Archive for February, 2015

Here’s a full pic of our completed in-class graphic idea map on the Justine episode in Frankenstein.  Students can use it as a study guide to help them prepare for their term paper.  The red color is for William Godwin, the blue for Edmund Burke, and the green for Mary Wollstonecraft.

We’re making steady progress in our historicist analysis of the Justine episode in Frankenstein.  Please feel free to comment on students’ impressive idea map.

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Human Ingratitude

The Marxist perspective….hm. I had never considered it, and even if I had, I would never have applied it the way Montag does. I agree with his reading of Victor being the middle class capitalist, that seems fairly self explanatory, but to make the Creature representative of the working class was something I had not considered at all. However, upon further reflection and rereading, it is almost boggling how well the Marxist reading applies to this novel.

Montag makes the point that the Creature, like the working class, was employed by the new elites for their own gain. In creating this force to overthrow the old state, the new elites unwittingly brought destruction down upon themselves when this same force turned upon them. Sound familiar? This initial parallel to the storyline of Frankenstein foreshadows the same outcomes that the revolutions ended with. The Creature, created in service to Victor is scorned and hated by all no matter the good he does for mankind. In one scene, where the Creature recounts his adventures, he mentions saving the life of a small girl and being shot as a result. “This then was the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human from destruction, and, as recompense, I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound…” (125). Discarded after his initial purpose of satisfying Victor’s morbid curiosity, one can understand the resentment and rage the Creature feels at the ingratitude the humans who abuse him for his services. Like the working class, who eventually rebels against the new elites, the Creature also plans his coup against Victor. “‘I, too, can create desolation; my enemy is not invulnerable; this death will carry despair to him, and a thousand other miseries shall torment and destroy him.'” (127). This realisation that he, the Creature, is stronger than his Creator is a heady consciousness. The fact that he is able rally for his own devices against someone more “powerful”, his creator, is again a direct reflection to the anarchical situation of the French Revolution, where the bourgeoisie realised they were actually the ones in control.

The Creature being portrayed in the novel as an outcast and a disjointed freak represents the attitudes of the proletariat towards the bourgeoisie. Victor’s changing emotions of initial distaste to hatred and fear when he realises the raw, brute power the Creature holds over him is essentially a mirror to the events of the Revolution.  The moment the Creature realises this and employs it against Victor is the moment Victor’s demise is triggered.

the creation

Finding it difficult to wrap my head around Marxist theory, I tend to defer to the experts. So when Warren Montag, in “The ‘Workshop of Filthy Creation,’” argues that the creation is “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability” (Montag 395), I’m inclined to believe him. And the more I think about it, this makes a lot of sense considering the confusing mishmash of emotions I’ve felt toward the creation.

The creation’s interaction with the portrait of Frankenstein’s mother illustrates what Warren Montag calls the “combination of pity and fear” (388) that the proletariat naturally elicits. The creation initially looks at the woman “with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips” (Shelley 127). The beauty of the elite bourgeois that Caroline Frankenstein represents contrasts starkly with the poor creation’s “dull yellow eye,” “dun white sockets” and “straight black lips” (60). In fact, this is likely what the creation remembers, as his joy quickly disintegrates and turns to rage, recalling, “I was for ever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow” (127). The ugly, poor, neglected creation is unique in that only he cannot receive affection from human beings. Important, however, is that this monstrosity is still capable of feeling delight and is even “softened and attracted” (127).

But why does any of this matter? Well, the creation declares, “I only wonder that at that moment, instead of venting my sensations in exclamations and agony, I did not rush among mankind, and perish in the attempt to destroy them” (127). This is the constant tension that underlies the relationship between the bourgeois and the proletariat. On one hand, the poor and neglected, like the creation, are at once sympathetic and pitiable, but on the other they are also capable of immense destruction and harm. In what Montag calls “a rural world dominated by scenes of a sublime natural beauty” (394), the creation sticks out as the singular entity of contradictions, a being of tenderness that can turn to rage in an instant. So why didn’t the creation go absolutely manic in that moment? Maybe there’s no way of knowing for sure. And maybe that’s the lingering uneasiness and obscurity of the unrepresentable proletariat.


