Tag Archive: class conflict

Let Them Eat Cake!

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.

The Nameless Proletariat

At first I wasn’t sure I agreed entirely with Warren Montag’s assertion in “The Workshop of Filthy Creation” that the creature is “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability.” (395) It seemed to me that the purposely ambiguous narrative structure of the novel was the principal catalyst of much of his interpretation: For instance, Montag cites the absence of science and technology throughout the narrative, and especially at the creation scene, as evidence of the creature’s total isolation and thus the reduction of all modernity “to the absolute singularity of Frankenstein’s creation.”(395)  But since the creature’s perspective is veiled by Victor’s narration, I wondered if perhaps the inevitable bias, the degree of separation between speaker and subject, creator and creation, is what makes the creature and everything it represents impossible to define. This bias, to me, seemed to serve mainly to emphasize the bourgeoisie, and I did not identify immediately with Montag’s employment of many of the same ambiguities to make a point about the proletariat.

This initial confusion, however, is in itself a product of the “unrepresentability” of the proletariat – while it is a single entity, represented by the creature, the contradictions of the character make it impossible to assign to it a single identity. The creature is, in Montag’s words, “monstrous by virtue of its being artificial rather than natural; lacking the unity of a natural organism, the monster is a factitious totality assembled from the parts of a multitude of different individuals, in particular, the “poor”, the urban mass that, because it is a multitude rather than an individual, is itself as nameless as Frankenstein’s creation.”  (387)

An important implication of the enigmatic nature of the proletariat is the bourgeoisie’s lack of the total control they desire and demand: What cannot be defined cannot be controlled, and history sees the manifestation of this lack of control, in one form or another, as the eruption of class struggles that Marxism asserts is the essence of human history itself. At the center of this conflict is a rejection by the upper class of their own powerlessness, and we see throughout the narrative that, from the moment of creation, Frankenstein denies his own lack of power, acting according to his needs and trying but failing to assert his authority as creator over the creature, his creation. By assuming the role of master, he alienates himself from his creation, and it is not until death that he realizes otherwise: “Although he once dreamed of creating a race that would worship him as master, he realizes as he lies dying that his relation to science ought rather to be described as a state of servitude. The ironic reversal of Frankenstein’s position is perhaps clearest when his creation, far more powerful than he, calls him ‘slave’.” (390)

Based on my limited knowledge of Marxism, it seems that the ideology defends the inevitable rise and victory of the proletariat:  “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (from the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx). I wondered, then, who would be considered the conqueror of this tale, if there were one at all. And it seems to me that the lack of control that comes with lack of identity is an unfortunate side effect not only for the creator, but for the creature, and as such there doesn’t seem to be one true champion. Once Frankenstein dies, the creature follows – a chilling reflection of history, as noted by Montag: “It was widely felt, even by those sympathetic to such experiments, that the mass mobilizations necessary to destroy the old order effectively blocked the creation of the new.” (386)

Warren Montag’s interpretation thus illuminates a different dimension to the text, one that both reflects the sociopolitical climate of Shelley’s time, and is easily understood in the context of our own time. The narrative structure that at first distorted my understanding of Montag’s argument actually reinforces it, as it is necessary to emphasize the enigma that is the creature and everything it represents.