Contents Index

Frankenstein and the Language of Monstrosity

Fred Botting

Chapter 1 of Making Monstrous: Frankenstein, Criticism, Theory (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1991)

{51} Monsters appear in literary and political writings to signal both a terrible threat to established orders and a call to arms that demands the unification and protection of authorised values. Symptoms of anxiety and instability, monsters frequently emerge in revolutionary periods as dark and ominous doubles restlessly announcing an explosion of apocalyptic energy. Christopher Hill, for example, describes the fear evoked by the masses represented as a 'many-headed monster' in the decades leading up to the English Revolution.

On one level, the monsters of the French Revolution are no exception, since they signify the uncontrollable violence of the mob, Edmund Burke's 'swinish multitude', that tramples over civilised society. But there are other forms of monstrosity that also appear in the conflicts produced by revolution in France: among the waves of riotous noise individual and monstrous voices make themselves heard. Incarnated in identifiable shapes, monsters begin to be defined by the dangerous words they speak, words that question and resist, like the speech of Frankenstein's creation, the terms of the system into which they are born. Such resistance, indeed, partially accounts for the identity of 'monster' that is given them.

The figure of speech that classifies the mob and monstrous speaking figures as other to established political orders becomes entangled in the reverberations that transform one revolution into many. Wordsworth, in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, for instance, hints at the interimplication of literary and political issues as he avoids retracing the 'revolutions not of literature alone but likewise of society itself' (120). Revolutions extend their disturbing momentum to raise questions of language and power. Frankenstein, too, is traversed by the images and effects of the French Revolution. Concerned with the creation of monsters, the novel is a monster itself: the phrase 'hideous progeny', from the 1831 Introduction, refers to the monster and the book (10). Indeed, as Peter Brooks {52} argues in his discussion of language and monstrosity in Frankenstein, the subversive effects of textuality leave everything touched by the 'taint of monsterism' (604). It is also a 'taint' from which the criticism of the novel cannot remain immune.

Almost every aspect of the French Revolution discloses monstrosities, according to the writings of Edmund Burke. In a letter to his son, on 10 October 1789, Burke describes France as 'a world of Monsters' where Mirabeau 'presides as the Grand Anarch' (14). In the Reflections on the Revolution in France the 'monstrous tragi-comic scene' that exists in France engenders many monsters: mob and National Assembly are equated in terms of their destructive power, while the new Republic is built upon 'a monster of a constitution' (92, 279-80, 313).

Burke's Reflections, however, attack targets other than France. They cast their rather partial light on events in England and attempt to expose the delusions of the pro-French speeches of radicals, like Dr Richard Price, who sympathise with Republican France. By association, radicals, too, are made monstrous. Desiring to affirm English 'good order' -- 'the foundation of all good things' -- in the face of the 'inverted order in all things' that exists in France, 'we' are differentiated from and privileged over 'them' -- be they French revolutionaries or English radicals (372, 161). Beyond the pale of 'good order' or traditional authority, monsters can legitimately be attacked so that the 'equipoise', to use Burke's final metaphor, of England's ship of state can be preserved.

The 'good order' of English society that Burke appeals to may not, however, be as self-evident as is assumed, for the desire to affirm it declares that such order is lacking, already threatened, already rendered unstable, already requiring the 'small weight' of Burke's argument to reestablish its balance (377). Furthermore, the many monsters that are identified by Burke inhibit rather than aid the construction of a single unified position opposed to an overwhelming and monstrous threat. Nor do Burke's opinions restore balance, or silence the emerging voices of resistance: the monsters constructed by Burke's text multiply in the many replies that it provoked.

The famous responses by Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft disclose yet more monsters. In The Rights of Man the aristocracy is described as a monster, while Burke's method is considered to be of a 'marvellous and monstrous kind' (229, 201). Burke, a maker of monsters, is reconstructed as a monster himself. Similarly, Wollstonecraft's attack on Burke questions the conditions which produce {53} monsters: 'man', she argues, 'has been changed into an artificial monster by the station in which he is born' ( 73). Unjust modes of social organisation display their own monstrosity by their manufacturing of monsters: for William Godwin, government by courts and ministers forms a 'monstrous edifice' (439).

