Tag Archive: proletariat


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.

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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.

I didn’t expect to see extreme class struggle in this novel, but looking at it closely, it now seems hard to miss. According to Warren Montag in his essay “The Workshop of Filthy Creation,” the unrepresentability of the proletariat is what the creature really  represents, not the actual proletariat itself. I agree that the only reason the monster “would no longer be a monster” (395) if the proletariat was present in the novel outside of the creature, but I don’t agree that he does not represent the presence of the proletariat in a significant way. Both the bourgeois and the proletariate are boiled down to one main entity: Victor as the bourgeois, and the creature as the proletariat. While Victor’s and Clerval’s families can all be seen as representing the bourgeois as well, they do so in such a passive manner as to be fairly negligible in the comparison. Victor, on the other hand, aggressively embodies all that is bourgeoisie.

When the creature entreats Victor to create for him a mate, Victor feels first compassion, and “sometimes felt a wish to console him,” but soon his “feelings were altered to those of hatred” (130). These are the same feelings as those of Montag’s “new elites” who found it necessary to utilize the proletariat to overthrow old regimes. At first perhaps sympathetic, they quickly grew to be resentful of the lower class who would block the new elites’ rise to power. The creature, on the other hand, is asking for similar things to the proletariat: “I shall…become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded” (130). Both characters mirror their respective class well, and in this passage at the very least, the creature represents the entire proletariat infused into one being, arguing for equality, acting as almost a spokesperson.

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.

Frankenstein and the Human Condition

The novel Frankenstein is plagued by myth and fallacy. At one time, I myself believed Frankenstein to be the monster and not Victor Frankenstein, his creator. The story is an interesting one, to say the least, and if taken at face value and only read to discredit the common myths, one might miss the greater underlying message. After some thought and an analysis of my previous blogs, I have come to the conclusion that Frankenstein is much more than the story of a mad scientist, his creation, and the ruthless murders the monster commits. If Frankenstein is interpreted through the analytical lens of theorists and radicals such as Burke and Montag, I cautiously conclude that Mary Shelley was attempting to portray the human condition embodied in the monster.

Shelley uses the monster to depict what theorists find common throughout humanity. One commonality characteristic of the novel and our human condition is the exclusion of the working class, or in Montag’s terms, the proletariat. Montag says the monster represents the unrepresentability of the working class because of the lack of a tangible proletariat group in the novel, yet this is also analogous to the absence of this same working class in our cultural media and society. By excluding the working class from her piece, Shelley is depicting the humanly, natural desire for success without work or hardship. Secondly, Shelly illustrates another aspect of the human condition: the co-existence of the sublime and beautiful, also seen in the monster. One would say the monster’s physical appearance is of the sublime, supernatural and gigantic in stature, and that the monster commits horrendous crimes in his pursuit of vengeance. However, the monster’s beauty is exemplified in his pursuit of sympathy. The monster seeks acceptance and an understanding from Victor Frankenstein, sympathy that Burke would argue to be natural and logical. The dual nature of the monster mirrors that duality seen in humans. For instance, after hearing Frankenstein’s narration of the monster’s murders, Watson has feelings of indignation towards the monster, yet simultaneously expresses sympathy on behalf of Frankenstein and his loss. One might see the duality of his emotions by categorizing Watson’s indignation as a characteristic of the sublime, and attributing his sympathy to beauty. Here Shelley is proposing that the dual nature of humanity is not atypical, and most certainly that the co-existence of the sublime and beautiful within one entity is a part of the human condition.

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.

