Tag Archive: Colonialism

An Imperial Narrative

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.

At the surface, many facets of colonialist and psychoanalytical criticism can be compared as ways to justify similar themes of alienation, identity, confusion, and so on.  However, looking through my previous blog posts I would argue that the two are intertwined to the point of being dependent on one another to provide a richer and fuller perspective of the same argument, which is that the text promotes the futility of any binary logic in relation to society and identity.

This is an interesting way of looking at the creature’s vision of himself. The scene on page 104 where the creature sees his reflection in a transparent pool is loaded with latent tensions: “…how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification.” (104) Perhaps what is so shocking about the creature’s reflection in the water is his confusion with the binary that has been presented to him through the DeLaceys. As I explored in my post “The Power of Ambiguity”, he is presented with a very strong binary in the lessons that Felix delivers to Safie, and has trouble digesting it. I would argue that this is the same type of confusion that characterizes his identification with the image in the pool, because it does not align with the “perfect forms”(104) of humanity that he sees in the DeLaceys. The colonialist perspective provides a deeper understanding of this misalignment, because when we look at how the creature reacts to the history lessons that Felix delivers to Safie, it is clear that he is, at best, confused. The way he digests the information defies the black-and-white worldview he had possessed until that point. He knows that he does not fit squarely into the definition of the colonizer nor the colonized, the powerful nor the powerless, and this causes him to question, subconsciously or consciously, the binary that he has internalized. Indeed, after he receives the lessons, he observes, “The words induced me to turn towards myself.” (109). Looking back at the scene where he observes himself in the pool, the same can be said about his reaction. He had modeled his Ideal-I after the DeLaceys, which to him represented a pure idea of humanity, and this was the foundation of his very ego. Looking at his reflection in the pool and seeing something completely outside of his ego was  necessarily devastating. Because the binary was what preserved the creature’s ego, he initially refused to let go of it. Thus when he abandons his human identity in the face of rejection by the DeLaceys, he becomes the complete opposite: a savage and a brute. It is only as the novel nears the end that the creature tries to pick up the pieces and find a compromise, by appealing to his creator and requesting a spouse. Victor, however, still holding on to his belief in the unbending power of a God over its creation, surrenders control under the illusion of control, because the binary logic simply cannot exist. The novel necessarily ends in the deaths of both creator and creation.

The colonialist discourse is one of the many ways that Shelley reveals the failure of the psychological binary, and vice versa. If the masculine colonial discourse were to be portrayed as unbending and unquestionable in the text, it would contradict all the ambiguity that the creature represents. There would be little reason to suspect the failure of any other binary, and the text would be purposeless.Thus the psychoanalytical and the colonial veins of criticism are more than parts of a critical whole: Together, they paint a greater picture that colours Shelley’s Frankenstein in a larger and more complex light.

Throughout the second half of the semester the juxtaposition of the powerful against the powerless has provided many interesting blog posts, debates and hours of  class discussion. The conflict between the sides has been expressed through a multitude of different lenses including feminine vs. masculine, colonized vs. colonizer and the bourgeoisie vs. the proletariat. We have analyzed, reanalyzed, drawn pictures of our analysis and then debated on who was better at analyzing all of these complex binaries.

What have I drawn from the many hours trying to come up with interesting and original blog posts? I have come to  realize that within the context of Frankenstein these binaries do not exist. With close reading and analysis, the dichotomies that categorize characters in the novel collapsed in on themselves and illustrated their nature as not inherent truths but rather social constructs. Simply put, in the novel an Us vs. Them complex can not thrive because there is no us. All of the characters in the novel are at one point rendered powerless and therefore made to exist as an other, and when every character exists as an other the power structure is not rigid and everlasting, but fluid and ever-changing.

At every turn in the novel we see an upending of what we thought to be true, an inversion of the power structure that dominates our world view. Looking only to the second half of the semester and and questions of femininity and colonialism  it is obvious to see the novel’s ability to invert these so called categories of dominance. The character that so represents the most obvious positions of power, both the masculine and the colonizer is Victor. However by the end of the novel he has become a slave to his own creation and dies trying to gain the control he has lost.  More than disenfranchising the powerful, the novel also demonstrates the lifting up of the weak into temporary positions of power. Take the creature, once the very picture of an outcast ends up with the power to not only destroy those around his creator but destroy his creator himself. Another aspect of the novel’s ability to inverse and therefore destroy the supposed power structure comes not from the actual words on the page but the words that have been left out. The idea of omission sparked great discussion with a total of six student comments, which is six more than all of my other posts combined. As I argue in that post, the tool of omission is powerful because it does not just show the weak side of a character but rather gives them no representation at all. There are countless examples of the powerful falling and the weak rising up in the novel. The culture of Us vs. Them  is eliminated because everyone is at some point powerless, everyone is a them.

