Reflecting on “The Power of Ambiguity”

I was struck by the student’s potent question, “Does the monster know himself where his sympathy lies?” It is easy to assume that the monster belongs to the “colonized” group due to his existence as the outcast creation, yet this question alludes to the possibility of the monster’s representation as one of the colonizers. Does the monster sympathize for the conquering of the native American races or with the decline of the once great and virtuous Roman empire? I agree with the student’s conjecture that the monster’s position as the subaltern is “necessarily ambiguous” to reflect that quality of imperialism in which the cultures interact and blend, thus obstructing their individual identities. The monster responds appropriately to the conflicts, or ambiguities, present in the history of human empires, by his own “strange feelings” (109). He questions the contradictory nature of human history— “at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base” (109)— and in doing so begins to question his own identity: “And what was I?” (109).

The uncertainty in the monster’s response to the histories Felix narrates reflects the narrative ambiguity, which, according to Spivak, creates “this great flawed text” (851). Spivak observes that in the end of Shelley’s novel “distinctions of human individuality themselves seem to fall away from the novel” (850), as if each of the players in her story are capable of exiting the text on their own. For example, in refusing to describe the monster’s death and close the framed narrative with Margaret Saville’s perspective, Shelley indicates that each “cannot be contained by the text” (850). This interpretation provides that the narrative itself is the colonizer and its characters the colonized, because they are kept within the world of the narrative, and we realize their colonized position only when they are allowed to escape it. Spivak summarizes this point in her essay: “the discursive field of imperialism does not produce unquestioned ideological correlatives for the narrative structuring” (847). In other words, Shelley does not directly address imperialist theory, but embeds it within the framed structure of her novel. The frame structure inevitably creates a binary structure of one individual subjected to the narrative power of another.

The student alludes briefly, but leaves room for expansion, to the layered imperialism in the novel: Felix is subjected to the imperialist commands of the society that exiled him, Safie is colonized by both her father and Felix.This layered, ambiguous reflection on imperialism also parallels the framing structure of the narrative and could be given further attention.