Tag Archive: french revolution


The fact that there have only been two posts since the most recent blog summary makes me review the semester in general and think of how much analysis we have dedicated towards the novel Frankenstein. We have explored different facets of literary criticism that have opened unique perspectives toward understanding the novel. For instance, earlier in the semester we learned of Edmund Burke and his theory on the concepts of beauty and sublimity and how the creature evokes the sublime out of the people it meets. This sublime, which represents “terror,” rugged,” “roughness,” and/or “massive” (C.P)– all terms that the creature embodies to or evokes from others– relates back to how society sees the creature and what that societal perception reveal about the era this novel was written in. Of course, early nineteenth century Europe was still reeling from the authoritarian Napoleon’s conquests, which stemmed from the failure of the early-1790s French Revolution, an event that shocked the higher classes of European society and renewed fears of lower-class uprisings everywhere. The author, Mary Shelley, herself was raised in the middle-class, and despite her parents being strong liberals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin she was fairly conservative in her views toward the lower-class, but still generally conflicted. She conveyed these contrasting views partially through a rough, rugged, horrific, gruesome representation of the lower-class, embodied by the creature, and also partially through the creature’s humanity and emotions. It possesses this identity due to the era’s identification of the lower-class with strongly negative, almost subhuman, characteristics and terminologies, and this identification is reflected on the creature, but the creature’s identity also contains a sense of humanity that makes it relatable in a human level.

The dehumanization of the lower-class is mirrored through the dehumanization of the creature itself. Its interactions with fellow humans were never cordial because of what the creature’s horrifying appearance made people do: run off or attack it. The sublime is in effect here as sublime emotions are rooted in pain and not pleasure (C.P). People saw the creature and they saw something subhuman in looks and mannerisms, which made them act in such a strongly negative way towards the creature: their efforts to always either run off or attack it indicate their viewpoint that the creature is a problem and should be treated as such. Not only subhuman, but a problem too. The era during which the book was written was fairly agreeable to such lower-class subjugation as seen through the creature, because of what the lower-class had done to the hearts and minds of much of the European upper-classes. The French Revolution’s impact on their collective psyche was significant, what with the long-established monarchy getting overthrown and arrested, King Louis XVI getting beheaded, and the complete failure of  initial populist aspirations as indicated by the Reign of Terror and subsequent authoritarian dictatorship in the reign of Napoleon. Mary Shelley, the author of the novel, shares a lot of the upper-class apprehensions towards the lower-class, being fairly mixed in her support towards lower-class rights, which was surprising given how liberal her parents were regarding the French Revolution. Knowing this family legacy, the novel could not only be a reflection of the era but a reflection of her conflicted views concerning the lower-class. Even though the creature is a horrifying sight and an anathema to society at large (much like the lower-class’ perceived position in society), she still gives it a strong sense of humanity through its very self-aware reflections and confessions towards its creator Victor (Shelley 95); such reflections evoked a true sense of sympathy towards the creature and its struggles. Shelley, to me, incorporates into the creature the era’s perception of the lower-class as well as a sense of humanity that gives the reader a potential emotional connection (so one can feel its pain) to it.

Frankenstein’s Rewarding Thematic Depth

From the outset of this class, before I began reading Frankenstein for the first time, my perception of the novel were skewed heavily by modern portrayals of the story as something archaic and camp with little deeper meaning or symbolic qualities. With actual exposure to the novel and with interpretive literary criticism applied in addition, I have found that there are a host of themes, motifs and symbols not are not only directly referenced and observed within the book through close reading, but are also inferred based on an understanding of the historical context.

In my past analyses from the blog posts, I have demonstrated a realization of the sheer literary depth that Frankenstein provides. The fact that a major development within the novel is the development of a human persona with respect to the creature is symbolic of an even broader theme that is concerned with the lack of humanity that society projects towards the downtrodden/lower-class/outcasts. The scene where the creature directly confronts Victor and begs for some understanding towards his own plight was the point where I initially saw the book in a different light. The novel made me switch my perception of Frankenstein and the humans; beforehand, I saw the creature for what it was portrayed to be by pop culture: vicious and soulless. With Victor and all other humans’ total rejection of the creature and lack of much sympathy for its unfortunate state, I came to see the humans as the soulless ones for not even giving the creature a chance.

