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The Monstrosity of Representation: Frankenstein and Rousseau

Christian Bok

English Studies in Canada, 18:4 (December 1992)

"Pardon this intrusion. . . . I am a traveller in want of a little rest; you would greatly oblige me if you would allow me to remain a few minutes before the fire."

(Frankenstein 178: the first words spoken by the Monster)

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, dramatizes a crisis not only of biological reproduction, but also of tropological reproduction, in that the text reduplicates versions of eighteenth-century epistemology in order to narrate an allegory about the dangers inherent in reduplication: such epistemology actually provides crucial intertextual support for the lengthy anecdote in which the Monster recounts his own sociolinguistic development, an anecdote positioned centrally within the structure of the text, yet largely marginalized whenever the text is translated from print to either stage or screen. David Marshall, in "Frankenstein, or Rousseau's Monster," explicates this anecdote in terms of two texts by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Essay on the Origin of Language and the Discourses. Marshall argues not only that both the Essay and the Discourses have greater bearing upon the text than has been traditionally thought (184), but also that Rousseau overshadows all other philosophical influences upon Shelley, except perhaps for the influence of her parents (233). Marshall in effect provides a virtually exhaustive argument that Frankenstein offers a literary praxis for the philosophical theorein expounded by Rousseau about the origins of sociolinguistic initiation.

Marshall indicates, for example, that Shelley is known to have read the Confessions, Emile, and La Nouvelle Helloise before, if not during, the composition of her own text (228); moreover, Shelley is known to have been exposed to the ideas of Rousseau through references to him in the works of her parents, both the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice by William Godwin and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (230). Marshall goes on to account for the possible influence of the Essay and the Discourses upon Shelley by plotting conceptual similarities between Frankenstein and these two texts by Rousseau. Marshall amasses circumstantial evidence that does not by any means prove influence unequivocally, but does nevertheless increase the probability that Shelley might have encountered the sociolinguistic theories of Rousseau either directly through {416} an unrecorded dialogue with the two texts or indirectly through an unrecorded dialogue with their readers. Marshall, like both Rousseau and Shelley, attempts in effect to recount the narrative of an unstable genealogy, of a missing origin, but in doing so Marshall does not adequately take into account the ways in which both Rousseau and Shelley inadvertently undermine the very idea of a genealogy with an origin and thus call into question the very kind of project that Marshall undertakes: both Rousseau and Shelley problematize the remembering of an origin even as they explore the dangers inherent in the forgetting of an origin. Marshall in a sense fails to address the ways in which Shelley's narrative about the evolution of the Monster is in fact fraught with the same kinds of aporias that plague Rousseau's narrative about the evolution of language, nor does Marshall see that Shelley's representation of the Monster may in fact represent Rousseau's anxieties about representation.

Frankenstein in fact appears to provide an uncritical account of Rousseau's theory of linguistic development in order to narrate a critical account of Rousseau's theory of familial responsibility. Frankenstein appears, in other words, to use Rousseau's philology to recount a critique of Rousseau's sociology a critique made more explicit by Shelley two decades later in Lives of Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France, a critical biography of Rousseau, in which Shelley not only chastises the philosopher for abandoning his five children to the care of a state orphanage (2:131), but also reproaches him for believing that primitive man recognizes no familial obligation (2:135). Rousseau writes in his Discourses that, in the originary state, males and females unite by chance and then depart, the father leaving the mother to nurse the children by herself (153): to Rousseau, this type of union is a "kind of free association that obligated no one and lasted only as long as the transitory need that had formed it" (172). Shelley, however, objects to this sociological theory and suggests that it has been formulated by Rousseau in order to anneal his lingering guilt over his own dereliction of paternal duty: "Poor Rousseau, who had thrust his offspring from parental care to the niggard benevolence of a public charity, found some balm to the remorse that now and then stung him, by rejecting the affections out of his scheme of . . . natural man" (2: 135). Frankenstein may in fact be seen as an occasion for Shelley to reduplicate the thesis proposed by her mother in A Vindication: "A great proportion of the misery that wanders, in hideous forms, around the world, is allowed to rise from the negligence of parents" (154). Frankenstein, as the fictional biography of Frankenstein, actually anticipates this factual biography of Rousseau, in that the earlier text explicates the origins of sociolinguistic development in order to analyse the conflict between a negligent father and his forsaken offspring. James O'Rourke proposes that, as Frankenstein fulfils the role of a unilateral creator who abandons his created {417} child, he simultaneously fulfils the role of someone trying, and failing, to justify the ways of divinity to humanity (559).