Passage pp. 116-117 from “But ‘Paradise Lost’ …..envy rose within me”

The proletariat, as a collective entity, is condensed into a singular being in the form of Frankenstein’s creature. Montag describes the nameless creature as “a being for whom there is no place in the ordered world of nature” (395). Because he has neither place nor agency within human society or the natural world, the creature demands that Victor produce a mate for him so that he may create his own place. Similarly, the “proletariat” was an invention of the system in which it operated and therefore had no place within the natural order. Because the proletariat existed as a collection of individuals, it lacked the agency to determine its identity. Thus, the capitalist middle-class oppresses the working class not only by the physical burden imposed upon them but also by the dehumanizing removal of their ability to form such individual identities. Being forced into a collective mass, each member is no longer recognizable as an individual and consequently becomes isolated from human society. The creature as a representation of this namelessness or “unrepresentability” of the proletariat, becomes “the object of pity and fear” (387), according to Montag. Readers pity the monster (and the oppressed working class) for his isolation, yet fear the monster as something outside of nature and human control.

This passage from the creature’s story communicates the his isolation from human society by comparing the creature to the Adam of “Paradise Lost,” who like the monster “was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence.” The image of “an omnipotent God warring with his creatures” provides readers with a religious analogy to the tension between creator and creation, or perhaps, oppressor and the oppressed. The monster evokes a hesitant sympathy from readers by immediately opposing his circumstances to those of Adam, despite his initial identification with Adam’s isolation. While Adam was “happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator,” the monster, like the oppressed proletariat, “was wretched, helpless, and alone.” The monster’s tone of amazement toward his initial connection with poem quickly turns to one of resentment toward his creator when he bitterly compares himself to Satan, “as the fitter emblem of my condition.” In this one paragraph, readers perceive the monster’s transformation into the monstrous form Montag attributes to the oppressed working class. He claims that that in organizing an industrial society, the capitalist elites “conjured up a monster that, once unleashed, could not be controlled” (386). Just as Frankenstein’s monster “is monstrous by virtue of its being artificial rather than natural” (387), the collective working class is unsettling because it is an artificial creation of a socioeconomic system.

After spending a large portion of his essay speaking on how Frankenstein’s creature is the embodiment of the proletariat, Warren Montag at the end of his ideas states that the creature actually represents the unrepresentability of the proletariat. I don’t fully agree with this change because the representation of the all of the proletariat in one powerful monster has meaning.

The monster has an incredible amount of power and strength. All his power however is channeled into avenging himself and this happens when he states, “No: from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me, and sent me forth to this insupportable misery” (122). The creature is a representation of the proletariat because although the proletariat had immense amount of power because of their numbers, their power was not used to change how the machine worked. They used their power to change how their cogs in the machine worked, and this reoccurs in almost every working-class revolt to date. Much like the working class, the monster, rather than changing the machine that views him the way it does, focuses instead on the immediate “issue” which he thinks would help to change his circumstances the most. His circumstances however would not change because he gained control of, or killed Victor. He would have still been seen as an ugly creature who could never amount to anything and only terrorized regular people.

With an overwhelming population like that of the proletariat, almost any law could be changed to suit their needs. This group almost always never uses that power however, because they focus on the short goal at hand, which normally is to change their current work situations. The monster in the same way, channels immense power into changing only one aspect of his life which in the long run, changes nothing.

I didn’t expect to see extreme class struggle in this novel, but looking at it closely, it now seems hard to miss. According to Warren Montag in his essay “The Workshop of Filthy Creation,” the unrepresentability of the proletariat is what the creature really  represents, not the actual proletariat itself. I agree that the only reason the monster “would no longer be a monster” (395) if the proletariat was present in the novel outside of the creature, but I don’t agree that he does not represent the presence of the proletariat in a significant way. Both the bourgeois and the proletariate are boiled down to one main entity: Victor as the bourgeois, and the creature as the proletariat. While Victor’s and Clerval’s families can all be seen as representing the bourgeois as well, they do so in such a passive manner as to be fairly negligible in the comparison. Victor, on the other hand, aggressively embodies all that is bourgeoisie.