With the incorporation of broader themes, including literary analysis that referred to historical context, I then saw this implementation of a sense of humanity within the creature as representative of the author’s intent to symbolize the downtrodden/lower-class/outcasts as the creature. The creature represented the unfortunate underclass of society, and the way it is treated in the novel strongly mirrors the way the lower-class was treated in that time period. I felt that it was an unflattering and unfair representation of the lower-class because of just how grotesque it was made to appear through the creature in the novel, as well as the fact that by localizing the lower-class to one creature, its influence in society is diminished significantly. The French Revolution probably had something to do with the marginalization of the lower-class in the novel, as its abject failure in establishing its idealistic ambitions resulted in tyranny and dictatorship. Given that this novel was written two decades after the Revolution’s conclusion, it seems to me that the author was intent on not just portraying the underclass’ downtrodden nature because it was the reality of the time period but also because that is what she believed their role and place in society should be. This kind of textual and thematic depth within the novel took me by complete surprise and made this one of the more personally rewarding readings in a while due to the discovery of such themes, both clear (and emotionally visceral, with respect to the creature’s humanity) and hidden.

The character of the creature is exquisite in the rawness of its humanity, and this has implications that transcend mere sentimentality. Existing outside the social order of things, his efforts to define his own place in society result, time and time again, in what seems to be an unmovable rejection from the human world.

What has become increasingly apparent is that it is not humanity that is rejecting the creature, so much as it is society. Making this fine distinction helps to reconcile the creature’s obvious humanity with his constant rejection by people, and helps to better settle the novel within a historical and sociopolitical context. It is important to consider, specifically, that a defining element of the creature’s humanity is his desire to grasp control of his predicament. What is tumultuous about this seemingly natural desire is that it exists independently from a place in society, and thus fails to be fulfilled. Society’s unbending rejection of the creature can therefore be viewed as commentary on the social structure of the time, one that is, at its core, not about reflecting humanity but about controlling it. It is not difficult to see the creature’s fight against his banishment from society as analogous to the unrest of the proletariat underneath the unbending social order that characterized the times. But what’s especially interesting to consider is how Frankenstein responds to his own creation. Unwilling to see the creature as anything more than an abomination, Frankenstein seeks, throughout the novel, to deny the creature as something that even requires controlling, even as the shockwaves of the creature’s existence cause enormous tumult in Victor’s life. Earlier in the novel, for instance, he returns to his home to find the creature missing, and rather than enter panic mode, he can “hardly believe that so great a good fortune could have befallen [him]…” (63). In fact, until his little brother is killed, Victor doesn’t think about the consequences of the creature’s existence in the outside world and within society. Later, at the trial of Justine Moritz, Victor is tortured by his own guilt and rage, but suppresses these feelings because to give in to them would mean putting the creature in a position of power. He refuses to allow it, and in the process, Justine is convicted and justice disintegrates.

What is reflected simultaneously by Victor, the creature, and the events that unfold around them, is a divide between society and humanity that rises not only from the creation and rejection of the monster, but the resultant turmoil as the creature tries to control its own place in society. So, as much as the creature’s rejection seems to be a criticism of the class structure and society, the ensuing chaos, when cast in the light of a historical context, is also a reflection on the ruthless nature of the French Revolution. The fact that the creature, in the end, dies next to his creator, thus failing to define his own destiny, is a powerful comment on the dissolution of humanity in revolution, a failure of the revolution to live up to its own ideals. 

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a deep text with many more elements to it that I had never considered, and would probably never consider before dissecting it in this class. One of those considerations is how the monster and his actions can be connected to the French Revolution.

In the context of writers such as Edmund Burke, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, many seemingly minor passages of the novel – such as the execution of the former servant to the Frankenstein family, Justine – take on a whole new importance. If Justine’s death is supposed to represent the “death” of Justice in the French Revolution, then the creature must be representative of the thing that killed Justice: the revolution itself. From a Marxist perspective, Dr. Frankenstein can be interpreted as the wealthy elites, sculpting an amalgamation of men (the monster) like the proletariat, which he rejects and subsequently despises. In this same interpretation, it is easy to see that the creature could be symbolic of the Revolution itself; a monster regretfully created by the wealthy that leads to the destruction of Justice and the eventual downfall of the people that created it. Like the kings of France, Dr. Frankenstein had no intentions of creating a monster from his activity; it was an unintentional product of satisfying a thirst, power and wealth for the kings, but knowledge for Victor. The monster itself shares many traits with the revolutionaries, such as their combat against a being that left them in their current state, yet did nothing to alleviate them from it. Like the Revolution the monster’s intentions were good, but it soon escalates into violence once the initial goals aren’t immediately met, shown in the murders of Justine, Clerval, and Elizabeth.

By looking at the monster through a scope that incorporates both Marxist philosophy and historical context, a possible symbol for the creature emerges, a symbol of good intentions gone bad and of a Revolution that shook the world.

