Category: The Subaltern Monster Speaks (4/8)

The First Step Toward Neocolonialism ( poses a good argument for the ambiguity of the Creature’s status as the subaltern or the oppressor, and I think it can be extended to say that this ambiguity defies the imperialistic essentialism of the colonized being completely separate and different from the colonizer, and so destabilizes imperialism.

The Creature is oppressed, or subaltern, because he is under the power of humans with relation to language, knowledge and progress.This is seen in how he says that he “should not have understood the purport of this book had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations.” (108) Felix as a representative of the Western colonizer, holds power over the Creature because without him the Creature has no access to language and information. The “minute explanations” also tints this instruction with a sense of belittlement, as if the subaltern Creature and Safie are so grievously unintelligent and uninformed that they need the smallest item explained. His identification with Safie, with their joint instruction and his weeping “with Safie” (109), also support his subaltern-ness. Additionally, the Creature is despised mostly for his appearance, as a “figure hideously deformed and loathsome” (109), and it is on this basis that Victor justifies hating and wishing to destroy the product of his science. This has a strong parallel to various colonizing events all over the world, where the native people were thought of as primitive and backward simply because they looked different, as in Africa, such that the colonizers could justify their taking over and oppression of the people as a favor to this poor, undeveloped society.

But as the teaching continues, the Creature appears to begin to be instilled with colonialist ideologies and stereotypes. The author of this post observantly notes that the use of the word “hapless” to describe the Native Americans has connotations of it-was-going-to-happen and sounds very close to ‘helpless’, taking the power and voice away from them. I would say that this does not just uphold colonial ideas but his weeping may be an expression of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ which Parker describes as when “colonizing people often mourn for the past of the colonized cultures they have tried to destroy” (Parker 285) . The Creature goes on to gain great command over language and in effect he learns the colonizing culture better than most of the colonizers. He takes on the status of the colonizer, as is evidenced by how he plans to go to the “vast wilds of South America” and probably start a family there, in effect colonizing it. His shift in perspective to colonizer can clearly be seen here in his description of South America as wild simply because its indigenous people live differently. After this he begins to oppress Victor, as he sets him to labor and punishes him for not doing what he was told by killing his loved ones.

But this position as colonizer is never solidified either, as the Creature notes that the education he receives from Felix gives him “a view” of the empires of the world, and as he recognizes that this may be just one of many perspective, he does not fully embody the essentialism of the colonizer who is certain of the absolute characteristics of different peoples. Also he plans on dying by self-immolation when he learns that Victor is dead, which recalls the practice of sati when a widow steps into the funeral pile of her dead husband, and this identification with the subaltern woman confuses things.

This ambiguity about whether the Creature is a colonizer or part of the colonized raises great tension in the novel and in this passage, and undermines imperialistic essentialist views and so imperialism itself, which was so central to the Western culture of the time, and this may be the reason why he is the victim of such rejection and hatred.


Responding to The Power of Ambiguity:

In this post, the student argues that the ambiguity of the language and relationship between the colonizer and the subaltern gives the Creature, one of the subalterns, a voice. I am greatly intrigued by the question of whether ambiguity, of which much exists in Frankenstein, allows for the formation of identity independent of social structures, or whether ambiguity simply reinforces the sense of “other.”

In the passage on page 108-9, the creature reflects on the stories from Ruins of Empire after Felix has read them to him and Safie. He struggles with the dichotomy of how man could be “at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?” (109). The problem, for the creature, is that both the good and the bad qualities in the stories of fallen empires are embodied by the same people. On the smaller scale, then, might Felix both be acting as colonizer, but also as something far less proprietary and more actually beneficial to Safie? After all, Felix is not teaching Safie in Turkey, is not teaching her the glory of the West while in another part of the world. She chose to come to the West, unhappy with the ways of her culture, and there he is teaching her about the part of the world she has come to.

