Contents Index

Standards of taste, Discourses of "Race," and the Aesthetic Education of a Monster: Critique of Empire in Frankenstein

Elizabeth A. Bohls

Eighteenth-Century Life 18 (November 1994): 25-36.

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God!

{23} It "should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England's social mission, was a crucial part of the representation of England to the English."1 Gayatri Spivak's call in 1985 for a move away from "isolationist high feminism" toward critical awareness of global interconnection is well known and has had some impact on feminist theory, as have other critiques by women of color. The effect of these critiques on literary history, however, has been more uneven. For example, amid the copious criticism of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein before Spivak and since, very little attention has been paid to Shelley's manifest concern with the political, psychological, moral, and, in particular, aesthetic problems occasioned by the fact of empire.2

What is it about the disciplinary definition that entitles scholars and teachers of English literature in North America to conserve a certain cultural heritage -- our portfolio, so to speak -- that has been so effective in blocking the fact of empire and its domestic ramifications out of our field of vision as we study and teach the imperial era? For one thing, the national boundaries that categorize our expertise obscure the global character of Britishness from the early modern period onward. This brings up the question of defining "empire." More than the appropriation of territory outside national borders (though this was well under way by 1818), I use the term to include the projects of exploration and trade supported by Britain's ideological investment in overseas expansion, dating back at least to Sir Walter Raleigh. As early as 1713, when the Peace of Utrecht won Britain among other things the right to dominate the Caribbean slave trade -- and certainly after the Seven Years' War ended in 1763, leaving Britain with a much larger and more heterogeneous empire, no longer primarily commercial but sustained by force of arms -- Britishness entailed believing one was a member of a specially privileged group entitled to dominate other nations throughout the world. According to historian Linda Colley, the British national identity {24} that was consolidated between 1707 and 1837 was "heavily dependent . . . on a broadly Protestant culture, on the threat and tonic of recurrent war . . . and on the triumphs, profits and Otherness represented by a massive overseas empire" -- a problematic legacy for postcolonial Britain.3

Our position within the educational apparatus of the former colony that inherited Britain's global influence and sense of national entitlement gives us an obvious stake in taking for granted imperial power relations, and the assumptions about subjectivity that went with them, as we pass them on to the next generation of educated Americans. Interrupting this process will involve reassessing categories and the literature and the institutions that uphold them. We will need to confront the inventedness of national boundaries, and their ideological function for the disciplines and discourses that construct imperial subjects. New categories are needed to take into account, as Edward Said puts it, "the interdependence of cultural terrains in which colonizer and colonized coexisted and battled each other."4 For example, Paul Gilroy suggests "the Atlantic" as a new rubric for historicizing the situation of blacks in the Western diaspora, including Britain, Europe, North and South America, and the Caribbean. Constructive engagement with the problems of race throughout this diaspora, he argues, will involve getting beyond the kind of reductive, dualistic thinking that presents the kidnapping and importation of Africans as "a collision between mutually exclusive cultural communities."5

Gilroy joins the movement among theorists of colonialism toward questioning the overly rigid binarisms implicit in the notion of the Other. Such an approach was important in the development of the field through the work of Said, Abdul JanMohamed, and others. But rehearsing the protean manifestations of otherness, as Sara Suleri warns, is likely to entrench the division between Self and Other -- replicating the familiar category of the exotic as the unreadable or unknowable, rather than finding ways (in the words of S. P. Mohanty) "to recover our commonality, not the ambiguous imperial-humanist myth of our shared human attributes which are supposed to distinguish us from animals, but more significantly, the imbrication of our various pasts and presents, the ineluctable relationships of shared and contested meanings, values, material resources."6

Laura Brown's recent work on Swift suggests one path toward such a recovery. She first analyzes the convergence of historically specific representations of racial and sexual difference in the threatening otherness of the Yahoos, and then exposes Swift's anticolonial strategy of forcing Gulliver to confront the Yahoos as his mirror image in a complex and shifting "dynamic of aversion and identification." Like Gulliver, the creature sees his reflection in a pool and recognizes or misrecognizes himself as a monster. This allusion to Gulliver's Travels, which Mary Shelley reread in 1816 as she worked on her novel, foregrounds travel and colonialism as relevant contexts for encounters with seemingly monstrous Others; the mirror scene demands that the reader reevaluate the very concept of monsterhood. This demand is further complicated by the fact that Frankenstein's creature, like the Yahoos, evokes descriptions of alien {25} races as well as images of women.7 Shelley poses this challenge in the context of the discourse that, using the language of aesthetics, associates value with appearances and discriminates between the beautiful and the disgusting.

