfere with others’ ability to thrive.”

Waking Up Whiteis a moving story of reckoning, a kick in the pants for readers who have become discouraged or indifferent to issues of race, and a tremendous tool for the person seeking to understand and eliminate racism. It’s a story about reclaiming our humanity. When the fabrications of race are exposed for what they are (constructs of power) and what they have caused (dehumanization of people, death, injustice, and unrest), we are freed to recognize the humanity in our fellow brothers and sisters, to collectively mourn the devastation that has been caused, and to collectively build a better future that works for all of us.


Dr. Melissa Neal is a proud North Carolina native who endeavors to make a unique contribution to the world, through writing, relationships, and her work. Professionally, she is a public health expert who specializes in creating effective criminal justice systems and healthy communities. From establishing a nonprofit for justice-involved families in rural Tennessee to conducting national research and justice reform activity in Washington, D.C., she has long worked to improve the intersect between the criminal justice system and community health.

Dr. Neal obtained her doctorate in public health from East Tennessee State University. She currently works for Policy Research Associates, a national firm providing technical assistance to criminal justice and behavioral health systems. She is a commissioner on the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities and is a member of the Race Matters for Juvenile Justice leadership collaborative. She and her husband, with their two dog rescues—Rufus and Greyson—live in Cornelius, NC.

Novels in Progress: Axel Dahlberg’s “Schmed”

Chapter 1

Mom buried Dad in his half of the cemetery plot they bought together then sold her half. Probably one thing you gotta know right up front. And that I had no say. Like a lot of crap when you’re a kid, you got no say. And you got no clue, mostly. But as far as I can measure, things broke from there. Unless you really want to dig stuff up, then maybe our little family tree was rotting from the inside before Dad’s accident. Mom didn’t know it then, like I didn’t know how far all this would chase me into my future. One thing about my family, we figure stuff out. Usually after it’s all mopped up and no one’s left standing around. But we get it. Mostly.

One thing about me, I’m not special. A regular kid from a regular place. Every kid you’ve never noticed. Standing in line behind you, watching you not seeing me. I’m not gonna tell my name or what I look like. None of that matters as much as the truth. And you can’t know where I’m at now because there’s still guys looking to do me bad. I’m that kid you heard about from the news. The one people saw running from behind Valhalla after it burned—the only time I shot a guy. But not my fault. Honest. You’ll see. I’m setting things straight so you’ll know I wasn’t such a menace like they said. One thing I learned, the ones who tell the tales make their own stories, and they’re never yours.

This is the most honest story I know how to tell. If you’re gonna make sense of anything, you gotta know stuff that never made the news that evil summer when Minneapolis screamed and bled as they started building that Mall of America. People I knew had stuff to do with that goddamn monstrosity—crap you’ll never hear about at Camp Snoopy. People died. Maybe my story will help you look the hell out for crap that slams into your life when you think it’s just another Thursday. Any of this could have happened to you, even if you don’t believe me.

Maybe the best place to start is that night.

Charlotte Lit Year Three—Year of the Tree

“Looking Up to Heroes,” Crista Cammaroto, 2008. cristacammaroto.com

On Friday, May 4, we’re throwing a garden party to celebrate Charlotte Lit’s 2nd birthday. Join us for a stroll around the gardens of Wing Haven’s Elizabeth Lawrence House as we kick off Year Three—Year of the Tree. We’ll have food from La Tea Da’s, drinks, and delicious sweet treats courtesy of our friends at Sunflour Baking Company. Charlotte Lit teachers Bryn Chancellor (Sycamore) and Martin Settle (Maple Samaras) will read from their latest (tree-titled) books, and artist Crista Cammaroto will display pieces from her stunning collection of tree art. (If you arrive early, you might be lucky enough to purchase one of them.) And everyone goes home with a tree seedling, courtesy of Trees Charlotte. Tickets are $50. Click here to purchase yours.

Our official birthday was February 19, so we’re just a little late celebrating—but with good reason! Since last February’s birthday party at Copper Restaurant, where we kicked off our year-long celebration of renowned author Carson McCullers, we’ve hosted dozens of classes in virtually every writing genre, held community conversations and staged readings based on McCullers work, graduated our first group of Authors Lab students, celebrated six rounds of 4X4CLT poetry+art poster series, collaborated on events with a number of arts organizations, including CPCC’s Sensoria Festival, brought the NC Arts Council’s literature fellows to town for a wonderful evening of readings in The Light Factory, hosted Charlotte Lit members for Open Studio writing hours every Tuesday and Thursday…and the list goes on.

