Tag Archive: unrepresentability


by Steven Gonzalez

In “The Workshop of Filthy Creation: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein by Warren Montag, Montag draws parallels from the French and English Revolution to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  One of the most compelling comparisons I found in Montag’s essay is the comparison of the “new elites” having to mobilize the “plebian” masses in the attempt to overthrow absolutist monarchies and Victor Frankenstein’s creation of the creature in the novel. Eventually, Montag comes to the conclusion that “Frankenstein’s creation, is therefore not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability.” Ultimately, I agree with Montag’s Marxist reading of the novel as throughout the novel that there are undeniable similarities between Frankenstein’s monster and the proletariat.

Frankenstein’s monsters’ similarity to the proletariat and their “unrepresentability” is best depicted in the passage on page 109 beginning with ” I learned that…” and ending with “… all men fled and whom all men disowned?” Initially, the monster describes the possessions that humans find “most esteemed” and in the following sentence discusses how without either of the two possessions he describes (high unsullied descent and riches) men are seen as a “vagabond or slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few!”(Shelley 109). This statement clearly carries an allusion to the proletariat through the lack of socio-economic status and the arduous and forever-lasting journey to obtain it; The exclamation point following the last statement as well as the choice of words of like vagabond and slave carry some sort of resentful tone further showing the monster’s self-identification with the proletariat. In the following sentence, the monster depicts himself as being innocent and ignorant creating a sort of  sympathetic mood much like one would expect the proletariat would do stating, “Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant, I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property.”(Shelley 109). Then, the monster uses loaded words associated self-hatred and pity mirroring the mindset of people with nothing to lose like the proletariat often experience; the phrases the monster used to describe himself being ” hideously deformed”, “loathsome”, and ” I was not even the same nature of man.”Next, is perhaps the most significant line relating to Warren Montag’s argument of the creature representing the proletariat’s unrepresentability in the novel; After describing himself as this poor, ignorant, disfigured creature and being less than man, he notices, “When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me.”(Shelley 109). Why would Shelley intentionally exclude peasants and people who would be classified as proletariats from the novel? Is it perhaps to exemplify the incongruence of proletariats in a society ruled by the new elites? Warren Montag seems to think so, So I ask, why would Mary Shelley have the creature acknowledge that omission of the proletariat class in this paragraph? Finally, the paragraph ends with the creature’s use of a rhetorical question to emphasize his low self-worth, questioning, ” Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?”(Shelley 109). This question is peculiar because it not only feels like it is a questioning of the creature’s self-worth but it almost seems as if this portrays the struggle between the upper and lower classes by mirroring  the upper class’ perspective of the proletariats thinking of them as simply “a blot upon the earth.”

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Capitalism creates oppressive conditions for working-class proletariat that belittle their value as individuals and their existence. Warren Montag’s essay, “The ‘Workshop of Filthy Creation’: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein” examines how the the plight of the proletariat by the wealthy bourgeoisie is reflected in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Montang concludes that Frankenstein’s monster is “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability” (480). I agree with Montag that the monster is a sign of the proletariat’s unrepresentability, considering the monster’s devaluation and grievances.

Under capitalism, the proletariats, are alienated not only from the products of their labor but also themselves. The poor workers labor and produce but, because of meager wages, they will likely never have the means to afford these products no matter how much they exhaust themselves. The proletariat are also alienated from their sense of self as labor consumes their identity and their individuality is lost. This is reflected in Shelley’s novel when Frankenstein’s monster says, “I discovered also another means through which I was enabled to assist their labors. I found that the young [Felix] spent a great part of each day in collecting wood for the family fire; and, during the night, I often took his tools, the use of which I quickly discovered, and brought home firing sufficient for the consumption of several days” (102). One could argue that this decision to help the De Lacey family was the creature’s choice and not mandated onto him by the bourgeoisie. However, these actions were taken on as a means of survival the same way the excruciating work of the proletariat is the only way under capitalism, other than a revolution, that they can continue living. The monster’s labor is done in an effort to be recognized by the family as a benevolent being and be accepted into human society instead of being an outcast as he was made by Frankenstein and other humans. The family, who possess social capital, decides what fate the monster receives just as the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, determine how much impoverished workers are compensated. The parties who actually benefit from the labor, however, is the family who does not have to collect their own wood and the capitalists who profit from selling the products produced by the poor, while the creature and the poor continue their exploited lives.

The capitalist, bourgeois society in which Frankenstein’s monster and poor laborers alienate themselves also alienates them from other ranks in society and deprives them of their humanity. Since the proletariat produces all the products and are seen as just means to an end, little importance is placed on their lives or concerns. Montag states that, “Utterly absent from the narrative is any description or explanation of the process by which the monster was created” (477). By having this absence that Montag mentions, there is distance created between the monster and the rest of society and indicates that his origins and existence is not a matter of importance because in the end he is just the lower class who will never reach anything beyond that ranking. Also, just as the bourgeoisie “reduc[ed] the numbers of workers necessary to the production process” in order to make way for technological “industrial developments” (472), the monster is immediately abandoned by Victor Frankenstein as soon as he is dissatisfied with the final result of his creation, alluding to the characterization of worthlessness placed on the working-class that could be disposed and replaced at any moment the bourgeoisie chose. This loss of humanity and commodification, is the “unrepresentability” Montag refers to. Because the proletariat are reduced to machines working for the benefit of the upper and middle classes, they are not supposed to have a voice or have themselves or their concerns represented. The monster’s failed efforts at social mobility and his lack of power and authority not only mirror the proletariat but also marginalize him within the frame of the novel, eliminating his power to represent and voice himself within the novel as well. It is through this unrepresentability that Frankenstein’s monster represents that of the proletariat class under the oppressive conditions and unjust conditions of capitalism.  