Radical replies thus challenge the terms of conservative arguments to interrogate the grounds and reverse the designations of monstrosity. Others return to inaugurate revolutions in meaning by reconstructing monster-makers as monsters. This revolving dialectic, however, is not easily arrested with the secure imposition of a single source or authoritative meaning for 'monster'. Radicals continue to be seen as monsters. Their writings, also, are considered monstrous, and suffer the repressive force of the law. Nonetheless, these writings still disseminated to continue the momentum of monstrosity. Indeed, writing betrays a certain monstrosity. The 'monstrous fiction' of revolution must, Burke insists, be exposed for the 'cant', 'fraud', 'gibberish' and 'hypocrisy' that it really is (124). Stabilising the 'revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions' that is threatened by dangerous 'literary caballers', demands, however, the creation of Burke's own 'monstrous fiction' (175, 93). As Jon Klancher states:

Authorized by history, Burke's book turns the Revolution into a text so that he may outstrip it as a text, over-writing the revolutionaries' work in a superior act of authorship. (105)
Language becomes the site of struggle on, in and for which contests for authority are performed. These contests rage on, unable to arrest the monstrous overflow of meanings and establish an overriding and authoritative position above or outside of the field of combat. In these struggles language is itself glimpsed as a monster that resists and subverts the limits which any one position tries to impose.

Frankenstein is also affected by the metaphoric movements of monstrosity: recalling many features of the French Revolution, the text, like the monster, solicits and resists attempts to determine a single line of significance. Ronald Paulson and Lee Sterrenburg, both examining the relationship between the novel and the effects of the French Revolution on political debates in Britain, tend to ignore the various revolutions that traverse Frankenstein and thus replay the desires for authority that are represented in and resisted by the text-monster. Identifying the novel's fixed, singular and final meaning by {54} way of historical and biographical archives, the readings return to the unifying figure of the author as they attempt to authorise their own accounts and arrest the monstrously overdetermined play of significance that operates in and between criticism's 'pre-texts'. They thus repeat Frankenstein's project. But the monster, this time Frankenstein, again eludes capture even as it sustains the pursuit.

Other readings, like Mary Poovey's identification of the novel's critique of male Romantic authorial assertiveness, suggest that the novel manifests some criticism of and resistance to authorial projects. Indeed, the introduction to the novel, itself a retroactive and self-effacing inscription of authorship at the publishers' behest, undermines notions of an originary author by describing the events that led to the moment Shelley became 'possessed' by the idea (9). The parting gesture - bidding farewell to the 'hideous progeny' -- also makes no possessive claims on text or monster and institutes a certain distance between the position of the writer of Frankenstein and the totalising and authorial desire of the appropriately named Victor Frankenstein (10).

Frankenstein's dream is indeed universal. Having stolen nature's secret of life, he imagines a world flooded with his own immortal and transcendent light, a world in which a 'new species' exists only to adore his godlike mastery (54). His pursuit of a totally authoritative position, however, demands the effacement of all others -- others, like darkness and death, on which his project depends: 'to examine the causes of life', Frankenstein states, 'we must first have recourse to death' (51). It is these others, moreover, that overturn his exorbitant aspirations. After the moment of the creature's animation, when the idealised and beautiful being appears repulsive, Frankenstein sleeps only to be confronted by a nightmare in which the others he tried to repress all powerfully return: women, sexuality, bodies, decay, death, darkness and madness exert their force. Frankenstein's world has been turned upside down. His dreams, he acknowledges, 'were now become a hell' while 'the change was so rapid, the overthrow complete' (59). The scientist-dreamer has undergone a major revolution.

The rotations, furthermore, continue since, having been subjected to the will of his creation, the creator agrees to construct a monstrous female mate. Halfway through his second creation, however, Frankenstein reneges and destroys the female monster before the eyes of her would-be mate. The shifting power-relations between creator and creature are, at this point, disclosed. Enraged, the {55} monster exclaims 'you are my creator, but I am your master; -- obey!' (167) Yet neither possesses full mastery over the other. Frankenstein's resistance has provoked the monster's declaration of mastery and begun a dialectic in which authorial power becomes negative: Frankenstein vows to kill the monster, while the monster proceeds to murder almost all his creator's friends and relations. The ensuing, confused pursuit binds the two together and tears them apart in a dialectic of desire, a desire to negatively affirm a singular authority. Excluding all other relations, this polarisation of self and other is so absolute that it can only end in death.