More important than any of the things we’ve done or any of the events we’ve hosted, however, are the friends we’ve made in the last two years. To all of you who have become members of Charlotte Lit, attended our classes, conversations, and events, added your energy to our Open Studio sessions, donated your time and dollars, or told your friends about the cool center for literary arts over in the Midwood International and Cultural Center—thank you for helping us “spread the words.”

We couldn’t do it without you, and we wouldn’t want to.

We need you back this year, too. The best way to help Charlotte Lit is through membership. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to renew your membership. If you’re not sure whether or not your membership is current, just email paul@charlottelit.org.

Special thanks to Janet Miller for helping us plan our birthday party and to all of you who plan to celebrate with us. Can’t wait to see you!

Cheers!
Kathie

Writing as Life?

What have I learned from writing, from life as a writer, and from hanging out in the wonderful community of other writers?

1. Persistence trumps talent every time.

2. If you’re waiting on the muse to show up before you start working, you’re wasting valuable time. If you’re not where you’re supposed to be (with pen or keyboard at hand ready to work), how do you expect the muse to find you?

3. There are no born writers…or painters or race car drivers or bankers. They all work at it.

4. Everyone is creative. The lucky ones recognize it and enjoy it. The unlucky or doomed believe whoever lied and told them they couldn’t create. Everyone is creative and can develop and enjoy what calls to them, whether it’s writing or cooking or gardening or juggling or…

5. There is a special place in a very bad place for those who tell little kids [or big kids] they can’t paint or write or cook or sing or dance or color trees purple. No one has the right to take that away from another person. No one.

6. If someone ever told you that you that you couldn’t do something but you liketo do it, don’t listen to them.  Do it any way.  Don’t worry that you won’t get rich or famous doing it…what’s that got to do with enjoying it?

7. When creating anything, the first draft should be fun. Quit thinking so much. Stand on the edge of the pool, hold your breath, and dive in. The real work starts when you come up for air – and that will be fun, too.

8. How do you know you’re doing it right? If you’re a little bit afraid.

Show up. Pay attention. Play. Be grateful. Be generous. Enjoy.


Cathy Pickens’ first of five mystery novels, Southern Fried, won St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic Award for Best Traditional Mystery. She has written a mystery walking tour, Charleston Mysteries (History Press), and numerous articles and case studies. At Queens University of Charlotte, she was named the Wireman Professor and won several teaching awards. She has served as president and on the boards of national mystery writers organizations and as president of the regional Forensic Medicine Board. Currently, she works with former inmates on starting their own businesses.

Find Your Place: Literary Events at This Week’s Sensoria Festival

Charlotte Lit is a proud partner for CPCC’s fantastic Sensoria: A Celebration of Literature and the Arts, April 6-15. We’re honored this year to present with Sensoria the Irene Blair Honeycutt Legacy Award to Maureen Ryan Griffin, and to have U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith as our featured poet for our 9th 4X4CLT Poetry+Art poster series.


In March 1999, CPCC featured Anne Lamott, author of the classic writing how-to Bird by Bird, as part of their annual literary festival. It’s a date I’ve committed to memory because I was there in the mid-morning audience, my two-month old son nestled in my lap, while my oldest two children were in preschool. As a brain-fried new mother, I was desperate for words, for meaning, for support of the notion that writing was a worthy and necessary endeavor. The theme for that year’s festival was “A Sense of Place: Writers in Community” and being there opened the door to the local writing community for me. These 19 years later, that baby is a freshman in college and the literary festival has grown into the 10-day Sensoria Festival, but that sense of welcome and community remains.

George Saunders, winner of the National Book Award and the keynote lecturer of last year’s festival, called Sensoria “one of the very best of its kind in the world.” There are a multitude of events—film screenings, opera, theatre, music, and more—across six CPCC campuses, but writers and readers should take note of the following opportunities to connect with the literary community:

Monday 4/9, 10:30 am at Tate Hall, Central Campus: When Literature Becomes Myth: Celebrating 200 Years of Frankenstein. In last week’s Litmosphere, David Poston beautifully enumerated why Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel is relevant these 200 years later. Leslie Klinger, editor of the New Annotated Frankenstein, speaks about the landmark science fiction novel at this talk.

Monday 4/9, 6 pm (reception), 7 pm (reading) at Tate Hall, Central Campus: Irene Blair Honeycutt Legacy Award Presentation and Reading. Charlotte Lit is honored to co-sponsor this award, named after Honeycutt who was an early and enthusiastic supporter of our organization. This year’s honor goes to Maureen Ryan Griffin, a poet and non-fiction writer, who in her work as a writing coach has propelled her students to a deeper understanding of the art. Join us in celebrating her contributions to the literary community. Sweets deliciously provided by Sunflour Baking Company.

