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Therapy for Abandonment and Isolation:
Narcissism in Mary Shelley's Mathilda

Katherine Chi


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Although blame for the conflict in Mary Shelley’s Mathilda is often attributed to one character, the narcissism exhibited by both the daughter and the father motivates the incestuous relationship and tragedy that develop.  Mathilda behaves egocentricly, often portraying herself as the central character in a fantastic story.  Her tragic flaw proves to be an obsession with constructing fantasies and conflating those fantasies with reality.  Ultimately, the inability to separate reality from fantasy transforms the story into one of tragedy.  When Mathilda realizes that the fairy tale she has created cannot be maintained, she seeks a tragic end that befits her passion for the dramatic.
    For narcissism to develop in the story, doubling must occur between characters.  The first occasion of doubling and narcissism occurs between Mathilda's father and mother.  After their marriage, “he felt as if by his union with her he had received a new and better soul” (Shelley 179).  The father's transformation into a "better person" is an act of “Diana literally [re-making] him into her image” (McKeever 194).  Because she represents important elements missing from his own life, such as a paternal figure and stability, he gains wholeness by emulating the behavior of his wife (194).  This relationship of narcissism persists when the father excludes his school friends and pursues a life in which “they were never separate and seldom admitted a third to their society” (Shelley 180).  The introduction of a third character in this established relationship disrupts the doubling necessary for narcissism.  That is, the birth of Mathilda prevents this relationship from persisting; thus, someone must be removed to allow the doubling to continue.  Consequently, Diana passes away, and because Mathilda is too young to occupy her mother's role, the father deteriorates without a duplicate of himself to idolize.  The wholeness he possessed while emulating his wife cannot be retained without her, and so, he abandons his current life.  This situation repeats later in the story.  After the father returns, he acts as a double for Mathilda, who then becomes the central figure who requires completion.  The father's return propagates the cycle of narcissism.  His death ends the doubling, however, and Mathilda must search elsewhere for the other half that complements her existence.  Woodville, a companion she acquires after her father's death, is unable to occupy this role because he can not reflect the personality of Mathilda; while she pursues suicide later in the story, he exhibits no interest in such things and instead attempts to encourage her to live.  When the father disappears and Mathilda no longer possesses a double or a possible candidate to replace him, the situation becomes unstable and she must die as well.
    Early in life, Mathilda is abandoned by her father and left in the care of an aunt devoid of the passion of her parents.  She is isolated at her aunt’s estate in Scotland, removed from the location of her origin and without companionship: her nurse is eventually dismissed and she is not permitted to socialize with the local peasantry.  Without instruction or love from a parental figure and little contact with society, she begins to develop a world within her imagination where she can be content.  The influence of literature nurtures her departure from reality and she begins pursuing that which is more pleasant in fantasy:
I was a solitary being, and from my infant years, ever since my dear nurse left me, I had been a dreamer.  I brought Rosalind and Miranda and the lady of Comus to life to be my companions, or on my isle acted over their parts imagining myself to be in their situations. (185)
As she grows older, Mathilda's contact with others continues to be denied, and thus she never matures from the child stage of constructing and living within fantasies.  The lack of other prominent human figures in her life forces her to centralize herself as the heroine within her stories.  This perception of the self within a particular role later reinforces a feeling of obligation to act as a heroine would.  Without interaction with others, she becomes lost within the world of fantasy, imagining herself as the female protagonist of a fairy tale, like Cinderella or Rapunzel, who can only be liberated from the oppression of isolation by a prince.  Unfortunately, because she has been refused the company of men, the only male of any significance in her life is her father, who thus assumes the role of the prince in her fairy tale:
The idea of [my] unhappy, wandering father was the idol of my imagination.  I bestowed on him all my affections; there was a miniature of him that I gazed on continually […] My imagination hung upon the scene of recognition; his miniature, which I would continually wear exposed on my breast, would be the means and I imaged the moment to my mind a thousand and a thousand times, perpetually varying the circumstances.  Sometimes it would be in a desert; in a populous city; at a ball; we would perhaps meet in a vessel; and his first words constantly were, ‘My daughter, I love thee!’(185)
The fantasies in which she engages are an attempt to rectify the situation of the wronged, abandoned daughter.  Because she lacks love from any human, she compensates by imagining herself in a role that receives love and sympathy from an imagined or invisible audience, that of a heroine.  Though she begins her tale by addressing it specifically to Woodville, she suggests that the story is intended for a larger audience:
I do not know that any will peruse these pages except you, my friend, who will receive them at my death.  I do not address them to you alone because it will give me pleasure to dwell upon our friendship in a way that would be needless if you alone read what I shall write.  I shall relate my tale therefore as if I wrote for strangers. (178)
Although she fantasizes about her father loving her, she is perhaps more interested in earning the adoration of a larger crowd.  In the role of a heroine, she assumes a position that necessarily deserves compassion.  She becomes so infatuated with the role in which she has cast herself that she needs to fulfill the requirements of that role, most importantly to extract emotional reactions from her audience.  Indeed, when Woodville stops giving her attention in order to care for his ailing mother, Mathilda determines that it is time for her to commit suicide.
