Tag Archive: society


The Distortion of the Frame Narrative

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.

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Exulting in Death

The last two paragraphs of Frankenstein give a stark description of the effects of intense and prolonged social rejection on an individual. Social rejection has the potential to emotionally pain a person so badly that they feel the emotional pain far outweighs any physical pain or fear of death. “Sad and solemn enthusiasm,” seems to be quite a contradiction. Normally, “enthusiasm” would be associated with words like “excitement,” “happy,” and “joy.” In most contexts, enthusiasm is a positive looking-forward to something. However, the creature’s enthusiasm is for his death. If he ever feared death, he no longer fears it now. He looks forward to it. The creature also says he will, “exult in the agony of the torturing flames.” “Exult” is another word with normally positive connotations, and “agony” and “torturing” normally has negative connotations. The pairing of these contradictory connotations reveals the creature has truly lost his desire for life, and that he will only find joy or happiness in death.

The creature’s existence has become painful to him. Exacting revenge against his creator was not enough to make up for the fact that society completely and utterly rejected him. That rejection is so painful that the creature wants to, “ascend [his] funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames.” “Torturing flames” could be taken as a reference to hell, which would imply that the creature would be happier in hell than on Earth. A more literal interpretation would be the creature’s cremation. However, the creature doesn’t have anyone to light his funeral pile for him after his death. Therefore, if he truly desires and plans to revel in the flames, he has to light the fire himself. He will have to burn himself alive. The pain of rejection by society and his creator is as or even more intense than being burned alive. Because he has been shown repeatedly that he has no place, the creature desires death.

The creature perceives its reflection differently when its talks about it on different times. However, an interpretation of the Creature’s monologue requires an understanding of the Oedipal dynamics at play in its frame of reference. The Creature wants a union, so to speak, with the isolated bubble of civilization depicted by the DeLacey family. However its desire is repressed by the judgment of Society as a whole that seems to the Creature as the arbiter of its fate. The very same overbearing and judgmental society governs the DeLacey family (as the creature finds out through Felix’s and Safie’s letters). So in the end, all the Creature desires is a severance of the connection between the DeLaceys and society and its judgment (which resonates with the father and the Father’s No), so that it may find its way to fulfillment without hindrance.

When the Creature first sees its reflection (p.104), it has just taken refuge from the overwhelming rejection it faced in the towns. The creature knows that it is undesired, but is in the dark when it comes to the reason. This blindness, so to speak, puts the creature in an uncanny atmosphere. But then over the course of time it observes and so learns the DeLaceys’ perception of beauty (which is the same for the society, for the most part). And then, equipped with some cognizance of aesthetics, when it sees its double in the water, the Creature for the first time realizes the reason behind its rejection. Even though the Creature’s encounter with its “double” is not strictly the Freudian understanding of the concept (that a double embodies unacceptable desires/notions suppressed by the ego), the effect on the Creature’s conscious mind, be it from the resurgence of desires or merely from their apparition, is the same. Thus, the Creature, realizing that it is incompatible for the union it so desires, is filled with “despondence and mortification”. Therefore the creature’s disgust is born of frustration, and not of surrender to the whims of its Uncanny Double.

As the Creature spends time observing the DeLaceys, it matures. It learns to speak and read, and peruses several works on history and philosophy. It is almost as if the creature is in denial. The train of its thoughts stays clear of its depressing deformities for the most part of a year. It lives its life through Agatha, Felix, their father and Safie. However, after reading “Paradise Lost”, the creature is faced with the inequality between itself and another creation: Adam. This comparison, coupled with the creature viewing its reflection forces it in the uncanny position of facing its very recent but infantile past. However, the creature, now indoctrinated in the ways of men, is under the influence of the Super-Ego reserved only for members of society. And so when it labels itself a ” wretched outcast” (p.118), it is because the creature’s biased sources of education have left it no alternative.

In some cases, ignorance is bliss indeed.

Society and Humanity in Revolution

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. 

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.

If Justine is to be considered the anthropomorphism of Justice, then her unfair trial and death is as ironic as irony can get. Her conflict with the jury is a classic example of the conflict between the actual and the assumed interpretation of the concept. Justice is “all benignity” as Godwin puts it (p. 790), and not “brutishness and inflexibility” as the adherents to the cause of Justice believe. And so Justine remains loyal to the Godwin-ian view of fairness, in all its inevitability and reliance on the “private conviction of individuals” (p. 790), until the very end. When Justine is being tried, she relies on the “great instrument of justice, reason” (Godwin, p.790) and rests her innocence on a “simple explanation of the facts” (Frankenstein,p.80). She lends support for her defense from her past (p.81) by calling character witnesses, in analogy to Godwin’s proposition that history eventually manifests as a fundamental, reformative truth that gives way to Justice.

