Tag Archive: Britain


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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.

Stuck in the Middle

As we approach the completion of the course, I look back in awe at the many frameworks through which we have analyzed Frankenstein. My most recent blog posts have discussed the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, and explored Gayatri Spivak’s ideas on colonial discourse. Though these theories are inherently unrelated, they force the critic to assign the novel and characters of Frankenstein to one of two major categories within each theory. By this I mean that Freud’s psychoanalysis forces an identity with the “self” or the “other,” and Spivak’s colonial discourse with the “colonizer” or “subaltern.”

These individual terms and categories are not as important in themselves as compared with what they imply about Frankenstein. I would argue to say that these specific theories, and theories as such, reinforce the idea of the reigning binary throughout the piece and the thought that a character cannot exist outside the constraints of the masculine or the feminine, in which the latter is subordinate. The self versus the other and the colonizer versus the subaltern take on the roles of the masculine versus the feminine respectively. In my post entitled “Failing to See Past His Internal Atrocity,” I examine a passage within the novel in which the creature looks into the pool, sees his reflection, and realizes the existence of his double. He experiences great discomfort at this realization, tension caused by the coexistence and disfunction of the self and the double, the masculine versus the feminine. The significance of this tension is that there is indeed an existing binary that leaves one  to identify with one side or the other, and implies that their coexistence is capable of generating inward conflict.

In my second post, I suggest the idea that the author of the novel is solely able to remove the text from the trappings of the masculine and the feminine. Throughout class and blog discussions we have failed to define an entity as masculine without reference of the feminine and vice versa. By failing to mention her great nation in her novel, I proved that Shelley successfully removed Britain from the binary of the colonizer and the subaltern, the masculine and the feminine, and avoids the subjection of Britain to one or the other.  Shelley seems to give her nation the power and ability to surmount the confines created by the characteristics of the masculine or feminine, as if previously one could not describe an entity outside of these two concepts. The discussion of the creature in my first blog post shows that he, as other characters in the novel, are subject to these concepts. Never have they been proven to exist outside of the masculine and the feminine, proving the malleability of their identity and an inability for them to stand apart from these abstracts. I would conclude that from the ideas examined in the blogs, Shelley acts as the sole individual able to remove an entity from the traps of the masculine and the feminine, proved by her omission of Britain from the novel.