In the Enlightenment ferment of inquiry and speculation about "the true, the good, and the beautiful," Gilroy has argued, scientists did not monopolize cultural myths of race (p. 188). Aestheticians from Hume to Burke, and even Kant, made clear their views on race and used racial concepts in elaborating their aesthetic thought, with consequences for Frankenstein that critics have scarcely acknowledged.8 Shelley uses aesthetic concepts to probe the relationships among the scientist or explorer at the geographic and intellectual frontiers of empire; the home community that he leaves behind, but whose benefit he claims to seek; and all of those (like the creature) whom that community needs to exclude and vilify. Her critical deployment of aesthetics reveals it to be an imperial discourse -- one of the languages of high culture, seemingly far removed from the practical tasks of empire, but actually helping produce imperial subjects to carry out those tasks.

Like most of her peers, Shelley read widely in the literature of travel and colonialism. Between 1814 and 1817, before and during the composition of Frankenstein, she read Mungo Park's Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, Thomas Pennant's View of Hindoostan, Sir John Barrow's account of the British embassy to China in 1792-94, William Robertson's History of America, and Bryan Edwards' History of the West Indies. Her global interests extended to imaginative works like Beckford's Vathek, Marmontel's Incas, and Lady Morgan's The Missionary: An Indian Tale, to mention a few.9 Travel literature and the oriental tale are among the many literary genres and social languages that contribute to this novel's heteroglossic form. Like Frankenstein's creature (as Mary Favret has shown), Shelley's narrative is heterogeneous -- composed of competing voices whose interplay opens up meaning and exposes it as relational or relative (p. 178). This polylogic form unsettles narrative authority and points in the direction of cultural relativism. It interrupts the universalizing monologue with which European culture tries to impose its values, notably aesthetic value, around the world.

At the time that Shelley wrote, Britain had lost the American empire but was well on its way to building a second in India, Africa, the Pacific, and elsewhere. By the 1820s its rulers would claim dominion over some two hundred million men and women, more than a quarter of the world's population; but the challenges of colonial rule were heightened by intensifying class conflict at home. Shelley weaves into her creature's indeterminate identity middle-class Britons' collective anxieties about otherness of more than one kind. She demonstrates, in the words of Zohreh T. Sullivan, the active interdependence of "hierarchies of race and class, ideologies of empire, and gender oppositions" (p. 21). And this is accomplished, I will argue, largely through a critical deployment of aesthetic discourse.

{26} In Edmund Burke's influential aesthetic treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), the aesthetic response to the sublime is rooted in the drive for self-preservation, and that to the beautiful, in the social emotions. Shelley uses these aesthetic categories to probe the relation between the solitary, heroic scientist or explorer and the home community. Walton and Victor isolate themselves and end up in the Arctic ice fields, whose sublime desolation frames the narrative. The exploration or imperial expansion that the figure of Walton brings into the novel was closely connected with science, as Cook's voyages to the Pacific testify: staffed with naturalists, astronomers, and geographers -- as well as artists -- their scientific inquiry fronted for political and economic imperatives. I will be most concerned, however, not with the imperial individual and his sublime quest, but with the community from which he retreats, a community circumscribed by the aesthetics of the beautiful and the picturesque. Despite the measure of sympathy given the flawed Victor, the novel seems to privilege the communal ideal associated with these categories over the individualist ethos of the sublime -- and even Walton and Victor rationalize their obsessions as serving humanity. On closer scrutiny, however, Shelley's aestheticized community reveals some troubling features and has a vexed relation with Frankenstein's un-beautiful creature.

