Tag Archive: montag

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.

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.

Where Montag Went Wrong

Yes, I attend Vanderbilt and am enrolled in a critical thinking and thought provoking course, Introduction to Literary Criticism. Therefore, you might be led to believe that the level of education I am receiving and my assumed intelligence would allow me to understand and thoroughly dissect essays such as Warren Montag’s “Workshop of Filthy Creation.” In the utmost honesty, I cannot say I have succeeded in fully understanding Montag’s argument or the value in examining Frankenstein through the lens of Marxist criticism. However as the determined, committed, and persistent Vanderbilt student I am, I have attempted to critique an element of Montag’s stretch at deeming the monster as “a sign of the unrepresentability of the proletariat.”

In my opinion, Montag’s argument is contradictory within itself. The idea that the monster is “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability” is hugely problematic to the idea that the monster makes “explicit identification with the working class.” I believe it safe to declare the working class as the majority pool within modern society. If so, I am failing to understand the unrepresentability of the mass proletariat that the monster supposedly embodies. Montag suggests that this unrepresentability stems from the absence of a identifiable working class in the novel Frankenstein, and that as a lone entity representing the proletariat, he draws more attention to the lack of one in the novel. However, if the monster, the proletariat, is representative of the masses, I would say that the proletariat is anything but unrepresentable. If one is to view Frankenstein through a Marxist lens and suggest that the “Frankenstein-monster” or “creator-creation” relationship is a parallel to our modern society and economy, then the monster, a representation of the mass majority working class, is far from unrepresentable because of the huge percentage of the population that he epitomizes. The monster affirms his association with the subservient class on page 109 of Frankenstein saying, “But I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property,” traits stereotypically characteristic of the working class. If modern society is identified and arguably sustained by this working class and its labor, how can Montag venture to deem this class unrepresentable? I  would say that our identity as an economy and society lies within the  existence of this class, and that the culmination of individual identities fabricate this idea of a proletariat. To question the representability of the proletariat would essentially question the representability of a mass part of society and those individuals within this proletariat, undoubtedly a controversial matter.

In the novel, the creature finds itself with little solace in anyone or anything. From the very start, it is ostracized heavily and shunned by everyone it encounters. Human hostility, and more specifically Victor’s own hostility, to the creature is an example of a deeply entrenched social hierarchy– a group with material possessions; family; friendship; essentially, features that reinforce their status as the dominant class (Victor/humanity) over a weaker group that is much less benefited in society (the creature). The dynamic between Victor and the creature defines this class struggle most clearly, as Victor is a well-educated middle class capitalist with a middle class family he loves and middle class friends, like Henry Clerval, he cherishes (and weeps heavily for when Clerval and several family members are murdered by the creature). Compare this relative assortment of riches to the creature, who unfortunately has absolutely none of what Victor has, not even basic compassion nor respect from anyone. The novel makes a connection between the urban lower-class proletariats of the era and the creature and concurrently devotes little narrative focus and few depictions to the former in order to magnify the grotesque nature of the latter (grotesque features = the lower-class of society). When Warren Montag states that the creature is “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability” (395), I agree because of the gross oversimplification the novel makes in caricaturing a whole class of people into a repulsive figure, as well as how it makes the connection and representation through a blatant omission of any focus/attention at all towards that whole class of people. It is unrepresented through what is supposed to be its representation.