While only a few of the details of this argument were actually in my previous posts, thinking about them and synthesizing other ideas from class led to a new interpretation. Frankenstein can be read as an explanation of how the French Revolution was a failure and not a true revolution. Namely, the bourgeoisie manipulated the proletariat as they would a commodity in order to create a bourgeoisie society in the name of the proletariat. This created a bloodbath much like the monster creates when he finds out he has been wronged. Frankenstein here is the bourgeoisie, while his monster is both the proletariat and a commodity formed by the bourgeoisie.

The monster as the proletariat is a popular view among Marxist critics, but many interpretations ignore the parallels between his creation and the creation of commodities. Like the rest of the novel, the sections before and after the creation are rife with details. The reader is bombarded with details of the creature’s appearance (such as his proportional limbs and “yellow skin scarcely [covering] the muscles and arteries beneath”) and Victor’s own feelings (“anxiety” mixed with “enthusiasm”), but there is no mention of the actual process of the monster’s creation (Shelley 60). The creature’s means of production are hidden, much like commodities are in capitalist societies (Parker 215). This makes him not just the proletariat, but a commodity as well.

The status of the creature as a commodity reflects the manipulation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie in the French Revolution, a manipulation in order to perform “the task of releasing and setting up modern bourgeois society” (Marx 24). The French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, meant to increase their power, not one for the proletariat. The story reflects this, with Frankenstein creating life just because he could, to satisfy his own ego. It is when he shuns the creature that the horror of the story starts.

By creating life but not accepting his creature, Frankenstein suffers the same turmoil that France did when its bourgeoisie attempted its revolution without the bourgeoisie. Death and suffering took over. Many bourgeois former leaders of the revolution were killed in the Reign of Terror, and many of Victor’s bourgeois family and friends were killed by the creature. But we sympathize with the creature precisely because he has been manipulated. Just as the French Revolution did not truly represent the interests of the proletariat, the interests of the creature were not accounted for by his creator. He is left alone, and thus he becomes the sympathetic figure. His creation has failed him much like the French Revolution ultimately failed the proletariat.

Here’s a full pic of our completed in-class graphic idea map.  Students can use it as a study guide to help them prepare for the blog summary due next week.  The green color is for William Godwin, the red for Edmund Burke, and the blue for Mary Wollstonecraft.

We’re making steady progress in our historicist analysis of the Justine episode in Frankenstein.  Please feel free to comment on students’ impressive idea map.

 

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The wrongful execution of Justine serves as a symbolic backdrop for the corruption of good. What Justine represents is a pure, well-intentioned spirit who, when constantly pushed to a corner by negative outside forces, cannot help but cave in. She mentions to Elizabeth how she did confess to killing William, but only out of duress and fear; “ever since [she] was condemned, [her] confessor had besieged [her]; he threatened and menaced, until [she] almost began to think that [she] was the monster that he said [she] was” (Shelley 83). What we have here is a clear case of someone who, while innocent and well-intentioned, could not think ahead to see just exactly what she was sacrificing by letting the negative attacks affect her. The sheer gravity of a murder charge, with its punishment of execution, eventually became secondary to the vicious corruptive influence of her confessor, in Justine’s mind. She took his words to heart more than the truth that lay within her due to just how convincing and insistent he was. The confessor even started to “threaten excommunication and hell fire in [her] last moments, if [she] continued obdurate” (Shelley 83). Punishment in the afterlife for something she didn’t do, but something that her confessor convinced her to believe. Such compelling words, added to the fact that there was “none to support [her]; all looked on [her] as a wretch doomed to ignominy and perdition” (Shelley 83-84). This just demonstrates the sheer power of the people around you: she was swayed to conform to what everyone else believed, despite the complete falsehood of such beliefs. She, as a result, lies to herself, and her pure innocence is ruined.