Looking at traditional power especially represented by the masculine and the colonizer, the novel Frankenstein works to remove even the most seemingly powerful characters from their pedestal and show them as just as powerless as those they used to have control over. In the world of Frankenstein there is no lasting control, there is no permanent power, there is only The Other.



Through the use of Spivak’s methods of critical analysis, the Frankenstein passage on pages 108-109 may be more fully understood. Within the textual sample, Safie and the creature are constructed as parallel iterations of the feminine subaltern, which expose the instability of cultural and colonial discourse.

The passage begins immediately with the creation of a hierarchal relationship, describing a “book from which Felix instructed Safie.” There is a distinct sense of separateness and value, in which an ignorant eastern woman eagerly accepts the teachings of the learned western man. This concept of social striation is also translated to intellectual incongruity, as Safie and the creature “should not have understood the purport of this book, had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations.” Not only is one social position dominant over the other, but also one symbolic or linguistic discourse is championed. This is expressed by the fact that important knowledge is disseminated mostly through a style that appears foreign to those who receive it.

However, within the post-colonial world, the abjection of a colonized people is not always explicit or obvious. Felix “had chosen this work, he said, because the declamatory style was framed in imitation of the eastern authors.” This statement re-emphasizes the idea of linguistic slavery. Not only are the colonized forced to adhere to the physical or economic forces of their captors; their very language is subjugated and co-opted. This expresses how lost a people may become, as colonial discourse may be masked within their native symbolism.

The exact contents of the book also have a unique character. “Through this work [the creature] obtained a cursory knowledge of history, “ a statement marked with a feeling of amorphous wholeness or generality, largely centered on the word “cursory.” What is described is not a listing of hard historical events, facts or figures; rather, its is a sort of summed narrative. This concept is maintained through a lesson including “a view of the several empires at present existing in the world; it gave [the creature] an insight into the manners, governments, and religions of the different nations of the earth.” This sentence solidifies the thread previously presented. The lessons of the colonial discourse seek to marry each culture with a sense of essence, inherent meaning or soul, a feat accomplished through the use of highly variable, general, and emotional terms like “manners, governments, and religions.”

The passage proceeds to offer specific examples, from a notably western European perspective. Obvious appreciation for the “stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians,” the “wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans,” and the era of  “chivalry, Christianity and kings,” is contrasted with a banal disgust towards the “slothful asiatics.” Cultures are again granted an overall feeling of inherent essence.

Finally, the passage ends with the “discovery of the American hemisphere,” as the creature “wept with Safie over the hapless fate of the original inhabitants.” The concept of wholeness is expanded, and the true scope of the colonial discourse can be understood. It needs to have all elements of the colonial world, meaning that both the colonizer and the colonized are crucial components of the cultural discourse. The feminine subaltern here has accepted the colonial forms of linguistic subjugation and cultural essence. This means that the manifestations of the subaltern do not weep for the crime of the brutal slaughter of a culture. They weep because they identify with a subjugated people and unfortunate events, but they also maintain an idea of destiny in “hapless fate.” Even the colonized peoples willfully join in with the colonial discourse, gladly accepting their role within the whole of a macroscopic society.

The parallelism between the creature and Safie is used to expose the conflicting wholeness and incongruity of the colonial discourse. The subaltern is superficially identified as whole, within a specific debased native culture. This is idea is manifested in the bodily and personal wholeness of Safie. However, beneath the surface, the subaltern is swirling maelstrom of ideology, with native and foreign entities mixed. This concept is shown in the bodily and personal incongruity of the creature.

As the monster learns language, he believes that he is simultaneously getting a brief on the major history of the world. However, the perspective that he is receiving is diluted by multiple factors. First of all, the book of instruction is ‘Ruins of Empires’ written by Constantin Francois Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney, a French philosopher and historian. It is obvious just from the description that Volney is biased in favor of his cultivated Western forebears such as “the stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians; of the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans” (108). He is simultaneously biased against those that do not fit this mold, such as the “slothful Asiatics” (108) and the “hapless orginal inhabitants” (109) of the American hemisphere. A second level of dilution is exemplified by the fact that the book’s “declmatory style was framed in imitation of the eastern authors” (108). Volney is attempting to transpose a distinct style that is not truly his own: whatever the characteristics of eastern authors are, they must be different from Volney’s if he is trying to imitate them instead of writing naturally. Yet another level of dilution lies not only in the the fact that Felix had “given very minute explanations” (108) of what he was reading, but that he tailored these explanations to Safie, someone who had limited intelligence on the subjects. Felix probably filtered in some of his own viewpoints during his explanations, perhaps bolstering the reputation of those western cultures he deemed worthy while depreciating those that very not up to his standards, and emphasizing parts of the book that he thought important while maybe skipping the parts that he did not deem relevant, based on personal opinion and values.