Yet the effects of this monstrously rotating and self-affirming confrontation cannot be contained by a single binary opposition. The reversals spill over to involve and displace other relations. Engendering a multitude of questions about the distinctions between nature and culture, man and woman, appearance and reality, the effects of Frankenstein's authorial project extend beyond him and the monster to implicate everyone, even the innocent, in the text's patterns of destruction. Justine, the Frankenstein family servant, is one such innocent bystander: she wrongly receives a death sentence for the monster's murder of William Frankenstein. The position the novel offers the reader, however, places judicial and religious institutions on trial. Though constructed as a monster, particularly by her confessor, Justine's innocence reflects upon the monstrosity of those that have assigned that identity to her (87). The wider effects of this incident disclose cracks in the system that distinguishes truth from reality, justice from injustice, innocence from guilt. Everything is rendered suspect, as the expostulations of Elizabeth, Frankenstein's previously contented fiancee, announce: 'misery has come home' she declares, and she goes on to say that 'men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other's blood' (92). Unable to differentiate falsehood from truth, Elizabeth can only teeter on the precipice of an abyss of indetermination (93). The force of the monster as a dangerously necessary but unstable figure of difference has subverted all security and all systems of meaning.

The novel, too, is traversed by this disturbing momentum of monstrosity. Ending with a confusion of opposites that both attract and repel, it cannot resolve the many narrative subject positions that conflict with each other as they contend for sympathy. Light cedes to darkness, the life-giver dies and Walton reluctantly abandons his quest but still gazes on the monster disappearing in the opposite direction. Does Walton return home? Does the monster fulfil his {56} promise to immolate himself on a funeral pyre amid the polar ice? The reader is left suspended uneasily between two poles, without resolution or closure, a position on the margins, neither inside nor outside the text, like the reader of the epistolary novel.

Do the letters that record and disseminate the tangled chains of spoken stories which make up Frankenstein ever arrive at a single and final destination? Or, like Burke's Reflections written in a letter 'intended to have been sent to a gentleman in Paris' and Wollstonecraft's reply in an open letter, do the novel's letters have many addressees, many readers who will be constructed by and also reconstruct the text with different meanings? The monstrous uncertainty produced by such open-endedness might also have a doubled effect: on the one hand it might instil a desire to construct a final, authoritative meaning; on the other it might engender restless critical interrogations.

Such double effects of writing, exceeding the singular limits of binary opposition, parallel the work of deconstruction as Jacques Derrida describes it: deconstruction must, 'through a double gesture, a double science, a double writing - put into practice a reversal of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system' (195). Difference, though constitutive of opposition, also exceeds it. The instability produced by monstrous difference offers no resting-place for meaning and thus undermines the role of the literary critic, whose job it is to reveal authoritative meaning.

Even Chris Baldick's account of Frankenstein, sensitive as it is to the dangerous displacements of the monster metaphor, returns to the figure of the author and the values of literature in order to contain the play of meanings. Mary Shelley, for Baldick, remains divided in her attitudes to the monster, manifesting an 'anxious liberalism' between conservative and radical views (55). Popular reproductions of the novel, however, conservatively recuperate the story as a cautionary tale (Baldick 62). In contrast, literary criticism liberally allows a semantic plurality, though the author still remains the 'source of this dizzying profusion of meanings' (Baldick 56).

