Contents Index

Frankenstein: The Making of a Monster

Donald E. Musselwhite

Chapter 3 of Partings Welded Together: Politics and Desire in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel (New York and London: Methuen, 1988), 43-74

{[43]} Much of what follows is heavily indebted to Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology, particularly the opening chapters and the essay dedicated to Rousseau -- 'That dangerous supplement'.1 I shall be engaged, that is, in what it is fashionable to describe as an exercise in 'deconstruction'. What such an exercise involves, as I understand it, is the strategic deployment of a number of seemingly oppositional categories -- here, for example 'body'/'mind', 'writing'/'speech', 'female'/'male', 'articulation'/'meaning', 'repetition'/'origin' -- in order to 'deconstruct' such categories, even to 'deconstruct' the notion of 'category' itself.

In case anyone should fear that we are concerned here merely with rather esoteric philosophical or logical, as opposed to, say, 'real human', problems it might be as well that I begin at once by saying that much of the astonishing intelligence and complexity of Frankenstein derives from the lived intensities of the domestic and political contexts in which it was composed. To understand the significance of the former we need to imagine what it must have been like for a young girl like {44} Mary Shelley, while suffering all the traumas of awakened sexuality, the birth and death of her first child, the birth of a second child, and the tragic death of Shelley's first wife by suicide, to come to terms with the almost insufferable intellectual precocity of Shelley and his circle of friends and acquaintances. As far as the significance of the political context is concerned it is important to remember that the years 1815 to 1819 marked, to use the phrase of E. P. Thompson, 'the heroic age of popular radicalism':2 from Waterloo in 1815 to Peterloo in 1819 the threat of revolutionary insurrection was greater than at any other time between 1789 and 1832.


Mary, of course, adored Shelley and his early death ensured that her infatuation would never be subjected to the test of time and maturity. It is only intermittently and fleetingly that we get a glimpse in her letters and Journal of potential sources of irritation and grounds for criticism -- in her evident impatience with Shelley's flirtations with her half-sister Claire, or in a mild reproach like the following:
How you reason and philosophize about love -- do you know if I had been asked I could not give one reason in its favour -- yet I have as great opinion as you concerning its exaltedness and love very tenderly to prove my theory.3
It's a tiny breach here, worth, perhaps, a pout, but it is not difficult to imagine how that rub between an incorrigible cerebralism and sensuous warmth might become a smart and then a terrible wound. Perhaps an indication of how grave the difference might have become might be found if we briefly compare Shelley's 1817 Preface to Frankenstein with Mary's Introduction to the 1831 edition. Shelley, in the assumed role of the author, writes of the intentions behind the novel:
my chief concern in this respect has been limited to the avoiding of the enervating effects of the novels of the present day, and to the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue. (p. 58)4
Now, apart from its breathtaking disingenuousness, given the experience afforded by any reading of the story, there is no reason for not {45} thinking that this represents what Shelley really thought the story was about. What is more it is thoroughly consonant with the views he has on the function of literature set out in his Defence of Poetry two years later. Here Shelley propounds the quintessentially romantic notion of the nature of poetic inspiration and its moral effects. 'Poetry', he writes, 'is indeed something divine',5 and poets are the 'hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration'6 whose task is the creation of new materials of knowledge and the improvement of the moral nature of man by enlarging and replenishing the imagination, the great instrument of moral good'.7 The whole process, from divine inspiration to moral effect, is wholly idealist, taking place in thought alone, completely unmediated, and hence untainted, by any material consideration or practice. It is because, for Shelley, language alone is capable of this totally unmediated, indeed transparent, act of expression and communication that poetry is preferred before all the other arts:
For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination and has relation to thoughts alone; but all other materials, instruments, and conditions of art have relations among each other which limit and interpose between conception and expression. The former is a mirror which reflects, the latter is a cloud which enfeebles the light of which both are mediums of communication.8
It is wholly consistent with such a theological conception of the poetic process that such mundane and practical features of language as 'the copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar' are, compared to 'original language near its source', 'merely the catalogue and the form of the creation of poetry'.9 That is, compared with the pure immediacy of thought to itself, the actual practice of writing itself is no more than a contemptible supplement, purely ancillary. Finally, and of a piece with all the rest of the Defence, there is no place at all in Shelley 's conception of the role of the artist for anything that smacks of determined effort and conscious decision:
Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, 'I will compose poetry.' The greatest poet even cannot say it . . . I appeal to the great poets of the present day, whether it be not an error to assert that the finest passages of poetry are produced by labour and study.10
{46} What we find when we turn to Mary Shelley's account, in the 1831 Introduction, of the process of production of Frankenstein and the effect she designed it to have is an 'aesthetic' which, in all major points, seems to be diametrically opposed to that of Shelley's Defence. Whereas Shelley had proclaimed that no one could simply sit down and decide to write, Mary Shelley seems to be at pains to make it clear that her tale was the product of deliberate and conscious decision. In contrast to Shelley's grandiloquence -- just as in her attitude to love -- Mary Shelley's approach to her writing is unpretentious and unaffected. She is practical, down to earth, 'formalistic' we might say today, even materialist. Not for her the myth of divine inspiration:
Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. (p. 54)
Earlier she has described herself as a 'close imitator' and much of her Introduction is taken up with recounting the particular and specific circumstances, narratives and events, that contributed to the original idea of the novel. Compared with Shelley's profoundly ideological myth of the divine status of poetic inspiration Mary's concern is with the real processes and conditions of literary production, with what she happily terms the 'machinery' of a story.