As Montag writes in “The ‘Workshop of Filthy Creation’: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein,” the aforementioned dynamic in the novel is driven by how the novel chooses to focus and overlook certain features of society. The urban proletariat underclass of society, as well as lower-class urban life in general, is barely mentioned, and this magnifies the creature’s plight because he most identifies with the disadvantaged urban proletariat lower-class. “Frankenstein’s monster is finally not identified with the working class of Mary Shelley’s time but with its absence” (395), Montag states, and this is reinforced by the novel’s focus on Victor’s middle-class lifestyle, family, love of education, time spent at universities, and “frequent portraits of natural vistas and rural scenes” (394). “No significant descriptions of the urban world” (394) are given, most glaringly concerning London, a city going through “a time of explosive growth and development [but] is not described at all although [Victor] and Clerval passes ‘some months’ there” (394). The fact that these guys spend months in such a booming city with no descriptive imagery, nothing even close to how the novel lushly depicts rural landscapes, indicates that this is an intentional oversight of detailing urban proletariat life. We as readers live in and follow Victor’s bubble of middle class living and the middle class friends, family, aspirations, interests, and lifestyle that are all associated with him. That is, until the creature comes along who, in the midst of our near-total absorption into Victor’s middle-class perspective, is “the sole embodiment of the industrial in an otherwise rural world, and this is the source of his monstrousness” (394). The creature even “makes explicit his identification with the working class” (394) at certain points in the novel to affirm the embodiment. The creature is so monstrous due to how different it is to Victor’s middle class world, which is, as previously stated, the main focus and viewpoint of the novel. Montag couldn’t have said it any better: “The narrative precisely suppresses all that is modern in order to render [the creature] inexplicable and unprecendented” (395). If the urban proletariat underclass was given any significant narrative attention in the novel, it would make the creature less grotesque due to more grotesque ilk like him around; this conclusion is reached purely based on how the novel “links the image of the monster to the industrial proletariat: an unnatural being, singular even in its collective identity, without a genealogy and belonging to no species” (395). The creature is thus almost like a dehumanizing figure with respect to the lower-class proletariats, with it simply representing “the mass [of urban industrial lower-class people] reduced to the absolute singularity of Frankenstein’s creation, which is therefore not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability” (395). The lower class is not truly represented here because of the way it is portrayed.

Bursting forth from the industrial revolution like Athena out of the head of Zeus (and both producing headaches for their progenitors), the proletariat is an undefinable group, and was even more so two hundred years ago when the concept of “factory workers” was new and Marxian theory had yet to be invented. People were once sharecroppers, growing their own food and buying their items from local craftsmen; now, they were assembly line workers, sewing together pieces of garments as their previous self-definitions unraveled, while the flourishing bourgeoisie lorded over them with what I always imagined to be accents like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOt62cT2teY

And while the fat cats toasted “to industry!” the proletariat suffered.

People like Mary Shelley, while not a factory worker herself, were acutely aware of the societal changes and class stratification that was occurring. While Shelley may not have written Frankenstein as an overtly Marxist text, the historical and socioeconomic milieu of the time still finds it’s way into the text. No one writes in a vacuum; surrounded by revolution, class turmoil, and the industrial revolution, her work was informed by this, and Warren Montag’s Marxist interpretation of Shelley’s work brings these influences to light.

Montag concludes his essay by stating that the Creature is “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability”, a sentiment that I agree with. The Creature is the inexplicable product of science, not Victor, just as the proletariat is the inexplicable product of industrialization. On page 391 of our text, Montag states that technological innovation will lead to “a new kind of servitude”. What he implies but doesn’t state is that a society governed by unbound scientific progress will stratify into an elite class of technocrats and a lower class of their workers. In the end, it is science that creates and enslaves the Creature, not Victor. Victor was merely a vessel for what would inevitably happen. My mind immediately jumped to the burgeoning technology industry of today — programmers, marketers, and math whizzes making billions of dollars in Silicon Valley through their scientific expertise. They seem to be enlightened, but they too subject workers in Chinese manufacturing plants to horrid conditions just as British textile mill overseers subjected their workers to long hours with little pay. For all their knowledge, it has not given them reason. Workers are still enslaved, obscured by geographic and cultural barriers in the same sense that the Creature is obscured by Frankenstein’s telling of the story. This is reflected at the end of Frankenstein, as even after Victor’s death, the Creature is still his slave, being condemned to a life of solitude and death among the polar ice. In this way, a Marxist reading of Frankenstein gives the text new life, and makes it incredibly relevant to our time.