Rousseau in his Essay states that "[s]peech differentiates man from the other animals" (240) and that, unlike animalistic utterances, human language is a learned behaviour that evolves, slowly progressing from inarticulate cries to melodious song, from melodious song to articulate speech, from articulate speech to written transcription. Rousseau begins his narrative of linguistic development by asserting that "the passions wrung the first utterings" (245), and that "to move a young heart, to repulse an unjust aggressor, nature dictates accents, cries, plaints: here [then] are the oldest invented words, and here is why the first languages were songlike and passionate before they were simple and methodical" (245-46; brackets in original). Godwin, in the Enquiry, echoes Rousseau by attributing the origin of language to the "involuntary cries which infants . . . are found to utter in the earliest stages of their existence, and which . . . spontaneously arise from the operation of pain upon our animal frame," cries that "become a subject of perception to him by whom they are uttered; and, being observed to be constantly associated with certain antecedent impressions and to excite . . . those impressions in the hearer, may afterwards be repeated from reflection and the desire of relief" (158). Godwin, however, does not discuss the transition from the vocal sign to the graphic sign, whereas Rousseau goes on to argue that, while "men . . . sing rather than speak" (248) during their primitive beginnings, the inevitable advent of writing intervenes in a way that alters the character of this original speech: "language changes; it becomes more precise and less passionate; it substitutes ideas for sentiments; it no longer speaks to the heart but to the reason," and, as a result, "accent dies out and articulation becomes more pervasive; language becomes more exact and clear, but more sluggish, subdued, and cold" (249). Rousseau argues that linguistic evolution moves by a "natural" process (249) from the spoken to the written, from the dynamic to the static, from the passionate to the dispassionate.

Jacques Derrida has, however, demonstrated at length the various ways in which "Rousseau describes what he does not wish to say: that [this] 'progress' takes place both for the worse and for the better" simultaneously (Grammatology 229). Rousseau argues that, whereas speech allegedly guarantees the presence of a speaking subject who can regulate interpretations of the given message, writing obtrudes as a mediating transcription that permits the absence of the authoritative voice and thus invites misinterpretations of the message:

Writing, which might be expected to fix . . . language, is precisely what alters it; it changes not its words but its genius; it substitutes precision for expressiveness. One conveys one's sentiments in speaking, and one's ideas {418} in writing. In writing one is compelled to use every word in conformity with common usage; but a speaker alters meanings by his tone of voice, determining them as he wishes; since he is less constrained to be clear, he stresses forcefulness more; and a language that is written cannot possibly retain for long the liveliness of one that is only spoken. (253)
Derrida observes that, within this framework, writing is regarded as a "supplement" to the plenitude of speech, a supplement that is both an extraneous augmentation and a threatening substitution: "The supplement . . . is a surplus . . . [that] adds only to replace" (Grammatology 144-45). Rousseau in effect argues that the articulation of writing ultimately overthrows the accentuation of speech: to Rousseau, writing is monstrous because it is a dead thing with a life of its own; consequently, he regards the contemporary condition of writing as pernicious and avows his nostalgia for the originary condition of speech. Derrida points out that Rousseau actually demonstrates a phonocentric yearning for an inarticulate language of pure accent, a yearning described by Derrida as a desire "[t]o speak before knowing how to speak" (Grammatology 247): to Rousseau, the ideal language of presence is a hypothetical speech that precedes speech, and this paradoxical notion of a prelinguistic language can be shown to characterize the "infancy" of the Monster in the text by Shelley.

Frankenstein recounts the linguistic initiation of the Monster in a way that appears to be structured as a telescoped reiteration of the linguistic history narrated by Rousseau: the Essay in effect describes a historical trajectory reenacted by the character in Frankenstein. Shelley stages the initiation of the Monster into language as a progressive series of five linguistic encounters: first, the Monster experiences the natural process of animal communication, the "pleasant sound" of bird song that he tries unsuccessfully to imitate (149); second, the Monster experiences the inarticulate cries of human emotion, not only the "shriek[s]" of frightened people (151), but also the "few sounds with an air of melancholy" uttered by a dejected youth (153); third, the Monster experiences the melodious sounds of artificial music, "a sweet mournful air" played by an old man on a musical instrument (153); fourth, the Monster experiences his first words of articulate speech, "sounds that were monotonous . . . neither resembling the harmony of the old man's instrument nor the songs of the birds" (154-55); and, fifth, the Monster experiences his first words of written text, "signs for speech" found on paper (159). Frankenstein defines a progressive series of linguistic encounters, whose structure resembles the structure defined by Rousseau, a structure in which linguistic development moves sequentially from the inarticulate speech of nature to the articulate writing of culture; but as Derrida has pointed out, Rousseau structures this account of linguistic development as a secularized Fall (Grammatology 260), in which the innocence of the phoneme is usurped by the corruption {419} of the grapheme: just as the Monster in Frankenstein moves from inarticulate speech to articulate writing, so also does he move from innocent ignorance to corrupt knowledge, from the Adamic to the Satanic -- a Fall staged again as a mise en abime when the Monster eventually learns to read the writing in Paradise Lost (175). Derrida suggests that the monstrosity of any Monster may in fact be regarded as the monstrosity of writing, in that both things represent the unnatural by-product of a natural origin, what Derrida calls a "catastrophe, a natural event that overthrows nature, . . . a natural deviation within nature" (Grammatology 41). The existence of both the Monster and writing in effect destabilizes the existence of their respective sources.