She differs from Shelley, too, in her conception of the nature of the aesthetic effect. Whereas Shelley spoke of an unmediated address to the imagination as a moral agent Mary speaks instead of a direct affront to the bodily nervous system, a kind of physiological shock:

I busied my self to think of story -- a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror -- one to make the reader dread to turn round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. (p. 53)
Before we too readily dismiss this as 'gothic' commonplace we would do well to remember that in its search for the thrilling frisson the 'gothic' was the last 'aesthetic' in the proper sense of the term -- that is as an address to the senses unmediated by thought -- before the term {47} was pilfered to construct a vapid, and an-aesthetic, ideology of 'taste' -- such, in fact, as that propagated by Shelley's Defence of Poetry.

The differences between the Preface and the Introduction are well-nigh irreconcilable: the pout has become a fully worked out and consistent statement of irreducible difference -- pretty petulance has become suppressed rage. You don't have to be a very attentive listener to hear the turbulence beneath the following:

My husband, however, was from the first very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage and enrol myself on the page of fame. He was forever inciting me to obtain literary reputation, which even on my own part I cared for then, though since I have become infinitely indifferent to it. At this time he desired that I should write, not so much with the idea that I could produce anything worthy of notice, but that he might himself judge how far I possessed the promise of better things hereafter. Still I did nothing. Travelling, and the cares of a family, occupied my time; and study, in the way of reading or improving my ideas in communication with his far more cultivated mind, was all of literary employment that engaged my attention. (p. 52)
and, again, later:
At first I thought but of a few pages -- of a short tale, but Shelley urged me to develope the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it is presented to the world. From this declaration I must except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was entirely written by him. (p. 56)
It is not difficult to feel the pain here caused by that endless cajoling to live up to your parents' name and achievements, to prove yourself fit mental companion for your brilliant husband, to appreciate properly the privilege of being in communication with his 'far more cultivated mind'. And then, when you have done something, to see him being given all the credit for it, or the suggestion that you owe it all to him. The exquisiteness of the pain is no way better conveyed than in that repeated use of the verb 'incite' -- 'inciting', 'incitement': it suggests a peculiar perversity in the process, a perversity against which one's whole being, flesh and soul, should rebel.


{48} The theme of rebellion, or more properly mutiny, figures prominently, of course, in the Walton story that frames the Frankenstein narrative itself. Here it is the refusal of the sailors unreasonably to risk their lives in support of Walton's foolhardy determination to reach the Pole. It is again, as with Mary's defence of her writing compared with Shelley's enthusiastic posturings, the refusal of those materially engaged in a real practice to remain uncritically subservient before the mercurial ravings of a dewy-eyed idealist. For all the evidence is that, not to put too fine a point on it, Walton is a bit 'wet', the product of privilege, indulgence and 'feminine fosterage' (p. 64). Moreover, from his own account of it, there is something inherently perverse about his own ambition:
I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is for ever visible, its broad disk just skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There -- for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in preceding navigators -- there snow and frost are banished; and sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. Its productions and features may be without example, as the phaenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. (p. 59)
The Pole Walton searches for is a complete myth, wilfully pursued in spite of all evidence to the contrary. It is a myth of innocence, of purity, of originality, the search for 'a land never before imprinted by the foot of man' (p. 270), whose 'productions and features may be without example' (p. 269). What the Pole promises is a unique, perfect, unmediated, undifferentiated, absolutely singular, centre. In all this it is very much like the poetic faculty of Shelley's Defence: ineffably original, uniquely perfect, and compared with which all that comes after is a taint, a blemish, a fall, secondary and supplemental. Just as Shelley expresses impatience with 'the copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar' compared to 'original language near its source', so Walton despises writing as a means of communicating feeling:
{49} I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling. (p. 63)
The undisguised scorn for the complexities of writing, the impatience expressed at its inadequacy, is the other side of the celebration of the voice, of so called 'living speech', as a transparent medium for the expression of thought and feeling. Voice, like Walton's Pole, is thought of having never suffered the indignity of being 'imprinted', of being essentially uncontaminated, ideal, uncluttered by matter. What the celebration of the voice and the search for the Pole are at one with, moreover, is a privileging of the self before otherness, of identity before difference. The above quotation continues:
I desire the company of a man who could sympathise with me, whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. (ibid.)
What is suggested here, and it confirms our previous impression of Walton, is a radical narcissism, a debilitating obsession with the self, where the only relationship possible is one of identity and identification, not one of otherness and difference.

It is here that we might summarize the drift of the argument so far. It is simply this: Shelley's privileging of the imaginative faculty, the celebration of the immediacy to thought of the voice, the search for a pristine Pole, the obsession with self and identity are all symptomatic of a profound failure to appreciate and credit those practices and institutions that make such immaculates possible: the imagination requires the material support of a body -- an aesthetic is physiological before it is 'spiritual'; the voice needs, first, the material support of air -- later, in fact, Frankenstein reminds us that a 'loud voice' might produce 'a concussion of air sufficient to draw destruction upon the head of the speaker' in the shape of an avalanche (p. 139) -- but also, so that it might be intelligible, the systematic articulation of signs that constitute a language; the pursuit of the Pole is made possible only by the labour of the sailors who man the ship; finally, the self itself is only a composite made possible by the many not -selves of the body, labour and language. The self is not an original identity, but the produced effect, {50} mobile rather than static, nomadic rather than fixed, of fabulous plays of differences.

