Contents Index

Frankenstein's Hidden Skeleton: The Psycho-Politics of Oppression

Anca Vlasopolos

Science-Fiction Studies, 10 (1983), 125-35

{125} Renewed interest in Frankenstein suggests that the novel possesses a covert structure which, despite some critics' charges of awkwardness of style and improbabilities of plot, gives the novel a coherence that has been felt by generations of fascinated readers.1 The hidden logic of Frankenstein rests on Mary Shelley's fusion of the socio-political forces used to ensure the survival of the aristocracy with the private drama of a man who sees himself as ineluctably driven to incest. Class selection, namely the survival of the upper class and its will-to-power, appears in incident after incident throughout the novel and acts as the barely visible crack which in the end causes the collapse of the house of Frankenstein. The inbreeding practiced by the aristocracy subjects their children to irrational fears and unreconcilable conflicts, and thereby contains the seeds of destruction. The principal dynamics of Victor Frankenstein's actions involves incest-avoidance; his fear leads to the birth of the monster and ultimately to the demise of almost all family members and friends.

Approaches to the novel, whether on the part of popularizers or scholars, emphasize aspects which drive into deeper obscurity the subtext of Frankenstein. The movie-makers who appropriated Mary Shelley's myth and the critics who follow Frankenstein's modern transformations approach the book as a parable of science and technology, and attribute its pervasive attraction to its scientific prophecies. This obsession with technology and the scientist's function remains peculiarly masculine, as does the obsession with male single-parent birth.2 The text devotes scant attention to the technical aspect of monster-making, certainly less than the lavish displays of laboratory equipment and processes to which we are treated by film interpretations. Yet, as Darko Suvin notes in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, the S-F character of Frankenstein comes neither from the scientific concept nor the technological hardware used to animate the being, but from the creature's consciousness, which allows him to tell his suffering, to give us the perspective of the alien/alienated.3

More attentive to the text than the movie-makers, psychoanalytic critics nevertheless tend to emphasize masculine biases: some look at Mary Shelley's creative act as a compensation for female fears and envies;4 others pursue the incest motif through the monster's or Frankenstein's Oedipal obsession,5 which appears marginal in the context of the brother-sister tensions dominating the various relationships in the novel. Irving Buchen and Gerhard Joseph do note that Frankenstein's creation of the monster attempts to dispense with the sexual act and results in psychic fragmentation; but Irving Massey, who regards the monster as a "kind of masturbatory image of the self," still finds Victor's desire "for the self" to be a liberating impulse, freeing him from "false" desires for the other.6

Critics who discuss the political implications of Frankenstein generally mention these in light of Godwin's or Shelley's influence on Mary. Yet it is Wollstonecraft's writings which were as often on Mary's reading list as Godwin's works,7 that contain the explosive political and feminist thoughts which seem most relevant to the structure of Frankenstein.8

The two critics who hint at the psycho-politics of oppression in Frankenstein, Ellen Moers and John Dussinger, consider, respectively, the preoccupations of women artists in the "female gothic" and the formation of aristocratic families on {126} economic contracts which incur impossible obligations. Both critics extend the pattern of family romance in Frankenstein to mankind at large, and hint at the racial prejudice in the treatment met by the monster, as well as at the destructive impulse which spreads from private to public realm as illustrated by the colonization of the New World.9 Even Suvin, who presents a penetrating socio-political analysis of the novel, stops short of linking the socio-political with the psychological content of Frankenstein when he asks, "Why did the Creature have to be hideous or the Creation botched?"10

In Frankenstein, class selection -- and, implicitly, rejection -- is practiced as a form of aristocratic protectionism that encourages, in fact engineers, incest among the "well-born." The desirable characteristics are physical beauty for females and distinction of bearing for males. These criteria dominate critical aspects of both Victor's genealogy and the actions which decide his fate. Since he overtly assents to the means of survival prescribed by his class (i.e., marriage with peers), Victor remains at the mercy of his heredity and environment; at the same time, the fears of incest generated by the inbreeding practiced by his class ensure an end to at least three lineages connected with, if not directly belonging to, the aristocracy. Caroline's rescue from a fate literally worse than death -- the lot of the impoverished -- foreshadows Elizabeth's and to a lesser extent Justine's adoptions into the Frankenstein household. Class loyalty prompts Frankenstein senior to seek out his bankrupt friend. Arriving too late to save Beaufort. Frankenstein in a manner adopts Caroline and two years later marries her in a succession of events that recalls the givens of New Comedy: the aged man "protecting" the young ward through wealth and position. But Caroline is too grateful to succumb to any young lover's wooing and accepts her protector, beginning the cycle of psychic-economic obligations which weigh so heavily upon the characters in Frankenstein.

