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If not for Frankenstein I probably never would’ve heard of Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney, let alone his seminal work, Ruins of Empires.

It’s not a widely read book these days, but remember, it’s the exact one from which the creation “obtained a cursory knowledge of history” (Shelley 108). Listing the “different nations of the earth” (108), he talks about Asiatics, Grecians, Romans, Christian kings and even Native Americans — but never explicitly the British.

I never noticed this, but the student gfeldtx did, and in “Powerful Omission,” claims, “Through omission, Shelley has rendered the most powerful nation on earth voiceless. This is the same voicelessness that categorizes [Gayatri Chakravorty] Spivak’s idea of the subaltern.”

A commenter added: “Felix is French, and Volney is French, yet there is no mention of anything regarding Napoleon and his French empire, or honestly just anything regarding France in general.”

No mention of Britain. No mention of France. What’s up that?

I contend that this omission of the British and French empires does not render these empires voiceless. In fact, I think the omission calls more attention to these nations, which cannot be confined within a “cursory knowledge of history” but are at large within the novel through the manifestation of the creation as the revolutionary working class.

Based on the despairingly great lengths I took to actually understand what Volney’s 1791 book is about (you can find a pretty decent summary here), I wish I could articulate it better. Here’s my attempt: Volney highlights the constant dispute between the higher and lower class as the source of all social conflict, and he proposes that through the progress of science, all people will become enlightened and will then work for one another’s interests. Now, I know, we’ve commented at length about the creation as proletariat, but lend me your ear real quick.

I hesitate to paint broad strokes, but the creation embodies the mob. He is the lower class, the French revolutionaries, the British revolutionaries. He cannot be contained in Felix’s teachings because he is present history, the people who “possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property” (109) and have the collective capacity to

Throughout Frankenstein lies this tension. While there may be no mention of France and Britain in relation to Ruins, remember Elizabeth’s letter to Victor: “The republican institutions of our country have produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it. […] A servant in Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England” (66). But what happens to Justine?

If I had more time, I’d go further than this. Remember the very first words of the novel? “To Mrs. Saville, England” (28). And when the novel closes, where is Walton returning? “I am returning to England” (183). Everything we’ve read has come through the lens of the English. They’re on the outside of this confined text. And so is the monster.

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