It is Frankenstein's principal tragedy that from first to last he is caught in the idealist web. Like his much later demonic avatar, Kurtz of Heart of Darkness, he is introduced to us by Walton primarily as a voice. He is described early as having

a facility of expression and a voice whose varied intonations are soul-subduing music. (p. 74)
and Walton is quickly captivated by his 'full-toned voice' (p. 75). His last act is his harangue to the rebellious crew:
He spoke with a voice so modulated to the different feelings expressed in his speech, with an eye so full of lofty design and heroism, that can you wonder that these men were moved? (p. 253)
Perhaps the idealism that lies behind this belief in the voice is nowhere better illustrated than in noting the process by means of which Frankenstein 'discovers' the guilt of the Monster:
No sooner did that idea cross my imagination than I became convinced of its truth. . . . The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact. (p. 119)
This is, of course, pure Cartesianism. Frankenstein is often regarded as a kind of prototype of the modern scientist and I suppose it is possible to find some evidence for such an interpretation. My own view, however, is that Frankenstein is less a harbinger of what is to come than a rather sad, even backward, child of the Enlightenment. His principal intellectual disciplines, for example, other than alchemy, are chemistry and mathematics, those two most pre-eminently Enlightenment sciences, and he accepts uncritically M. Krempe's conception of what the scientific task should entail -- 'to give new names and arrange in correct classifications' (p. 93). Moreover the extent to which Frankenstein shares the prejudices of the Enlightenment becomes even clearer if, while still remaining with the theme of language, we compare him with his friend Clerval.

It is usual to accept Frankenstein's contrast between himself and Clerval in terms of a contrast between someone interested in 'the physical secrets of the world' and someone interested in 'the moral {51} relations of things' (p. 82). This would make Frankenstein the practical scientist while Clerval would remain no more than some kind of effete intellectual. But there is an almost Kierkegaardian irony at work here, for what a close reading of the text reveals is that, caught in an ideology that privileges voice and meaning before writing and articulation, Frankenstein totally fails to understand Clerval's strategic location, not in the realm of ideas, but in a colonial power structure:

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. 199)
It is true that Frankenstein sees in Clerval here an 'image of [his] former self' (ibid. 3.2.1) but we should not let this further instance of narcissistic identification deceive us. Frankenstein just cannot conceive that Clerval's project is radically different from his own -- not to mention Walton's -- working within an epistemological domain quite beyond his comprehension, in fact unthinkable by him. This is evident in the way Frankenstein attempts to distinguish his approach to the works of Orientalists' from Clerval's:
I did not, like him, attempt a critical knowledge of their dialects, for I did not contemplate making any other use of them than temporary amusement. I read merely to understand their meaning, and they well repaid my labours. (p. 112)
For Frankenstein the essence of language is its meaning, its thought-content or truth, and to that the 'critical knowledge of . . . dialects', that is the 'copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar' disdained in the Defence, is purely supplementary. For Frankenstein language has a grammar only because it has a meaning. For Clerval, evidently, language has meaning only because it has a grammar.11 It is not he who speaks most eloquently or most truthfully that has power, but he who successfully occupies those locations within language and the structures of power from which one speaks in the first place.


Perhaps the most notorious criticism ever made of Frankenstein is that of Mario Praz who complains that the novel 'has a fundamental {52} weakness' -- viz. Mary Shelley's refusal to tell us exactly how the Monster was made!12 In a way, I suppose, he has a point, but then I wonder what he expected. On the other hand, however, I would want to argue the exact opposite: the novel is absolutely obsessed with how a Monster is made and in the making of the Monster Mary Shelley has depicted with disturbing effectiveness just what 'monstrosity' is.

This is achieved by the contrast Mary Shelley establishes between the way in which the Monster is educated and the actual process of its creation. The former is contrived by means of the Monster's long sojourn with the De Lacey family, while the latter is the morbid preoccupation of the young Frankenstein in a solitary chamber in Ingolstadt.

It has not been sufficiently noticed, as far as I am aware, that the De Lacey story is set up as a kind of ideal mirror image of the main story itself. The blind and old De Lacey reminds us very much of the rather asexual -- or, if anything, rather maternal -- figure of Frankenstein's own father, while the relationship between Felix and Agatha is not unlike that between Frankenstein and Elizabeth, his foster sister. This leaves Safie, the beautiful Arabian, and her father, a stereotypically 'wicked Turk': to the extent that they are the origin and cause of Felix's preoccupations and sorrows they are to Felix what the Monster is to Frankenstein. That 'two' should be required to supply the role of 'one', in this aseptic version of the main story, is something that will become clearer later.

Compared to the 'workshop of filthy creation' (p. 98) where the Monster is actually made, the whole De Lacey episode, apart from its savage denouement, is a pastoral idyll, a romantic interlude of heroes and fair ladies, pledged honour and broken faith, dark villainy and deeply plighted troth. It is in this context of contrived, and slightly faded, gentility that the Monster struggles to educate itself. What its education consists of is basically language, history and literature, all within a framework of essentially Enlightenment thinking. But it is an education that needs to be critically examined. In many ways, the syllabus, if we may call it that -- and the reading list of Volney, Plutarch, Goethe and Milton (plus the Bible and Shakespeare, of course) would have been familiar to many of the autodidacts of this period13 -- is wholly unexceptionable: but is it suitable for a Monster? This is all very much grammar school stuff and wouldn't it be better off in a comprehensive school or even on a Youth Opportunity {53} Programme? Here we have to be very careful for the only account we have of the education is from the Monster itself and because it is the Monster's education it is very difficult for it to know whether it is good for it or not. It cannot know otherwise than what it knows. The Monster can hardly stand outside itself. The adequacy or inadequacy of the Monster's education can only be gauged by examining it athwart, as it were, the Monster's own account of it.

