Tag Archive: marxism


the creation

Finding it difficult to wrap my head around Marxist theory, I tend to defer to the experts. So when Warren Montag, in “The ‘Workshop of Filthy Creation,’” argues that the creation is “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability” (Montag 395), I’m inclined to believe him. And the more I think about it, this makes a lot of sense considering the confusing mishmash of emotions I’ve felt toward the creation.

The creation’s interaction with the portrait of Frankenstein’s mother illustrates what Warren Montag calls the “combination of pity and fear” (388) that the proletariat naturally elicits. The creation initially looks at the woman “with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips” (Shelley 127). The beauty of the elite bourgeois that Caroline Frankenstein represents contrasts starkly with the poor creation’s “dull yellow eye,” “dun white sockets” and “straight black lips” (60). In fact, this is likely what the creation remembers, as his joy quickly disintegrates and turns to rage, recalling, “I was for ever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow” (127). The ugly, poor, neglected creation is unique in that only he cannot receive affection from human beings. Important, however, is that this monstrosity is still capable of feeling delight and is even “softened and attracted” (127).

But why does any of this matter? Well, the creation declares, “I only wonder that at that moment, instead of venting my sensations in exclamations and agony, I did not rush among mankind, and perish in the attempt to destroy them” (127). This is the constant tension that underlies the relationship between the bourgeois and the proletariat. On one hand, the poor and neglected, like the creation, are at once sympathetic and pitiable, but on the other they are also capable of immense destruction and harm. In what Montag calls “a rural world dominated by scenes of a sublime natural beauty” (394), the creation sticks out as the singular entity of contradictions, a being of tenderness that can turn to rage in an instant. So why didn’t the creation go absolutely manic in that moment? Maybe there’s no way of knowing for sure. And maybe that’s the lingering uneasiness and obscurity of the unrepresentable proletariat.

After spending a large portion of his essay speaking on how Frankenstein’s creature is the embodiment of the proletariat, Warren Montag at the end of his ideas states that the creature actually represents the unrepresentability of the proletariat. I don’t fully agree with this change because the representation of the all of the proletariat in one powerful monster has meaning.

The monster has an incredible amount of power and strength. All his power however is channeled into avenging himself and this happens when he states, “No: from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me, and sent me forth to this insupportable misery” (122). The creature is a representation of the proletariat because although the proletariat had immense amount of power because of their numbers, their power was not used to change how the machine worked. They used their power to change how their cogs in the machine worked, and this reoccurs in almost every working-class revolt to date. Much like the working class, the monster, rather than changing the machine that views him the way it does, focuses instead on the immediate “issue” which he thinks would help to change his circumstances the most. His circumstances however would not change because he gained control of, or killed Victor. He would have still been seen as an ugly creature who could never amount to anything and only terrorized regular people.

With an overwhelming population like that of the proletariat, almost any law could be changed to suit their needs. This group almost always never uses that power however, because they focus on the short goal at hand, which normally is to change their current work situations. The monster in the same way, channels immense power into changing only one aspect of his life which in the long run, changes nothing.

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.

When Montag concludes the creature is, “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability,” he means that besides the creature simply symbolizing the proletariat, the creature at the same time reveals the inability to represent the working class as a singular, modern creation. The working class is a faceless, voiceless mass, while the creature most definitely has a face and a voice. I agree with Montag’s conclusion.

It’s easy to see how the creature and the working class equate. The creature’s telling of his story and his negotiations with Victor for a female could be interpreted as analogous to workers discussing their conditions and their desire for improved conditions. What’s harder to see is how that doesn’t exactly equate. The frame narrative offers more insight. The creature doesn’t directly tell his own tale. He relates it to Victor, who in turn relates it to Walton, who finally tells it to the reader. The frame narrative distorts the creature’s voice through the fact that his story is told through essentially his oppressors. As such, some of the creature’s statements and actions don’t quite seem to add up. For example, the creature says, “Boy, you will never see your father again; you must come with me” (126). From prior parts of his tale, we know the creature is eloquent. It doesn’t make sense that, if he’s trying to convince William that he’s not all that bad, the creature would say that. I would think he would continue to say things along the lines of his first statements to William: “I do not intend to hurt you; listen to me” (126). That would have been more convincing and more in-line with the arguments the creature makes to Victor.

However, we also don’t know for sure if that statement really has been distorted by the frame narrative. The creature could have said that because he was stressed, because he hadn’t had any positive experience with society, or because he was tired of the negative reactions. There are many possible explanations. This uncertainty also supports the idea that the creature cannot completely represent the working class. We can say that one explanation of the creature’s actions is more likely than another, however that explanation cannot apply to an entire group because the creature is an individual. A single individual cannot be an accurate depiction of an larger group.

Through critical Marxist techniques and theories of the sublime, the modern cultural duality of the Frankenstein myth may be explicated. This process is initiated by analysis of the main characters in Marxist terms. The creature in Frankenstein serves as the culmination of the bourgeoisie dream, long ago planted in the roots of society. Behind the façade of maintained societal sentiments such as “justice,” the elite have secretly plotted the overthrow of these same ideals. All of their silent manipulations have led up to this moment, in which they have planned to ascend to the helm of civilization as godlike beings, served by the created proletariat. As the manifestation of the bourgeoisie, Victor completes this process as planned, giving life to the monster.