Aesthetics is woven into the Frankensteins' domestic circle. In particular, they share a taste for natural scenery, beginning with "the majestic and wondrous scenes which surround . . . [their] Swiss home."10 At the center of their circle is the beautiful and graceful Elizabeth, Victor's cousin-fiancée, who from childhood has loved poetry and drawing, while Victor has hungered after facts. Elizabeth displays her sensitivity to nature, for example, on the newlyweds' boat ride across the lake, pointing out its beauty like a tour guide to take Victor's mind off his premonitions. This female aesthete is too passive and colorless to be much of a force in the novel, however. Shelley's 1831 revisions exaggerate these traits, making her a full-fledged Victorian "Angel in the House." Elizabeth is "entirely forgetful of herself' (p. 39), meeting the standards of such conservative arbiters of feminine behavior as Thomas Gisborne. As Kate Ellis points out, her character seems especially unsatisfying in contrast to Safie's Wollstonecraftean initiative and verve, leaving her tyrannical father and traveling alone through a foreign country in search of her lover (pp. 135, 139, & 141). The Frankensteins' aesthetic community subtly emerges as less than ideal. It can accommodate women, but only, it seems, in a supporting rôle.

The other pillar of this little community is Victor's boyhood friend Henry Clerval. Henry's character combines aesthetic sensibility with a concern for social bonds, both of which Victor loses during his obsessive research (p. 53). From childhood Henry loves "books of chivalry and romance" (p. 30). He is no natural philosopher, but a poet and humanist who finally convinces his father to let him study languages at Ingolstadt. {27} Coincidentally, he arrives -- bearing a letter from Elizabeth -- just on the "dreary night of November" when Victor brings the creature to life. "Nothing could equal my delight on seeing Clerval," Victor enthuses; "his presence brought back to my thoughts my father, Elizabeth, and all those scenes of home so dear to my recollection" (p. 55). The novel poses an insistent connection between the aestheticized nature connoted by "scenes" and family or community ties. Both are offered as balm for the physical and psychological disease of hypertrophied reason. Henry nurses his friend through the fever that follows the traumatic event, and the first sign of Victor's recovery is his returning pleasure in nature, the signs of spring (p. 57). His therapy includes picturesque tourism: first a walking tour around Ingolstadt, and later a trip down the Rhine and over to England and Scotland, where Victor has promised to produce a female creature. In this lengthy sequence, staged in the standard (by 1818 relatively clichéd) language of landscape aesthetics, Henry plays tour guide. Victor is an unresponsive tourist, distracted by "dreary imaginations" of what he must do (p. 151).

Henry is the quintessential man of taste, representing all that is finest in European civilization. He combines aesthetic sensibility with good looks, intelligence, and a nurturing side. He is almost too good to be true, except for one troubling feature that is amplified in Shelley's 1831 revision, where he evolves from an idealistic student of Oriental languages into a colonial entrepreneur:

He came to the University with the design of making himself complete master of the oriental languages, as thus he should open a field for the plan of life he had marked out for himself. Resolved to pursue no inglorious career, he turned his eyes toward the East, as affording scope for his spirit of enterprise.

(pp. 243-44)

Specifically, "His design was to visit India, in the belief that he had in his knowledge of its various languages, and in the views he had taken of its society, the means of materially assisting the progress of European colonization and trade" (p. 253). Why is it precisely this seemingly exemplary figure whom Shelley endows with imperial ambitions? We might infer that she shared the enthusiasm of so many of her contemporaries for Britain's imperial projects. The rest of the novel's references to colonialism are less sanguine, however. Listening in on Safie's history lessons, for example, the creature "heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere, and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants" (p. 115). In the context of the novel's complex dialogism, how are we to make sense of this seeming inconsistency in its attitude toward empire?