At this point in the novel there are no specific descriptions of Caroline's external appearance save for the masterful phrase "a fair exotic,"11 which at once suggests her dependence on a luxurious environment, her artificiality, and her relation with her husband, the gardener, who holds the means of her life and death in his care. Later, much will be made of Caroline's beauty, and that trait, along with her youth and noble origin, makes her the obvious choice for Frankenstein, whose ancestors had been for many years counsellors and syndics (1:31).

Lest Caroline's entrapment be dismissed as the common position of women in her class, we must recall Frankenstein's peculiar choice of subject for the one family portrait of his wife, which "represented Caroline Beaufort in an agony of despair, kneeling by the coffin of her dead father" (7:78). With such a reminder before her eyes, Caroline could hardly fail to fulfill her part of the bargain. She goes further; she re-enacts the drama of her youth, with herself in the role of benefactress and Elizabeth in the thankless part of ever-grateful recipient.

Elizabeth, whose blood connections are not immediately known, shows her heritage by appearing as a "fair exotic" amid the hardy children of the poor family with whom she is living. In fact, the aristocrats use the same vegetable imagery to distinguish between the cultivated and the wild species: "she . . . bloomed in their rude abode, fairer than a garden rose among dark-leaved brambles" (1:35). Elizabeth's rescue could be looked upon as a humane act of salvaging a being who could not have survived the hardships of poverty. But the child is selected simply on the basis of her looks, since she appears happy and healthy in her "rude abode." That the mark of class can be read on physiognomy and complexion is taken for granted by the three narrators of Frankenstein. In Elizabeth's case, the distinction strikes one as acutely racial. The poor children are "dark-eyed," "dark-leaved," whereas Elizabeth would satisfy the strictest Aryan requirements. Her selection proves an even crueller entrapment than Caroline's. She is brought in as a beautiful toy for little Victor and as {127} a mate for him when he grows up; and, though her choices in life are non-existent -- as are those of her benefactress -- she does not even enjoy the pleasure of her fiancé's desire and ultimately of a family.

In the selection of Justine, Caroline plays once more the role of benefactress. She saves an abused child, who presumably is beautiful enough to warrant an education superior to the position of servant for which she has been rescued, but not enough to become an adopted daughter. After all, she could not exceed the limits of beauty alloted to the lower-middle class. Justine's selection, like Elizabeth's, proves fatal to her. Both women die of their connections with the house of Frankenstein, while Caroline dies of her beneficence. The survival of the fairest, which motivates the rescue of the three women, becomes a blight to those around them and to their own lives.

Men in Frankenstein need less rescuing from obscurity; but they, too, are scrutinized according to class standards of deportment, attitudes toward money, and use of language before they are accepted as companions for aristocrats. Victor's very narration and its record occur because Walton, who rejects a tender-hearted and virtuous but lower-class man as companion. finds in Victor the perfect friend, "attractive and amiable," well-educated, and possessed of elegant language (p. 27). Victor exhibits a similar aversion to making friends with people below his station. He befriends Clerval, a merchant's son, but dwells on the differences between the son's and the father's views of learning and money. What saves Clerval from his unsavory origin is his high-mindedness (2:37) his interest in esoteric knowledge (6:69), and his refusal to sully himself with his father's occupation (3:44), though accepting the financial support derived therefrom. While briefly treated, the most decisive male attachment in the novel is Victor's admiration of Waldman. After having his enthusiasm considerably dampened by an uncouth "squat man, with a gruff voice and a repulsive countenance" (3:45-46) -- Krempe -- Victor returns to his scientific pursuits when he meets Waldman. The professor has "dignity in his mien," "affability and kindness," "an aspect expressive of the greatest benevolence," and "a voice the sweetest I had ever heard" (3:47-48). In short, Waldman, who behaves and bears himself like a gentleman, convinces Victor that men of their class belong to the sciences, particularly since scientists will soon rule the world.