This is a strong corollary to the death of justice and ideological purity during the French Revolution. Good intentions and aspirations were what fueled the start of the Revolution, with the rise and empowerment of the poor, downtrodden Third Estate and the subsequent goal of securing equality and justice under the law. William Godwin aspires to see this occur as much himself, as he states in his 1793 Enquiry Concerning Political Justice: “To the general mass of the adherents of equality… if there be any force in the arguments of this work, we seem authorized to deduce thus much from them, that truth is irresistible. Let then this axiom be the rudder of our undertakings” (Godwin 789). Note how very non-forceful and non-threatening he is with stating his personal opinions by stating how there is, above all, only one “force” in his work which calls for special attention. This tone of his indicates how he wants the reader to be eased in comfortably to his opinions. His conviction that “truth is irresistible” is undoubtedly a tenet that justice strives to uphold, and a tenet that poor Justine could not uphold herself. She was swayed by negative outside forces, and so was the Revolution itself. His hope that truth’s irresistible nature would lead to it always being championed and protected, that it would be the “rudder,” the fuel to people’s fire, sadly is not the case, due to simple human fallibility. Sure, truth as an ideal should in theory always be defended no matter what the circumstances are, but circumstances definitely do matter. Justine’s circumstances– she was lonely, with everyone around her condemning her about what she allegedly did, and with a corruptive confessor by her side, constantly feeding her lies– shook her inner core, to the point where she could not help but be swayed in the end. The same goes for what happened to the French Revolution: the noble ideals championed at the outset of the Revolution soon gave way to extremist influences, with truth and justice eventually being discarded, giving way to tyranny, with the Reign of Terror being a good example of that. Proper truth and justice, and those championing it, were drowned out by the surge of radicals. The inner core of the Revolution was thus corrupted, much like poor Justine, and Justine’s as well as Godwin’s best intentions were left unfulfilled.

            From a Marxist perspective one might expect Justine to take on the standard role of the oppressed proletariat that is unjustly and indiscriminately executed for the crimes of the monster. However, after reading The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Justine can be examined as another construct. Justine herself does not represent any specific facet of society, but rather her execution serves as the catalyst for the rise of Victor Frankenstein. Prior to Justine’s arrest, Frankenstein was still a figure of ideals, and viewed the world as black vs. white, good vs. evil. Victor embodied this well-ordered ideal and it expressed itself through his actions; the reader can clearly determine Victor’s morals, and more importantly, he sees himself as good. But Victor’s cold albeit pragmatic refusal to help Justine, simply on the basis that it would be futile. Thus, the clearly demarcated morals of Victor’s world are fuddled, and Justine’s execution leads to the rise of Victor from a naïve idealist to a vengeful pragmatist.

            In many ways the rise of Bonaparte and his bureaucracy mirrors that of Victor Frankenstein. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx notes that the “overthrow of parliamentary republic [led to] the victory of Bonaparte” (48). Bonaparte as a singular identity represents the proletariat triumph, but he himself could not rise without the downfall of the previous structures of state, which were all permutations of the same ideal: the government “was the instrument of the ruling class, however much it strove for power of its own” (49). Thus, Marx explicitly states that the old idealistic parliamentary government is simply not suited for the proletariat, and thus it must be completely eliminated. The old government is essentially sacrificed, which serves as the catalyst for, an otherwise mediocre form of government to assume dominance. It must be noted that the new government was still quite under the control of the elite, as the segment of government meant to control them was easily bribed, but in principle this form of bureaucracy was “completely independent”.

Justine Moritz’s trial and execution are explored carefully over several pages in Frankenstein, commanding the reader’s attention to the treatment of justice in this scene, even as it involves a seemingly minor character. In a particularly powerful moment, Justine finishes testifying before the court and seems almost immediately to acknowledge and accept the direction of the trial: “I commit my cause to the justice of my judges, yet I see no room for hope. I beg permission to have a few witnesses examined concerning my character; and if their testimony shall not overweigh my supposed guilt, I must be condemned, although I would pledge my salvation on my innocence.” (Shelley 81)

What we see here is a sort of self-abandonment in the acceptance of the law – To Justine, it represents something that is absolute, and in a way, faultless. Although she knows she is innocent, she believes in the certainty of the law, and this belief is manifested in her decision to confess to the crime she did not commit. We can gather from Justine’s confession and her trial as a whole, that enforcing the law and enacting justice are separate to such a degree that judges act solely on their own “harsh unfeeling reasoning” (Shelley 85) in accordance with the law – so powerful is this separation that it even soaks through to the individual level, where it compromises freedom from personal guilt and responsibility.

Based on Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790, it seems he would have a mouthful to say about this as well. In particular, he makes the point that the core values of the revolution undermined sentiment, and lacked an element of humanity. On pages 76-77, Burke states that “This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the antient chivalry…if it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great… All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.”  Through the lens of this particular quote, we can see that Burke would identify Justine/justice as a tool of the law, rather than a guiding light, to be molded according to reason over human sentiment – and since, as Burke says, the “reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place”, what we observe is that law has an unnatural and absolute power, and “we have no compass to govern us.” (Burke 78). Placed in the context of his entire argument in Reflections, the implication of such a philosophy is a regression of humanity and society into total anarchy.