Archive for April, 2013

Stuck in the Middle

As we approach the completion of the course, I look back in awe at the many frameworks through which we have analyzed Frankenstein. My most recent blog posts have discussed the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, and explored Gayatri Spivak’s ideas on colonial discourse. Though these theories are inherently unrelated, they force the critic to assign the novel and characters of Frankenstein to one of two major categories within each theory. By this I mean that Freud’s psychoanalysis forces an identity with the “self” or the “other,” and Spivak’s colonial discourse with the “colonizer” or “subaltern.”

These individual terms and categories are not as important in themselves as compared with what they imply about Frankenstein. I would argue to say that these specific theories, and theories as such, reinforce the idea of the reigning binary throughout the piece and the thought that a character cannot exist outside the constraints of the masculine or the feminine, in which the latter is subordinate. The self versus the other and the colonizer versus the subaltern take on the roles of the masculine versus the feminine respectively. In my post entitled “Failing to See Past His Internal Atrocity,” I examine a passage within the novel in which the creature looks into the pool, sees his reflection, and realizes the existence of his double. He experiences great discomfort at this realization, tension caused by the coexistence and disfunction of the self and the double, the masculine versus the feminine. The significance of this tension is that there is indeed an existing binary that leaves one  to identify with one side or the other, and implies that their coexistence is capable of generating inward conflict.

In my second post, I suggest the idea that the author of the novel is solely able to remove the text from the trappings of the masculine and the feminine. Throughout class and blog discussions we have failed to define an entity as masculine without reference of the feminine and vice versa. By failing to mention her great nation in her novel, I proved that Shelley successfully removed Britain from the binary of the colonizer and the subaltern, the masculine and the feminine, and avoids the subjection of Britain to one or the other.  Shelley seems to give her nation the power and ability to surmount the confines created by the characteristics of the masculine or feminine, as if previously one could not describe an entity outside of these two concepts. The discussion of the creature in my first blog post shows that he, as other characters in the novel, are subject to these concepts. Never have they been proven to exist outside of the masculine and the feminine, proving the malleability of their identity and an inability for them to stand apart from these abstracts. I would conclude that from the ideas examined in the blogs, Shelley acts as the sole individual able to remove an entity from the traps of the masculine and the feminine, proved by her omission of Britain from the novel.

A common theme of my previous blog posts is the creature’s position as the other. Being born in this role and being physically designed for it with his deformity inhibits his attempts to find his identity, since the society he is not a part of monopolizes identity.

When the monster is first born, he is an infant, with little memory of his original birth and a keen eye on the world. He watches the De Lacey family to find his own imago to project upon and identify with in my blog post “The False Imago”; with an imago, he can improve himself through presenting a more idealized self-image to look up to. Sadly, the De Lacey family differs too much from the creature’s natural appearance to effectively serve as an imago. He finds himself lacking in comparison to their forms when he sees himself in a puddle, and unlike the ideal Lacanian imago he cannot overcome this inferiority because his natural deformity sets him back.

Unable to pass the veil of human society, the creature asks for a companion in a defeatist manner: “Man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me,” (128). The monster accepts that he will always remain the outsider thanks to his hideous inhumanity, effectively denying himself the experiences he witnessed while watching the De Lacey household. He tries to compromise and still find an identity through requesting a female companion in a parody of the human family, but even then he sees himself as naturally wretched and unfit for a more beautiful companion. Effectively, he is trying to go with an approach that is “good enough”. This is also expressed in his desire to live somewhere else, far away; now that the creature knows he cannot find an identity through human society, he hopes to create one in a separate manner that does not tread on the toes of those who consider him other.