The monster's romance with the De Lacey family parallels the novel's overall pattern of class selection. Like Elizabeth and Justine, the monster finds himself in a relationship of dependence, which on his part is strictly emotional, since it is his so-called protectors who derive material benefits from his presence. In his attempt to create a bond of affection between himself and the De Laceys, the monster cannily acquires attributes of the upper class: their aesthetic prejudices and their language. The monster recalls the beauty of the De Laceys and his mounting feelings of horror at his own appearance. As he learns their history, then Safie's, and finally mankind's, the monster begins to see himself as déclassé. Yet, despite his dawning awareness that he has no place in a society which protects class boundaries by enforcing standards of beauty and manners, the monster still thinks that he can overcome his origin. His conversation with the blind De Lacey indicates to what extent the monster has acquired convincing upper-class expression and modes of thinking: De Lacey accepts him unquestioningly, offering his intercession and shelter. Here Mary Shelley exploits the powerful irony about levels of discernment in society: while all the characters are blinded by the monster's looks, the blind man sees him as human. When the monster's appearance unmistakably shows his outcast status and he is assaulted and hounded by his "protectors," his aristocratic idyll is at an end. He vows, still not irreversibly at this point, to dedicate himself to evil; but when the monster, as he gazes on Justine, contemplates his exclusion from women's love as well as men's friendship, the chain of circumstances begun with Caroline's selection inextricably draws close, {128} encircling the house of Frankenstein.

Since the creation of the monster represents an act of astonishing political naivete in a society so obsessed with origins, Victor's stated reasons, like Iago's motive-hunting, seem trivial and inconsistent in proportion to the deed. He combines childishness and altruism in his desire to defeat diseases and to raise ghosts and devils all at the same time (2:40); or, when more mature, he wishes to create a race of beings who, despite their superiority to mankind, would worship Victor as their god (4:54). He thus fashions himself as benefactor on a grander scale than either of his parents. Victor's thinking remains muddled. He asserts that he destroyed the monster's intended mate for fear that their offspring would overrun the world, but he does not consider that the race of supermen he projects might find human beings redundant.

Unlike his reasoning, Victor's actions prove amazingly consistent throughout; the motive informing them is fear of incest with his "more than sister" From childhood on, Victor both spiritualizes Elizabeth and distances himself from her through a series of moves and subterfuges which occasionally border on the farcical. From the first, Elizabeth for him is "a being heaven-sent" (1:34), "the living spirit of love" (2:38); but, though he protests to the contrary, his love of science deepens "the diversity and contrast that subsisted in . . . [Victor's and Elizabeth's] characters" (2:36) and becomes the source of the innumerable barriers to their union, ending with the insurmountable one, death. Victor himself chooses a dark simile for his pursuit of knowledge: "for when I would account to myself for the birth of that passion, which afterwards ruled my destiny, I find it arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources" (2:38).

The events preceding Victor's departure for his studies suggest the weight of his dilemma. His mother's deathbed wish, carrying the full burden of obligation with it, repeats what Victor and Elizabeth knew all along, that she was selected as his mate. At the same time, Caroline not only appears as the mother of them both, but she wishes Elizabeth to become mother to the younger children. The incestuous tangle from which Victor could hardly tear himself away while grief prevented any threat of marriage becomes so horrifying once the mourning period for his mother is over that he breaks off all communication with his family for two years. Since union with another is barred and union with Elizabeth horrifies him, Victor proceeds with what must be the 19th-century version of cloning; he procreates by himself and thus avoids both the curse of disobeying a mother's dying wish and the bitter fruit of incest, monstrous offspring.12 Little wonder that when the being conceived over two years, constructed during nine months (4:56), and lying at his feet after tremendous labor (5:57) turns out to be the very thing Victor sought to escape, he flees, has a nightmare in which mother, Elizabeth, and corpse-like monster are superimposed and blend into one fear, and finally succumbs to an attack of madness.

After the failure of Victor's most daring step of separating himself from Elizabeth, he remains equally inconsistent in rationalizing his actions and equally ingenious at devising escapes from her. He returns to Geneva only after he unnecessarily prolongs his stay in Ingolstadt following his convalescence. After an urgent summons from his father in which he is told of little William's murder, he makes desperate, obvious attempts to stall for time: "I dared not advance, dreading a thousand nameless evils that made me tremble. . . . I remained two days at Lausanne" (7:74); "It was completely dark when I arrived in the environs of Geneva; the gates of the town were already shut" (7:75). The last person Victor asks for upon his return is Elizabeth. It becomes evident that to spend any time alone with her is intolerable to him. Although understandably the gloom surrounding William's and Justine's deaths might drive Victor away from home, it might more likely drive him into the arms of his love. Elizabeth offers herself as consolation for his woes, and Victor responds by imagining her dead: "Even as she spoke I drew nearer to her, as if in terror; lest at that {129} very moment the destroyer had been near to rob me of her" (9:93). The closeness is momentary, however; after his meeting with the monster, Victor decides he must leave again, for "at most a year" (18:152).

