Category: Blog Summary #1 (2/27)


Frankenstein’s Rewarding Thematic Depth

From the outset of this class, before I began reading Frankenstein for the first time, my perception of the novel were skewed heavily by modern portrayals of the story as something archaic and camp with little deeper meaning or symbolic qualities. With actual exposure to the novel and with interpretive literary criticism applied in addition, I have found that there are a host of themes, motifs and symbols not are not only directly referenced and observed within the book through close reading, but are also inferred based on an understanding of the historical context.

In my past analyses from the blog posts, I have demonstrated a realization of the sheer literary depth that Frankenstein provides. The fact that a major development within the novel is the development of a human persona with respect to the creature is symbolic of an even broader theme that is concerned with the lack of humanity that society projects towards the downtrodden/lower-class/outcasts. The scene where the creature directly confronts Victor and begs for some understanding towards his own plight was the point where I initially saw the book in a different light. The novel made me switch my perception of Frankenstein and the humans; beforehand, I saw the creature for what it was portrayed to be by pop culture: vicious and soulless. With Victor and all other humans’ total rejection of the creature and lack of much sympathy for its unfortunate state, I came to see the humans as the soulless ones for not even giving the creature a chance.

With the incorporation of broader themes, including literary analysis that referred to historical context, I then saw this implementation of a sense of humanity within the creature as representative of the author’s intent to symbolize the downtrodden/lower-class/outcasts as the creature. The creature represented the unfortunate underclass of society, and the way it is treated in the novel strongly mirrors the way the lower-class was treated in that time period. I felt that it was an unflattering and unfair representation of the lower-class because of just how grotesque it was made to appear through the creature in the novel, as well as the fact that by localizing the lower-class to one creature, its influence in society is diminished significantly. The French Revolution probably had something to do with the marginalization of the lower-class in the novel, as its abject failure in establishing its idealistic ambitions resulted in tyranny and dictatorship. Given that this novel was written two decades after the Revolution’s conclusion, it seems to me that the author was intent on not just portraying the underclass’ downtrodden nature because it was the reality of the time period but also because that is what she believed their role and place in society should be. This kind of textual and thematic depth within the novel took me by complete surprise and made this one of the more personally rewarding readings in a while due to the discovery of such themes, both clear (and emotionally visceral, with respect to the creature’s humanity) and hidden.

As I perused my previous blog posts, I reread one in particular that caught my eye: my post titled “The Bond of Creator and Creation.” In it, I cite a quote from Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: “”And as our Creator has designed we should be united by the bond of sympathy…”, and then I elaborate on the bond of sympathy between Frankenstein and the Creature when he listens to his progeny’s story. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that moment is the only display of sympathetic connection between this God and his Adam found in the whole novel. Everywhere else, most particularly the execution of Justine, it is absent—but why? There should be a strong bond of love between them like that of a father and son, but no connection or true communication can be found. Understanding this disparity between expectations and reality can be further explored using Marxist analysis.

A preliminary structural analysis reveals that the turning point in the novel is the death of William and the execution of Justine. Before that point, Victor is at peace and the Creature’s location is, for all intents and purposes, held at bay. After the death of Justine, however, everything changes; Victor now lives a life of fear, and the Creature is a broken human with an insatiable desire for vengeance trying to exert control over his creator. The focal point of Marxist analysis also centers on the death of Justine—the symbolic death of justice. Frankenstein, a scientifically and technologically inclined member of the bourgeoisie, created Frankenstein much in the same way that the techno-centric industrial bourgeoisie created the new working class. There is no sympathy between the two emerging classes because their stratification was not created through humanistic demands, but rather socioeconomic demands. The bourgeoisie, despite begetting a whole new “race” of people, could never view them as anything but a means to an end—and the end is money. In the French revolution, they promised the proletariat egalitarianism, but their words were hollow—the proletariat, being naïve and possessing no prior context, were able to be repressed by the bourgeoisie’s bastardization of the ancient ideology of justice. They believed that it was killed during the revolution, but it was killed long before then, when the first factory manager looked down on his newly-minted workers and saw them as a stack of dollar bills. The proletariat never stood a chance, and their mislead sense of justice prevented them from seeing the creator as the true enemy.