Frankenstein’s greatest fear that prevents him from finishing the female counterpart is that the pair of creatures will parent a race of monsters to doom the world. Having children normally requires the company of another human being; to deny it to the creature is to deny one of those basic rights human society takes for granted. It is an expression of identity through the creation of a new one. Frankenstein restricts the monster’s freedoms because he fears its hypothetical progeny, yet the only reason such a race of monsters would raise such concern is that they were inhuman. Because the creature is an outsider, Frankenstein bars the door to him from having children and leaving the prescribed role of the outsider, stifling the monster’s development of his identity.

The creature never had a choice in what it could become. Any attempt to escape his role as the outsider was flawed; he could not use humans as his ideal image, and when he attempted a different approach that merely copied the human approach, Frankenstein became fearful and betrayed his creation because he could not separate the creature from the role of the outsider.

The fact that there have only been two posts since the most recent blog summary makes me review the semester in general and think of how much analysis we have dedicated towards the novel Frankenstein. We have explored different facets of literary criticism that have opened unique perspectives toward understanding the novel. For instance, earlier in the semester we learned of Edmund Burke and his theory on the concepts of beauty and sublimity and how the creature evokes the sublime out of the people it meets. This sublime, which represents “terror,” rugged,” “roughness,” and/or “massive” (C.P)– all terms that the creature embodies to or evokes from others– relates back to how society sees the creature and what that societal perception reveal about the era this novel was written in. Of course, early nineteenth century Europe was still reeling from the authoritarian Napoleon’s conquests, which stemmed from the failure of the early-1790s French Revolution, an event that shocked the higher classes of European society and renewed fears of lower-class uprisings everywhere. The author, Mary Shelley, herself was raised in the middle-class, and despite her parents being strong liberals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin she was fairly conservative in her views toward the lower-class, but still generally conflicted. She conveyed these contrasting views partially through a rough, rugged, horrific, gruesome representation of the lower-class, embodied by the creature, and also partially through the creature’s humanity and emotions. It possesses this identity due to the era’s identification of the lower-class with strongly negative, almost subhuman, characteristics and terminologies, and this identification is reflected on the creature, but the creature’s identity also contains a sense of humanity that makes it relatable in a human level.

The dehumanization of the lower-class is mirrored through the dehumanization of the creature itself. Its interactions with fellow humans were never cordial because of what the creature’s horrifying appearance made people do: run off or attack it. The sublime is in effect here as sublime emotions are rooted in pain and not pleasure (C.P). People saw the creature and they saw something subhuman in looks and mannerisms, which made them act in such a strongly negative way towards the creature: their efforts to always either run off or attack it indicate their viewpoint that the creature is a problem and should be treated as such. Not only subhuman, but a problem too. The era during which the book was written was fairly agreeable to such lower-class subjugation as seen through the creature, because of what the lower-class had done to the hearts and minds of much of the European upper-classes. The French Revolution’s impact on their collective psyche was significant, what with the long-established monarchy getting overthrown and arrested, King Louis XVI getting beheaded, and the complete failure of  initial populist aspirations as indicated by the Reign of Terror and subsequent authoritarian dictatorship in the reign of Napoleon. Mary Shelley, the author of the novel, shares a lot of the upper-class apprehensions towards the lower-class, being fairly mixed in her support towards lower-class rights, which was surprising given how liberal her parents were regarding the French Revolution. Knowing this family legacy, the novel could not only be a reflection of the era but a reflection of her conflicted views concerning the lower-class. Even though the creature is a horrifying sight and an anathema to society at large (much like the lower-class’ perceived position in society), she still gives it a strong sense of humanity through its very self-aware reflections and confessions towards its creator Victor (Shelley 95); such reflections evoked a true sense of sympathy towards the creature and its struggles. Shelley, to me, incorporates into the creature the era’s perception of the lower-class as well as a sense of humanity that gives the reader a potential emotional connection (so one can feel its pain) to it.

Through critical psychoanalytic and post-colonial critical techniques, the highly violent nature of the creature in Frankenstein may be explicated. This movement may be accomplished first through an analysis of the characters in Lacanian terms. Like any other human individual, the creature undergoes interaction with an evolutionary set of psychological realms, initiated by the infantile mirror stage. This developmental state is characterized by an idealized recognition of bodily coherence and fullness, described singularly as the “imaginary.”