This departure, like the first one, carries with it the fear of returning. While in Geneva, Victor becomes so distant towards Elizabeth that his father, acting, as did Caroline, as Elizabeth's parent, has to ask him what his intentions are. Victor protests his love, asks for a year's reprieve, and promises to marry Elizabeth instantly upon his return. During his absence he engages in another creation, now purposely abortive, so that he effectively destroys the chance of union with Elizabeth. He declares he misunderstood the monster's clear threat of "a bride for a bride," though he repeatedly has visions of the monster killing his family. His behavior and speeches on his wedding day and night are so loaded with fear of having sexual relations with his bride that they demonstrate Mary Shelley's skill in rendering an unmentionable subject virtually transparent. Victor looks forward to his wedding night as to "a deadly struggle" (22:188), foresees his own death, and again stalls for time. Perhaps most significant are the facts that Victor calls Elizabeth "wife" (23:195) after her death and that his one overt sexual act throughout the novel, embracing Elizabeth "with ardour" (23:196), occurs only when she is a corpse.

Victor's mistaking the monster for or superimposing it on images of his mother, father, and Elizabeth (the three who bind him to the pledge) happens in moments of full consciousness as well as in fevered dreams (18:150; 21:180). The gruesomely intimate connection between fear of incest and the monster becomes explicit. Moreover, the link thus created refers to the original pattern of class selection and suggests the fatal consequences of preservation at such cost. While Victor creates the monster out of an overwhelming psychic fear involving only his family, the monster's existence serves as a reminder of the havoc created by the upper class in its militant allocation of human value strictly upon those conforming to aristocratic norms.

Because the monster embodies the punishment of taboo-breaking, he appears as a projection of fear and self-loathing. At this level, the monster can be seen as Victor's double, who performs the deeds Victor desires but is unable to carry out.13 The only other character who describes the monster is Walton, a man who ardently embarks on a pursuit whose motive is as incoherently articulated as Victor's, but who really seeks to distance himself from a beloved sister. This sister is his only family relation and only friend, and she seems to represent his single relationship with women. Fear and hatred dominate both men's perceptions of the monster: one cannot look at what he has come to, the other on what he might become. Victor and Walton describe the monster in almost identical terms: "demoniacal," "diabolical," "devil," "demon" (5:57; 7:76; 10:99; 24:219). They attempt to distance themselves from their overpowering obsessions with the horror and revulsion he inspires, especially the near-impossibility of looking at him (5:58; 10:101; 24:219), and with his associations with the supernatural, his unearthly ugliness (10:99; 24:219). Both automatically accuse the monster of evil intentions and deeds, even when the situations seem to belie them. More importantly, they grotesquely misinterpret the monster's motives; and when he explains himself, they resist his eloquence, claiming to read more deeply than his words, but in effect stopping with his looks. Journeying home full of dread at "nameless evils" (7:74), Victor beholds in a flash of lightning the figure of the monster, and in a parallel interior illumination knows that his creature murdered little William. Even more irrationally, Victor attributes Justine's predicament and eventual death to the monster. In one of his moments of near insight, inevitably punctured by rationalizations, he confesses:

I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, {130} nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me. (7:77)
Yet his recognition never takes Victor as far as self-knowledge. He alternates between self-accusations, which remain private because he refuses to explain them, and about-faces when he declares himself totally blameless and inspired solely by noble motives. The decision to destroy the promised mate shows Victor in his most self-deluding phase. After recognizing the merit of the monster's claims on him, he betrays the creature's hopes because "his [the monster's] countenance expressed the utmost extent of malice and treachery" (20:166), which are precisely the sentiments entertained by Victor towards the monster at that point.

Similarly, Walton, who heeds Victor's warnings about quests as much from self-doubt and impotence as because of an uncooperative crew, engages in his turn in a ludicrous dialogue with the monster. His charges of hypocrisy and lack of conscience break in indecorously upon the monster's solemn and lofty eulogy. Mary Shelley, who pits the monster's words against his perceivers' accounts, gives the monster the last speech and the great final exit.