Suspicion is aroused, however, from the very beginning by the very conditions under which the Monster has to labour to learn anything at all. For what the Monster is allowed is no more than the overhearing of the domestic chatter of a group of fallen aristocrats. It is a case of the underprivileged being grateful for the scraps tossed by privilege -- that this has been a characteristic feature of much bourgeois education is perhaps worth noting. Be that as it may, perhaps it is because of the suspicions triggered by such an inauspicious educational environment that we feel inclined to pay rather more than a passing scrutiny to what follows. Let us take the Monster's acquisition of language:

By degrees I made a discovery of still greater moment. I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. But I was baffled in every attempt I made for this purpose. Their pronunciation was quick, and the words they uttered, not having any apparent connexion with visible objects, I was unable to discover any clue by which I could unravel the mystery of their reference. By great application, however, and after having remained during the space of several revolutions of the moon in my hovel, I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar objects of discourse; I learned and applied the words, 'fire,' 'milk,' 'bread,' and 'wood.' I learned also the names of the cottagers themselves. The youth and his companion had each of them several names, but the old man had only one, which was 'father.' The girl was called 'sister' or 'Agatha', and the youth 'Felix,' 'brother,' or 'son.' I cannot describe the delight I felt when I learned the ideas appropriated to each of these sounds and was able to pronounce them. I distinguished several {53} other words without being able as yet to understand or apply them, such as 'good,' 'dearest,' 'unhappy.' (pp. 153-4)
This is an extraordinarily complex paragraph but, fortunately, the point I wish to make can be clarified by quoting another, briefer passage, that follows closely after:
This reading had puzzled me extremely at first, but by degrees I discovered that he uttered many of the same sounds when he read as when he talked. I conjectured, therefore, that he found on the paper signs for speech which he understood, and I ardently longed to comprehend these also; but how was that possible when I did not even understand the sounds for which they stood as signs? (p. 155)
What the Monster seems to be dimly aware of, and confused by, is that there are here two radically opposed theories of language. One is that words express ideas, the other is that words are articulations of sounds. For the one theory language is the expression of thought, for the other thought is an effect of language. Some of the confusion between the two views is to be detected in the Monster's phrase concerning 'the ideas appropriated to each of these sounds': the question of priority is fudged, though the bias is towards sound.

Let us put it another way: the Monster evidently thinks that language is a question of nomenclature, classification and reference, but what, and how, in fact it learns is by way of sounds, effects, moods and practice. What it first notes are not meanings, but sounds and effects producing pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, not truths or knowledges. Even when, after several months, the Monster learns how to apply the words 'fire', 'milk', 'bread' and 'wood', this, despite what it may think, is not the mastering of the names of things, but the discovery of a primitive grammar: 'fire' is linked to 'wood', and 'bread' is linked to 'milk' first by practice and then by metonymy -- both a matter of contiguity -- so that we have 'fire-wood' and 'bread-and-milk'. Neither belong to a class, or are susceptible of decomposition (except artificially and a posteriori): it would be a bit like trying to analyse the taste of 'tea-first-thing-in-the-morning' or 'tea-out-of-an-enamelled-mug-with-sweetened- milk' as opposed to, say, distinguishing between China tea and Indian tea. It cannot be done: these things are uncategorizable, they resist categorization, they are as much an experience as a classification, an event as much as a name. In a sense {55} that most people will think trivializing but which I mean very seriously indeed it is precisely here in the production of indefinable and incalculable effects that language does, indeed, become a 'godlike science'.

This, too, hopefully, will become clearer as we continue. The Monster next, it says, 'learned also the names of the cottagers themselves'. In the end, of course, it is their 'names' that it learns, but is that what it learns first? The boy and the girl, as the Monster observes, have 'several names' -- 'sister' or 'Agatha', 'Felix', 'brother' or 'son': but are these 'names'? The question is even more pertinent when we take into account that both 'Felix' and 'Agatha' are adjectives, 'happy' and 'good', before they are 'names'. So that, for example, there's no reason why Felix shouldn't say 'I feel Agatha-ish' nor Agatha say 'I feel Felix-ish'. Isn't the point being made that, for the Monster, to begin with at least, it was a question of indifference as to whether the youth is 'named' -- the Monster not yet having the concept 'name' -- 'Felix' or 'youth' or 'son', or whether the girl is 'named' 'Agatha' or 'sister' -- come to that, what would the distinctions of 'youth' and 'girl' mean either? In other words, as far as the Monster is concerned, 'Felix', 'Agatha', 'son', 'brother', 'sister', do not serve to constitute a hierarchic identity of address, viz:

but a dispersed repertory of roles, of moods and affects, capable of any number of arbitrary couplings and connections, so that 'Felix' will be sometimes just 'Felix'/'son', but, at others he might be 'Felix'/'son'/ 'brother', or just 'brother'/'son' -- or even, 'Agatha'/'brother'/'son' or 'sister'/'brother'/'Felix'/'Agatha'/'daughter'/'son'. It is what I have called elsewhere the 'Keegan effect':14 the ability to occupy several seemingly incompatible positions at once, a harlequin dispersal of identity before the final 'taking' of gender, vital state, and descent. It is this that is established, here, with the single name of the Father. With the establishment of the figure of the Father specific, exclusive identities are possible and 'names' proper emerge: but 'naming' is much more the arrest of language than the conditions of its possibility.

