Tag Archive: working class


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If not for Frankenstein I probably never would’ve heard of Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney, let alone his seminal work, Ruins of Empires.

It’s not a widely read book these days, but remember, it’s the exact one from which the creation “obtained a cursory knowledge of history” (Shelley 108). Listing the “different nations of the earth” (108), he talks about Asiatics, Grecians, Romans, Christian kings and even Native Americans — but never explicitly the British.

I never noticed this, but the student gfeldtx did, and in “Powerful Omission,” claims, “Through omission, Shelley has rendered the most powerful nation on earth voiceless. This is the same voicelessness that categorizes [Gayatri Chakravorty] Spivak’s idea of the subaltern.”

A commenter added: “Felix is French, and Volney is French, yet there is no mention of anything regarding Napoleon and his French empire, or honestly just anything regarding France in general.”

No mention of Britain. No mention of France. What’s up that?

I contend that this omission of the British and French empires does not render these empires voiceless. In fact, I think the omission calls more attention to these nations, which cannot be confined within a “cursory knowledge of history” but are at large within the novel through the manifestation of the creation as the revolutionary working class.

Based on the despairingly great lengths I took to actually understand what Volney’s 1791 book is about (you can find a pretty decent summary here), I wish I could articulate it better. Here’s my attempt: Volney highlights the constant dispute between the higher and lower class as the source of all social conflict, and he proposes that through the progress of science, all people will become enlightened and will then work for one another’s interests. Now, I know, we’ve commented at length about the creation as proletariat, but lend me your ear real quick.

I hesitate to paint broad strokes, but the creation embodies the mob. He is the lower class, the French revolutionaries, the British revolutionaries. He cannot be contained in Felix’s teachings because he is present history, the people who “possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property” (109) and have the collective capacity to

Throughout Frankenstein lies this tension. While there may be no mention of France and Britain in relation to Ruins, remember Elizabeth’s letter to Victor: “The republican institutions of our country have produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it. […] A servant in Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England” (66). But what happens to Justine?

If I had more time, I’d go further than this. Remember the very first words of the novel? “To Mrs. Saville, England” (28). And when the novel closes, where is Walton returning? “I am returning to England” (183). Everything we’ve read has come through the lens of the English. They’re on the outside of this confined text. And so is the monster.

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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.

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.

Marxism, simply put, is the perpetual struggle between antagonistic social forces. But, as Montag points out, the struggle “is not the same throughout history, it takes many forms… follows no rules and obeys no logic” (389). Literary works express a specific form of the struggle, and in the case of Frankenstein the struggle is, ostensibly, between the upper class, personified by Frankenstein, and the lower working class, personified by the monster. When considering the historical context on a basic level, this notion is well supported and reinforced.

In my opinion the two major historical events that are intrinsic to this novel are the French Revolution and Industrial Revolution, with each constructing and molding the character of Frankenstein and the character of the monster. The French Revolution was supposed to be the emergence of the elite land-owning/monied class over the monarchy, an emergence made possible by the working class masses. However, this turned out to be an idyllic, since in reality the masses became uncontrollable, and in fact in many ways blocked the emergence of the land-owning/monied class. This strongly parallels the novel: Frankenstein in an attempt to create a race of humanoids that would allow him to surpass his own societal and scientific constraints, he creates Frankenstein, a creature that Montag notes, ironically reverses “Frankenstein’s position…clearest when his creation, far more powerful than he, calls him slave” (390). The monster not only stymies Frankenstein’s progress, but in fact reverses it in many aspects, as Frankenstein witnesses his creation kill intermittently, and wield his strength to control and extort Frankenstein himself.

The context of the Industrial Revolution reveals much about the working lower class construct of the monster. The Industrial Revolution led the extinction of the rural working class, which enjoyed a relatively peaceful and unperturbed existence. But science and rapid industrialization led to the existence of a new working class: the industrial working class. This new class did not enjoy the few privileges afforded by the rural class, and instead became locked in a terrible cycle of unemployment and higher cost of living that coincided with the technological progress and the prosperity of the upper classes. The creature, much like the industrial working class was borne from the labors of science, and that very science has trapped it in a cycle of misery and alienation. Its very existence is an affront, and the propagation of its race (the creature’s desire for a female counterpart) is something the creature feels is necessary. The propagation can only be carried out by the one element, Frankenstein that refuses to further destroy infringe on nature, or to put it in the context of the upper class construct, preserve the status quo.

Montag claims that “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability”. Montag however claims that this antagonism takes a different form. Rather than the active representation of working class by Frankenstein, Montag claims that Frankenstein really represents the absence of the working class. This is an attempt by Montag to reconcile the fact that the monster has no voice and the very depiction of him as a monster reduces his ability to represent the proletariat. This might be true if the above historical context is not taken into consideration, and the character of Frankenstein is examined as a stand-alone. However, when taking historical context and the monster’s relation to Frankenstein into consideration, the novel presents a clear cut and active antagonism between the upper class and the working lower class, as presented by the struggle between Frankenstein and his monster.

For this week (2/19), you will write a blog post that examines the class struggle between Victor, the middle class capitalist, and the creature, the oppressed working class, based on your reading of Warren Montag’s essay, “The ‘Workshop of Filthy Creation’: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein.”  What does Montag mean when he concludes that the creature is “not so much the sign of the proletariat as of its unrepresentability”? (395)  Do you agree with this interpretation?  Why or why not?  In answering this question, please focus on a close reading of a specific passage or scene in Shelley’s novel.

Include your post under the category “Labor, Alienation, and (re)production” and don’t forget to create specific and relevant tags.