Fashioned within the frames of literature as a 'source' of meanings, the author functions as a limit to the text, a limit that constrains and enables literary interpretation. The privilege accorded the figure of the author, however, depends on the critical positioning of the novel within a literary tradition; until recently such a status has been denied Frankenstein. Tainted by popular cultural reproductions which provided it with a certain visibility, the novel was treated less than {57} liberally by the literary tradition. It was excluded: 'not one of the living novels of the world' for Rosalie Glynn Grylls, it ranked only as a 'minor work' for Sylva Norman. Mary Shelley was only interesting as a biographer's subject, while the novel only received attention in terms of the light it cast on Romanticism. 'A strong, flawed, frequently clumsy novel', its importance for Harold Bloom lies in relation to the Romantic 'mythology of self' that is found in the writings of Blake, Percy Shelley and Byron: 'it lacks the sophistication and imaginative complexity of such works but precisely because of that Frankenstein affords a unique introduction to the archetypal world of the Romantics'. (613)

Excluded from literary status, Frankenstein has existed as a kind of monster, made to demonstrate, by means of its faults, the values of Romanticism. Historically remaining no more than a trace, authorless and monstrous, among its popular reproductions, the novel has always maintained an unstable relationship with literature. A disruptive tension persists even now that the expansion of literature's domain has come to include both text and author, thus endowing them with value. However, the belated and retrospective nature of the inscription of literary value discloses the shifting relations which produce 'literature'.

Frankenstein's monstrous history, it seems, still shadows and exceeds critical strategies that attempt to limit it through the institution of partial distinctions. Moreover, the boundaries that Baldick establishes, between negative and conservative popular culture and the liberal freedoms of the 'literary tradition', do not escape the dangerous reflections of Frankenstein's monstrous language. These reflections question the positioning of literature above the circulation of power (negatively associated with the conservatism of popular culture) and also offer a glimpse of the power relations operating within and on the literary institution.

Power, as Michel Foucault argues, 'produces domains of objects and rituals of truth' (194). Producing new objects for literary consumption and more authors for critical analysis, the literary tradition cannot but be a source of specific forms of power. Indeed, even as it allows many meanings for its textual objects, criticism's regular returns to an author prescribe the limits of enquiry. Such liberalism, or 'anxious liberalism' perhaps, constitutes a kind of critical panopticon that surveys and maintains the boundaries of its own discipline as it enables the production of certain meanings. Held, however uneasily, in place by the anxious liberalism allowed its {58} authors, critical authority can reproduce itself. As Deleuze and Guattari observe in a most Foucauldian moment, 'it is not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters, but vigilant and insomniac rationality' (112). Monsters, excluded from the systems that produce them, keep reason and anxious liberalism on their guard, policing their boundaries and defining themselves within the limits of self-created monstrosity. Frankenstein remains such a monster, retaining the monstrous capacity to undermine and interrogate the inherent instabilities and dangerously necessary differences that sustain all forms of authority.

Works Cited

Baldick, Chris, In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-century Writing (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987).

Bloom, Harold, 'Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus', Partisan Review 32 (1965): 611-18.

Brooks, Peter, 'Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts: Language and Monstrosity in Frankenstein', New Literary History 9 (1978): 591-605.

Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969).

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix, The Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, Helen R. Lane (New York: Viking, 1977).

Derrida, Jacques, 'Signature Event Context', Glyph 1 (1977): 172-97.

Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979).

Glynn Grylls, Rosalie, Mary Shelley: A Biography (London: Oxford University Press, 1938).

Godwin, William, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, ed. Isaac Kramnick (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985).

Hill, Christopher, 'The Many-Headed Monster in Late Tudor and Early Stuart Political Thinking', in From the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation, ed. Charles H. Carter (London: Jonathan Cape, 1966), pp. 296-324.

Klancher, Jon P., The Making of English Reading Audiences 1790-1832 (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

Norman, Sylva, 'Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley', in Shelley and his Circle 1773-1822, Vol. III, ed. Kenneth Neill Cameron (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 397-422.

Paine, Thomas, The Rights of Man, in The Thomas Paine Reader, eds. Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985).

Paulson, Ronald, 'Gothic Fiction and the French Revolution', English Literary History 48 (1981): 532-54.

Poovey, Mary, 'My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and the Feminization of Romanticism', PMLA 95 (1980): 332-47.

Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

Sterrenburg, Lee, 'Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein', in The Endurance of Frankenstein, eds. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 143-71.

Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy, ed. Marilyn Butler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Wordsworth, William, The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, eds. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974).