However, something is deeply wrong with this entity. The proletariat and the monster were not naturally conceived in the womb, but in the mind; they have no ancestry, cobbled together from various decaying components, and forced into life by mysterious mechanistic means. Even Victor and the elite recognize the horror in such a filthy fabrication. They flee from their progeny, failing to use it as they intended. The ultimate result of this action is the suffering of all of society, expressed in the violence committed towards and by the creature. The true unnatural bourgeoisie construct is not just the proletariat class, but the hegemony of societal violence. Although they intended to rule their brave new world, all are enslaved instead by a different power, violence, expressed in the unending conflict of the creature and Victor as they hurtle towards their deaths.

The narrative inspires a great sympathetic response in the reader, as they conceive of the existential terror of the creature, and the horror of Victor in the consequences of his work. This sympathy leads to a more superficial level of the sublime, and also a realization of Montag’s “unrepresentability,” in the creature. By sympathizing with the Marxist metaphor presented, the reader perceives the invalidity of the proletariat construct, and the falseness of the capitalist symptom’s hegemony of violence, as it is unnatural and a source of terror and disgust. By understanding this invalidity, the reader also comprehends that the capitalist construct does not represent the societal ideal or even a natural creation process, and therefore leads to “unrepresentability.”

This significant realization of untruth leads to the formation of a fissure in the capitalist symptom. Behind the tattered edge, the deepest source of the sublime can almost be seen: the sublime object of ideology.  The reader begins to perceive that capitalist ideology does not reflect the “object,” which is the nature of reality. There is great awe and fear in realizing an incorrect way of viewing the real, and is therefore a great source of the sublime.

However, the capitalist symptom is not without power, even in the modern world. Like an oyster’s pearl, the ideological irritant is morphed by a smooth outer sheen. It cannot be completely removed because its sublime aspect is inherently attractive. This is the reason for the duality of the myth; it is too powerful to ignore, so it is sterilized into the common form as folk tale, which offers no threat to collapse capitalist ideology.

Longing for Humanity

In Frankenstein, the creature represents all of us and embodies our ultimate longing for humanity and acceptance. Because the creature can’t truly be depicted and his existence is shrouded in mystery through filtered narratives and descriptions, we come to sympathize with him. This sympathy, which is truly indicative of the sublime, thus makes sense when we confer our sense of awe and heap all our passions onto this creature. The creature was not originally bent on exacting revenge but only became a monster because of the dehumanization that he was subjected to by his creator Victor Frankenstein. The monster lies within us as the alienation and isolation that he experiences causes him to revolt and wreak havoc, so that others can understand his pain and misery. A simple creator-creation dynamic and capitalist-marxist dialectic fails to imbibe the essence of Frankenstein because it ignores the crucial betrayal of Justine, who represents justice and moral precision. While Justine typified neither capitalism nor Marxism, her betrayal by both Victor and the creature signifies the death of humanity. The monster becomes a caveat of what can happen to us when we lose our humanity, attempt to overpower nature, and fail to understand “the other” in our midst, whatever that may connote. The monstrosity that lurks within humanity is always there, but only becomes dangerous and revolutionary when we feel that humanity is incapable of understanding our thoughts, whims, and desires. Only when we become “the other” and are deemed to be abhorrent does the revolutionary aspect of this monster unleash itself. It attempts to undo the wrongs that have been perpetrated on it but ultimately induces terror and fear, sublime emotions. If the creature could be solidified or depicted, if its every thought could be ascertained and its role completely clarified, it would lose the universal sympathy aroused by our humanity. The logic of Marxism thus fails to explicate the meaning of the text, as the inversion of power between the proletariat and the capitalist, man and nature, and knowledge and ignorance doesn’t result in liberation of humanity, but utter destruction. Even though Warren Montag’s argument was perhaps presumptive in applying Marxist criticism, it was correct in stating that it would be foolish to assume that the novel had no contextual significance. The Romantic and Gothic genres both evoke the large landscapes, sense of vastness, and powerful mysticism inherent in Frankenstein. The Romantic and Gothic genres fuse with Shelley’s sociopolitical circumstances of the day to produce a work of art, which has a sense of organic unity that synthesizes elements of both the beautiful and the sublime. Hollywood’s greatest injustice then, may have been to transform such a complex and meaningful novel into a rather sensational science fiction thriller.

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.

The Fickle Boundary of Class

My review of my blog posts led me to the conclusion that Frankenstein’s monster is not so much the anti-thesis of society as it is an attack on the bourgeois social dynamic represented by Victor and Walton. The society that Mary Shelly attacks with the monster is the canonical sanctum of civilization that so very often represents the whole. Therefore the conflict in the novel is not defined by the Burke-an ideals of the human and the beast, but by the Marxist concept of class that, in some extreme conditions, transcends the petty boundaries of species.

