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Frankenstein and Marx's Theories of Alienated Labor

Elsie B. Michie

In Approaches to Teaching Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," ed. Stephen C. Behrendt (New York: MLA, 1990), 93-98

Labour does not only produce commodities; it produces itself and the labourer as a commodity and that to the extent to which it produces commodities in general.

What this fact expresses is merely this: the object that labour produces, its product, confronts it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer.

Karl Marx
Marx's writings on alienated labor allow students to see in Frankenstein an economic and political subtext that might otherwise remain invisible. Given sections of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Selected Writings 75-112), which contain Marx's early, noneconomic descriptions of alienation, together with Shelley's novel, students invariably notice a series of passages in Marx that sound as if they were virtual commentaries on Frankenstein. Discussing the similarities between the two texts helps them understand that Shelley's novel reflects or represents the same economic moment Marx describes, the moment in which the dominant mode of production becomes the production of commodities. To come to this conclusion, however, students must begin to read Frankenstein as what Fredric Jameson calls a socially symbolic act. Shelley's novel contains no explicit depictions of workers, the marketplace, or the forces of production. With the application of Marx's writings, details that appear literal in Frankenstein -- descriptions of what Victor does while making the Creature, his subsequent interactions with it, the physical makeup of the Creature -- take on symbolic resonance and become visible as part of the novel's systematic attempt to deal with the issue of material production and the problems that arise from it.

Because such a symbolic reading is difficult, students approaching Frankenstein through Marx turn to the most obvious representation of alienation in Shelley's text, the Creature's relation to its creator and through him to the entire world around it. They see immediately that the Creature suffers the misery and vents the anger of the alienated laborer, and they observe that the terms from Marx's analysis of alienated labor describe precisely the situation of the Creature. The appearance and the actions of the Creature confirm Marx's assertion that production renders the worker both "deformed" and "barbaric" (79). (Franco Moretti's reading of the Creature as a representation of the proletariat can be useful here.) The Creature experiences the kind of exclusion that Marx describes the worker as experiencing, particularly during its stay at the De Laceys'. There, {94} touched by Safie's beauty and the domestic felicity of the bourgeois family, expects to be accepted into society once it has learned how to speak, but discovers instead, as Marx says, that "labour produces palaces but only hovels for the worker; it produces beauty, but cripples the worker . . . it produces culture but only imbecility and cretinism for the worker" (79). (Teachers may explore the link between production and imperialism using Spivak's analysis of the same scene at the De Laceys' in "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.") Taken as a whole, the novel can be understood to show the relation between creature and creator a reflection of the relation between workers and those who control the forces of production. The paradoxes in Frankenstein -- that the Creature is much larger and apparently more powerful than Victor yet is incapable of producing anything without him and that Victor is inextricably bound to it and it to him -- accurately represent the bond between worker and capitalist both become involved in the process of production.

When we consider Victor as another figure standing for the alienation of the worker, students begin to have difficulties. This new reading seems contradictory because the novel clearly represents Victor as coming from the upper, moneyed classes. The problem here is that we are moving from the easy one-to-one correspondence of a strictly allegorical reading, which sees Victor as entrepreneur and the Creature as worker, to a symbolic reading, which sees issues of production represented at various locations throughout the novel. To make such a shift, I ask students to look at the places where Marx represents the workers' experience of alienation. Passages like the following describe with uncanny accuracy the issue that criticis find so problematic in Frankenstein, the relation between Victor and the thing he has made:

The worker puts his life into the object and this means that it no longer belongs to him but to the object. . . . So the greater this product the less he is himself. The externalization of the worker in his product implies not only that his labour becomes an object, an exterior existence but also that it exists opposite him, that the life he has lent the object affronts him, hostile and alien. (79)
When students take a closer look at the details of Victor's story, they begin see that it lays out, in narrative form, the series of stages that Marx's writings describe workers going through as they become alienated from the objects they produce. In class discussion, I point out that this reading Shelley's novel gives us a fictional or "lived" instance of the themes Marx subsequently articulates in his theories of alienation in much the {95} same way that Freud's case studies provide narrative or lived instances of his psychological theories.

Reading Frankenstein as a narrative about production solves a number of the problems that arise in discussion when students approach the novel as a story about a creator and his creation. For instance, students frequently ask why Shelley fails to describe the actual moment in which the Creature comes to life; teachers can answer that she depicts Victor caught up not in an act of creation but in a process of production. As a result, her descriptions concentrate not on the moment of creation but on the alienating effects of the process that leads up to that moment, thereby illustrating Marx's assertion that "alienation shows itself not only in the result, but also in the act of production, inside productive activity itself" (80; emphasis mine). The literal details Shelley uses to convey Victor's state of mind while he is making the Creature -- his isolated apartment, his inability to contact his family or even notice the changing of the seasons -- can be read to represent what Marx describes as the two most immediate consequences of the worker's alienation from the product of his (Marx's usage) labor: alienation from nature and from other men. The Creature's behavior once it has been made makes more sense to students when they read the novel as a story of production rather than creation. In Marx's terms, the Creature represents the externalization of Victor's alienation. The Creature, once produced, works to break any attachment Victor might form to the outside world. I note here that in the 1831 version Shelley added passages in which Victor articulates his alienation first from his family and then from the rest of society: "I felt . . . as if never more might I enjoy companionship with them" (142) and "I felt that I had no right to share their intercourse" (176). Victor becomes a mouthpiece, clearly expressing the isolation from the rest of his species that Marx asserts is the consequence of production under capitalism.