Ultimately, both Rousseau and Shelley problematize any notion of a discrete, linguistic origin. Derrida argues that, to Rousseau, "origin implies that the commencement be simple, . . . that it be possible to think it in the form of presence in general, . . . to measure deviation according to a simple axis and . . . a single direction" (Grammatology 242-43); however, Derrida goes on to observe that Rousseau soon begins to suspect that "[t]he desire for the origin becomes an indispensable . . . function situated within a syntax without origin" (243). Rousseau in the Discourses writes that "if [m]en needed speech in order to learn how to think, they needed even more to know how to think in order to find the art of speech" (154); in other words, "speech . . . seems to have been very necessary in order to establish the use of speech" (155). Rousseau reiterates this troublesome paradox in the Essay when he discusses the linguistic initiation of mutes: "those who . . . teach mutes not only to speak but to know what they are saying are, after all, compelled first to teach them another, equally complicated language, by means of which to enable them to understand spoken language" (243). Rousseau implies in both the Discourses and the Essay that language can only be taught by way of another language, that the origin of language appears to require the preceding existence of language, or, as Derrida observes, "One wishes to go back from the supplement to the source: one must recognize that there is a supplement at the source" (Grammatology 304); the origin merely supplements an anterior origin that is itself a supplement. Rousseau is vexed by this continual deferral of linguistic origin, particularly in the Discourses, when he considers "the inconceivable efforts and the infinite time the first invention of [l]anguages must have cost" (152). Rousseau in fact gives up trying to establish the proper causal relationship between language and society, because he remains "convinced of the almost demonstrated impossibility that [l]anguages could have arisen and been established by purely human means" (157). What Godwin later calls the "endless labyrinth" (160) of linguistic development begins to represent a conundrum of such complexity that the origin of language must often be attributed {420} to a transcendental agency. Similar problems of linguistic origin manifest themselves in the text by Shelley.

Frankenstein actually appears at first glance to provide a literary example of the argument proposed by John Locke that there is no such thing as a priori knowledge, only knowledge gained through the experience of sensory stimuli, experience "which supplies our [u]nderstandings with all the materials of thinking" (104): after all, the Monster seems to gain each of his ideas from sensation, then reflection, seeking or avoiding the causes of sensation according to whether or not they produce either pleasure or pain. The Monster, however, appears to demonstrate all the characteristics of a socialized subject without first being socialized; the formal initiation of the Monster into language appears to require that in effect he behave as though he already functions within language. The Monster may use language to narrate his own initiation into language; he may actually articulate memories of autobiographical experiences that supposedly precede his ability to articulate; but while narrating the story of his own prelinguistic origin, the Monster unwittingly deconstructs the possibility of such a narrative:

[W]ith considerable difficulty . . . I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses. . . . I knew, and could distinguish, nothing. . . . No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. (148-49)
The Monster begins his narrative by inadvertently establishing a contradiction: the Monster purports to have been oblivious, while being at the same time aware of his oblivion; after all, the Monster must have been aware of his lack of awareness in order to remember such a lack. The Monster claims to be initially uninitiated into a system of differences; yet, paradoxically, he reveals that he must have already been functioning within such a system, for he differentiates himself from an external environment and recognizes the conflation of different senses. The Monster at his inception does not understand his initial experiences, but while they occur he understands a fortiori that he does not understand them: even though he has no language, he behaves as though he does.