All of these filters serve to reinforce the idea of the subaltern and the dominance of western/male/colonial cultures over the female/colnized. In this passage, there is no signifier that the monster has accepted anything other than what is being dictated. He remains passively in his hovel, swayed as Safie is swayed, to appreciate only what he is being exposed to. This submissive quality is characteristic among the subaltern, female figures, and colonized peoples. Felix, as the dominant male character in the scene, delivers the lines of the book and thus controls and asserts his dominance over the situation, symbolizing one with control over the subaltern, female figures, and colonized peoples. The multiple levels of perspective so dilute the truth that the monster has no choice but to take the submissive role:

1) Volney’s venertion towards these advanced Western cultures, and the monster’s identification with them both reinforce the idea that the monster is representative of the subaltern. Both place these cultures on a pedestal to be emulated, automatically lowering the way that the monster feels about his own status and allowing him to accept a position of subordination.

2) Volney’s attempt to imitate eastern authors, and the parallel desire of the monster to imitate the de Laceys, are both representative of the attempt of the colonized to imitate the colonizers. The colonized people, and the monster, both accept their ways of life as insignificant and reinforce their position as the lower and controlled subaltern as they attempt to rid themselves of their “unworthy” culture.

3) Felix’s unintentional insertion of his own values and tailoring of information to accomodate Safie’s deficits are both characteristics of the dominant male western colonizer. Both Safie and the womanly monster accept his views without question, bolstering his position and affirming their status as below his.

On a side note, the tiered viewpoint recieved by the monster also mirrors the frame narrative from which Margaret Saville receives the story of Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. Margaret could not be given a straightforward recounting of events, because she is a woman, and is thus inferior and unfit to know the manly version of events. It is not enough that Margaret and the monster receive an indirect telling of events; they receive this recount dispersed multiple times so that there are many chances for changes and interpretations. However, it does not matter that they don’t know the immediate truth, because they are merely the female colonized subaltern subjects of a male-dominant colonial society.

The Subaltern Speaks

When the creature learns about the various cultures of the world by eavesdropping on the De Lacey family, the lessons that he learns and the reaction that he had to the Native American’s downfall imply that the creature and Safi are both represented of the foreign, colonized subaltern.

The subaltern is, in Spivak’s terms, the lowest of the low in a society; much of the time the subaltern takes the form of women, or the colonized. In the episode of the De Lacey family, there are two foreign subalterns that are “fed” the ideals and beliefs of the European culture: Safi, the Turkish Christian woman, and the monster. It is important to note that neither one of the two learns the lessons of Volney’s “Ruin of Empires” directly; they are narrated to them by Felix, a male member of the colonizing society. The monster’s understanding – and Safi’s as well – is entirely based off of secondhand and potentially filtered lessons, “I should not have understood the purport of this book, had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations.” Without reading the book for themselves, Safi and the creature cannot form their own opinions on the subject and are therefore enslaved to the phallocentric discourse that the book and Felix are employing.

When the book comes to the tale of the Native Americans, Safi and the creature weep, “over the hapless fate of the original inhabitants” at the hands of the colonizers. Both subalterns were raised outside of the European colonizing culture of the time; Safi in Turkey, and the creature outside of any society at all. In hearing about the destruction of another culture due to the culture that the monster and Safi are currently in, they may have recognized that the Native Americans are much like themselves, subalterns to the European way. Despite his kinship to the Native Americans, the bias of Felix’s lessons do sink into the monster’s thought; he describes that the Asiatics are “slothful”, that the Greeks had “stupendous genius and mental activity” and the Romans possessed “wonderful virtue.” This acceptance of phallocentric thought ties into Spivak’s discussion of whether or not the subaltern can speak for themselves. Is the creature truly empathizing with the European notion of the Orient, or does it see the horror of colonialism reflected in the Native Americans? Both sides are reflected in the monster, and much like Spivak’s question, the answer is ambiguous. Safi and the monster are both reflective of the colonized subaltern because of the way they are taught about society, and the people that they empathized with.