The common-sense view that language is a matter of 'naming' rather than acquiring a grammar is at one with the privileging of the voice before articulation we have discussed above and is here, in the De Lacey {56} episode, further underpinned by the ideological notion of the 'divinity' of music and song -- De Lacey's guitar playing produces, we are told, 'divine' sounds, while Safie's singing is described as 'entrancingly beautiful' or as 'wondrous' sounds (p. 160) -- compared with the monotony of reading (pp. 150-1), and by the role played by translation in the teaching of language. Learning a foreign language inevitably, to begin with, encourages the notion that there is some common, ideal, referent for two words 'meaning the same' in different languages. It is only later that it becomes clear that these common 'ideals' do not exist and that language learning is much more concerned with the differential values and articulations internal to each language itself. The Monster may be forgiven for sharing the common prejudice in this matter in view of the fact that its own learning of language is greatly aided by his being able to overhear Felix's teaching Safie his own language, French, as a 'foreign' language.

Despite thus appearing to privilege the purity of song and the pedagogical efficacity of translation the text again and again slips in the odd burr to remind us that no matter how 'divine' the harmonies of song might seem, human, meaningful utterance, the art of language, begins, not in the head, but in the suppleness of the vocal organs:

My organs were indeed harsh, but supple; and although my voice was very unlike the soft music of their tones yet I pronounced such words as I understood with tolerable ease. (pp. 156-7)
Even the divine Safie must resort to 'articulate sounds' (p. 159) when she wishes to make herself understood. Or again, we are reminded that no matter how extensive one's vocabulary might or might not be, the acquisition of a foreign language begins not with the translation of 'ideas' but with the 'frequent recurrence of some sound' (p. 159).

Once it has mastered language the Monster's education can proceed apace:

While I improved in speech, I also learned the science of letters as it was taught to the stranger, and this opened before me a wide field for wonder and delight.

The book from which Felix instructed Safie was Volney's Ruins of Empires. I should not have understood the purport of this book had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations. He had chosen this work, he said, because the declamatory style was {57} framed in imitation of the Eastern authors. Through this work I obtained a cursory knowledge of history and a view of the several empires at present existing in the world; it gave me an insight into the manners, governments, and religions of the different nations of the earth. I heard of the slothful Asiatics, of the stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians, of the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans -- of their subsequent degenerating -- of the decline of that mighty empire, of chivalry, Christianity, and kings. I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants. . . . I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent and noble blood. . . .

Other lessons were impressed upon me even more deeply. I heard of the differences of sexes, and the birth and growth of children; how the father doated on the smiles of the infant, and the lively sallies of the older child; how all the life and cares of the mother were wrapped up in the precious charge; how the mind of youth expanded and gained knowledge; of brother, sister, and all the various relationships which bind one human being to another in mutual bonds. (pp. 160-2)

It is not difficult from our post-liberal vantage point to detect the ideological bias of this programme though I suspect that not so long ago it would have appeared fairly unexceptionable. It consists principally of establishing a pretty rigorous set of simple and, as far as possible, homologous polar classifications, ranging from gender -- the 'differences of sexes' -- through social classes -- 'I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty' -- to historical and racial characteristics -- 'I heard of the slothful Asiatics, of the stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians.' We mustn't let ourselves be deceived by that pious reference to 'the division of property': 'immense wealth' and 'squalid poverty' are taxonomic categories only, not indices of a nascent class consciousness. It's worth comparing that easy coupling of the epithet 'squalid' with the pressure of syntax when the Monster describes how it finally discovered what the De Laceys were suffering from:
it was poverty, and they suffered that evil in a very distressing degree. (p. 153)
{58} There is the insistence of an experience here whereas that 'squalid' serves to deodorize rather than reinforce the concept of poverty.

But, again, we need to pay careful attention, for what can be seen in this account of the Monster's education is the imminent clouding or breakdown of these seemingly transparent and innocuous categories. It starts off confidently enough:

I heard of the slothful Asiatics, of the stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians . . .
Fine, fine: 'slothful Asiatics' (i.e. 'them'), 'stupendous Grecians' (i.e. 'us'), no problem. On to Rome ('us', ergo 'good') and the Barbarians ('them' ergo 'bad') -- but that's not what happens. It's almost as if the lesson hasn't been quite learned: the labels don't stick, there is a fumbling, this is not what I am supposed to be saying, a collapse into a mumble:
. . . of the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans -- [here's the fumble, what's happened to the Barbarians? D. M.] of their subsequent degenerating [what's this degenerating from within? D. M.] -- of the decline of that mighty empire, of chivalry, [here's the mumble, D. M.] Christianity and kings.
Some degree of poise is regained in the following sentence:
I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.
But this is pretty flatulent compared to the vigour of the 'slothful Asiatics', 'stupendous Grecians', 'wonderful virtue' used above. The whole thing has run out of steam, partly no doubt because the facile categorizing of 'us, good' and 'them, bad' no longer holds true, but also because categorizing itself has become difficult -- 'hapless' and 'original' precisely avoid any specification -- and all that's left is a vague sentimentalism as an alibi for confusion.