We may begin with a close look at a remarkable moment: Victor's retrospective meditation on the relation between the pursuit of knowledge, social ties, and aesthetic pleasure, which culminates in another colonial allusion. This passage takes a measured tone that sets it apart from Victor's more histrionic self-condemnations. Its position just before the climactic bringing-to-life scene lends it additional weight. Telling his {28} story to Walton, Victor proposes a moral-psychological ideal of balance or harmony, regulated by social affection and aesthetic pleasure, which he now understands he has dangerously ignored. He starts with his father's assumption that if Victor doesn't write home, he is probably neglecting his other duties as well:

I then thought that my father would be unjust if he ascribed my neglect to vice, or faultiness on my part; but I am now convinced that he was justified in conceiving that I should not be altogether free from blame. A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed, if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.

(pp. 50-51)

The "human being in perfection" turns out to be a man of taste and "domestic affection," strongly reminiscent of Henry Clerval. Victor's nostalgic celebration of the "taste for . . . simple pleasures" surely includes the aesthetic pleasure in nature that he is unable to feel during his scientific research. Such a "tranquil," contemplative state of social harmony and aesthetic receptiveness paraphrases eighteenth-century theorists' description of aesthetic contemplation as disinterested, untroubled by practical "vested interests," needs, or desires." One passion obviously incompatible with such a state is the pursuit of knowledge, which is repeatedly described in phrases such as "a kind of transport" (p. 46) or "a resistless, almost frantic impulse" (p. 49).

One version of the aesthetic in Frankenstein, then, is as an ideal that could regulate the development of civilization. Connecting Victor's scientific urge with the destructive hunger for discovery and conquest poses an antithesis between aesthetics and empire: a more tasteful, tranquil civilization would never have done these horrible things. If (as Spivak puts it) the three divisions of the Kantian subject -- pure reason, or science and technology; practical reason, or morality; and aesthetic judgment -- would only work in harmony, progress could be humanely regulated and monstrosity contained (p. 256).12 Here as elsewhere in the novel, however, Victor turns out to advocate a flawed perspective. Shelley does not rest content with a critique of reason's excesses. She broadens her scope to include the very aspect of Enlightenment culture that Victor appears to offer as a remedy: the aesthetic. If Victor the scientist and Walton the explorer are exposed as dangerously misled, so is Shelley's third incarnation of Enlightenment Man -- Henry Clerval, the man of taste. The Frankensteins' aesthetic community is dysfunctional in more ways than one. It represses women and promotes colonialism, even genocide. Western civilization, viewed from the inside, has not got its {29} parts put together quite right. This suspicion is confirmed when we see this disproportion reflected from the outside -- blown up in the monstrous mirror that is Frankenstein's creature.

This memorable character incongruously combines a hideous exterior with an eloquent voice. The sympathy he evokes, telling his story, works to relativize the values that condemn him, in particular the aesthetic values that label him an object of disgust. His exclusion from those microcosms of European culture, the Frankenstein and De Lacey families, causes him a degree of anguish that reflects disturbingly on those happy communities. We come to realize that the comfort and attractiveness of their way of life -- perhaps best embodied in the charming Henry Clerval -- is inseparable from, in fact depends on, the violence their civilization does to those whom its structure of value needs to exclude and condemn. The effect of aesthetics on the creature exposes it as a fundamentally imperialist discourse: beauty is violence.

His relation to Western culture is conflicted in the extreme. The process of internalizing the imperialist world order, sitting in his hovel absorbing the lessons meant for Safie, is punctuated with moments of resistance -- as when the two of them, separated by the cottage wall, beweep the genocide of the American Indian right after hearing De Lacey rehearse racial stereotypes comparing the "slothful Asiatics" to the "stupendous genius of the Grecians" (p. 115). Safie's ironic in-between status as half Arab Christian and half "Asiatic," specifically Turk, helps us to understand her tears and those of the creature as part of the same identity crisis differently undergone by both these colonized beings. Shelley further explores the psychology of the colonized through the medium of aesthetics. Victor's famous first description of the creature parodies an aesthetic vocabulary of proportion and contrast.15 Despite his creator's good intentions, "the wretch" falls blatantly outside the pale of the aesthetic community:

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

(p. 56)