The dynamic between Frankenstein and his creation acts in very much the same way. Frankenstein, a disgusting but powerful mass of muscle and sinew, is the large, dirty proletariat; suppressed by their master, they only blame themselves. In the Justine episode, the Creature fails to fully realize it is Frankenstein’s fault for the death of justice, not his—the very act of creating “a new species [that] would bless me as its creator” (Frankenstein 58) killed justice before the starting gun had even fired, for to create a species for the sake of deification is the most unholy of all injustices. The ideology that the Creature follows is a false one, perpetuated by Frankenstein (who knowingly refused to intervene to save justice before her execution at bourgeoisie hands) in order to exert control over his creation. Frankenstein does all of this because his creature was not created for humanistic reasons; it was a means to an end, an attempt to gain power to stay the cold hand of death from those he selfishly wanted to keep forever in this world. In the end, the Creature is unable to see Frankenstein as an enemy. Even after he kills everyone Frankenstein loves, he still cries when his creator is finally subdued by Death and sacrifices himself to the sea. His false ideology will always blind him to his creator’s evil. Unless the proletariat can see what the bourgeoisie’s sense of justice actually is—frail, twisted, and coughing up the blood of innocents—they will never throw off the yoke of oppression.

Through critical Marxist techniques and theories of the sublime, the modern cultural duality of the Frankenstein myth may be explicated. This process is initiated by analysis of the main characters in Marxist terms. The creature in Frankenstein serves as the culmination of the bourgeoisie dream, long ago planted in the roots of society. Behind the façade of maintained societal sentiments such as “justice,” the elite have secretly plotted the overthrow of these same ideals. All of their silent manipulations have led up to this moment, in which they have planned to ascend to the helm of civilization as godlike beings, served by the created proletariat. As the manifestation of the bourgeoisie, Victor completes this process as planned, giving life to the monster.

However, something is deeply wrong with this entity. The proletariat and the monster were not naturally conceived in the womb, but in the mind; they have no ancestry, cobbled together from various decaying components, and forced into life by mysterious mechanistic means. Even Victor and the elite recognize the horror in such a filthy fabrication. They flee from their progeny, failing to use it as they intended. The ultimate result of this action is the suffering of all of society, expressed in the violence committed towards and by the creature. The true unnatural bourgeoisie construct is not just the proletariat class, but the hegemony of societal violence. Although they intended to rule their brave new world, all are enslaved instead by a different power, violence, expressed in the unending conflict of the creature and Victor as they hurtle towards their deaths.

The narrative inspires a great sympathetic response in the reader, as they conceive of the existential terror of the creature, and the horror of Victor in the consequences of his work. This sympathy leads to a more superficial level of the sublime, and also a realization of Montag’s “unrepresentability,” in the creature. By sympathizing with the Marxist metaphor presented, the reader perceives the invalidity of the proletariat construct, and the falseness of the capitalist symptom’s hegemony of violence, as it is unnatural and a source of terror and disgust. By understanding this invalidity, the reader also comprehends that the capitalist construct does not represent the societal ideal or even a natural creation process, and therefore leads to “unrepresentability.”

This significant realization of untruth leads to the formation of a fissure in the capitalist symptom. Behind the tattered edge, the deepest source of the sublime can almost be seen: the sublime object of ideology.  The reader begins to perceive that capitalist ideology does not reflect the “object,” which is the nature of reality. There is great awe and fear in realizing an incorrect way of viewing the real, and is therefore a great source of the sublime.

However, the capitalist symptom is not without power, even in the modern world. Like an oyster’s pearl, the ideological irritant is morphed by a smooth outer sheen. It cannot be completely removed because its sublime aspect is inherently attractive. This is the reason for the duality of the myth; it is too powerful to ignore, so it is sterilized into the common form as folk tale, which offers no threat to collapse capitalist ideology.