The novel retains enough ambiguities about the monster's versus Victor's and Walton's claims to suggest that the creature attains too powerful a political pressure to be merely part of Victor's psyche. The political substructure disperses the doubts created by the convoluted points of view of Frankenstein. As we unearth this hidden level, it becomes clear that the monster, with his unnatural origin and consequent detachment from existing societal structures, represents the dispossessed. Counterparts and parallels to him, though none as extreme as he is, form a web of interconnecting patterns which makes Frankenstein an emphatically political novel. The first sighting of the monster already classifies him among the Calibans whom it becomes a virtue to usurp: "a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island" (p. 24). Mary Shelley takes pains to place her novel not in the 17th-century romance with exotic new worlds but firmly in the 19th-century reality of colonialism by genocide. As Safie and the eavesdropping monster are instructed in history, they hear of "the hapless fate of its [America's] original inhabitants" (13:119). Safie, the stranger to the West weeps, along with the monster, while Felix presumably just tells the tale.

The question of heredity and economic contracts implicit in class selection becomes explicit when the monster begins to learn about human society. The monster discovers he has neither possessions nor blood. Merely to lack these would subject him to indignities and injustices. Mary Shelley illustrates the irreversible destruction of humanity occurring in these conditions: "its [an Orkney island's] inhabitants . . . consisted of five persons, whose gaunt and scraggy limbs gave tokens of their miserable fare" (20:163). Victor pontificates that "all the senses of the cottagers [had] been benumbed by want and squalid poverty" because they take no interest in his house-keeping; and when they fail to thank him "for the pittance of food and clothes," he supposes that "so much does suffering blunt even the coarsest sensations of men" (20:163). The irony resides in Victor's egocentric absorption with his comings and goings and in Mary Shelley's fine choice of "pittance," for which Victor expects lavish thanks.

But as the monster reflects on his status, he has already acquired one of the privileges of the aristocracy, a liberal education. Justine provides the political parallel which demonstrates that monsters can be manufactured as easily by social systems as by men in laboratories. She, too, although without riches or noble blood, acquires an education uncommon to her station. Yet at first test of the social advantages gained through her connection with the Frankensteins, both law and religion conspire to reduce her to her prescribed state, servitude: they strip her of humanity and condemn her to death, physical and spiritual. Justine's trial shatters the affirmations {131} of faith about the superiority of republican institutions over monarchies in their regard for human beings (Elizabeth's letter, 6:65) and Frankenstein senior's assurances about the impartiality of laws (7:81). The trial becomes a publicly sanctioned lynching based on the populace's perception of Justine as a monster, and this despite her beauty: she is "gazed on and execrated by thousands" (8:82). Her crime is ingratitude and disloyalty towards her employer-benefactors. The prejudice against her blinds judge, jury, and audience to the purely circumstantial nature of the evidence and the preposterousness of the accusation. When Elizabeth makes her rather feeble-minded attempt to save Justine, "public indignation was turned [against Justine] with renewed violence, charging her with blackest ingratitude" (8:85) since she could sin against such generous employers. She is condemned to death for William's murder.

Religion serves Justine equally ill. Already transformed into a monster by the crowd, she is coerced by her confessor to become what others see her:

'My confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was. He threatened excommunication and hell fire in my last moments, if I continued obdurate. Dear lady, I had none to support me: all looked on me as a wretch doomed to ignominy and perdition. What could I do? In an evil hour I subscribed to a lie: and now only am I truly miserable.' (8:87)
The priest thus condemns Justine's soul to eternal perdition by forcing her to lie during her last confession. Her dehumanization is complete; "She perished on the scaffold as a murderess" (8:89).

That law and religion unite to uphold the inequities of society appears evident in the very different treatment received by Victor when he, too, is accused of murder and from the fact that in childhood Elizabeth is delivered into the hands of her "protectors" on the advice of the village priest. What for Justine ends in horror and death, for Victor remains merely the vexations of a criminal charge, since he, whose connections are powerful enough to reverse the evidence against him, was spared the disgrace of appearing publicly as a criminal (21:182).