Julia Kristeva recounts a narrative of linguistic development in terms of what she calls the "semiotic" and the "symbolic" (24), the former being a "non expressive totality" that "precedes and underlies figuration" (25-26), the latter being "a social effect . . . established through . . . objective constraints" (29): the semiotic corresponds to the continuum of pre-Oedipal drives that a child experiences unconsciously before they are repressed during the Oedipal phase, when contact with the mother is severed; the symbolic {421} corresponds to the post-Oedipal dictum that a child experiences consciously via a language that subdivides the semiotic continuum into significant differences in order to determine a position of subjectivity for the child. Kristeva suggests that, despite being effectively repressed, the semiotic manifests itself in the symbolic as a kind of libidinal negativity whose pressure is expressed inadvertently in the form of linguistic interference (69). The Monster is unique in its development because he is born directly into the symbolic without any Oedipal conditioning, without any prelinguistic experience of the semiotic: the Monster is always already severed from his mother, his unconscious drives already conditioned as though by a language that precedes language. The Monster claims that at first he knows "nothing of the science of words or letters" (155); nevertheless, he demonstrates a high degree of innate, semioscientific abstraction: he not only formulates ways of responding to his need for warmth by learning to dress himself in discarded clothes (148) and by analysing the properties of fire so that he can prolong its effects artificially (150), he also makes aesthetic judgments about his sensations by describing the sparrow's voice as "harsh" and the blackbird's voice as "sweet and enticing" (149). The Monster can in fact think both rationally and aesthetically without first having learned the conventional criteria for such thinking, conventions presumably acquired through formal, sociolinguistic experience.

Godwin writes that "abstraction, . . . necessary to the first existence of language, is . . . assisted in its operations by language" (160), and in keeping with this principle the Monster demonstrates that, during his infancy, he can think without using any medium of thought, that language is indeed supplementary to self-conscious cognition. The Monster takes for granted that his ability to make both distinctions and comparisons evolves inevitably and spontaneously without apparent recourse to language. The Monster claims that first he distinguishes the "radiant form" of the "bright moon," even though he has no words to describe it, then goes on to say that within days

I began to distinguish my sensations from each other. . . . I began also to observe, with greater accuracy, the forms that surrounded me. . . . [M]y mind received every day additional ideas. My eyes became accustomed to the light and to perceive objects in their right forms; I distinguished the insect from the herb, and by degrees, one herb from another. (149)
The Monster presumes that objects have "right forms" independent of the taxonomy used to delineate the parameters for such forms: the fact that the Monster can make such prelinguistic comparisons suggests that abstraction does not impose an arbitrary system of differences upon reality; instead, abstraction conforms to a reality whose categorical distinctions are already given in advent. Godwin argues that "comparison is an operation which {422} may be performed by the mind without adverting to its nature, and that neither the brute nor the savage has a consciousness of the several steps of the intellectual progress," for "[w]ithout this degree of abstraction, the faint dawnings of language . . . could never have existed" (159-60).

Rousseau in the Essay prefigures this line of argumentation when he writes:

Reflection is born of the comparison of ideals, and it is their variety that leads us to compare them. Whoever sees only a single object has no occasion to make comparisons. Whoever sees only a small number, and always the same ones . . . still does not compare them, because the habit of seeing them deprives him of the attention required to examine them; but as a new object strikes us, we want to know it, and we look for relations between it and the objects we do know; that is how we learn to observe what we see before us, and how what is foreign to us leads us to examine what touches us. (261)
Rousseau argues in effect that the ability to compare is actually produced by experiencing a sudden moment of novelty, a sublime moment without which self-awareness is impossible: "Since [primitive men] had never seen anything other than what was around them, they did not know even that; they did not know themselves" (261). Comparison in effect represents the first act of self-conscious cognition, for just as the primitive man cannot begin to know himself until he experiences a sudden novelty, so also the Monster supposedly remains ignorant of his own condition until he experiences the sublime wonder of the rising moon (149), at which point he purportedly begins to make distinctions. Rousseau's notion of comparison, however, does not adequately take into account the fact that, presumably, all initial experiences must at first appear novel; consequently, all subjects who have any experience, even primitives who have become habituated to their immediate surroundings, must be to a certain degree aware of themselves; moreover, the model does not take into account the fact that any habitual experience presupposes an earlier condition of relative novelty, which in turn presupposes an even earlier condition of relative habit: the originary moment of comparison is always already supplemented.

Rousseau in the Essay may be obliged to argue, however, that comparison is a prelinguistic faculty in part because such a faculty appears to be necessary for the primitive expression of pity, an emotion that he defines in the Discourses as "a virtue all the more universal and useful to man as it precedes the exercise of all reflection in him" (160). Just as Rousseau argues in the Discourses that all primitives demonstrate their humanity by feeling pity, "a natural sentiment which . . . contributes to the mutual preservation of the entire species" (162), so also does the Monster, when spying upon the melancholy cottagers, experience "sensations of a peculiar and overpowering {423} nature; . . . a mixture of pain/pleasure" (153), sensations that cause him to provide secret aid for the family: "I saw no cause for their unhappiness, but I was deeply affected by it" (156).