Tuesday 4/10, 9:30 am at Levine Campus: Local Author Spotlight–Bryn ChancellorAuthor of the Oprah Magazine Top Pick Sycamore, UNCC Professor, and Charlotte Lit instructor Bryn Chancellor discusses the craft of writing. This event caps off Levine Reads, a campus-wide common read initiative.

Tuesday 4/10, 11 am at Levine Campus: Writing Workshop: Framing Our Experience: A Life in Pieces. Inspired by a micro-memoir workshop led by Charlotte Lit’s December 4x4CLT author Beth Ann Fennelly, CPCC English faculty members Jaime Pollard-Smith and Elizabeth West invite participants to explore the genre of creative non-fiction by writing small, vivid scenes drawn from daily life.

Wednesday 4/11, 8 pm in Pease Auditorium, Central Campus: Irene Blair Honeycutt Distinguished Lecturer: US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.

“As all the best poetry does, “Life on Mars”first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.”  –The New York Times Sunday Book Review

Tracy K. Smith, author of four poetry collections including the Pulitzer-winning Life on Marsand the just-released Wade in the Water, reads and discusses her work. Just appointed to a second term as US Poet Laureate, Smith’s mission is to bring poetry to rural communities. Charlotte Lit’s April 4X4CLT poetry and art poster series— featuring Smith’s poems, along with art by Isaac Payne and Felicia van Bork—will be released and displayed at this event. Smith will read a second time on Thursday 4/12, 11 am in Halton Theater, Central Campus.

Thursday 4/12, 9:30 am in Tate Hall, Central Campus: Regional Author Spotlight: Jon PinedaPineda is a core faculty member of the low-residency MFA program at Queens University and is the author of poetry, memoir, and fiction, including his latest novel Let’s No One Get Hurt.

Thursday 4/12, 3 pm (Artist’s Lecture) Tate Hall, Central Campus and 6:30 pm (Opening Reception) Ross Gallery, Central Campus: Featured Visual Artist Felicia van Bork: color + color = spaceIn her “How to” series, van Bork uses her own torn and cut monotype prints to create large-scale collages, two of which are featured on April’s 4X4CLT poetry and art poster series. In the afternoon, van Bork discusses her artwork which will be displayed in an exhibit opening that evening in the Ross Gallery.


Lisa Zerkle’s poems have appeared in The Collagist, Comstock Review, Southern Poetry Anthology, Broad River Review, Tar River Poetry, Nimrod, Sixfold, poemmemoirstory, Crucible, and Main Street Rag, among others. Author of the chapbook, Heart of the Light, she has served as President of the North Carolina Poetry Society, community columnist for The Charlotte Observer, and editor of Kakalak. She is the curator of Charlotte Lit’s 4X4CLT, a public art and poetry series.

Pardon This Intrusion: Frankenstein 200 Years Later

Leslie Klinger, editor of the New Annotated Frankenstein, discusses When Literature Becomes Myth: Celebrating 200 Years of Frankenstein at CPCC’s Sensoria Festival. Monday April 9 at 10:30 am, Central Campus, Tate Hall.  Free.


Two centuries after Frankenstein first appeared, we need to remember how eloquently the creature speaks. Not the monster who debuted on stage in 1823’s Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein, the one whose film history began with the 1910 one-reel Frankenstein from Thomas Edison. Hundreds of films, TV shows, stage plays, even musicals have followed them, from James Whale’s 1931 classic through Universal Studios’ upcoming remake of The Bride of Frankenstein. Granted, they have given us some of our most enduring cultural tropes: the mad scientist, the grunting monster, the torch-wielding mob. But they have drowned out a remarkable voice, one we need to hear now more than ever.

That voice belongs to the creature of Mary Shelley’s novel, published anonymously on January 1, 1818, and never out of print since. It is the voice of an articulate autodidact conceived by a girl a few months shy of her nineteenth birthday, motherless herself, displaced from family and proper society because of her elopement with a married rakish flake, creating what she later called her “hideous progeny” while holed up under rainy skies darkened by the global ash-cloud from Mt. Tambora’s eruption.

It is the outcast who faces Victor Frankenstein on the sea of ice and speaks the most moving words in the novel, the one who has by then found an abandoned book satchel containing the essential Romantic Era reading list and uses Paradise Lost to plead a case that convicts us all to this day. Speaking to his creation for the first time, Victor greets him as “Devil,” but the creature is far ahead of him: “I expected this reception. All men hate the wretched.” He proceeds to tell his wretched tale, beginning with the night Victor brought him to life and promptly abandoned him.