Not everyone doomed to servitude in Frankenstein accepts his or her fate. Safie and the monster refuse to be treated "as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste [their] powers for the profits of the chosen few" (13:120). Safie flees the degradation of the harem (a dominant symbol for female enslavement in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman),14 but, unlike the monster, she has beauty, good heredity on the maternal side at least, and possessions considerable enough to make a difference in the De Laceys' social status. Yet what does Safie seek besides "marrying a Christian" and having a measure of "rank in society" (14:124)? We are told that "her soul [is] now accustomed to grand ideas and noble emulation for virtue" (14:124). What can the reader envisage for her based on the fate of women of rank, such as Caroline and Elizabeth? We see the entrapment into an inescapable marriage which -- dare one suggest? -- may be worse for its loneliness than the feared seraglio. Elizabeth's first letter to Victor, the only social context given for the Frankenstein family, demonstrates to what small room virtue and freedom of intellect are confined in the aristocratic woman's life: "The pretty Miss Mansfield has already received the congratulatory visits on her approaching marriage with a young Englishman. . . . Her ugly sister, Manon, married M. Duvillard, the rich banker, last autumn. Your favorite school fellow . . . is reported to be on the point of marrying a very lively pretty Frenchwoman. . . ." (6:66-67) {132} Significantly, Elizabeth's letter to Victor marks the happiest period of her life, before the family's peace is broken and before she becomes victim to the process which saved her from the enslavement of poverty. To such freedom Safie flies.

Challenges to societal norms are absorbed (Safie), isolated (the Orkney islanders), or eliminated (Justine); in the monster's case his irrepressible existence raises a specter of unrest which demands the most oppressive response. The abhorrence and cruelty he inspires illustrate society's desire to destroy its pariahs, and his plan to emigrate suggests the pariahs' hopes of life through voluntary expulsion from civilization. It takes the monster several attempts over a period of time to realize that he is truly de trop, that mankind will make no room for a deformed, impoverished, gigantic foundling. He exhausts his last alternative while he suffers the merciless backlash to his endeavors. First, he tries to kidnap William, choosing him not because of his connection with Victor, but because, he thinks, "this little creature was unprejudiced, and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity" (16:142). William responds as a true scion of his class. He perceives the monster as the enemy, as the "ugly wretch," but at the same time calls upon the authority of his father's position to frighten and subdue an underling: "My papa is a Syndic -- he is M. Frankenstein -- he will punish you. You dare not keep me" (16:142). The weight of the punishment called forth by William miscarries and falls upon Justine -- the underling suspected of having risen against her masters.

The monster's second choice consists of convincing Victor to create a being like him as a companion. He vows to depart for "the vast wilds of South America," where he envisages a pre-lapsarian existence with his mate: "My companion will be of the same nature as myself, and will be content with the same [vegetarian] fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves: the sun will shine on us as on man, and will ripen our food" (17:146). Victor at first accedes to the monster's proposal, reasoning, as many governments past and present have done, that since he had no intention of showing any tolerance, any humanity for his creature, the best interests of society would be served by enabling him to deport himself to a new world (17:147-48). Yet in a fit of rationalization also characteristic of many governments, Victor for private reasons bars the monster's emigration after raising his hopes, and claims as motive his care for the general good, even for the preservation of mankind. Victor uses the age-old line that, if encouraged and helped, the oppressed would overrun the world and destroy the established order. Unless reduced to the physical and mental impotence of the Orkney islanders (among whom Victor makes his decision), the outcasts cannot be trusted.

Lastly, when the monster has no other possibility left and yet refuses to live as a beast on the outskirts of civilization, from whose joys he is barred, his creator acts out a desire he has entertained ever since he first viewed his failed experiment -- his extermination. That the monster commits atrocities of his own is undeniable, and hence Victor at the end has a measure of justification for seeking to destroy him. But the attempts on the monster's life and the desire to punish, expel, and kill him do not begin as a consequence of his crimes (of which only Victor and, much later, Walton are aware), but as a result of his appearance. The outsider, the untouchable who cannot be fitted into the existing order, represents a threat to it. The most radical and most frequently encountered reaction to the monster is the attempt to exterminate him. He is hunted and stoned by villagers, wrenched from the old man in the middle of his plea and struck with a stick in a clear attempt upon his life, shot at by another villager, reviled by William in childish terms and by Victor and Walton in more sophisticated language, and, most unjustifiably of all, abandoned at birth and viewed throughout strictly as expendable by his creator.