When the creature entreats Victor to create for him a mate, Victor feels first compassion, and “sometimes felt a wish to console him,” but soon his “feelings were altered to those of hatred” (130). These are the same feelings as those of Montag’s “new elites” who found it necessary to utilize the proletariat to overthrow old regimes. At first perhaps sympathetic, they quickly grew to be resentful of the lower class who would block the new elites’ rise to power. The creature, on the other hand, is asking for similar things to the proletariat: “I shall…become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded” (130). Both characters mirror their respective class well, and in this passage at the very least, the creature represents the entire proletariat infused into one being, arguing for equality, acting as almost a spokesperson.

One of the toughest things for me to do, in trying to understand Marxism, is to try to look at world through the lens of the proletariat. I feel like a lot of us here at Vanderbilt might struggle with the same thing. While we study at our expensive private college, surrounded by amenities and comforts, most of us feel at ease with our social condition. When we look at the world through our own experiences, it’s hard for us to imagine why on earth anyone could possibly adopt the revolutionary views Marxism is all about.

For me, a Marxist reading of Frankenstein struggles with this same concept. It’s hard to understand the pathos of the ‘proletariat’, in this case the monster. I feel like Montag’s essay arrives at a valid conclusion. The monster, Montag says, is “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability”. What this meant, to me, is that the struggle of the proletariat is what is hard to symbolize. I can certainly see how the monster represents the proletariat, that much is clear. But it requires deeper meditation and thought to understand the monster’s struggle, and the actions he takes as a result.

When the monster, standing over Victor’s dead body, says, “I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on,” the feeling of class struggle is certainly present. I think the Marxist would use this to justify the monster’s actions. I have trouble doing this – and maybe that makes me an unwitting part of the bourgeois.

When Montag concludes the creature is, “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability,” he means that besides the creature simply symbolizing the proletariat, the creature at the same time reveals the inability to represent the working class as a singular, modern creation. The working class is a faceless, voiceless mass, while the creature most definitely has a face and a voice. I agree with Montag’s conclusion.

It’s easy to see how the creature and the working class equate. The creature’s telling of his story and his negotiations with Victor for a female could be interpreted as analogous to workers discussing their conditions and their desire for improved conditions. What’s harder to see is how that doesn’t exactly equate. The frame narrative offers more insight. The creature doesn’t directly tell his own tale. He relates it to Victor, who in turn relates it to Walton, who finally tells it to the reader. The frame narrative distorts the creature’s voice through the fact that his story is told through essentially his oppressors. As such, some of the creature’s statements and actions don’t quite seem to add up. For example, the creature says, “Boy, you will never see your father again; you must come with me” (126). From prior parts of his tale, we know the creature is eloquent. It doesn’t make sense that, if he’s trying to convince William that he’s not all that bad, the creature would say that. I would think he would continue to say things along the lines of his first statements to William: “I do not intend to hurt you; listen to me” (126). That would have been more convincing and more in-line with the arguments the creature makes to Victor.

However, we also don’t know for sure if that statement really has been distorted by the frame narrative. The creature could have said that because he was stressed, because he hadn’t had any positive experience with society, or because he was tired of the negative reactions. There are many possible explanations. This uncertainty also supports the idea that the creature cannot completely represent the working class. We can say that one explanation of the creature’s actions is more likely than another, however that explanation cannot apply to an entire group because the creature is an individual. A single individual cannot be an accurate depiction of an larger group.

Due to the weather-related cancellation of class last Tuesday, this blog post due date has been postponed to Tuesday 2/24; thus, assigned readings for this and next week have been bumped over to the following class session.

For this week, students will write a blog post that examines the class struggle between Victor, the middle class capitalist, and the creature, the oppressed working class, based on your reading of Warren Montag’s essay, “The ‘Workshop of Filthy Creation’: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein.”  What does Montag mean when he concludes that the creature is “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability”? (395)  Do you agree with this interpretation?  Why or why not?  In answering this question, please focus on a close reading of a specific passage or scene in Shelley’s novel.

Include your post under the category “Labor, Alienation, and (re)production” and don’t forget to create specific and relevant tags.

Early on in reading the section, I encountered this somewhat odd idea that while Marxism is fundamentally materialist, with, as Parker states, that “life shapes consciousness, as opposed to consciousness shaping life” (212), a large idea is that eventually, through dialectic, the proletariat would spontaneously rise up in revolution. The question is, how could this incredibly idealistic conception, that people through polarized discourse will eventually through thoughts of their consciousness will end up altering life significantly, end up being the ultimate result from a philosophy that argues the opposite sequence of logic to be true?