The character of the creature is exquisite in the rawness of its humanity, and this has implications that transcend mere sentimentality. Existing outside the social order of things, his efforts to define his own place in society result, time and time again, in what seems to be an unmovable rejection from the human world.

What has become increasingly apparent is that it is not humanity that is rejecting the creature, so much as it is society. Making this fine distinction helps to reconcile the creature’s obvious humanity with his constant rejection by people, and helps to better settle the novel within a historical and sociopolitical context. It is important to consider, specifically, that a defining element of the creature’s humanity is his desire to grasp control of his predicament. What is tumultuous about this seemingly natural desire is that it exists independently from a place in society, and thus fails to be fulfilled. Society’s unbending rejection of the creature can therefore be viewed as commentary on the social structure of the time, one that is, at its core, not about reflecting humanity but about controlling it. It is not difficult to see the creature’s fight against his banishment from society as analogous to the unrest of the proletariat underneath the unbending social order that characterized the times. But what’s especially interesting to consider is how Frankenstein responds to his own creation. Unwilling to see the creature as anything more than an abomination, Frankenstein seeks, throughout the novel, to deny the creature as something that even requires controlling, even as the shockwaves of the creature’s existence cause enormous tumult in Victor’s life. Earlier in the novel, for instance, he returns to his home to find the creature missing, and rather than enter panic mode, he can “hardly believe that so great a good fortune could have befallen [him]…” (63). In fact, until his little brother is killed, Victor doesn’t think about the consequences of the creature’s existence in the outside world and within society. Later, at the trial of Justine Moritz, Victor is tortured by his own guilt and rage, but suppresses these feelings because to give in to them would mean putting the creature in a position of power. He refuses to allow it, and in the process, Justine is convicted and justice disintegrates.

What is reflected simultaneously by Victor, the creature, and the events that unfold around them, is a divide between society and humanity that rises not only from the creation and rejection of the monster, but the resultant turmoil as the creature tries to control its own place in society. So, as much as the creature’s rejection seems to be a criticism of the class structure and society, the ensuing chaos, when cast in the light of a historical context, is also a reflection on the ruthless nature of the French Revolution. The fact that the creature, in the end, dies next to his creator, thus failing to define his own destiny, is a powerful comment on the dissolution of humanity in revolution, a failure of the revolution to live up to its own ideals. 

The novel Frankenstein is plagued by myth and fallacy. At one time, I myself believed Frankenstein to be the monster and not Victor Frankenstein, his creator. The story is an interesting one, to say the least, and if taken at face value and only read to discredit the common myths, one might miss the greater underlying message. After some thought and an analysis of my previous blogs, I have come to the conclusion that Frankenstein is much more than the story of a mad scientist, his creation, and the ruthless murders the monster commits. If Frankenstein is interpreted through the analytical lens of theorists and radicals such as Burke and Montag, I cautiously conclude that Mary Shelley was attempting to portray the human condition embodied in the monster.

Shelley uses the monster to depict what theorists find common throughout humanity. One commonality characteristic of the novel and our human condition is the exclusion of the working class, or in Montag’s terms, the proletariat. Montag says the monster represents the unrepresentability of the working class because of the lack of a tangible proletariat group in the novel, yet this is also analogous to the absence of this same working class in our cultural media and society. By excluding the working class from her piece, Shelley is depicting the humanly, natural desire for success without work or hardship. Secondly, Shelly illustrates another aspect of the human condition: the co-existence of the sublime and beautiful, also seen in the monster. One would say the monster’s physical appearance is of the sublime, supernatural and gigantic in stature, and that the monster commits horrendous crimes in his pursuit of vengeance. However, the monster’s beauty is exemplified in his pursuit of sympathy. The monster seeks acceptance and an understanding from Victor Frankenstein, sympathy that Burke would argue to be natural and logical. The dual nature of the monster mirrors that duality seen in humans. For instance, after hearing Frankenstein’s narration of the monster’s murders, Watson has feelings of indignation towards the monster, yet simultaneously expresses sympathy on behalf of Frankenstein and his loss. One might see the duality of his emotions by categorizing Watson’s indignation as a characteristic of the sublime, and attributing his sympathy to beauty. Here Shelley is proposing that the dual nature of humanity is not atypical, and most certainly that the co-existence of the sublime and beautiful within one entity is a part of the human condition.