Once they read Frankenstein as an account of production, students can analyze what that account reveals about nineteenth-century attitudes toward production and alienation; in the process they use Shelley's narrative to comment on Marx. Asked where Frankenstein most clearly represents the process Marx describes as alienating the worker from "his own body . . . his intellectual being, and his human essence" (83), students cite the scenes in which Victor is involved in physically producing the Creature. I ask them to think of that section of Shelley's novel as a symbolic version of what Marx describes theoretically in his essay "Alienated Labour" (Selected Writings 77-87). We then read the process of making the Creature as a fictional representation of what Marx later describes as the experience in which the worker "does not confirm [but] denies himself, feels miserable instead of happy, displays no free physical and intellectual {96} energy, mortifies his body and ruins his mind" (80; emphasis mine). From this perspective, the materials Victor uses to make the Creature, parts of dismembered corpses, are emblematic of the way production breaks down what Marx calls the "body" of the natural world into a series of "dead" component parts to be used in manufacturing. When asked what effect contact with such materials has on Victor, students explain that it makes the process of production disgusting and that, to keep working, Victor must avoid triggering such a sense of disgust by denying or repressing natal responses like taste and smell. I point out that this repression divides Victor from himself so that one part of him is involved in the material process of production but the other part denies that involvement. We then compare the Creature's description of Victor's journal as containing "the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person . . . in language which painted [Victor's] own horrors" (124) with Victor's earlier description his act of "creation." While Victor consciously insists he was intent only creating ideal beauty and was horrified at the results when the Create was completed, the journal entry reveals his awareness of what was happening during the process of production. Shelley's novel thus suggests at the ultimate nineteenth-century self-alienation arises not from production itself but from the denial of the materiality of that process.

If we analyze the figure of the Creature itself, students come to see it as representation of materiality. I ask them to describe how the Creature is depicted in the various film versions of the novel. (Paul O'Flinn's article tracing the history of the popular "reproductions" of the Creature is useful here.) Students immediately point out that the classic visual images of the Creature stress its physical massiveness, the seams on its face, and often the bolts in its head. The significance of these details, we conclude, is that the Creature's size emphasizes its presence as a massive material object and that the seams on its face are the external or visible signs of its existence as a manufactured product. The Creature is ugly or horrifying because it does not present a smooth surface but is clearly fissured, showing the sutures that join it together as an assemblage of heterogeneous parts. The Creature is also monstrous because the machinery that makes it run is too close to the surface and therefore too easily seen: as Victor explains, the "yellow skin [that] scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath" (56). Looking again at the previous scene at the De Laceys', teachers can show students that when the Creature functions as worker rather than product, it is still acceptable only as long as it is invisible. The De Laceys are uninterested in the source of their benefactions when the worker who provides them remains unseen. But as soon as the Creature comes visible, it is cast out completely. The Creature can thus be read, both as product and worker, as an embodiment of production, and its treat- {97}ment suggests that material production is what nineteenth-century society, as depicted in the novel, desires to repress.

When students now stand back from the novel and look at it as a whole, they see that the central symbolic gesture it systematically makes is to replace stories of creation with accounts of production. This gesture of replacement is represented most clearly when the Creature discovers itself to be a product, when it turns from reading Paradise Lost, a fiction it takes for truth, to reading Victor's laboratory journal, which sets forth "the whole detail of that series of disgusting circumstances which produced" the Creature's "accursed origin" (124). This exchange, as Peter Brooks explains, "substitutes for myths of creation a literal account of the monster's manufacture" (210). We then turn to the "Author's Introduction" that Shelley added to the 1831 edition, in which she links the whole question of creation and production to her own position as an artist. The gesture Shelley makes in that preface, of telling the story of what led to her writing of the novel and insisting that she was not simply inspired, emphasizes that the novel was not created out of nothing but produced from "determinate conditions" (Macherey 68). As she says, in talking about myths of creation:

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances but cannot bring into being substance itself. (x)
Considering the "Author's Introduction" together with their reading of Frankenstein, students see Shelley's novel not just as an account of production but also as a manifesto that insists, as Macherey puts it, that "art is not man's creation, it is a product (and the producer is not a subject centered in his creation, he is an element, in a situation or a system)" (67).

This reading of Frankenstein as an account of production can be connected to other approaches to the novel and used to comment on them. Thus, to analyze Frankenstein in the context of Romantic poetry, teachers can interpret Shelley's insistence on substituting accounts of production for myths of creation as a critique of Romantic theories of abstract creativity. In the most identifiably Romantic scenes in the novel, those set in the Alps, Shelley shows Victor calling on the spirits of nature but receiving in response not the abstract creations of his poetic fancy but the material and uncontrollably alienated product of his labours, the Creature itself. Or, to give a feminist reading of the novel and deal with Mary Shelley as a nineteenth-century woman author, teachers can point out that the "Author's Introduction" mixes terms associated with production with those associated with reproduction. Words like mechanism, component part, and manufacture {97} stand beside words like offspring, progeny, and cradle (x-xii). In the first paragraph Shelley refers to the novel she has produced as a "hideous idea" and in the penultimate paragraph as a "hideous progeny." The shift from idea to progeny suggests that the introduction is documenting the novel's sage from abstract to concrete, from ideal to material, the moment of potential alienation, which Shelley treats in the language of childbirth.

Reading Frankenstein in terms of production does not preclude other interpretations of the novel by linking them to a single authoritative reading. Instead it opens up new possibilities by helping teachers to avoid replicating nineteenth-century ideology, as we do, for example, when we insist on talking about the "Creature" rather than the "monster" or on calling it, as Harold Bloom does, "the total form of Frankenstein's creative power" (215), thereby repressing or denying the presence of production in Frankenstein. When we read the novel as a critique or analysis of that ideology, we can use that reading to revise or rethink a whole series of other approaches that may also have become entangled in replicating the nineteenth-century ideologies.