For instance, a formal definition of society would include Victor, Walton and Justine in its ranks, and reject the Monster based on some abstract criterion for civility. And yet, ironic as it may seem, all these characters, at some time, experience solitude in their own way. Victor finds no parallel in intellect; Walton, none in curiosity; Justine, none in misery; and the Monster, none in, well, anything. And so no matter whose perspective the reader favors, a shared predicament means that all characters elicit some measure of sympathy. Curiously, however, both Victor and Walton find companionship in each other in the end, whereas the Monster and Justine exit the novel as alone as they had entered. Thus, this communal solitude erases one line and draws another.

Similarly, Justine and the Monster are both betrayed. Justine, by the prospect of reciprocated justice; and the monster by the prospect of reciprocated humanity. In one case it is Victor’s silence that seals Justine’s fate; in another, it is his impulsive disgust. And strangely, Walton’s journal does not contain any comments about his disapproval of Victor’s actions. It is worth noting that, again, on one side of this new line, Walton and Victor are in perfect harmony whereas the proletarian characters are suffering the consequences.

Having established that class division is a driving force, a question arises: Was not Victor too betrayed by his monster when his relatives and friends were murdered? Perhaps he was. However, both Victor and his Monster are appearing distinctly on the opposite ends of this class division that they consider synonymous with right and wrong. Who betrayed who is a matter of perspective. What matters is the fact that both sides evolve in parallel. Moreover, their evolution is triggered by the other side; a chain of causality that maintains the contextual relevance of both classes (that they are mutual anti-theses). Take for example, the monster’s evolution in response to victor’s rejection, or Victor’s vowed vengeance after his brother’s murder. Both the bourgeois and the proletariat need the other side to evolve and to justify their actions. Therefore in the paradoxical face of this mutual dependence that allows each side to proclaim absolute righteousness, the much more baser division of class starts to seem counterproductive. Had there been no class divisions, there would have been complete homogeneity that the bourgeois and the proletariat now only individually enjoy.

In a Marxist interpretation of Frankenstein, the monster is often akin too the lower class, pointing to its abused nature and its ability to overthrow its producer. Montag’s essay “The Workshop of Filthy Creation: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein” claims that the text deliberately ignores the implications of the toiling lower class and the industrial revolution, rendering the creature a “representation of the unrepresentable”. However, Montag’s argument ignores how the first-person narration of Frankenstein is flawed and can be picked apart by both the reader and the observing character Walton, demonstrating a cynicism of Frankenstein’s viewpoint and, by extension, his ignorance of the industrial revolution and lower class in general.

Montag brings up the “Hear him not” (178) line to indicate that Shelley would rather deny the lower class of a voice or presence. Upon seeing the creature, Walton is at first impressed by the creature’s tender response to Frankenstein’s corpse, but he then remembers the man’s words; tellingly, Frankenstein is mentioned directly in his thought: “I called to mind what Frankenstein had said of his powers and eloquence and persuasion,” (187). Walter’s reaction to the creature is not something naturally developed, but an artificial parroting of Frankenstein’s hateful words. Instead of being gagged by the text, however, the monster interrupts the explorer and begins speaking, not stopping until finished. For all his bluster, Walton is unable to stop listening to, and the reader is unable to deny the opinion of the creature, because it holds just as much legitimacy as Frankenstein’s ever did.

The creature’s narration actually addresses the current reality of Shelley’s day. The creature criticizes Walton’s perspective by comparing his own qualities with Felix the “rustic”, or a person from rural areas (188). Such a term only makes sense if the creature thinks of himself as different from rustic, as urban. Montag claimed that the urban is unnaturally absent from the text, but the creature is able to see it because of his status as a symbol of the proletariat. He is also attuned to the matter of capital. There is no mention of monetary obligations in Victor’s side of the story, but in the monster’s narration, Felix’s companion tells Felix about how he will be required to pay three weeks rent or lose his garden (123). As an embodiment of the those who have to fear such things as debt, the creature understands that such details cannot be excised from life. The use of these more worldly observations demonstrates that Shelley is aware of them and willing to use them in her text. She gives them to the creature instead of Frankenstein because Victor’s perspective is deliberately askew, emphasizing the conflict between the two.

Walton’s narration also indicates a disparity. At the beginning of the novel, he wishes to “satisfy my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited,” (28). He does not wish to remain in the dark about this class conflict at the center of the Marxist interpretation; rather, he wants to explore this relatively new conflict. This enthusiasm for new territories is combined with his desperate need for a friend or companion. Tellingly, he wants “a man who could sympathize with me,” (31). In other words, Walton wants a person who can tell him what he wants to hear rather than someone who can tell him something distinct. Frankenstein fills that gap with his incomplete narrative and Walter believes him when he encounters the creature, yet the explorer is still rendered silent by the monster’s honesty, demonstrating the superior perspective of Victor’s progeny. A reassuring lie like the one Montag suggests Shelley’s novel to be is let down before truth.

A Marxist interpretation must take into account a story’s context as Montag’s essay did, but in a novel with multiple narrative voices like Frankenstein, it can’t take the viewpoint of one character as the viewpoint of the author. His “unrepresentable” monster is only in Victor’s flawed mind; the monster, and the lower class it represents, is a real and significant factor that can’t be undermined.

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.