The creature is negatively perceived by individuals of society, even prior to their understanding of the wrong-doings he has committed. This brings up issues of appearance and the importance of a person’s appearance with regards to how that individual is perceived by society. What does society value more, beauty or morals?

The creature is an interesting character because of the fact that he is created as a fully cognizant being who still however does not understand the world, as opposed to how natural beings are created as infants and they slowly learn about the world as they develop. The creature’s naivety highlights a lot of the issues in society. For example, we can presume that he at first does not understand why people are repulsed by his appearance. Burke’s description of beauty aligns with this lack of understanding, as he calls beauty a “social quality” (burke 39). The creature is not able to understand his beauty or his lack thereof fully due to his lack of social interactions.  The monster himself addresses his situation, deeming himself “utterly inexperienced,” (Shelley 110). This allows each experience the creature encounters to heavily shape him. He diseases himself that if the first human he had met was different, he would feel much different towards humans in general.

The creature desperately wants the cottagers to see past his appearance. The role of the creature’s appearance plays in the cottager’s perception of the creature is evident from the fact that the blind man accepts the creature before the seeing people arrive. The blind man was able to “see” the creature’s sympathy and virtue because he was not “blinded” by the ugly appearance that the creature presents on the outside. While the creature had learned that he was ugly by this point, it was nonetheless a rude awakening as to the inhibiting nature of his appearance. The creature describes himself as “overcome by pain and anguish,” indicating that he could not have been accepting this reaction (Shelley 121).

Mary Wollstonecrant also talks about issues of beauty in relation to character. She relates beauty to both morals and reason, questioning weather or not they should be a part of each other. The cottagers were “systematically neglecting morals to secure beauty” by choosing to focus on the creature’s appearance rather than his character (Wollstonecrant 47). While Wollstoncrant speaks much of female beauty and the rejection of morals involved, the same analysis can be used to judge the reception of the creature’s appearance. For example, Wollstonecrant argues that women are valued for their “breast rather than (their) inventions,” (Wollstonecrant 51). This parallels the fact that the creature’s hideous nature was valued over his virtue. In both cases, something on the outside is overpowering something on the inside.

The creature’s experience with the cottagers presents a claim that individuals cannot overcome what is on the outside, at least not without great difficulty.

After analyzing the monster through multiple schools of analysis, it is safe to say that finding a concrete representation of the monster is often very difficult. The intentional fallacy tells us readers that we would be mistaken to base our understanding of a work on what we presume to be the author’s intention in writing, and this holds true as we readers try to decipher Mary Shelley’s cryptic layers of symbols and themes. However, the frustration involved with trying to discover the monster’s true meaning only serves to bolster the ambiguity surrounding the monster, creating a figure that is dark and mysterious, and making the terror that the monster inspires all the more tangible.

Even before reading Frankenstein we encounter ambiguity in the fact that “Frankenstein” is the name of the creator and not the creation. Applying Edmund Burke’s ideas of the sublime versus the beautiful and the ugly we see that the monster elicits the beautiful quality of sympathy with his eloquent prose, while contradicting this sympathy with his sublime and fear-inspiring murderous actions. A Marxist analysis makes the monster a symbol of the suppressed proletariat, yet the monster is still depicted as powerful and in control of Frankenstein, who is a symbol of the should-be-in-power bourgeoisie. All of these examples reinforce the confusion surrounding the monster. Falling victim to the intentional fallacy, it seems as if Mary Shelley attempted to obscure the monster as much as possible in order to amplify the reader’s sense of fear in the unknown.

