Category: Labor, Alienation, and (re)production (2/19)

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.

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.

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.

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?

What stuck out to me most about Marxist criticism is that it’s straight up impossible to nail down the theory into one neat idea.

For instance, Robert Dale Parker describes “relative autonomy, agency, and intervention on one side of a continuum and ideology, interpellation, and false consciousness on the other side” (Parker 229). The job of the critic, then, is to navigate this tension, to explore “the intricate negotiations across the interlocking possibilities in any particular cultural activity [including literature]” (231). Now, this (multi-faceted) question could apply to any form of criticism, but I think it still must be asked.

A work of literature may be fully entrapped in an ideology or it may be deliberately resisting interpellation. In any case, how do Marxist critics approach a text? What themes do they look for? What questions do they ask?

The description of Althusser’s views seemed to suggest that the world we live in is artificial, insofar as that all the decisions and choices we make are not for the reasons we think they are. He places this ‘ideology’ into the category of forces which take control away from us, and influence the choices we make. The knee-jerk response to reading that we are all being pulled by the puppet strings of larger societal forces is to deny their control and attempt to break free in some way, and so to try to obtain more ‘relative autonomy’. But my question is whether getting rid of ideology the best option, because it seems as if without it the world becomes a very dull unromantic place. I’m not sure if I’m just being swayed by the example given in the text, of the reason for attending college, but I can’t figure out if we, and literature, should be trying to decrease the effect of ideology, or leave it as it is.

Marxist literary criticism, as far as I can understand it, says that literature is a reflection of the societal values imparted on the writer. It is a representation of the attitudes of society as a whole. So how would Marxist criticism deal with the fact that in this case, the writer was someone who was about as detached from any society as one could be during that time period? Shelley’s father was the pioneer of anarchism. It seems to me that Shelley’s personal views are entirely incompatible with Marxism, not because they are opposing, but because they exist entirely outside of the scope Marxism operates in. How can this be explained?