The political implications of the equation monster-the oppressed, made not only in the text but in the reaction to the novel, reveal that crack at the center of {133} civilization whose depiction renders Frankenstein prophetic in a sense that impinges on more than man's misuse of technology. William, Victor, and Walton, the three humans who address the monster and can see him, use a term of opprobrium connoting social inferiority -- "wretch" The monster takes on the burden of the term and forges from it a kind of identity for himself. To Victor, he declares: "All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things" (10:99); but he also warns him: "mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery" (17:145). He confesses to Walton: "it is true that I am a wretch. I have murdered the lovely and the helpless"; yet this admission follows the same defiance against oppression: "I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice" (24:222). Frankenstein's combination of a consciousness of oppression with a refusal to submit raises a specter of unrest to which men in power have been quicker to respond than have literary critics.

Mary Shelley, whose reading list included the most radical works of her time, must have been aware of the subversive power of her novel. Yet, as the decisions she made after Shelley's death regarding her life, their child's upbringing, and especially the 1831 revision of Frankenstein suggest, she fled from her own knowledge. The aristocratic milieu savaged by the creature is couched in such comfortable literary conventions that its destructive aspects can easily be glossed over. Nevertheless, two historical instances spanning more than a century may serve to illustrate the book's enduring political power, as well as the divergent interpretations which can be placed on the text. The first has to do with the speech made by a member of the Parliament during an 1824 debate in the House of Lords: not on the emancipation but merely on the "Amelioration of the Condition of the Slave Population." Whether the M.P. summarized the splendid fiction of a recent romance after reading Frankenstein or only from hearing about it matters less than the interpretation he gave the novel as a cautionary tale for the ruling class:

To turn the Negro loose in the manhood of his physical strength, in the maturity of his physical passions, but in the infancy of his uninstructed reason, would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance; the hero of which constructs a human form, with all the corporeal capabilities of man, and with the thews and sinews of a giant; but being unable to impart to the work of his hands a perception of right and wrong, he finds too late that he has created a more than mortal power of doing mischief and himself recoils from the monster which he has made.15
Neither the monster's highly developed "perception of right and wrong" nor his creator's downright murderous intentions appear in the M.P.'s summary, since clearly the revolutionary turbulence at the center of Frankenstein might have disrupted his entrenched notions about slavery. Perceived as a childish, hence monstrous, giant, the slave could more readily be chained.

The second example points to the subversive side of the novel and brings it as political threat into the second half of the 20th century. The racist regime in South Africa banned the book in 1955 on the grounds of its being "indecent, objectionable, or obscene." A South African owning it faced a fine of £1,000 or up to five years in prison.16 Though no government on earth is fully exempt from charges of censorship or repression, South Africa provides a unique modern instance of a country in which appearance (i.e., shade of skin and racial physiognomy) is a strict criterion for social status and for civil rights; and the subtext of Frankenstein -- the indictment of a class system that erects an aesthetics of exclusion to perpetuate its ascendancy -- makes it anathema to such an overtly racist regime.

Surprisingly, the double structure -- political and psychic -- which lends coher- {134} ence to the much-criticized improbabilities of Frankenstein has remained barely perceptible, somewhat like the submerged movement of Alpine glaciers whose presence dominates the novel's imagery. Given her time and attachments, Mary Shelley did not openly take the same risks in her writing as in her life. Yet the hidden structure gives the myth its lasting power: our fascination with the monster and sympathy for him; our disrespect for his unreflecting creator, for his would-be destroyers, and for the mobs that gather to howl for Justine's blood; and that continuing confusion between monster and creator in the name Frankenstein, a confusion which poignantly illustrates that monster's monstrous origins.


1. For the most recent argument against the coherence of the novel, see Paul Sherwin, "Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe," PMLA, 96 (1981):883-903.

2. In "Frankenstein -- Or 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy'" (read at the Salisbury Conference on Film, History, and Literature, June 1980), Anthony Ambrogio advances the thesis that the dark secret in the Frankenstein movies is birth without women. Martin Tropp, in Mary Shelley's Monster (Boston, 1976), contends that in 20th-century versions Frankenstein has become "the myth of technology" (p. 9).

3. Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, 1979), pp. 131-32.

4. See Gordon D. Hirsch, "The Monster Was a Lady: On the Psychology of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," Hartford Studies in Literature, 7 (1975):116-53: Mark A. Rubenstein, "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism, 15 (1976): 165-94; Christopher Small, Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary and Frankenstein (London, 1972); Mary Poovey, "My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and the Feminization of Romanticism," PMLA, 95 (1980): 332-47. Contra, see Kate Ellis, "Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Burgeois Family," in The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. George Levine & U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley, CA: 1979), pp. 123-42.