Listing the ornaments of flowing hair and pearly teeth, the description also burlesques the poetic blazon, the part-by-part praise of woman as aesthetic object. Victor's decorative touches mock the self-subversion of his design. He achieves the exact opposite of what he had hoped. Aesthetic unity has eluded him; the creature's skin (as Frances Ferguson has noted) {30} is too tight, calling attention to the incoherence of his composition (p. 8). He is ugly enough to make children shriek and women faint. His appearance alone provokes vicious attacks (p. 101). Such aesthetic reactions drive the novel's plot: repeatedly labeled a monster, he eventually becomes one. Since he cannot join the community, he threatens to destroy it -- and carries out his threat by murdering the two aesthetes, Henry and Elizabeth.

Even a toddler, little William Frankenstein, shares this reaction, shrieking and covering his eyes when the creature approaches (p. 139). Such a universal recoil seems to uphold the idea of taste posited by such eighteenth-century aestheticians as Burke and David Hume: aesthetic standards are grounded in a uniform human nature, like sense perception itself, and hence must be universal or absolute. The apparent diversity of taste, argues Hume, is caused by various hindrances to or shortcomings of individual perceivers. If we factor these out, we will find

amidst all the variety and caprice of taste . . . certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric are calculated to please, and others to displease.14
What is beautiful to one must be beautiful to all, unless judgment is impaired by some contingent factor; conversely, what disgusts one, must disgust all. For Burke, too, there is no doubt that beauty is absolute and not culturally relative.15

Connecting the standardization of taste to the aesthetics of human appearance was not new to Shelley. The natural historian Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon proclaimed that

The most temperate climate lies between the 40th and 50th degree of latitude, and it produces the most handsome and beautiful men. It is from this climate that the ideas of the genuine color of mankind, and of the various degrees of beauty, ought to be derived. The two extremes [tropical and subarctic] are equally remote from truth and beauty.16
Buffon follows Montesquieu's theory that climate determines all aspects of individuals and societies, from their physical appearance to their forms of government. Aesthetics and natural history -- those two favorite Enlightenment pursuits -- are connected by the drive to classify and specifically to rank everything and everyone. The project of classifying all species, begun by the Swedish biologist Linnaeus in the 1730s, insidiously fostered such hierarchies. Unsurprisingly, Europeans found themselves at the top, setting the standards. Natural-historical classification provided a rationale for colonial domination as it ranked the races by their supposed degree of civilization -- the antecedent for nineteenth-century scientific racism. Hume gives an especially aggressive example of this in a note he added in 1754 to his 1748 essay, "Of National Characters," which, though arguing against the influence of climate on national character, makes an unsubstantiated exception based on race:
{31} I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men . . . to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences. . . . Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men.17
Henry Louis Gates is among those who cite this outrageous passage to point out the systematic denial of civilized humanity to blacks by canonical philosophers.18 I bring it up here to suggest the specific connection between Hume's aesthetics and his beliefs on race: both generate value through systems of hierarchical classification, sanctioned by nature.

Part of Hume's evidence for non-whites' inferiority is aesthetic. They lack arts, as well as science and manufactures. Edward Long's History of Jamaica (London, 1774), an impassioned defense of slavery, uses the same tactic in describing Africans: "they are void of genius, and seem almost incapable of making any progress in civility or science. . . . They conceive no pleasure from the most beautiful parts of their country" (2:353). People who cannot appreciate beauty are condemned as uncivilized and inferior, in need of masters. When in "Of the Standard of Taste" Hume lists the qualifications of the perfect critic, he tosses off the inverse of Long's claim: people who are uncivilized and inferior cannot be expected to appreciate beauty, for example in painting: "The coarsest daubing . . . would affect the mind of a peasant or Indian with the highest admiration" (p. 276). The peasant and Indian exemplify those who are inherently disqualified, in Hume's model, from the privilege of taste and thus from a fully civilized life.