The ambiguity in all of this, for I will not say that Felix cannot be seen as a colonizer, nor that he can only be seen as such, does not allow so much for the formation of the Creature’s own identity, in my mind, as for the Creature to accept that the model his identity is formed after is flawed. He says “For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow” (109), and yet, even recognizing that this is part of the “vicious and base” (109) aspect of man, this is what the creature goes on to do. Excepting the fact that the people he kills are not “his fellow[s].” The creature, no matter how much he might forge a path between colonizer and colonized is still other, still subaltern, and when he speaks, or rather kills, it is with the rage of the colonized rebelling against the colonizers. He does not kill his fellows, he kills the fellows of the species who created his situation, thus reinforcing, not subverting, the colonizer/colonized relationship.

Thoughts on “The creature leaves the subaltern hierarchy”

A deep thought has surfaced after reading this post. So far we have talked about why the creature is the representation of the subaltern and have used evidence to prove that. What if the creature is not subaltern however and is actually the failed representation of the subaltern? During his last line the blogger states, “While Safie remains silent, the monster is able to relate his tale to his creator and, in turn, to Walton, removing his status as a voiceless other.” The creature cannot represent the subaltern because in speaking, he is no longer voiceless.

I agree with the points that the blogger has made to show that the creature is not a member of the subaltern and I would like to add one more important point to that. When the blogger mentions that the creature has accepted a higher rule set my mind jumped to an interesting observation. Of all the people in the story, the creature is the only one that transcends the frame narrative of the story. Walton, Victor and Felix/Safie stay in their respective frame narratives for the most part. The creature plays by a different set of rules however.The creature does stay in his frame when he is retelling his story but when he talks to old De Lacey, he has jumped into the Felix/Safie frame. When he visits Frankenstein on several occasions and talks to Victor he jumps into that frame. Even in the frame that is farthest removed from him, the creature ends up speaking to Walton himself meaning he jumps into that frame as well. According to Spivak, the creature even has the ability to jump completely out of the frames of the book. She states that, “The frame is thus simultaneously not a frame, and the monster can step “beyond the text” and be “lost in darkness” (Spivak 851). The monster is not subaltern. He is portrayed that way but I think that could be deliberate in an attempt to hide the real power that he seems to posses over everyone else in the novel.


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.

Blog Post: “The creature leaves the subaltern hierarchy” at

Real talk: I picked this post because it was shortest. To summarize the poster’s argument, the creature disrupts the relationship between the colonizer (Felix) and the “subaltern” (Safie) because the creature sympathizes both with and against Safie, and because the creature gains a voice.

The connection between the title and the post doesn’t seem very clear. Therefore, we’ll start by defining the “subaltern hierarchy.” I’m going to take a wild stab and say that in the “subaltern hierarchy,” the colonizer is above the subaltern. Where does the creature fall on this hierarchy? The colonizer? Maybe. The creature does eventually desire to “go to the vast wilds of South America,” with a mate, and I suppose that would be a colony of sorts (129). How about the subaltern, the people with less power? The creature seems to lack power, as he is powerless to change people’s rejection of him. However, if Safie, a Muslim-Christan woman, is one of the subaltern, can the creature really be on the same level as her? She has the power to reject him as well. The creature doesn’t lie below the subaltern. He has some power over nature, and he has superhuman attributes, as seen when he bounds over the ice. He doesn’t go above the colonizers either. Victor still has more power than him in denying him a female creature. Therefore, I propose that the creature was never a part of this “subaltern hierarchy” in the first place. He has always been the other.

But what of the connection between the creature and Safie? The creature once again mirrors a woman, just as Justine mirrored his monstrosity during her trial (“I almost began to think I was the monster that he said I was” [83]). This adds to more ambiguity of the creatures status. He is referred to as male, but more parallels appear between him and the women of the story than any of the men besides Victor. The creature’s ambiguity is what shatters the relationship between Felix as the colonizer and Safie as the subaltern. The balance of power is uncertain.

In the final point about the creature removing his status as a voiceless other, I’d argue that that isn’t quite true. Just because the creature’s story is in first person doesn’t mean it isn’t as indirect as Safie’s story. Victor tells the creature’s story. By doing so, he removes the creature’s voice and replaces it with his own. Although the creature’s story is told through his perspective, Victor’s unreliable narrative makes it questionable how much of the story was Victor and how much of the story was the creature.