     However, literature is not the only influence in her obsession with the dramatic.  Although contact with her father had been brief during her childhood, she constructs such a flattering image of him that the parts of his behavior that she does witness are emulated in her own behavior.  At an early age she is exposed to his love of the dramatic, for when her mother Diana dies he reacts by cutting himself off emotionally from the world, and then stages a suicide: “At the end of a month he suddenly quitted his house and, unattended by any servant, departed from that part of the country without by word or writing informing any one of his intentions” (Shelley 180).  Mathilda repeats the staged suicide later in the story when she believes she has caused her father’s death.
     Within the realm of fantasy, she can experience a type of pleasure not afforded her by her irresponsible father and cold aunt:  “Mathilda’s introspective sensibility draws her deeper and deeper into a self-created world that, unlike reality, fulfills her dreams and desires.  Consequently, the boundary between the imaginary world and the actual world becomes for her dangerously blurred” (Bunnell 81).  The fantasy world offers the love absent from reality.  However, by constantly repeating the fantasy, she exhibits a form of narcissism, because in reality, she is the only one expressing love towards herself.  She forces roles upon the figures in her fantasy world, like her father, because these individuals would not assume such roles on their own.  Because the fantasy is so pleasant for her she becomes trapped within it, unable to distinguish the difference between reality and fantasy, so that she begins to believe that her imagined world is actually real, and that the people in her fantasy play similar roles in reality.
      So powerful is the influence of the fantasy in her survival that she fears the threat and interference of reality:
Mathilda unconsciously resists finding the real father because this real, sexual father (and the father who abandoned her) could compromise the fantasy of the ideal, imaginary father who recognizes her immediately[…]The imaginary father recognizes Mathilda as his own; she bears the sign of his ownership and paternity in the form of the miniature, and his recognition reverses the rejection that occurred at her birth. (McKeever 196)
Mathilda admits that despite her fantasies of adventure and meeting her father in some distant land, she never possessed the courage to leave her aunt and pursue the enactment of these dreams (Shelley 185).  Additionally, Mathilda purposely causes herself to be lost in the woods during the day of her father’s return, fearing the encounter with the real father could undo all of the fantasies she had so carefully constructed of their relationship (McKeever 196).  Her hesitation in confronting the father of the real world signifies how deeply engrossed she is with her own fantasies.  Although she conflates reality with fantasy, Mathilda still recognizes the threat of the real world to the happiness found in her fairy tale world.  She prefers to live in a world wherein her father adores her, reality represents a risk in having those pleasurable fantasies crushed by a man she recognizes as a selfish and poor father.  Even if her father acted according to her fantasy in recognizing her and loving her, the realization of the fantasy would also mark the termination of it; the union of the prince and the heroine always concludes a fairy tale.  The enactment of the dream within reality will never be as pleasurable as the actual fantasy, either, since within the fantasy, Mathilda possesses complete control and only allows actions that please her.  Although her father is the object of her fascination, he exists merely as a figure rather than a person within her imagination: the animation of the father in reality as a being separate from the self shatters the illusion of control.  As long as he is unable to act independently of her commands, he can continue to exist as an idol within her imaginary world and serve as a source of pleasure for her.
    Indeed, as the story progresses, Mathilda's worst fear is realized when her father perverts her fantasy by declaring his love for her in a sexual manner, rather than the platonic "true love" offered by fairy tales:
The textual language affirms this slip: in Mathilda's fantasy identification, the father uses the formal 'thee' to declare his love; when he reveals his incestuous love, he uses the less formal 'you.'  For Mathilda, the use of the familiar pronoun suggests a level of intimacy that doesn't exist in the fantasy of the imaginary father. (McKeever 198)
When she realizes that the father does not accurately reflect her childlike dreams of him, the fantasy is destroyed.  Moreover, the fantasy is ruined by the perversion of the “love” he expresses.  This is not an innocent love, he possesses apparent sexual desires for her, and the realization of sex casts her out of the realm of childhood into that of adulthood: “unlawful and detestable passion had poured its poison into my ears and changed all my blood, so that it was no longer the kindly stream that supports life but a cold fountain of bitterness corrupted in its very source” (Shelley 229).  The innocent world allows Mathilda to maintain her fantasies, and being thrust into the adult world so abruptly would force a conflicting reality onto the fantasy that necessarily destroys it.