However, there is something subtly abnormal and perverted about this process within the narrative, resulting in highly unusual implications. In his intellectual infancy, the creature attaches his sense of self-definition not to his own body, but to the collective whole of the De Lacey family. His ego or “I,” finds a strange substitute in the contextual relations of the group, rather than his personal sense of bodily coherence. This state is able to maintain itself as long as the creature can inhabit a position of outside observation, free of linguistic structure or interaction with the De Laceys.

The necessary and inevitable rise of the symbolic state eventually comes to overturn the peace of the imaginary. The creature realizes his own faculty for linguistic representation and abstract symbolism, introducing the concept of intellectual lack through the inability of language to completely invoke a form, and subsequently forcing the full sense of ego to retreat into the form of “ideal-I.” Only after this process has been completed, does the creature perceive his true form in a pool of water. By seeing himself after he has moved into the symbolic state, his ideal-I has been completely broken or fractured. He comes to a realization that his ego is deeply fissured, and that it is totally inconsistent with his true nature. The fundamental human drive towards the coherence of the ideal-I is stolen from him, and he is left only with inner contention and conflict.

However, there is some hope for the creature. It may be possible for him to repair his imaginary self-definition by gaining acceptance with the De Laceys, as his idealized sense of self was based upon their family as a collective whole. Accordingly, he adopts a role parallel to the feminine subaltern place of Safie within the household. In this debased role, he receives the second half of his lesson in linguistics. The creature is fed and accepts the nuanced language of colonial discourse, adopting the sense of ideological subjugation. However, there is a flaw here as well. Instead of maintaining the superficial wholeness expressed by Safie, the creature is a maelstrom of discord. His loss of ideal-I has rendered him unable to mask the conflicting elements of the colonial discourse. Accordingly, his attempt at integration fails, and his ideal-I completely vanishes.

Here, the literary critic may perceive that the two linguistic educations, and the two failures, expose the true nature of the colonial symptom. The De Lacey family served as a microcosm for western European dominance and colonization. Through his first failure at drawing an ideal-I from the cumulative whole, the creature destroys the concept that colonial society is full, whole, natural, and free of conflict. Through his second failure in his inability to adopt the subaltern role, the creature shows that each socially striated placement is wrought with ideological tumult, and that this societal system is not legitimate. The creature is the physical manifestation of the latent violence hidden behind the colonial façade, the corporeal avatar of a fissured reality. He is now marked with discord, and will not stop in his quest to subvert the stability of colonial discourse, revealing a form of violence present everywhere.

One integral idea that comes across from my posts is the notion of perspective, and how said perspective informs or influences the audience. All the themes, motifs, and ideals expressed in Frankenstein are fed through a narrative lens or a particular perspective. This means that the audience is given a filtered image of reality tainted by a particular character’s ideology rather than reality itself. This is further complicated by Shelley’s choice of narrative. She could have easily framed the novel in a third-person omniscient, which would seamlessly encapsulate the perspectives of all the characters, but most importantly the perspectives of the creature and Frankenstein in a unbiased manner. Instead, she chooses an epistolary narrative, in which most of the story told to us in a shifting perspective, from letters written by Robert Walton, to quotes from Victor Frankenstein, and to, a lesser degree, the creature. So instead of one consistent, holistic perspective, the audience gets multiple, partisan perspectives. Not only does this fragmented view offered by the novel result in multiple layers of subtext, but it also helps us to better understand each character.