“Ambiguity in the Subaltern’

In this post, the author analyses the relationship between two groups: Felix, and the monster and Safie. The author relates Felix to the imperial power, the coloniser, while assigning Safie and the Creature the subordinate group of the colonised. The author shows the power that Felix wields over his “subjects”, influencing their thoughts and behaviour. However, far from casting imperialism in a positive light, Frankenstein actually hones in on the negative aspects that the imperialist mould has forced on the native people. In fact the novel shows the insidious nature of imperialism, where it promotes movements such as feminism and yet at the same time disparages it too.

As the author presents, the monster is an intelligent being, able to differentiate and make his own judgements. Through listening to Felix, who is very pro-colonisation, he gains a rough idea of the social status that the colonised people occupy. He identifies with this colonised people and is affected with pity and sorrow for their “hapless fate”. In this feeling of sorrow for the colonised, we see the first seeds of defiance against imperialism. The clear disapproval in the disruption of lives is a trespass that even a monster is able to sympathise with. The second challenge to the idyllic representation of imperialism common in the time is seen through Safie. Here we see Safie, a colonised Eastern woman, learned in the language and principles of the Western sphere. She is the burgeoning feminist; strong and independent. Feminism is actually a direct consequence of imperialism, where values such as independence, tolerance and innovation are held at the forefront. Yet, the effects of imperialism on Safie seem to vanish when she encounters the monster. “Safie, unable to attend to her friend, rushed out of the cottage.” (114). These high handed values of tolerance and compassion for the Other disappear under the first instance of confrontation, giving lie to the effectiveness of imperialism on human nature.

The effect of imperialism on the characters in the novel do not exactly promote the efficacy of the movement. In fact, although benefits such as language and education are touted, the overall impairing effects and the negative reactions of the ‘colonised’ within the novel expose its weaknesses.

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.

For the blog post this Thursday (4/2), students will write a post that builds on a student’s previous post on the blog prompt below (choose only one).  Try to improve the student’s close reading of the assigned passage or, if you prefer, include other related passages in the novel that help expand the argument.  Students could also respond to a previous student comment on one of these posts.  Whatever students choose to do, they should write their own post and include a link within it to the previous student’s post (or comment).  Please categorize it under “The Subaltern Monster Speaks” and don’t forget to create specific tags.


Past blog prompt: do a close reading of the last paragraph on page 108-109 based on Spivak’s postcolonial perspective.  What are the ideologies instilled through Felix’s western education, and why did the creature weep with Safie over the demise of the Native American population?  Does this strong identification between the creature and Safie imply that he is like a foreign colonized woman?  Take the time to introduce, explain, and contextualize the quoted passage, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, always alert to images, themes, and motifs that seem slightly odd or out-of-place and to significant omissions.

See student responses to this post under this link:


In the colonial perspective Spivak criticizes, the feminine subaltern is the voiceless other that is distinct from the colonizer, yet dependent on him. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein seems to support the colonial perspective at first glance, since Felix educates the foreigner Safie to lift her up from her culture’s role for her. One might suggest that their relationship actually weakens the distinct barrier between the colonizer and subaltern by having the colonizer mimic the subaltern: “He had chosen the work, he said, because the declamatory style was framed in imitation of eastern authors,” (108). However, this mimicry is only for appearance. The clarifier “he said” is unnecessary since his dialogue is already known as the source of the creature’s knowledge. Instead, the clause brings attention to how both Safie and the creature are receiving their information through Felix, a formerly upper-class European male. The education is only “framed” in the perspective and not actually entrenched in it, a fact supported by the subjects covered. The education speaks of ancient Greece, Rome, and kings, but there is no material on the current Europe that surrounds the characters. The only current issue, the genocide of the Americans, is inherently detached by both geographic distance and the cultural distinction between Spanish and British. This lack of relevance keeps focus off of the relationship between subaltern and colonist, hiding it and protecting it from scrutiny.