But where categorizing most signally fails is with respect to the Monster. The classifications of gender, society and history just do not apply to it, any more than the spurious identities proffered to it later by the reading of Plutarch, Goethe and Milton. After all its education the Monster is still left with the question: 'What was I?' and the only answer it is able to formulate, the only one available to it, is that it is a 'Monster'. But what is a 'Monster'? And this is the point: The Monster {59} is a Monster, is monstrous, because it escapes classification, because it scrambles codes, confounds rules, causes administrative chaos. It is this that makes it catastrophic. The Monster is not 'in itself' monstrous, there is no inherent monstrousness; monstrousness is that which is prescribed and proscribed by the facile categorizings of the social and cultural order. The Monster is all that a society refuses to name, refuses even to make nameable, not just because its very heterogeneity, mobility, and power is a threat to that society but, much more importantly, it is the very flux of energy that made society possible in the first place and as such offers the terrible promise that other societies are possible, other knowledges, other histories, other sexualities.

What disturbed the history lesson was the discovery that history does not proceed by a simple logical dialectic, Grecians versus Asiatics, Romans versus Barbarians, but by 'degeneration' within. It is the discovery that the 'simple' is not 'pure' but 'impure', flawed, divided, double, corruptible. Interestingly, the history rehearsed by Volney's Ruins of Empires has already been referred to earlier in the novel, prompted by Frankenstein's ruminations of what had been the fatal flaw in his own scientific project:

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 observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of domestic affections, Greece would not have 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. (p. 99)
What this commendation of innocence, of 'simple pleasures', actually entails is not just the avoidance of the violence of history, but of any history at all. It is the refusal to recognize that there is no such thing as the 'simple': that all is always 'alloy', 'unlawful' -- it is just possible, in a Horn Tooke kind of way, to derive 'alloy' from the French 'a-loi', suggesting 'beyond' or 'outside of the law' -- 'not befitting the human mind'. History, alas, like desire, is the unthinkable, a matter of contingencies not of categories, of migrations and accidents, {60} catastrophes and discontinuities, always and everywhere exorbitant with respect to thought and the law.


And isn't it this that makes the Monster so frightening -- that it is a gigantic hulk of heterogeneity, a terrible alloy of living-dead flesh, ungendered, ubiquitous, indescribable?:
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? 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 colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. (p. 101)
In the novel itself the Monster is assumed to be male, but in what I have written so far I have tried to keep the question of gender open by referring to it as 'it'. For the Monster resists, or rather transcends, gender designations: here the lustrous black hair and pearly white teeth suggest 'feminine' attributes, contrasted with the straight black lips and the prominent musculature, which suggest predominantly 'masculine' traits. It is not enough, though it was long overdue, to argue that the Monster is Mary Shelley's 'monstrous Eve':15 what the Monster radically questions is the adequacy of the notion of gender itself. The Monster 'is' 'male' and 'female' and all other genders too, just as it 'is' 'alive' and 'dead', 'parent' and 'child'. The Monster thus presents the appalling prospect of embodying the three major familial neuroses:
the phobic person can no longer be sure whether he is parent or child; the obsessed person, whether he is alive or dead; the hysterical person whether he is man or woman.16
The Monster, that is, refuses to accommodate itself to the cosy disjunctions of the family; it exceeds them on all sides. Worse: the Monster confounds also the distinctions between pursuer and pursued, {61} between master and servant, between nature and culture, deficiency and excess, guilt and innocence, promise and refusal. What the Monster challenges, above all -- and we shall turn to this again later -- at a specific historical moment, are the easy taxonomies of Enlightenment thought: the eruption of all that it itself can no longer think consigns the achievement of the philosophy of the Enlightenment to being henceforth no more than ideology.

So much for the Monster constituted, but what can we learn by looking at the process of his production:

These thoughts supported my spirits, while I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study and my person had become emaciated with confinement. Sometimes on the very brink of certainty, I failed; yet still I clung to the hope which the next day or night might realize. One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit. It was indeed but a passing trance, that only made me feel with renewed acuteness so soon as, the unnatural stimulus ceasing to operate, I had returned to my old habits. I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation: my eye-balls were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human frame turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion. (p. 98)
Ellen Moers has argued persuasively that 'Frankenstein is a birth myth'17 and that it owes much of its power to Mary Shelley's {62} experience of the birth and death of her baby daughter. For Moers what constitutes the distinctive originality of Mary Shelley's tale is that it conveys some of the revulsion felt by a mother in the immediate aftermath of birth and in this the novel offers a counterweight to the more prevalent myth of birth as a happy event -- exemplified by, to cite the example used by Ellen Moers, Amelia Sedley's delivery of the young George in Vanity Fair.

I am afraid that, as with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's proposal that the Monster represents Mary Shelley's 'Eve', I do not think this is a sufficiently radical reappraisal of the text. Ms Moers quotes the description of the finished Monster that I have used earlier but she makes no reference to the long account of the actual process of making the Monster I have just quoted. Now whatever this process is it does not seem to me to represent 'birth'. Firstly, it is regarded as an act of 'filthy creation' (elsewhere it is referred to as a 'filthy secret'), a 'passing trance' effected by an 'unnatural stimulus'. Secondly, this process is accompanied by both eagerness and delay, procrastination and haste, and the overall mood is one of guilty addiction. Thirdly, the effects on Frankenstein are to render his cheeks pale and emaciated while a particular strain is put on his eyes -- 'my eyeballs were starting from their sockets'. Finally, the whole thing takes place in tremendous secrecy and isolation.