The proletariat are monsters because of the monstrous, classist economic system developed by the rich, ruling, capitalists. The bourgeoisie did produce a product…economic servitude and the existence of the impoverished, disenfranchised proletariat. However, unlike the products forced onto the proletariat class, they receive capital that they will continue to use to exploit them, help themselves, and maintain the cycle of capitalism.

– Wendy Gutierrez

Frank

In reading Warren Montag’s “The Workshop of Filthy Creation”: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein, Montag claims that “the monster is the proletariat” (474), in that the proletariat during the times of the French Revolution, when united together, created a “monster that, once unleashed, could not be controlled” (471). The bourgeoisie, being the one that was forced to rally the proletariat in order to be adequately represented, seemed to not have as much power as they may have believed, seeing as they were the elite, of higher social status, as Frankenstein was to the monster. The power then, fell onto the proletarian working class, which brings us back to Montag’s claim that the monster in the novel is the proletariat, unable to be controlled, possessing power over his creator, Victor Frankenstein (the bourgeoisie) as seen during the monster and Victor’s conversation after Victor had destroyed the companion he had begun to create when the monster states, “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful. I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom” (146). In addition, the monster, much like the proletariat, did not seem to have much a “voice” in the society in which he worked so hard to be accepted by and even “endured toil and misery” (145) as a result.

In conclusion, I somewhat agree with Montag’s conclusion that the creature is “not so much a sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability” (480), because while he was not so much connected with the “working” class since he did not necessarily work as a proletariat did during the times of the French and English Revolutions, he was however, very much connected to the proletariat in the fact that they were unrepresented, looked down upon, and had struggled under the bourgeoisie, or in the monster’s case, as a result of the actions of the bourgeoisie (Frankenstein).

-Serena Ya

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 performing a Marxist literary analysis, it is important that basic Marxist concepts are understood. In this particular analysis, Warren Montag focuses on the idea that the emergence of an industrial society necessarily includes the emergence of a small-yet-powerful Bourgeoisie population that controls the capital which the poor and populous Proletariat construct. Montag summarizes the failed attempt of both the English and French revolutions as

“attempts to create social orders based on justice or (especially in the case of the French Revolution) reason that had collapsed into tyranny or chaos. The movements that destroyed (or attempted to destroy) absolutist monarchies were usually led by new elites (the rural or urban bourgeoisie: landowners, merchants, and financiers) whose access to political power was blocked by the old regime” (385).

The tie-in with Frankenstein comes with the comparison of Doctor Frankenstien to the middle-class capitalist, and his creation to the oppressed working-class, just as the monstrous creation of the suffering Proleltariat is the creation of the good intentions of the Bourgeoisie.

Montag’s concluding statement is that the creature is “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability” (395). How can this be? The connections with the monster and the proletariat seem almost too direct to leave any doubt as to the monster’s immediate representation of this failed working-class system:

“The monster is 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. It is also significant that the term creation is used at all to describe the origins of the monster. For the monster is a product rather than a creation, assembled and joined together not so much by man… as by science, technology, and industry” (388).

However, Montag’s closing statement brings to light the recurring theme of paradox involved with the idea that the monster is a direct and complete representation of the proletariat. To begin with this statement, Montag mentions that the monster is a singular being used to represent an entire mass of tortured people. The monster recurrently emphasizes his utter isolation: “I am an unfortunate and deserted creature; I look around, and I have no relation or friend upon earth… I am an outcast in the world for ever” (120). While the monster is alone in his misery, the proletariat represented the majority of the population. The proletariat gains no satisfaction from the ability to share their misery, while the monster only wants a companion with which to share: “Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel” (129). This supports the idea that the creature is not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability: the feelings of a huge mass of people are condensed into one being who may share some quality of misery with the mass, but is unable to completely represent the complex feelings of an entire group.

Another point that Montag makes also demonstrates the unrepresentability of the proletariat when he states that “these new technologies and industrial systems they made possible were perhaps less disturbing than their effects on the lives of the laboring population” (386). The bourgeoisie population established these new technologies and industrial systems within which the proletariats worked. Thus there are three tiers to the system: the bourgeoisie who create the capital which in turn creates the misery of the proletariat. However, the representation of the bourgeoisie by Frankenstein and the representation of the proletariat by the monster only contains two tiers in which the proletariat are a direct product of the bourgeoisie and the capital that is the direct cause of the “unemployment, falling wages, rising prices for food and other necessities” (386) is left undiscussed. If the monster is a representation of the twisted creation of the bourgeoisie, then would the monster be a better representation of the industry that the bourgeoisie created, rather than the proletariat that the industrial system created? The monster is a large source of misery in Frankenstein just as this capital is a large source of misery for the proletariat. However, the misery that the monster causes is misery for Frankenstein, who represents the bourgeoisie. Do either the industrial capital or the proletariat cause the bourgeoisie trouble? The unrepresentability of the proletariat is once again signified by a confusing and paradoxical display of the monster’s true identity.

There are many instances of these “contradictions, discrepancies, and inconsistencies that the work displays but does not address or attempt to resolve” (390). It is difficult to represent a huge populous mass of suffering people in any instance. The multitude of ambiguities surrounding Frankenstein’s monstrous creation only reinforce the idea that this complex mass of people is unrepresentable.