It can be concluded that Justine embodies the Utopian view of fairness that is a gradual but a voluntary endeavor, as opposed to a violent shift in the social paradigm. That being said, we see that Justine is an isolated character. She has suffered the loss of family, a mentor, and a ward and the hatred of a mother and her society. She has no support. Victor is silent. Even Elizabeth’s support is fickle (p.83, para 2). Justine refuses Elizabeth’s offer to “melt the stony hearts of [Justine’s] enemies” (p.84) and instead resigns herself to her sentence. Her passiveness makes her seem almost like an instrument of fate; like Justice embodied offered to the masses: an ephemeral shortcut to social equilibrium, as Godwin thinks of fairness, just ripe for the taking.

Justine’s exit so early in the novel signifies that true Justice based on logic and reason will play no part in resolving the novel’s conflict. Victor’s inaction despite his knowledge of Justine’s innocence perhaps foreshadows the balancing injustice of the Creature’s survival. In all cases, Justine’s death is a result of “a mistake of [justice’s] adherents” in understanding the true meaning of fairness. And just like this “mistake” is a wrinkle, an anomaly, in the grand scheme of justice, so perhaps will be the resolution of Frankenstein’s conflict.

 

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.

Like man at birth, the creature at his creation is a tabula rasa, enveloped in darkness and fueled by primal instincts until, inch by inch, he begins discovering the world around him, in both its human and its natural forms. It is then, at his most infantile stage of life and discovery, that the creature’s humanity is at its rawest and most profound, bubbling and taking shape beneath his unnatural shell.

Soon after the creature takes up residence next to a family living in a cottage, he forms a connection to them not by idolizing the beauty of their lives, but by witnessing the humble sadness that surfaces from time to time:

“They were not entirely happy. The young man and his companion often went apart, and appeared to weep. I saw no cause for their unhappiness; but I was deeply affected by it. If such lovely creatures were miserable, it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched. Yet why were these gentle beings unhappy? They possessed a delightful house (for such it was in my eyes) and every luxury; they had a fire to warm them when chill, and delicious viands when hungry; they were dressed in excellent clothes; and, still more, they enjoyed one another’s company and speech, interchanging each day looks of affection and kindness. What did their tears imply? Did they really express pain? I was at first unable to solve these questions; but perpetual attention and time explained to me many appearances which were at first enigmatic.” (102)

The creature seems confused by this dimension of pain in human existence, one that he had never before considered. His  sympathy for the family is an especially thought-provoking one due to its primitive and naïve nature. He feels it despite his lack of understanding; he is unable to see “[any] cause for their unhappiness”, yet he is “deeply affected by it”. This is a turning point for the creature: Before stumbling upon their humble abode, his only interactions with mankind were marred by the human ability to inflict pain. And, at the beginning of his silent existence next to the family, he saw only peace, beauty, and music. This realization, then, that pain can find its way even into the hearts of those whom he fears and revers, gives him pleasure as much as it confuses and disturbs him. “If such lovely creatures were miserable,” he says, “it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched.” Thus, their pain is his momentary salvation: he recognizes his connection to humankind, and is no longer so miserably alone. This passage thus reflects Edmund Burke’s theory in A Philosophical Enquiry that “…we have a degree of delight…in the real misfortunes and pains of others…if [sympathy] was simply painful, we would shun with the greatest care all persons and places that would excite such a passion.” (42-43)

A source of tension arises, of course, when we consider that he is, at this point, the only one who acknowledges his own connection to the family and to society at large. While at first, sympathy empowers him as a being in the sphere of human existence, the element of human interaction is missing, and the heightened sense of awareness of his own suffering is left to fester and deepen in the face of rejection by society. If we look carefully at the role of nature in the creature’s narrative, it would seem that the text foreshadows this tension from the beginning. To both Victor and the creature, nature always seemed to represent solitude, a separation from society; but while Victor sought refuge in this solitude, the creature feared it. Throughout his days spent alone in the mountains, his only source of joy was the light – the moon, the sun, the fire – that warmed him and saved him from the oblivion of night. In a particularly powerful moment, the creature discovers fire for the first time: “In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” (97) Similarly, the joy he feels basking in the glow of human company and connecting to human beings seems at first to assuage his despair, but as he inches closer and closer to a society that will not accept him, his sense of fulfillment is paired to an inevitable sense of loss and pain when he is left in solitude once more, an eternal solitude that contradicts, as Burke puts it, “the purposes of our being…”(40). Eventually, the sense of something missing overpowers and poisons the victory of something gained, serving only to augment his isolation and rage as the novel goes on.  Perhaps, then, he would have been better off in the darkness.

Sympathy in Frankenstein

For next Wednesday (1/30), write a blog post that applies Edmund Burke’s theory of sympathy to ONE particular passage in Frankenstein.  Please take the time to practice your close reading skills.  File your post under the category “Sympathy, Art, and Society” and don’t forget to create tags.

To help you with this post, here are 5 close reading guidelines worth considering:

1. Note key words or phrases that repeat in that passage.

2. Look for irony, paradox, ambiguity, and tension.

3. Note those words or phrases that seem odd or out-of-place.

4. Note any important symbols, motifs, and themes.

5.  Is there anything missing from the text that should be there?