It seems to me that the one human activity that comes to mind at once as partaking of all the above features is that of masturbation -- the secrecy, the haste, the furtiveness, the delay, the guilt, the addiction -- plus the supposed symptoms of paleness, emaciation and eye-strain. Moreover, other aspects of the process, taken as a whole, would seem to support this hypothesis. Firstly it begins, in effect, when Frankenstein is 13 with his discovery of Cornelius Agrippa (p. 83): that is, it begins in adolescence and corresponds with the normal period of sexual rediscovery. For Frankenstein it is made more difficult by the dismissive (prohibitive) reaction of his father -- 'Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time on this; it is sad trash.' (ibid.) -- and the further reading of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus could only have been pursued guiltily in the face of parental disapproval. The prohibition, that is, turns the alchemical texts into something like pornography, a forbidden knowledge and pleasure. This first period lasts precisely two years, from 13 to 15, when the discovery of electricity arouses interests in other areas. Nevertheless, {63} and this may be the second corroborative point, Frankenstein returns to the alchemical texts when, just after the death of his mother, he takes up his studies at Ingolstadt -- i.e. at moments of deprivation and loneliness he returns to his 'alchemical' texts as a guilty and surrogate consolation.

Now this is not something I particularly want to pursue -- it's a bit like discussing, if not Lady Macbeth's children, then her menstrual cycle -- but a hang-up about masturbation would not contradict, rather it would go some way to explain, much of what we have already sensed as the disturbed psychology of the tale. It would fit, for example, what we have seen of Walton's libidinal weakness and thinly disguised homosexual narcissism. It would explain, also, the rather less than full-blooded sexual relationships of the novel: Frankenstein's father's paternalistic adoption of a child wife, the self-effacement of Walton's ship's master before a rival, the very asexual -- quasi-incestuous -- relationship of Frankenstein with Elizabeth and his failure to consummate his marriage with her. It would account, also, for the terrible confusion in Frankenstein's mind as to whether he is innocent or guilty: his problem is that he feels guilty because he is innocent -- the neurasthenic dread he feels comes not from what he's done but from what he has not done.

At this point it is probably necessary to ask the question that Mary Shelley herself anticipates in her Introduction -- 'How [she], then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea?' (p. 51). Again at a level of analysis I think it would be pointless to pursue, it is possible to speculate as to what Mary Shelley had discovered or intuited with respect to Shelley's own sexual proclivities or the deeper significance of the flamboyant 'machismo' of a man like Byron. Certainly it is not difficult to understand how a highly intelligent and warmly sensuous young girl might become extremely impatient at, and increasingly sceptical of, the flagrant egotism and self-absorption of practically all the men around her -- Godwin, Shelley, Peacock, Byron, Jefferson.

Be that as it may, what I think is required is that we should consider the 'problem' of masturbation as symptomatic of a much wider 'crisis' -- though that masturbation should be either a 'problem' or a 'crisis' is precisely what the problem or crisis is in the first place. For what masturbation is is the solace and confusion of a particular ideological fix which might loosely be denominated 'idealism' but only in the sense {64} that this embraces that privileging of thought, voice, self, innocence, purity, logical categories -- that series that has emerged in the course of our discussion -- before that other series of body, writing, other, desire, alloy, heterogeneity which is not the 'polar opposite' of the first series but the condition of its possibility. In other words, what masturbation confronts us with is the impossibility of the 'purely' 'imaginary' and the absolute irreducibility of the supplementary body. Masturbation is the introduction of difference into the very essence of the delusion of self-sufficiency. The Argentine writer Cortazar's joke that masturbation observes all the classic unities of time, place, and action is, in fact, the very opposite of the case: it fractures them. Instead of the security of identity masturbation offers the threat of a dispersal: not merely that in masturbation we become both active subject and passive object, but also male and female, aggressor and victim, absent and present, prized and disdained, indulged and chastized -- all at once. In masturbation inscriptions of gender, generation and vital state become unfixed to allow instead a momentary play of difference.

What the Monster represents, then, is the claim of terrible desires denied and disavowed by a society that privileges the claims of the ideal, insists on a severe sexual coding, and disdains all difference. At one level it is the outrage of Mary's body and soul at the crass cerebralism and insensitivity of Shelley's 'idealism'. At another level it is Frankenstein's refusal to come to terms with his own sexuality. Over and against the 'penetrative' intensities of Shelley, Walton, and Frankenstein -- and the metaphor is unequivocally phallic -- the Monster presents the risk and the joy of a distributive dispersal, of polyvalent discriminations, of migratory boundaries. The Monster's preferred metaphor for acquiring knowledge is that of an 'opening' (p. 260). This is how it describes how the world 'first opened upon [it]':

No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. . . . I began to distinguish my sensations . . . to perceive the boundaries. . . . My sensations had by this time become distinct . . . I distinguished the insect from the herb, and by degrees, one herb from another. . . . How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects! (p. 145)
This is a mode of knowing completely inconceivable to the logical mind for it is essentially nomadic, a tracing of surfaces, a migration along boundaries between. The Monster's characteristic location is the hut or {65} the clearing, fittingly 'no-man's' lands. The tracery of the Monster's scars are not the mark of shame, or of deficiency, but hieroglyphs containing the secrets of unimaginable pleasures. It is this, perhaps, that explains the link established by Mary Shelley between the Monster and the book--
I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. (p. 56)
and, hence, between masturbation and writing -- sensed, perhaps, by Shelley, in his fear of the 'enervating effects of the novels of the present day' (p. 58): both testify to the irreducibility of a difference inconceivable to thought. It is in this being the 'unthinkable' that the Monster most clearly announces its modernity. For if, according to Foucault, De Sade marks the demise of libertinage to the extent that he takes to its limit the compatibility of desire and the possibility of its being represented, then Mary Shelley should be credited with having launched upon the world the monstrosity of a desire that resists and overflows representation on all sides.