Rousseau in the Discourses argues that "commiseration will be all the more energetic . . . as the [o]nlooking animal identifies more intimately with the suffering animal" (162), and that "this identification must . . . have been infinitely closer in the state of [n]ature than in the state . . . of reasoning" (162), since "reason . . . is what turns man back upon himself; it is what separates him from everything that troubles and afflicts him" (162). Rousseau in effect argues that sociolinguistic initiation into articulate culture destroys the human capacity for pity; yet, ironically, he seems to forget that pity is itself a socialized function, linguistically structured: first, pity is comparative, since it requires the recognition of a relative difference between self and other; second, pity is figurative, since it requires the obliteration of this difference; and third, pity is interactive, since it requires a social encounter for it to occur. Rousseau proposes in effect that the social interaction necessary for the operation of pity ultimately grows to destroy pity, and this dilemma is in part the dilemma of the Monster, who initially feels pity in his social encounters, yet cannot sustain such feelings of commiseration as he grows more and more socially indoctrinated.

Social contact necessary for the Monster to demonstrate his humanity actually dehumanizes the Monster: indeed, the first two social encounters enacted by the Monster are disastrous, the first resulting in the violent retreat of the encountered human, the second resulting in the violent retreat of the encountering non-human (151). Physical violence in these two encounters requires that the Monster learn to use subterfuge in his subsequent social involvement with the melancholy cottagers. The Monster must hide, spy, and eavesdrop, in order to learn language from the members of this social microcosm: the initiation into violence in effect corresponds with the initiation into deception. The Monster learns through violence that he must first efface himself in order to participate in society; he can enter society only by hiding himself from society, at first literally, then figuratively:

I easily perceived that, although I eagerly longed to discover myself to the cottagers, I ought not to make the attempt until I had first become master of their language, which knowledge might enable me to make them overlook the deformity of my figure. . . . I imagined that they would be disgusted, until, by my gentle demeanour and conciliating words, I should first win their favour. . . . (159-60)
The Monster at first refrains from communication largely for aesthetic reasons, since he considers himself "deformed" (166) and regards his own voice as "uncouth" enough to frighten even himself into silence (149). Derrida has pointed out that, to Rousseau, hearing oneself speak is an act of "autoaffection" (Grammatology 166), an act that reaffirms the selfsameness of the {424} self, but to the Monster this recursive structure merely reaffirms the difference within himself between his monstrosity and his humanity: in fact, this phonic recursion is later restaged as an optic recursion when the Monster is frightened by his own reflection in a "transparent pool" (159). Narcissistic specularity that produces self-love in man produces only self-hatred in the Monster: the Monster resembles his creator in that he objects to monstrosity because of a judgment that is not harshly moralistic so much as harshly aesthetic.

Frankenstein demonstrates that the Monster is despised in part because he is an inaccurate imitation, a creature whose individual parts are "in proportion" and "beautiful" (105), but are collectively "hideous" and "ugly" (106), forming an external appearance later misinterpreted as a direct representation of an internal character: "where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster" (179). The Monster may also be despised because he is actually an inaccurate imitation that is perhaps all too accurate: a living mirror of the monstrosity within man. Marshall argues (206) that the Monster is a "figure" that literalizes the anecdote by Rousseau about the origin of figuration, an origin coincident with the obscured perception of giganticism (Essay 246). Both Rousseau and Shelley depict situations in which a human being is mistaken for a monstrous giant. Monsters and men are in fact interchangeable figures in Frankenstein: Elizabeth says that "men appear to me as monsters" (138), and Frankenstein, seeing the Monster at a distance, says, "I suddenly beheld the figure of a man" (144). Marshall argues that the Monster typifies the "monstrosity of resemblance" (209), and that "[w]hat is so monstrous . . . is the image itself, the reproduction . . . that presents a simile of a man in its likeness" (209). The Monster, like writing, is a supposedly corruptible copy of a supposedly incorruptible origin, a copy that threatens the singularity of the origin by holding a mirror up to the iterability of such an origin. The Monster as an inaccurate representation of man must use a system of representation in order to be accepted as a man, for language permits the Monster to (mis)represent himself in a way that benefits himself: the figuration of language can reconfigure his disfiguration. Linguistic apprenticeship actually requires that the Monster first displace himself not only from society, but also from himself, for sociolinguistic initiation demands that the Monster cannot be who he is.