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel,” he says, and Paradise Lost informs his tale and underscores the novel’s indictment of society. Steeped as she was from childhood in the great intellectual tradition, Mary Shelley knew very well the key scenes in Paradise Lost: Adam coming to life in the sun-drenched Garden of Eden, able to open his mouth and name every creature which presented itself to him, Eve so enchanted with her beautiful reflection that she almost refused to leave it. By contrast, the creature describes waking to darkness and cold. When he tries to imitate the sounds of night birds, the “uncouth and inarticulate” sounds he makes frighten him into silence. In contrast to Eve, the creature sees his reflection only after he has been admiring the De Lacey family from his hiding place. He has come to appreciate beauty, and with that understanding has come the recognition of how hideously he has been made.

Even Satan had his fellow devils, but the creature has no one; worse than that, he has read the great Miltonic explanation of the chain of being and found himself utterly excluded. When the creature makes his attempt to be included, when he approaches blind father De Lacey, his first words to another human being are “Pardon this intrusion.” Of course, at this point De Lacey’s children return, immediately assume a monster is attacking their father, and chaos typical of the movies ensues.

From that moment until the creature meets Victor, the series of mishaps and misdeeds that follow lead him to confront Victor and make the argument that he should have his own Eve. “I am malicious because I am miserable,” he says. He lays the blame for that misery at the feet of Victor, who created him and fled; that blame also lies on the man who shot him after the creature had saved his daughter from drowning (a scene turned around horribly in the Whale film), on the villagers who drove him away with stones and sticks, even on Felix De Lacey for assuming instinctively that because he was hideous he was evil. Give me a mate, he asks, and we will go to the wilds of South America. There, as he has learned from his reading, he and his mate will find the better Eden in each other’s arms. Victor is moved by the argument, at least until the moment when he aborts his second creation and puts the novel’s tragic conclusion into motion.

Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker article points out how the creature’s story resembles a slave narrative, connecting it to Mary Shelley’s reading about slave rebellions in Haiti and the West Indies and also to the life of Frederick Douglass. The comparison is apt with regard to both the extraordinary way Douglass obtained his education and to his struggle to assert the full humanity of people of color to a society which considered them savage children. Lepore points out that in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, the monster is lynched. I think it is even more telling that in Mary Shelley’s novel, the creature has internalized society’s condemnation and decides to immolate himself.

Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws, a parallel biography of Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, makes a fascinating case that both were hampered and unappreciated by the men in their lives: as thinkers, as writers, as full equals to the supposedly progressive and revolutionary men with whom they were intimately associated. Through her creature, Mary Shelley also speaks out against patriarchy, certainly against how the Miltonic chain of being justified the prevailing political and economic hierarchy—and hierarchy within families—as God-ordained.  Though the creature measures himself against Adam and Satan, I see him as similar to Eve, sent to gather food while the angel Raphael warned Adam of Satan’s designs. Like the creature eavesdropping on the De Lacey family (the pun is unavoidable) Eve is forced to obtain knowledge only by subterfuge, then judged as fallen by those who did not deign to teach her.

Mary Shelley’s novel has serious flaws: improbable plot devices, overwrought and silly dialogue, and a neophyte author’s attempt to make it everything from moral fable to philosophical argument to travelogue. But it is intricately and artfully presented through narrative framed within narrative, and at its heart the creature speaks what he rightfully calls the most moving part of the tale.

Today, even if the mob is carrying tiki torches or the stones are cast on-line, the creature still confronts us on behalf of anyone who is labelled Other, who is blamed, exploited, excluded or forced to assert that his or her life matters. Read the novel, or read it again, through the lens of the 21st century. Heed the voice of the creature.


Gastonia poet and writer David E. Poston taught for thirty years in public school, at UNC-Charlotte, and at Charlotte’s Young Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in journals and anthologies such as Broad River Review, English Journal, Pedestal, The Cape Rock, The Southern Poetry Anthology: North Carolina, and Kakalak. His poetry collections are My Father Reading Greek, Postmodern Bourgeois Poetaster Blues, and Slow of Study. He served on the steering committee for Charlotte Lit’s Carson McCullers centennial celebration in 2017 and currently serves on the boards of the Friends of the Gaston County Public Library, Gaston Literacy Council, and Charlotte Writers’ Club. He teaches writing workshops for Hospice and other venues and will talk about Frankenstein or Paradise Lost to any group that will listen.