Another aesthetician -- Burke again -- brings up the much-discussed case of the boy who was born blind and cured at age fourteen by the famous surgeon Cheselden: "Cheselden tells us, that the first time the boy saw a black object, it gave him great uneasiness; and that some time after, upon accidentally seeing a negro woman, he was struck with great horror at the sight (Enquiry, p. 144). Horror or terror, of course, is the wellspring of the Burkean sublime. The boy's fear was not caused by association, Burke argues -- since he had had no time to accumulate visual associations -- but by human physiology, nature itself. For Burke as for Buffon, a non-European becomes an aesthetic object, while the subject who sets the standards and judges aesthetic value is white and European. Burke's negro woman, like Frankenstein's creature, "naturally" inspires a negative aesthetic response in a "standard" subject. The doctrine of the standard of taste forms part of an aesthetic ideology that extrapolates the viewpoint of an educated white European man to a universal standard and contributes to justifying colonialism and slavery.

This doctrine seems to be confirmed yet again by the creature's horrified reaction when he sees his own face. Shelley prepares for this key scene with his account of his development from an eight-foot infant into a fully sentient being, including the gradual awakening of his aesthetic sensibility. He progresses from simple sensory pleasure in moonlight and {32} birdsongs to more complex responses; by the time he arrives at the De Laceys' he is ready for a fairly sophisticated appreciation of beauty. Old M. DeLacey playing the violin to his daughter is "a lovely sight, even to me, poor wretch! who had never beheld aught beautiful before" (p. 103). An aesthetic vocabulary describes the father and son walking in the garden: "Nothing could exceed in beauty the contrast between these two excellent creatures" (p. 104).

The emotional charge that the lonely voyeur attaches to these domestic scenes helps explain his startled self-loathing when confronted with his own reflection:

I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers -- their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity.

(p. 109)

Shelley gives her creature aesthetic sensibilities that backfire to convince him of his own "deformity" and propel him toward a career of crime. Harold Bloom reads this as one way of condemning Victor's project as unnatural.19 I read the aesthetic education of Shelley's monster quite differently: as informed by the writings of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, both of whom believed in the power of education to mold individuals and shape the fate of societies. Frankenstein's treatment of aesthetic value partakes of Godwin's and Wollstonecraft's willingness to consider even the most seemingly natural human qualities as socially constructed. The creature's narrative of his early life counters Godwin's rationalism with an affective theory of education based on a child's need for acceptance by those around him. The childlike creature attributes beauty to the only other beings he knows, and then condemns himself by this emotionally colored standard. Aesthetic standards become a synecdoche for the other cultural values that also exclude the creature: "I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endowed with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome . . . Was I then a monster . . . ?" (pp. 115-16). We hear the anguish of a colonized self who has internalized values that judge him forever deficient. But the creature's eloquent voice radically relativizes the values that condemn him.

Cultural relativism is reinforced by the striking echo between the mirror scene in Frankenstein and a moment in Book IV of Gulliver's Travels, part of Gulliver's painful process of self-recognition as a Yahoo. He arrives in Houyhnhnmland with a colonizer's arrogance, but gradually takes on the humility and self-loathing of the colonized in relation to the noble {33} horses. Admiring their virtues, desiring their approval, he adopts their aesthetics as well.

When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common yahoo, than of my own person. By conversing with the Houynhnhnms, and looking upon them with delight, I fell to imitate their gait and gesture, which is now grown into a habit, and my friends often tell me in a blunt way that I "trot like a horse."20
Swift's mirror scene combines humor with the pathos of a profound disorientation. The Houyhnhnm standards that he has internalized have monsterized Gulliver to himself, triggering a self-loathing that is an obvious precedent for the reaction of Shelley's creature, confronted with the contrast between his own appearance and that of the handsome De Laceys.

Swift also provides a precedent for the multiple signification of Frankenstein's creature. His descriptions of Yahoos, as Laura Brown has shown, echo contemporary discourses of race, but also epitomize the "hideous corporeality" of the women in his scatological poems (p. 184). The allusion forms part of a pattern of reference throughout the novel. The creature rolls into one a whole world of Others. Walton's first remark about Victor distinguishes him from the creature, sledding away in the distance: "He was not, as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but an European" (p. 18). Certainly the creature's yellow skin carries racial overtones, whether East Indian or Chinese.21 Recent work by the historian H. W. Malchow suggests that the ongoing debate over slavery in the Caribbean colonies lay near at hand for Shelley and her readers. Pro-slavery rhetoric used images of slave rebellion: renegade slaves swoop down from the hills to slaughter women and children and burn houses, just as the creature kills William and Elizabeth and burns the De Laceys' (Malchow, pp. 108 & 118).