5. See Morton Kaplan and Robert Kloss, "Fantasy of Paternity and the Doppelganger: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," in The Unspoken Motive: A Guide to Psychoanalitic Literary Criticism (NY, 1973), pp. 119-45 (esp. pp 128-28); John A. Dussinger, "Kinship and Guilt in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," Studies in the Novel, 8 (1976): 38-55 (esp. pp. 41-42, 46); George Levine, "Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism," Novel, 7 (1973): 14-30 (sp. pp. 20-25); John M. Hill, "Frankenstein and the Physiognomy of Desire," American Imago, 32 (1975): 335-58 (esp. pp. 339-42, 355-56).

6. Irving H. Buchen, "Frankenstein and the Alchemy of Creation and Evolution," The Wordsworth Circle, 8 (1977):103-12; Gerhard Joseph, "Frankenstein's Dream: The Child as Father to the Monster," Hartford Studies in Literature, 7 (1975):97-115; Irving Massey, The Gaping Pig: Literature and Metamorphosis (Berkeley & Los Angeles,1976), pp. 125-27, 134.

7. Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman, OK: Oklahoma UP, 1947), shows Wollstonecraft's Rights of Women [sic] on Mary's reading list for 1816, the year of Frankenstein's composition, while the 1815 list contains Wollstonecraft's three volumes of Posthumous Works, and the 1814 list, along with Godwin's Caleb Williams and Political Justice, Wollstonecraft's Letters from Norway, Mary, and Wrongs of Women [sic].

8. Biographers Muriel Spark, in Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Hadleigh, UK: 1951), and Richard Holmes, in Shelley: The Pursuit (NY, 1975), refer to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as The Rights of Women (p. 12 and p. 153, respectively); Burton R. Pollin discusses Mme. de Genlis but not Wollstonecraft in "Philosophical and Literary Sources of Frankenstein," Comparative Literature, 17 (1965):97-108. Small sees Frankenstein as a working-out of Godwinian and Shelleyan ideas (Ariel Like a Harpy, pp. 73-78), while Spark argues that Mary works against Godwinian systems ("Mary Shelley: A Prophetic Novelist," The Listener [Feb. 22, 1951], pp. 305-06). Lee Sterrenburg, in "Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein" (The Endurance of Frankenstein pp.143-71), argues that Mary rejects her radical heritage and presents a political critique of Godwinism in the novel, while Peter Dale Scott, in "Vital Artifice: Mary, Percy, and the Psychopolitical Integrity of Frankenstein" (The Endurance of Frankenstein pp. 172-202), sees the work as a cluster of responses to a "dominating father, absent mother, and imbalanced husband" (p. 189). Buchen and Frank H. McCloskey ("Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," The Humanities in the Age of Science ed. Charles Angoff [Cranbury, NJ: 1968], pp. 116-38) couple Godwin and Wollstonecraft in their brief reference to influence. Hill, Hirsch, and Rubenstein see Wollstonecraft as a blocking, emotional but not intellectual influence on Mary.

9. Dussinger, op. cit. pp. 48-52; Ellen Moers, "Female Gothic: The Monster's Mother," New York Review of Books Apr. 4, 1974, pp. 35-39, and May 21, 1974. pp. 24-28 (esp. pp. 24 and 28, n. 9).

10. Suvin, op. cit. p. 133.

11. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus ed. M. K. Joseph (London: Oxford UP, 1969), 1:33. Henceforth, quotations from Frankenstein will be from this edition and page references will be given in the text.

12. Folklore motif indexes cite monstrous birth in relation to sister-brother incest as common to Indo-European cultures: see A1337.07 in Motif-lndex of Folk-Literature, ed. Stith Thompson (Bloomington, IN: 1966).

13. There is general critical agreement on this point, as indicated by titles such as "Fantasy of Paternity and the Doppelganger" (see n. 5 above).

14. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman ed. Carol H. Poston (NY: W. W. Norton 1971), pp. 8, 10, 19, 29.

15. Amelioration of the Condition of the Slave Population of the West Indies (House of Lords). Parliamentary Debates. n.s. 10 (Mar. 16, 1824), columns 1046-1198. Cited in W. H. Lyles, Mary Shelley: An Annotated Bibliography (N.Y. & London, 1975), p. 122.

16. "Frankenstein is Banned," New York Times, Sept. 5, 1955, p. 9.