The discrete, individual perspectives are so important because they provide much of the context within the novel, or in some cases, lack of context. This is particularly exemplified by the by the perception of “lower” characters, such as the creature and Justine, by the “higher” ones such as Walton or Frankenstein. For the majority of the novel, the events are expressed from a privileged, elitist, perspective that does not provide context for the actions of the creature, and thus the audience is led to believe the creature to be a violent, grotesque, misanthrope. However, Shelley also ingeniously gives us the perspective of Frankenstein, which not only provides the aforementioned context, but allows the audience to compare and contrast perspectives. From the particular details that are emphasized or obfuscated, the audience can surmise the character’s biases and ideals, and ultimately better understand the characters themselves.

Blog Summary 2

The creature’s character is shaped around his feelings of inferiority that is shown through his ugliness and enhanced through a post-colonial understanding of the novel and the creature’s embodiment of the colonized. The creature is constantly being outcast from society based on his appearance. For example, when the cottagers first see him he recalls that “Agatha fainted; and Safie, unable to attend to her friend, rushed out of the cottage,” due to the sheer horror that his appearance provoked (Shelley 121). The creature desperately wants the cottagers and others around him to overlook his deformity but no one is able to. No one wants to be around the creature or associate with  him. The creature’s hideous appearance causes him to be treated as inferior to others.

By analyzing the creature’s character from a post-colonial critical perspective, he is viewed as the colonized subaltern. He is created under Frankenstein’s own will and is given very few choices in his life. . The lack of sympathy for the creature parallels the lack of sympathy that colonizers feel for the colonized. The creature learns about the world through hearing about other people’s experiences rather than living his own. Before telling his story he prefaces it with the words, “I shall relate events, that impressed me with feelings which, from what I had been, have made me what I am,” (Shelley 106). This indicates the creature’s realization that he has been shaped from the experiences of others. His position as symbolic of the colonized further emphasizes the feelings of inferiority that he is faced with. Then, the creature “wept with Safie,” implying his ability to sympathise with the “hapless fate” of the colonized. This suggests that the creature is able to relate to the colonized, presenting him as a symbol of the colonized and the subaltern.

            In the end, once the creature has realized his inferiority, the creature rebels and becomes extremely violent, causing multiple deaths. Dr. Frankenstein describes the creature’s delights as in “death and wretchedness,” (Shelley 146). He does this as a reaction to feeling powerless and judged. This serves as a critique of leading others to believe that they are inferior, based both off of their appearances or their position as the colonized. The creature’s feelings of inferiority and their negative consequences not only for him but for people around him critiques both physical judgment and colonization. 

At the surface, many facets of colonialist and psychoanalytical criticism can be compared as ways to justify similar themes of alienation, identity, confusion, and so on.  However, looking through my previous blog posts I would argue that the two are intertwined to the point of being dependent on one another to provide a richer and fuller perspective of the same argument, which is that the text promotes the futility of any binary logic in relation to society and identity.

This is an interesting way of looking at the creature’s vision of himself. The scene on page 104 where the creature sees his reflection in a transparent pool is loaded with latent tensions: “…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.” (104) Perhaps what is so shocking about the creature’s reflection in the water is his confusion with the binary that has been presented to him through the DeLaceys. As I explored in my post “The Power of Ambiguity”, he is presented with a very strong binary in the lessons that Felix delivers to Safie, and has trouble digesting it. I would argue that this is the same type of confusion that characterizes his identification with the image in the pool, because it does not align with the “perfect forms”(104) of humanity that he sees in the DeLaceys. The colonialist perspective provides a deeper understanding of this misalignment, because when we look at how the creature reacts to the history lessons that Felix delivers to Safie, it is clear that he is, at best, confused. The way he digests the information defies the black-and-white worldview he had possessed until that point. He knows that he does not fit squarely into the definition of the colonizer nor the colonized, the powerful nor the powerless, and this causes him to question, subconsciously or consciously, the binary that he has internalized. Indeed, after he receives the lessons, he observes, “The words induced me to turn towards myself.” (109). Looking back at the scene where he observes himself in the pool, the same can be said about his reaction. He had modeled his Ideal-I after the DeLaceys, which to him represented a pure idea of humanity, and this was the foundation of his very ego. Looking at his reflection in the pool and seeing something completely outside of his ego was  necessarily devastating. Because the binary was what preserved the creature’s ego, he initially refused to let go of it. Thus when he abandons his human identity in the face of rejection by the DeLaceys, he becomes the complete opposite: a savage and a brute. It is only as the novel nears the end that the creature tries to pick up the pieces and find a compromise, by appealing to his creator and requesting a spouse. Victor, however, still holding on to his belief in the unbending power of a God over its creation, surrenders control under the illusion of control, because the binary logic simply cannot exist. The novel necessarily ends in the deaths of both creator and creation.