    The narcissism that developed as a result of a lonely childhood acts as a barrier that prevents her from leaving the imaginary world and joining the real world.  Even when the fantasy faces certain ruin because of her father's behavior, she attempts to salvage it for her own survival.  However, she is unable to do so because of her father's suicide.  Mathilda experiences an especially troubling dilemma after her father's death, because her fantasy world cannot exist without him; and because she can not escape the fantasy, she must be destroyed with it.  Since her initial heroine fantasy has failed—she could not become the Rapunzel rescued by her prince—she transforms herself into a tragic heroine, in which death becomes a requirement in fulfilling the role.
    After her father’s suicide, Mathilda intentionally inherits all of the guilt and blame of the death, as befits a tragic heroine.  Inhabiting a world of fantasy has become a necessary form of therapy for Mathilda after being abandoned by both of her parents.  When her father dies, the narcissism can no longer take the form of fantasy since the object of her desire has been destroyed.  Thus, the narcissism becomes expressed through self-pity (Bunnell 81).  She initiates and concludes her autobiography by expressing her wretchedness and isolation from humanity.  Although Woodville invests his time into helping Mathilda recover after her father's suicide, she cannot do so because she no longer possesses an idol to inspire her fantasies, and also because she feels that she has been violated by her father's—that is, her prince's—words.  Such a fall from innocence prohibits her from returning to the fairy tale dream.  
    Even in self-pity, she wishes to maintain control and direct most of the sympathy towards herself.  Because she fears being upstaged by her equally dramatic father, she attempts to erase all blame from both her parents so that she can inherit the guild and become the central figure in the tragedy.  She solves the dilemma of the irresponsible father by portraying him as a man destroyed by the death of his wife, since the love they shared was supposedly ideal.  She reasons that one could not survive without the other, justifying her father’s erratic and careless behavior after her mother’s death.  When describing the scene of her fall from innocence into adulthood, she also assumes responsibility for the destruction of both her father and herself by urging him to speak the truth while he attempted to resist her.  She writes that his speech hinted strongly that the truth would be destructive, and she ignored it to satiate her own wicked curiosity:
‘Now, beware!  Be silent!  Do not urge me to your destruction.  I am struck by the storm, rooted up, laid waste: but you can stand against it; you are young and your passions are at peace.  One word I might speak and then you would be implicated in my destruction....’ (Shelley 200)
Because she harassed him until the truth was extracted, she can accept the blame for the destruction of her father.  She frames the situation in such a manner that the father seemed helpless, especially as a man often controlled by his passions (Shelley 176).  According to her own account, had she not forced his hand, he would not have had to end his life, regardless of the wickedness of his desires.
    Excusing the missing mother is a much more difficult problem for Mathilda, as it is unlikely she could do wrong to a woman absent from her life.  However, prior to her suicide, Mathilda compares herself to Oedipus (Shelley 176).  Such recognition suggests that Mathilda believes that she is her mother’s murderer.  Indeed, after her mother dies in childbirth, the daughter attempts to assume the position of her father’s wife.  However, there are implications that the mother’s death is an act of rejecting the daughter, and Mathilda must attempt to rectify this dilemma.  By convincing herself that she is the murderer, she does not have to play the role of the rejected.  Similar to the way that she attempts to dismiss her father’s rejection and abandonment of her, she also denies her mother’s rejection by claiming the role of murderer.  The role reversal results in Mathilda rejecting her mother, not vice-versa.  Such an unjust act— the cruel murder of a divine woman by her unworthy daughter—further justifies the cruel fate that demands her young death.
    Although Mathilda portrays herself as a tragic heroine and victim, “she not only manipulates language, but more dangerously, is manipulated by it” (Bunnell 78).  In framing the story, Mathilda carefully writes about the events according to the formula of a theatre drama: “In any first-person narrative, the telling of events and the description of characters both depend upon how the narrator perceives them and how she chooses to adjust factual information to suit her purpose” (Bunnell 86).  Such a story-telling tactic becomes obvious when she exaggerates the circumstances; for example, she is obsessed with the idea that she was born from two people who shared an ideal love, and she emphasizes this detail repeatedly as though she needs to remind herself of her role in the story, a heroine of noble origins.  She has never personally witnessed the relationship between her parents, yet she speaks of it so hyperbolically that one must call the story into question.  Unfortunately, she becomes so engrossed in her own story-telling that she is unable to separate the reality of the events from how she imagines them.  Mathilda can not escape her narcissism because her poor upbringing never allowed her to learn methods for confronting abandonment and isolation outside of fantasy.








Works Cited
Bunnell, Charlene E.  “Mathilda: Mary Shelley’s Romantic
Tragedy.”  Keats-Shelley Journal 46 (1997): 75-96.
McKeever, Kerry.  “Naming the Daughter’s Suffering:
Melancholia in Mary Shelley’s Mathilda.”  Essays in Literature 23.2 (1996): 190-205.
Shelley, Mary. “Mathilda.” The Mary Shelley Reader.  Oxford:
Oxford U P.  1990.