Victor's rationalization for tearing up the female creature is racist as well as viscerally misogynist, anticipating late Victorian fears of racial war: "a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth" (p. 165). Finally, the death the creature proposes for himself is reminiscent of a practice that was under debate by India's British colonial rulers while Shelley wrote: Hindu widows' self-immolation, or sati.22 The creature commemorates his bizarre homosocial bond to his creator by pledging to "collect my funeral pile, and consume to ashes this miserable frame" (p. 220). The image of the funeral pyre incongruously conflates the classical masculine prototype of the strongman Hercules dying on his pyre with the image of a female subaltern -- an allusive icon, transgressing the boundaries of gender, race, and nation, for the symbolic self-destruction of a being who personifies an entire spectrum of traumatized Others.

One could further complicate the creature's multiple signification by citing images of the revolutionary crowd, beginning with Burke's, as Lee Sterrenburg and others have suggested.23 Fear of the lower classes as a collective monster ready to rend its chains was visceral for the nineteenth-century {34} bourgeoisie. We can begin to comprehend Shelley's creature as an amalgam of everything that they were not. His looming shadow on the periphery of civilized life interweaves concrete categories of cultural exclusion. He becomes a kind of mirror for the instinctive revulsion of everyone he meets, reflecting the monstrosity of their judgments back at them (p. 228). His uncanny combination of horrific appearance and riveting speech casts doubt on the very concept of monsterhood -- a concept in which aesthetic judgment presides over, or stands in for, social and moral condemnation. This critical dimension is what got lost in the novel's reception, in the perhaps inevitable transition from polylogic narrative to cultural myth. Shelley's formal innovation subtly reveals the disgust provoked by the creature's ugliness as quite possibly contingent rather than necessary, a second nature that is really a cultural construction. Subverting the universal standard of taste, that favorite fantasy of eighteenth-century aestheticians, becomes a way of questioning the universality of other European ruling-class values as well -- the very assumption that rationalized colonial expansion as a civilizing mission.

The standard of taste and the position of the aesthetic subject were both constructed as universals. Hume's essay (as Barbara Herrnstein Smith has shown) reluctantly reveals them as false universals that restrict the privilege of judging to a powerful few while universally imposing their values.24 Frankenstein indicts aesthetics as an inherently imperial discourse, structured by principles of hierarchy and exclusion. Aesthetics binds together a little community, a microcosm of polite British society, marred by its subordination of women and colonization of non-European peoples. Shelley's modern myth is thoughtfully, painfully nuanced, weighing the charms and achievements of civilization as she knew it (embodied in the handsome figure of Henry Clerval) against its considerable cost. Frankenstein's creature embodies all those who paid that price.

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


1. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism," Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 243.

2. Besides Spivak's brief discussion, see Zohreh T. Sullivan, "Race, Gender, and Imperial Ideology in the Nineteenth Century," Nineteenth-Century Contexts 13 (1989) 19-31; Joseph W. Lew, "The Deceptive Other: Mary Shelley's Critique of Orientalism in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism 30 (1991): 255-83; and H. L. Malchow, "Frankenstein's Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain," Past and Present 139 (1993): 90-130.

3. Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven & London: Yale Univ. 1992), pp. 102 & 6.

4. Culture and Imperialism (N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf 1993), p xx.

5. "Cultural Studies and Ethnic Absolutism," in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, & Paula Treichler (N.Y.: Routledge, 1992), p. 188.