Despite the attempt to reinforce the colonist-subaltern relationship, the monster presents a flaw. He manages to assimilate the experience of Safie, both informational and emotional like when he “wept with Safie,”  (109). Despite their synonymous experience, the wording implies the creature does not belong. Instead of simply saying he would not have been able to analyze the literature, the monster says  “I should not,” implying some sort of higher rules set the creature has accepted (108). With his male identity that is still other, the colonial perspective suggested by Spivak identifies him more with the Turkish culture that oppresses Safie and justifies Felix’s education. The creature knows the colonial perspective demands that he not break the simple picture of the colonizer teacher and the subaltern student, yet he defies the convention by associating himself, a male figure, with the sympathies given to the feminine subaltern. The colonial perspective becomes a post-colonial one because the subaltern is no longer confined to the role the colonizer gives it. While Safie remains silent, the monster is able to relate his tale to his creator and, in turn, to Walton, removing his status as a voiceless other.

In this passage, Felix is presented as the colonizer while the creature and Safie represent the colonized. This is because Felix projects his beliefs on Safie and the creature. Rather than just reading to Safie, the creature claims that he would not have understood the meaning of the book “Ruins of Empires” without Felix’s “minute explanations,” indicating that the meaning of the book is being filtered through Felix’s own opinions (Shelley 108). This also presents the creature as dependent on Felix in order to find meaning. Through Felix, the creature is able to gain “insight” that he would not be capable of without Felix (Shelley 108). The creature is dependent on Felix and he recognizes and acknowledges that dependence, presenting himself as the subaltern.

The creature’s understanding of history is clearly subjective, as he uses subjective adjectives such as “slothful Asiatics”  and virtuous romans (Shelley 108). This implies that he is not receiving an objective description of history. However, he is still using these adjectives, suggesting that he is digesting this objective viewpoint that is clearly pro-imperialist. He says that he learned of the “wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans,” finding virtue in war rather than being repulsed by the imperialistic violence of the Romans (Shelley 108). This indicates his initial acceptance of neocolonialism.

However, in the end the creature “wept with Safie,” implying his ability to sympathise with the “hapless fate” of the colonized. This suggests that the creature is able to relate to the colonized, presenting him as a symbol of the colonized and the subaltern. This detail presents the creature as a sympathiser of the colonized on multiple levels, as he is both relating to Safie, who’s character represents the entirety Sivak’s foreign colonized woman, and the colonized peoples of history, specifically the native Americans. In addition, this is important because it demonstrates the creature’s ability to form his own personal opinions on the world rather than simply digest entirely the information given to him by Felix. Thus, transformation is occurring in this passage. The creature’s sentiment by the end of this short passage is not identical to his feelings at the beginning.

It is also important to recognize that the creature learns of the Roman’s “subsequent degenerating-of the decline of that mighty empire,” (Shelley 108). This could influence the creature’s opinions regarding neocolonialism, as while the immediate result was success, it ended in degeneration. This is part of the creature’s turning point from acceptance of neocolonialism to repulsion.

This passage represents the tension felt by the creature caused by the differences in the information being fed to him by Felix and his own personal feelings. Safie and the creature do not immediately reject the information they are given as subjective, yet they are able in the end to recognize the negative fate of the colonized and to feel sadness because of this. They do not adopt Felix’s patriarchal view completely. Consequently, this tension highlights the problems with imperialism and the tensions that it causes, and represents a disruption of the binary, as the creature is not strictly for or against colonialism. Rather than strictly being “us vs. them,” meaning the colonizers vs. the colonized, the creature’s reaction is at times ambiguous, implying that he does not strictly fit into the role of the colonized or the colonizing. This ambiguity is further emphasized in the next paragraph, as the creature claims that the narration “inspired (him) with strange feelings,” (Shelley 109). He finds ambiguity in man himself, questioning why man was “at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?” (Shelley 109). The creature is internally conflicted by the lessons he learns from Felix and struggles to form his own opinion. However, this struggle represents his ability to stem outside of the strictly subaltern, making this a pivital passage that represents an important transition in the creature’s character.