Humans have an innate fear of the unknown; when we cannot decipher something’s intentions or purpose we feel unsettled. From the beginning, the creation of the monster is obscured; fragments of the text in which Frankenstein is working on his creation are omitted and Frankenstein never reveals the secret of how to create the monster. The monster stays out of view, and Frankenstein feels a constant sense of paranoia that his creation is watching him from the shadows. Frankenstein is not able to interperet that the monster is plotting Elizabeth’s murder, thinking instead that the monster will be coming for him on his wedding night. The monster is never even given a name, and thus has no identity. The sense of mystery that surrounds the monster stirs the human depths of fear – we fear what we cannot understand.

Obscurities in different schools of literary analysis mirror Shelley’s ominous plot omissions, and serve as reinforcements for the unease that the monster causes. Just as the monster hides away in the swirling mists of vast mountain ranges to avoid detection, the reader’s role is to derive meaning from a mist of different schools of literary criticism. Our inability to fully understand the monster in a figurative context only serves to heighten the sense of ambiguity and thus horror that we feel.

Whilst scrolling through my blog post I was particularly uninspired and disappointed in past writings. Luckily, a comment from my professor sparked my imagination and got the wheels moving.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not simply a story told by a narrator to an audience. Frankenstein encapsulates four different stories within one narrative framework and each new narrator influences the lens through which the story is interpreted. It is through this story-telling and narrative framework that sympathy is mediated between the characters. In Frankenstein sympathy requires two actors, one to share their story and one to listen. Edmund Burke argues that sympathy is a way in which we “enter into the concerns of others” (Burke 41) however, the listener can’t engage if there is no one willing to tell the story. Frankenstein has several characters that invite others into sympathetic connection through story telling, including Dr. Frankenstein and the creature.

The first two-way sympathetic story telling relationship occurs on board the ship of Robert Walton between Walton himself and Dr. Frankenstein. Robert Walton deeply desires a companion with which to engage in such sympathy on his lonely voyage. He finds that person who is not just willing to engage, but enthusiastic to do so, in the incredibly ill Dr. Frankenstein. Walton describes this desire as a “thirst for a more intimate sympathy with a fellow mind” (Shelley 38). Here is Walton fulfilling the role of “entering into concerns” of Dr. Frankenstein by listening to the Dr.’s story. It is important to remember that it is not just Walton creating a sympathetic bond. Frankenstein is inviting him into this bond by sharing his story.

The invitation to hear a character’s story and acceptance of that invitation occurs again in between Dr. Frankenstein and the creature, and allows them to have sympathetic connection for the first time. When the creature introduces his story to the narrative framework he opens himself up to participate a sympathetic relationship with his creator, Dr. Frankenstein. Frankenstein in turn accepts this invitation by listening, saying “I weighed the various arguments that he had used, and determined at least to listen to his tale” (Shelley 95). Just as Walton “enters into the concerns” of Dr. Frankenstein by listening to his story, so does Dr. Frankenstein “enter into the concerns” of the creature by listening to the creature’s story. The story telling within the narrative framework of Frankenstein makes it possible for the characters to enter into sympathetic relationships with one another. The story telling within the novel shows that sympathy requires two active participants, an idea illustrated by both Robert Walton and Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Frankenstein and the creature.

 

While only a few of the details of this argument were actually in my previous posts, thinking about them and synthesizing other ideas from class led to a new interpretation. Frankenstein can be read as an explanation of how the French Revolution was a failure and not a true revolution. Namely, the bourgeoisie manipulated the proletariat as they would a commodity in order to create a bourgeoisie society in the name of the proletariat. This created a bloodbath much like the monster creates when he finds out he has been wronged. Frankenstein here is the bourgeoisie, while his monster is both the proletariat and a commodity formed by the bourgeoisie.

