Mary Shelly on the Therapeutic Value of Language

By Brewer, William D. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Mary Shelly on the Therapeutic Value of Language


Brewer, William D., Papers on Language & Literature


The therapeutic value of oral and written self-expression is a recurrent theme in Mary Shelley's works, particularly in those works, such as Mathilda and Valperga: or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, in which the heroines have been subjected to psychological trauma. For example, the eponymous heroine of Mathilda refuses to tell her friend Woodville of her dead father's incestuous passion for her because she fears words, especially the word "incest," and, perhaps partially as a result of this self-censorship, she lives out her life in a state of chronic depression. In contrast, Beatrice, the brutalized prophet of Valperga, does relate her tale of suffering to the sympathetic (and aptly named) Euthanasia, but this narration provides only temporary relief. Mary Shelley's often garrulous characters frequently speak or write of their experiences, even when, as in the case of Frankenstein's monster, these narrations seem implausible. As Marc A. Rubenstein notes, "the author permits the monster an improbable series of digressions as he relates how he has passed the months since he wandered away from Frankenstein's laboratory" (168). There is, however, a psychological reason for the narrative, which Rubenstein touches on when he compares the monster to a "patient in psychoanalysis" (168)--the monster feels the need to work through and even validate his experience, and Frankenstein is the only person who will listen to him. In this essay I will argue that while Mary Shelley presents characters who are skeptical about the therapeutic value of verbal self-expression, she acknowledges the human need to put suffering into words, and the short-term relief that words can provide. Moreover, Shelley suggests that in the case of extreme trauma writing is sometimes more viable than speaking as a form of language therapy.

Mary Shelley's somewhat skeptical attitude toward the power of words was probably influenced by Percy Shelley's views on language.(1) In "On Life," Percy writes: "How vain is it to think that words can penetrate the mystery of our being" (475); he goes on to argue that "the misuse of words and signs" prevents "the mind" from acting freely (477).(2) His frustration with the inadequacy of language is forcibly expressed in his note to "On Love": "These words are inefficient and metaphorical--Most words so--No help--" (474). Moreover, in A Defense of Poetry, Percy Shelley asserts that over time words decline into "signs for portions or classes of thought [i. e. abstract ideas] instead of pictures of integral thoughts"--if poets do not intervene to revitalize them, the language becomes "dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse" (482). Percy's concern about the inadequacy and abstraction of language is also expressed in his poetry. In Prometheus Unbound Prometheus repudiates his curse on Jupiter, declaring that "words are quick and vain" (IV.i.303), a sentiment echoed by the Maniac in "Julian and Maddalo," who exclaims "How vain / Are words!" (472-473). These declarations can be compared to many of the pronouncements in Mary Shelley's fiction regarding the effectiveness of language. For example, her meditation on the failure of words to improve the human condition in her historical novel The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck recalls Percy's views on language's limitations:

Oh, had I, weak and faint of speech, words to teach my fellow-creatures the beauty and capabilities of man's mind; could I, or could one more fortunate, breathe the magic word which would reveal to all the power, which we all possess, to turn evil to good, foul to fair; then vice and pain would desert the new-born world!

It is not thus: the wise have taught, the good suffered for us; we are still the same. (III: 18)

Moreover, Clifford, the villain of Perkin Warbeck, soothes "his evil passions with words," thus exemplifying "the misuse of words and signs" that Percy Shelley warns against in "On Life": "It was some relief to this miserable man to array his thoughts in their darkest garb, soothing his evil passions with words, which acted on them as a nurse's fondling talk to a querulous child" (II: 73-74). …

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