Tag Archive: ambiguity


Reinforcing the Subaltern

Responding to The Power of Ambiguity: https://foundationsofliterarystudies.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/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.

Blog Post: “The creature leaves the subaltern hierarchy” at https://foundationsofliterarystudies.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/the-creature-breaks-the-subaltern/

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.

Reflecting on “The Power of Ambiguity” https://foundationsofliterarystudies.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/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.

Phoenix_fire

The miserable creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein purports to kill himself, yet his words invoke a curious sense of triumph and hope in an afterlife. This seeming paradox is far from it, for the fire he plans to die in is at once destroying and purifying, emphasizing the creature’s spiritual humanity.

This goes without saying, but burning alive is horrifying. The creature recognizes so much, saying he will “exult in the agony of the torturing flames” (Shelley 189). I’ll get to the strange exulting part, but, hey, let’s first recognize the very real, very scary agony and torture he’s facing. Worse, the creature declares that his present miseries will be “extinct” (189), invoking dramatic finality since, by nature of his unique creation, his demise will literally be an extinction.

That’s pretty dang sad. So why exult? Part of it has to do with fire’s purifying properties. The Bible describes how, as a blacksmith refines impure minerals in a fire to produce dazzling gold, God can purify a man from unrighteousness. The creature subscribes to this, believing that the death of his physical body is not truly an end since, as his “ashes will be swept into the sea” (189), his “spirit will sleep in peace” (189). This image works on multiple levels, invoking the idea of “from dust to dust” as well as that of the majestic phoenix (his spirit) rising from the ashes. Finally, as the creature is “soon borne away by the waves” (189), I cannot help but think of how he may soon be reborn as his spirit moves on. The circle is complete, for as a “spark of being” (60) initially brings him to a hideous earthly existence, a grand “conflagration” (189) sends him out into a new purer one. The creation may’ve been dead parts come to life, but he sure appears to have a soul. And he goes out with a bang.

Exulting in the Agony

In the last two paragraphs of Frankenstein, the creature gives a farewell, for both himself and the entire novel. “But soon…I shall die” he says, and proceeds to tell the audience what will happen. He does not say if, he never says maybe. His entire speech is delivered with calculated certainty; it is in this certainty that the unity of the new critical method is found.

The creature uses specific words, such as “soon” and “I shall” several times, to create both a sense of immediacy and a sense that the monster is not guessing at his future, but has planned it, or been told by some outside force what will occur. When the monster says “I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames,” there is tension between the verbiage of triumphantly…exult” and “agony…torturing.” These words seem disjointed when separated, but in the context of the paragraph, they make sense; the certainty of the creature in what will happen make it easier to accept that the he will “exult in the agony.”

Between the two paragraphs, also, there is tension. The first paragraph, with the end of the creature’s speech, give promises of what will happen, but the last paragraph, ending “he was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance,” does not resolve the expectations of the creature’s speech. The actual action of the resolving plot seems to be missing. The certainty of his speech, however, tie together the detailed description and the ambiguous ending, in that the creature, so sure of what will happen, has resolved the end already. The last paragraph does not need to describe what happens, because the creature already has, and with an assuredness that makes it clear that it truly is what will happen.

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.

Image

The Monster’s Ambiguity

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.