The Dialectic of Marxism Gone Awry

In Frankenstein, the death of Justine Moritz serves as a crucial foil to the monster and plays an important role in the development of the plot. From a Marxist perspective, the monster represents the downtrodden masses, an underclass of proletariats who can only break this cycle of enslavement by revolution. The monster’s self-actualization thus serves as the class-consciousness that can organize and fight for its own interests. Justine’s death figures prominently in Marxist terminology because it challenges the very foundations of such an interpretation, one that rests upon a history of materialism. While Justine is a servant, she grew up with Victor Frankenstein, the scientist, and the Frankenstein family treated her with dignity and respect. Victor’s image, which is that of a ruthless capitalist, is thus shattered when we learn of the relative dignity she grew up with and the lack of exploitation or alienation from society. Her death bedevils the Marxist because according to such an analysis, revolution from below in which the proletariat unites to end the suffering to which they are subjected is the dialectic of history. Justine’s death changes this entire dialectic because she becomes a victim of Marxism, the very ideology that ostensibly claims to liberate her. Her death symbolizes Marxism gone awry, a revolution in which the persecuted end up becoming the persecutors. Edmund Burke, no fervent supporter of the French Revolution, said that such a revolution would only lead to a world “polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcasses” (pg. 71). Burke totally rejects the Marxist conception of Justine’s death and instead terms such a philosophy as part of the “great history-piece of the massacre of innocents” (pg. 73). While Marxism was supposed to liberate someone of her status, instead it ended up claiming her life. The monster, which symbolizes a noble proletariat rising up in Marxist terminology, wreaks havoc and destruction to destroy the very people it is seeking to represent. Burke would see Justine’s death as a wrongdoing, which explicates how revolution, initially conceived of favorably to the masses in order to rectify longstanding grievances, becomes increasingly bloody and leads to only more chaos and destruction. While Burke favored the gradual equalization of conditions in society, he would view the death of Justine as total injustice, something that would run counter to the tenets of an esteemed civilization. Perhaps he would best capture her death by saying, “All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination…are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion” (pg. 77). While these ideas promote Marxism might be praiseworthy in theory, in reality they would only lead to unmitigated bloodshed and insane brutality. Justine symbolized an innocent servant, one neither betrothed to capitalism nor Marxism, but a victim of both. While neither a slave nor part of the proletariat, her death ignites the larger dilemma of humanity in the novel. Justine would never have been executed had the monster not killed William, but her death could have equally been averted had Victor spoken out in her defense. Her death marks the death of humanity, something described as “savage and brutal” by Burke, in which the life of an ordinary, innocent citizen is taken away (pg. 80). This spearheads larger questions about the failure of Marxism to provide a remedy to the discontents of the proletariat, and shows the corrupting power of even the proletariat. In Marxist terms, the ruling class was overthrown only to result in a dictatorship of the proletariat, where even moderate, guiltless people are victimized.  

Justine’s public execution must therefore be seen solely as a tragedy. Marx claimed “all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (pg. 41). The execution of Justine, an innocent moderate who neither identified with the extremes of capitalism and Marxism, represents the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. During the Reign, opponents of the radical revolutionary government led by Maximilien de Robespierre were summarily executed and purged, ostensibly for being enemies of the revolution. The failure of Victor to defend Justine, and the creature’s conflicted view of Justine in which he realizes he will never have her beauty and that she’d treat him horribly just as Victor did, result in the death of a spotless human being. Because the French revolution, according to both Burke and Marx, was truly unique and the first of its kind, the period of political instability and terror that followed it was also truly unprecedented. While revolutions had indeed occurred before, nothing quite similar to the reign of Terror had ever occurred before. Marx said, “Earlier revolutions required world-historical recollections in order to drug themselves concerning their own content. In order to arrive at its content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must led the dead bury their dead” (pg. 43). The French revolution only brought change because the bourgeoisie was able to deny the dialectic of history, which necessitated that the oppressed class would always rise up against its capitalist persecutors. Because this dialectic had not been established, the capitalists were able to disguise their true intentions. However, the revolutions of the nineteenth century were able to use that dialectic to truly understand the actual intentions of the capitalist ruling class and were historically conscious in that sense. Therefore, the French revolution must be seen as a singular event in history, necessitating that we see Justine’s death as tragedy instead of farce. 

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.

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.