6. Qtd. in Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1992), p. 13.

7. Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century English Literature (Ithaca: Cornell Univ., 1993), pp. 185, 199. Feminist critics who read Frankenstein's creature as an honorary woman include Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale Univ., 1979), pp. 213-247; Barbara Johnson, "My Monster/My Self," Diacritics 12 (1982): 2-10; and Ellen Moers, "Female Gothic," U. C. Knoepflmacher, "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," and Kate Ellis, " Monsters in the Garden," all in The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. George Levine & U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1979), pp. 77-87, 88-119, & 125-42.

8. Though they have been interested in Shelley's handling of the sublime, critics have not connected Frankenstein's treatment of aesthetics to its preoccupation with empire. See Mary A. Favret, Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics, and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1993), pp. 192-94; Anne K. Mellor, "Frankenstein and the Sublime," in Approaches to Teaching Shelley's Frankenstein, ed. Stephen C. Behrendt & Anne K. Mellor (N.Y.: Modern Language Assoc., 1990), pp. 99-104, and "Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein," in Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington: Indiana Univ., 1988), pp. 220-32; Barbara Freeman, "Frankenstein with Kant: A Theory of Monstrosity, or the Monstrosity of Theory," Substance 52 (1987): 21-31, Fred V. Randel "Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Intertextuality of Mountains," Studies in Romanticism 14 (1985): 515-32; and Frances Ferguson, "The Nuclear Sublime," Diacritics 14 (Summer 1984): 4-11.

9. The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844, ed. Paula R. Feldman & Diana Scott-Kilvert, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 1:5-189.

10. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818 text), ed. James Rieger (Chicago : Univ. of Chicago, 1982), p. 56. Parenthetical refs. are to this edn.

11. Versions of the concept of disinterested contemplation, most extensively theorized in Kant's Critique of Judgement, are found in British theorists beginning with Addison and Shaftesbury ca. 1710. Kant built partly on this tradition of British aesthetic thought. See Jerome Stolnitz, "On the Origins of 'Aesthetic Disinterestedness,'" Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20 (1961-62): 131-43.

12. Barbara Freeman traces eruptions of the sublime into the monstrous through the novel.

13. This language is reminiscent of 18th-century descriptions of the classical statues that were widely held to embody the highest standard of human beauty. Describing the Belvedere Antinous, for example, Hogarth praises it for its "beauty of proportion," while Winkelmann comments on facial details, as does Shelley ("sweetness . . . of expression"). Both qtd. in Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 (New Haven: Yale Univ., 1981), p. 142. I am grateful to Robert Maccubbin for calling this to my attention.

14. "Of the Standard of Taste," in Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. T. H. Green & T. H. Grose (London, N.Y., Bombay & Calcutta: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1907) p. 271.

15. "Introduction on Taste," prefatory to A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. James T. Boulton (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1958), pp. 11-27.

16. Qtd. in P. J. Marshall and Glyndwr Williams, The Great Map of Mankind: Perceptions of New Worlds in the Age of Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard Univ., 1982), pp. 245-46.

17. Essays, p. 252. Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin (an abolitionist as well as an anarchist) cites Hume and paraphrases his argument about national characters in the chap. of Political Justice dealing with climate, including the same exception for "negroes" (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, ed. Isaac Kramnick [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976], p. 151). See Malchow, p. 95.

18. "Introduction: Writing 'Race' and the Difference it Makes," in "Race," Writing and Difference, ed. Gates (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1986), pp. 10-11.

19. "Afterword" to Frankenstein, ed. Harold Bloom (N.Y.: New American Library, 1965), p. 218.

20. Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings, ed. Louis A. Landa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), p. 225.

21. Lew, p. 273, links the creature's yellow skin specifically to the Bengalis, by 1818 already suffering the effects of several generations of British misrule.

22. Lata Mani, "The Production of an Official Discourse on Sati in Early Nineteenth-Century Bengal," in Europe and Its Others: Proceedings of the Essex Conference on the Sociology of Literature, ed. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Margaret Iversen, & Diana Loxley (Colchester: Univ. of Essex, 1985), pp. 107-27.

23. "Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein," in Endurance, pp. 143-71.

24. Contingencies of Value (Cambridge: Harvard Univ., 1988), pp. 54-64.