Frankenstein demonstrates that the Monster wishes to learn language not only because it permits expressive communication, but also because it permits persuasive manipulation:

I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed {425} a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. (157-58)
The Monster regards language as "godlike" in part because it permits a speaker to exert emotional control over a listener: language promises to grant the Monster a greater degree of social mastery, a mastery that may dramatize what Derrida calls "the unity of violence and writing" (Grammatology 106) -- the notion that social inequity is perpetuated through discursive practice: in short, language is used primarily to oppress. The Monster, however, cannot master language without first being mastered by it; he is at first baffled by the language of the cottagers: "Their pronunciation was quick, and the words they uttered, not having any apparent connection with visible objects, I was unable to discover any clue by which I could unravel the mystery of their reference" (158). The Monster has already stated that he can perceive the "right forms" of things without the benefit of language; nevertheless, he soon recognizes the impositional arbitrariness of language, an arbitrariness consistent with the thinking of Locke, who writes in his Essay that "Words . . . come to be made use of by Men, as the Signs of their Ideas; not by any natural connexion . . . between particular articulate Sounds and certain Ideas, . . . but by a voluntary Imposition, whereby such a Word is made arbitrarily the Mark of such an Idea" (405). The Monster discovers that he cannot decipher the "mystery" of speech without a "clue" (158), a trace that cannot itself be semiolinguistic, since the clue must be a trace that can be read without any knowledge of reading, a trace by which the Monster can translate words from the encountered language into his own prelinguistic language, a translation whose process is not explained except as the spontaneous result of "great application" (158). The Monster must in effect learn language without learning the means by which he learns it.

The Monster acquires language without the benefit of any linguistic interaction that might confirm his linguistic suppositions. The Monster again demonstrates his own cognitive self-sufficiency by learning to speak without having to speak:

I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar objects of discourse; I learned and applied the words, "fire", "milk", "bread", and "wood". I learned also the names of the cottagers. . . . I distinguished several other words without being able as yet to understand or apply them, such as "good", "dearest", "unhappy". . . . [O]nce or twice I heard them . . . utter the words "good spirit," "wonderful," but I did not then understand the signification of these terms. (158-60)
The Monster first comprehends nouns, then distinguishes adjectives, and in so doing he repeats the course of linguistic development outlined by Etienne Condillac in the Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge: "Language was {426} a long time without having any other words than the names which had been given to sensible objects, such as . . . tree, fruit, water, fire. . . . [A]fterwards . . . [men] took notice of the circumstances to which they might happen to be exposed, and invented words to express all these things: such is the origin of adjectives" (238). Learning nouns and adjectives, however, does not pose problems of linguistic initiation so much as pose problems of linguistic translation: the Monster learns a foreign language different from his own native language -- an innate, unspeakable language given to him a priori. The Monster is actually initiated not into langue, but into parole.

Frankenstein in fact presents "translation" as one of its most significant tropes, not only because translation suggests a rendering of one language into another, but also because translation suggests a divine ascension, an elevation in a hierarchy of value, a movement in this case from supplement to origin. The Monster must translate human words into his own thoughts in order to translate himself into human society, and this double process of translation is assisted by the fortuitous introduction of the Arab woman Safie, a person whose education is also the education of the Monster: just as the Monster is excluded from the society of the cottagers by virtue of his own alterity, so also is the woman perfectly other by virtue of her orientalism. Safie represents the feminine counterpart to the condition of the Monster in that she plays Eve to his Adam and perhaps prefigures the feminine companion yet to be made and destroyed by Frankenstein. Peter Brooks points out that with the arrival of Safie "[t]here is, first of all, a criss-crossing of languages implicit in the text: . . . we have a lesson in French being offered to a Turkish Arab, in a German-speaking region, the whole rendered for the reader in English" (210), and, as a result, "[t]his well-ordered Babel calls attention to the fact and problem of transmission and communication, the motive for language" (210). Rousseau in his Essay argues that "the alphabet is likely to have been discovered by a people intent on communicating with other peoples speaking other languages" (250): writing lessons are inaugurated by an encounter between two different sociolects that require mutual translation.

Translation actually appears to be essential for the Monster to learn the act of reading:

This reading had puzzled me extremely at first, but by degrees I discovered that he uttered many of the same sounds when he read as when he talked. I conjectured, therefore, that he found on the paper signs for speech which he understood, and I ardently longed to comprehend these also; but how was that possible when I did not even understand the sounds for which they stood as signs? (159)
The Monster encounters the same linguistic problem described by Rousseau in his Essay: "If a foreigner glances at the book from which an Englishman is {427} reading aloud, he will perceive no connection at all between what he sees and what he hears" (259), because "to know English, one has to learn it twice; the first time to read it, and the second to speak it" (258-59). Rousseau argues that even a native language must be relearned as a foreign language when its medium of transmission changes, but what is perhaps more interesting is the fact that, while Rousseau argues elsewhere that phonological education must precede grammatological education, the passage just quoted appears to argue for the opposite trajectory, first the apprehension of the written via reading, then the apprehension of the spoken via speaking; in other words, the sociolinguistic initiate must learn to read before learning to speak: interpretation precedes expression. This trajectory perhaps describes better the sociolinguistic development of the Monster in that, while he appears to move from the spoken to the written, he in fact moves from the interpretative to the expressive, from a reading of the traces in nature to a speaking of the traces in culture.