The colonialist discourse is one of the many ways that Shelley reveals the failure of the psychological binary, and vice versa. If the masculine colonial discourse were to be portrayed as unbending and unquestionable in the text, it would contradict all the ambiguity that the creature represents. There would be little reason to suspect the failure of any other binary, and the text would be purposeless.Thus the psychoanalytical and the colonial veins of criticism are more than parts of a critical whole: Together, they paint a greater picture that colours Shelley’s Frankenstein in a larger and more complex light.

Reality and Illusion

The creature in Frankenstein represents the primitive, backwards, and ostensibly “Oriental” figure, which remains alien to the Eurocentric, Christian “West”. The creature, however, is merely a displacement of Victor’s desires and thoughts about himself.

Through the layers of filtering in the novel, the creature can be representative of Victor’s identification as the savage Asiatic woman. By projecting these Eurocentric, westernized thoughts onto a subaltern creature, which is in fact only a figment of his imagination, Victor can escape internalizing his inferiority and avoid becoming conscious of his status as an “other” amidst enlightened, rational society. Victor feels not merely oppressed, but also voiceless in his own life and this forces him to identify as a foreign colonized woman. His adoption of Edward Said’s binary opposition allows him to place himself into the “Western” structuralist category and escape his inner, oriental nature. This displacement blurs the distinction between reality and illusion, as Victor’s illusory creature is in reality his skewed thoughts and inferiority complex manifesting in latent content. By defining himself in opposition to everything he has been taught is lesser and backwards, Victor can avoid the cultural multiplicity that characterizes relations between the colonizer and the colonized. The education that the creature receives from Felix is Victor recounting the Eurocentric cultural and historical narrative he received, which he believes is fallacious. However, he can’t outwardly deny this and identify with the oriental, paradigmatic “other” so this creature allows him to avoid being an outsider and gives him the ability to break free of these shackles.

When Victor sees himself, beneath all of the layers of filtering and repression, he even says that he “became fully convinced” that he “was in reality the monster”. It is only by artificially conjuring a monster and displacing all of his genuine thoughts and desires onto it that he can avoid how he really feels about himself. This uncanny feeling is so foreign yet strikingly familiar, precisely the relationship that the monster has to Victor. The “miserable deformity” that the monster witnesses is in fact Victor’s castrated body exposed by the water, and this fear of castration that Victor represses sheds light on his identification as a foreign, colonized, subaltern woman who obviously does not have a penis (104).

Through this avoidance, Victor can displace these thoughts onto a monster that typifies the subaltern, foreign woman in his unconscious and ultimately, he can avoid self-hatred and can continue to perpetuate the Eurocentric, colonialist discourse that he internally abhors. 

Frankenstein’s monster learns the craft of language by carefully observing the interactions of a French peasant family, the De Lacey’s. Through this interaction, and a reversed Lacanian developmental stage, the creature becomes indoctrinated with the phallocentric colonialist discourse, believing it as fact.