The monster as the proletariat is a popular view among Marxist critics, but many interpretations ignore the parallels between his creation and the creation of commodities. Like the rest of the novel, the sections before and after the creation are rife with details. The reader is bombarded with details of the creature’s appearance (such as his proportional limbs and “yellow skin scarcely [covering] the muscles and arteries beneath”) and Victor’s own feelings (“anxiety” mixed with “enthusiasm”), but there is no mention of the actual process of the monster’s creation (Shelley 60). The creature’s means of production are hidden, much like commodities are in capitalist societies (Parker 215). This makes him not just the proletariat, but a commodity as well.

The status of the creature as a commodity reflects the manipulation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie in the French Revolution, a manipulation in order to perform “the task of releasing and setting up modern bourgeois society” (Marx 24). The French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, meant to increase their power, not one for the proletariat. The story reflects this, with Frankenstein creating life just because he could, to satisfy his own ego. It is when he shuns the creature that the horror of the story starts.

By creating life but not accepting his creature, Frankenstein suffers the same turmoil that France did when its bourgeoisie attempted its revolution without the bourgeoisie. Death and suffering took over. Many bourgeois former leaders of the revolution were killed in the Reign of Terror, and many of Victor’s bourgeois family and friends were killed by the creature. But we sympathize with the creature precisely because he has been manipulated. Just as the French Revolution did not truly represent the interests of the proletariat, the interests of the creature were not accounted for by his creator. He is left alone, and thus he becomes the sympathetic figure. His creation has failed him much like the French Revolution ultimately failed the proletariat.

The Fickle Boundary of Class

My review of my blog posts led me to the conclusion that Frankenstein’s monster is not so much the anti-thesis of society as it is an attack on the bourgeois social dynamic represented by Victor and Walton. The society that Mary Shelly attacks with the monster is the canonical sanctum of civilization that so very often represents the whole. Therefore the conflict in the novel is not defined by the Burke-an ideals of the human and the beast, but by the Marxist concept of class that, in some extreme conditions, transcends the petty boundaries of species.

For instance, a formal definition of society would include Victor, Walton and Justine in its ranks, and reject the Monster based on some abstract criterion for civility. And yet, ironic as it may seem, all these characters, at some time, experience solitude in their own way. Victor finds no parallel in intellect; Walton, none in curiosity; Justine, none in misery; and the Monster, none in, well, anything. And so no matter whose perspective the reader favors, a shared predicament means that all characters elicit some measure of sympathy. Curiously, however, both Victor and Walton find companionship in each other in the end, whereas the Monster and Justine exit the novel as alone as they had entered. Thus, this communal solitude erases one line and draws another.

Similarly, Justine and the Monster are both betrayed. Justine, by the prospect of reciprocated justice; and the monster by the prospect of reciprocated humanity. In one case it is Victor’s silence that seals Justine’s fate; in another, it is his impulsive disgust. And strangely, Walton’s journal does not contain any comments about his disapproval of Victor’s actions. It is worth noting that, again, on one side of this new line, Walton and Victor are in perfect harmony whereas the proletarian characters are suffering the consequences.

Having established that class division is a driving force, a question arises: Was not Victor too betrayed by his monster when his relatives and friends were murdered? Perhaps he was. However, both Victor and his Monster are appearing distinctly on the opposite ends of this class division that they consider synonymous with right and wrong. Who betrayed who is a matter of perspective. What matters is the fact that both sides evolve in parallel. Moreover, their evolution is triggered by the other side; a chain of causality that maintains the contextual relevance of both classes (that they are mutual anti-theses). Take for example, the monster’s evolution in response to victor’s rejection, or Victor’s vowed vengeance after his brother’s murder. Both the bourgeois and the proletariat need the other side to evolve and to justify their actions. Therefore in the paradoxical face of this mutual dependence that allows each side to proclaim absolute righteousness, the much more baser division of class starts to seem counterproductive. Had there been no class divisions, there would have been complete homogeneity that the bourgeois and the proletariat now only individually enjoy.