Grammatological initiation begins for the Monster when Safie and her lover Felix act out a linguistic lesson that recalls Rousseau's belief that love invents the institution of language (271): their reading of the Compte de Volney's Ruins of Empire teaches the Monster that to learn reading is to learn violence, for the exposure to writing formalizes the Monster's exposure to "details of vice and bloodshed, . . . of immense wealth and squalid poverty" (165), and this violent education remains unmitigated when the Monster later reads the three discovered books, Goethe's Sorrows of Werther, Plutarch's Lives, and Milton's Paradise Lost (173), a trilogy that Brooks describes as a possible "cyclopedia universalis" (210), providing a Classical education, a Christian education, and a Romantic education, through which the Monster first learns about love of self, then about love of others, then about love of God. The Monster at first regards this trilogy of texts as a kind of social manual, but in fact the texts aggravate his own sense of individual isolation, for while the "godlike science" appears to open up "a wide field for wonder and delight" (164), the Monster nevertheless discovers that "sorrow only increased with knowledge" (166); the reading of writing does not facilitate entry of the Monster into society, but only consolidates his isolation from society: "Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was" (176). The Monster completes his grammatological education by reading the notes of his creator (175), at which point the Monster learns through an imitation of speech that he is no more than an imitation of man: ultimately, the Monster is corrupted by a writing that is itself a corruption of speech.

Rousseau in the Discourses writes that "[n]othing . . . would have been as miserable as [s]avage man dazzled by enlightenment, tormented by [p]assions, and reasoning about a state different from his own" (158), and indeed the {428} Monster bemoans the "strange nature" of knowledge, which "clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock" (166): the innate self-sufficiency of thought has been ultimately contaminated by the supplementary reliance upon a parasitic language. Brooks points out:

The Monster is . . . hopelessly condemned to the order of words that does not match the order of things, that has not produced the desired referent but has only brought knowledge of the unappeasable lack or difference that defines his monsterism. The godlike science itself proves deceptive: his eloquence can achieve no more than a state of permanently frustrated desire for meaning; his language is metonymic advance without a terminus. (213)
Frankenstein suggests that an increase in linguistic competence corresponds to a proportional decrease in moralistic certitude, since the initiated Monster moves from the Adamic to the Satanic: "Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence" (175), but "many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition" (175). Language allows the Monster to recognize the discrepancy between his present condition and his desired condition, and like Satan he becomes an eloquent manipulator of language.

Frankenstein also exemplifies the Platonic belief that value increases as proximity to the origin decreases: just as speech is privileged over writing because speech is closer to the presence of an originary thought, so also is man privileged over the Monster because man is closer to the presence of an originary divinity. While writing imitates poorly a more accurate, but nevertheless flawed, imitation of thought, the Monster imitates poorly a more accurate, but nevertheless flawed, imitation of God: just as Rousseau fears writing in part because it threatens to replace speech, so also does Frankenstein fear the Monster in part because it threatens to replace humanity. The Monster, like writing, becomes a dangerous supplement: the Monster is, for example, an extraneous addition to the household of the cottagers; he is a parasite upon a social microcosm, albeit a symbiotic parasite that eases the plight of the cottagers; nevertheless, the Monster eventually disrupts this microcosm and threatens the macrocosm with destruction. Frankenstein refuses in fact to fulfil his promise to make a female companion for the Monster out of fear that "a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror" (210). This representation of monstrosity in fact parallels the monstrosity of representation: the Monster may be regarded as a metaphorical text, whose interaction with an audience produces an interpretative response over which the author has no control, and just as the Monster is described as an "abhorred devil" by its creator Frankenstein, so also is the text itself described as a "hideous progeny" (60) by its creator {429} Shelley. Frankenstein's fear of the Monster's supplementarity may not be entirely unjustified in retrospect, now that popular culture has almost completely conflated the scientist with the Monster by imposing the name of the former upon the namelessness of the latter: the Monster has grown in the memory of posterity so as to replace its creator, not only Frankenstein, but possibly Shelley as well.