            For Jacques Lacan, the mirror stage of development is marked by the creation of a child’s Ideal-I, and the change from the imaginary stage to the symbolic stage. The mirror stage occurs when a child sees an image or “imago”, typically its own reflection, and uses the image as a constant goal to strive for throughout life. For the creature, the mirror stage occurred atypically, and the monster unconsciously assigned the De Lacey family as its Ideal-I, “When I slept, or was absent, the forms of venerable blind father, the gentle Agatha, and the excellent Felix, flitted before me. I looked upon them as superior beings…” (105). If we take dreams, as Freud suggested, as when the unconscious comes through, then the creature’s dreams of the De Lacey family are representative of the creature’s assignment of them to the Ideal-I, which is further supported by the phrase “superior being”. The Ideal-I is unattainable, the child’s “superior being” which it can only attempt to match.

            In this period of growth, the creature also learns language. This is contrary to Lacan’s supposed steps because to him, language is an aspect of the symbolic order because it defers meaning to pre-existing words and clouds pure emotion. Because the creature learns language while in the imaginary state, it forever associates language and speech with the pure, infallible state of the imaginary order. When the creature eavesdrops on Felix’s lessons to Safie about history, he also interprets these lessons as factual, “I should not have understood the purport of this book had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations” (108). The history is being told from Felix, a male member of the colonizers, to Safie, a female colonized. In that scenario, the creature and Safie become virtually identical, colonized peoples being taught the ways of the dominant culture, but in the creature’s case, he interprets this possibly filtered history as true. When he’s rejected from the De Lacey’s, he demands that Victor make him a female creature that he believes will undoubtedly stay with him, perhaps firmly believing the phallocentric discourse that Felix had taught, which would have emphasized female subservience.

            Because the creature’s imaginary and symbolic stages were reversed, he believes that language is a component of the imaginary state and is therefore infallible. This misconception causes his to wholeheartedly accept the phallocentric history that Felix had presented to Safie during her teachings.

Throughout the second half of the semester the juxtaposition of the powerful against the powerless has provided many interesting blog posts, debates and hours of  class discussion. The conflict between the sides has been expressed through a multitude of different lenses including feminine vs. masculine, colonized vs. colonizer and the bourgeoisie vs. the proletariat. We have analyzed, reanalyzed, drawn pictures of our analysis and then debated on who was better at analyzing all of these complex binaries.

What have I drawn from the many hours trying to come up with interesting and original blog posts? I have come to  realize that within the context of Frankenstein these binaries do not exist. With close reading and analysis, the dichotomies that categorize characters in the novel collapsed in on themselves and illustrated their nature as not inherent truths but rather social constructs. Simply put, in the novel an Us vs. Them complex can not thrive because there is no us. All of the characters in the novel are at one point rendered powerless and therefore made to exist as an other, and when every character exists as an other the power structure is not rigid and everlasting, but fluid and ever-changing.

At every turn in the novel we see an upending of what we thought to be true, an inversion of the power structure that dominates our world view. Looking only to the second half of the semester and and questions of femininity and colonialism  it is obvious to see the novel’s ability to invert these so called categories of dominance. The character that so represents the most obvious positions of power, both the masculine and the colonizer is Victor. However by the end of the novel he has become a slave to his own creation and dies trying to gain the control he has lost.  More than disenfranchising the powerful, the novel also demonstrates the lifting up of the weak into temporary positions of power. Take the creature, once the very picture of an outcast ends up with the power to not only destroy those around his creator but destroy his creator himself. Another aspect of the novel’s ability to inverse and therefore destroy the supposed power structure comes not from the actual words on the page but the words that have been left out. The idea of omission sparked great discussion with a total of six student comments, which is six more than all of my other posts combined. As I argue in that post, the tool of omission is powerful because it does not just show the weak side of a character but rather gives them no representation at all. There are countless examples of the powerful falling and the weak rising up in the novel. The culture of Us vs. Them  is eliminated because everyone is at some point powerless, everyone is a them.

Looking at traditional power especially represented by the masculine and the colonizer, the novel Frankenstein works to remove even the most seemingly powerful characters from their pedestal and show them as just as powerless as those they used to have control over. In the world of Frankenstein there is no lasting control, there is no permanent power, there is only The Other.