Barbara Johnson argues that Frankenstein is a performative text, that "Frankenstein, in other words, can be read as the story of the experience of writing Frankenstein" (151). Johnson writes that "Frankenstein's Monster can . . . be seen as a figure for autobiography" (146), and that, because "Frankenstein . . . has twice obeyed the impulse to construct an image of himself," at first literally through the Monster, then figuratively through his own confession, the latter trying to justify the former, "autobiography would appear to constitute itself as . . . a repression of autobiography" (146). Autobiographic impulses constitute an act of specular narcissism, a narcissism whose structure is embedded within the operations of language itself, particularly in the "mirror stage" of Jacques Lacan (Silverman 157), in which the subject recognizes itself by splitting into two mutually dependent linguistic entities, what Emile Benveniste might call the subject of the "referent" and the subject of the "referee" (218). Brooks observes:

Frankenstein and his Monster are in fact . . . engaged in an exacerbated dialectic of desire, in which each needs the other because the other represents for each the lack or gap within himself. Frankenstein sets out in pursuit of the Monster intending to destroy him, but also with a firm intuition that the Monster's death will be his own death. . . . The Monster flees from Frankenstein, yet never escapes completely, intent that Frankenstein maintain his pursuit, the only form of recognition by his creator that he can exact, his last tenuous link to the signifying chain. (214)
Frankenstein reveals that the creator and his creation, the origin and its supplement, act out allegorically the process of differance: the pursuit between the two represents the endless deferral of absolute congruity between signifier and signified; the creator and creation, as doubles of each other, begin to symbolize a divided subject who acts out the continual postponement of self-presence, a postponement that can culminate only in mutual cancellation. Marshall utilizes this notion of a divided subject to argue convincingly that "Mary Shelley identifies Victor with Rousseau to assert now that the unnamed monster of the novel is, so to speak, Rousseau -- or at least an allegorical version of him" (190).

Frankenstein in this way depicts two related crises of reproduction: the first, biological; the second, tropological. Frankenstein not only reiterates the epistemology of Rousseau in order to explicate the dangers of reiteration, but also uses his philology in order to criticize his sociology. The text {430} suggests that the creation of imitations, of Doppelgangers, is pernicious, not only because such creation establishes distance between an impure duplicate and its pure original, but also because such a duplicate threatens to usurp the place of such an original: a supplementary writing corrupts speech, just as a supplementary monstrosity corrupts humanity. Frankenstein is itself subject to the very same corruptive effects of mimetic translation, for, as Paul O'Flinn observes, "Mary Shelley's monster . . . is ripped apart . . . in each generation and then put together again as crudely as . . . Frankenstein constructed the original in his apartment" (195). Moreover, the Oedipal overtones of this conflict between supplement and origin are omnipresent in the text, since the text stages a primal conflict between a father and his offspring, the kind of conflict that, according to Shelley, Rousseau anticipates and fears throughout his life. Frankenstein may in fact enact what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence" (6), in that both man and Monster attempt to compare themselves favourably against antecedent creators; however, this anxiety figures not only in the textual content, but also in the textual form, what with its own female creator trying to equal, if not surpass, the literary exploits of her male predecessors: the text criticizes the operations of this anxiety even as it stages it.

Anne K. Mellor argues that this anxiety about writing books parallels an anxiety about giving birth (52), since both activities for Shelley imply the risk of failure and require that their products be surrendered to a potentially hostile, masculine environment, an environment that Shelley criticizes. U. C. Knoepflmacher argues biographically that because Shelley, like the Monster, goes through life deprived of a mother (90), the text might be reasonably interpreted as a feminist rebellion against any paternal influence that does not have the mitigating complementarity of a maternal influence: the text, according to this perspective, actually chastises the father who attempts to imperialize the creative function of the mother, so that in effect the text allegorically disrupts the patriarchal monopoly on artistic expression by dramatizing the dire consequences of such a monopoly. Frankenstein in this way embodies two crises of representation simultaneously, for whereas Rousseau appears to be anxious about representation because it threatens to outlive its male creator, Shelley appears to be anxious about representation because it threatens to be outlived by its female creator: whereas Rousseau appears to worry that his texts might have a life of their own, Shelley appears to worry that her texts might have no life at all. Frankenstein in this way depicts an ambivalent attitude toward representation by staging a conflict between father and son, between producing artist and produced art -- a conflict that is essentially artistic, insofar as Jean Baudrillard argues that "all that reduplicates itself . . . falls by the token under the sign of art, and becomes esthetic" (151). Frankenstein ultimately stages this kind of Oedipal {431} conflict in order to express a feminist resentment against the social necessity for a writer, regardless of gender, to participate in such a conflict: the text indulges paradoxically in its own kind of patricide in order to eliminate the necessity for patricide. Derrida in fact describes writing itself as "patricidal" (Dissemination 146), as "something not completely dead: a living-dead, a reprieved corpse, a deferred life" (143). Writing, like the Monster, is in effect a kind of revenant, a corporeal ghost -- a supplement that threatens to return from its grave in order to haunt the origin that abandons it.