Mary Shelley, Mary Shelley. Yes, it's pretty infuriating. But Mary did like her name -- all of it: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley. Few women can have been so constrained by descent and alliance, both being as much bonds of intellect as bonds of blood. Mary was trapped by 'her' names, by the names by which she was known and in which, as far as we know, she seemed to rejoice. But we have already suggested that the constant reminder of who her parents had been and who her husband was must have been a source of some irritation to her. And there is evidence of this elsewhere. Perhaps the sweetest letter in her correspondence is an early one to Thomas Jefferson Hogg with whom, at the time (the time, incidentally of Frankenstein and the death of her first baby) she was enjoying a mildly (some argue that it was more than mild) flirtatious affair. She writes:
Dear Jefferson,

It would have required more than mortal fortitude (and such the Pecksie does not boast of) to have resisted the sight of Green fields and yew trees & have jogged up to London again -- when your letters arrived Shelley's distich was truly applicable

      On her hind paws the Dormouse stood
      In a wild and mingled mood
      Of Maieshness & Pecksietude
. . . .

Well Jefferson take care of yourself and be good -- the Pecksie will soon be back all the better for her Dormouseish jaunt & remember nothing take away from my Maieshness

For Maie girls are Maie girls
      Wherever they're found
      In Air or in Water
      or in the ground

Now think of me very kindly while I am away & receive me kindly when I come back or I will be no more

Your affectionate Dormouse18
Here is a delightful shrugging off of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley and a marvellous release of skittishness, of 'wild and mingled mood', 'Of Maieshness and Pecksietude'. These are not names but moods, not identifications but impersonal and prepersonal states of being -- not even human but 'Dormouseish' -- joyous and irresponsible. It's the moment when Felix can be 'Agatha-ish' again. Interestingly, at the date of Mary's flirtation with Hogg, Hogg himself was using and being generally addressed by a nickname, Alexy, taken from a novel he had just written. Moreover yet another member of what was at this time an intensely closed group, Jane Clairmont, Mary's step-sister, was driving everyone insane by changing her name almost daily: from Jane to, first, Clara, then Clary, then to Clare and finally to Claire. Of course none of these little strategies is particularly radical but they do suggest an underlying resistance to being named, classed, even gendered.

So far we have kept discussion pretty close to the text and the domestic milieu. But the problem of 'naming' was perhaps the most critical political problem of the period. The years 1816 to 1819 were years of acute political unrest beginning with the Spafields riots of December 1816 and culminating in the Peterloo massacre of August 1819. In between were the March of the Blanketeers, the Ardwick Conspiracy and the Pentridge Rising of 1817 which was to result in the {67} execution of Jeremiah Brandreth and two of his fellow 'mutineers', Turner and Ludlam. It was also a period of massive repression on the part of the authorities, with the suppression of habeas corpus in 1817 and the passing of the Six Acts in 1819.19 The basic political imperative of the period, as far as the forces of 'law and order' were concerned, was to stem and contain the massive tide of popular unrest brought on by the collapse of traditional industries, the post-war depression and the spread of revolutionary propaganda. But before anything else, the very nature of the threat had to be named. And therein lay the rub.

The question posed by Hazlitt in 1818 -- 'What is the people?' -- to a very large extent remained, and remains, unanswered. The nature of the problem is well indicated by E. P. Thompson:

We have spoken of the artisan culture of the Twenties. It is the most accurate term to hand, and yet it is no more than approximate. We have seen that 'petit-bourgeois' (with its usual pejorative associations) will not do; while to speak of 'working class' culture would be premature. But by artisan we should understand a milieu which touched the London shipwrights and Manchester factory operatives at one side and the degraded artisans, the outworkers, at the other. To Cobbett these comprised the 'journeymen and labourers', or, more briefly, 'the people'.20
In a sense it is the same problem that we touched upon towards the end of our discussion of Mansfield Park: what is this variegated and heterogeneous mass that resists designation? that remains disconcertingly 'without' or 'across' or 'between' all available modes of categorization?

To many, of course, it was the 'mob' or, more luridly, the 'Monster'. And in this sense, as has been noted many times before, it is possible to see Frankenstein as a kind of anti-jacobinical tract with the Monster representing all that the social order most deeply feared and apprehended. Moreover, with the creation of the Monster what Mary Shelley provided all established authorities with was a fearsome stereotype of subversion and unrest which could be rapidly deployed whenever there was any threat to the status quo.21 For Thompson, on the other hand, what is of interest is the way in which this 'mob' or 'Monster' will emerge as a 'class', partly through the pressures of political confrontation, as at Peterloo, and partly through the development of programmes of self-help and self- {68} education. As far as the latter is concerned Thompson speaks of the great impact that works of the Enlightenment -- and he mentions Volney as a particularly popular writer -- must have had on the minds of men increasingly suspicious of and dissatisfied by the homilies and tracts fobbed off on them by the established order.

Well, yes, but: the 'but' is prompted by what we have seen happening in Frankenstein. For there we have seen the Monster being given a pretty thorough education in Enlightenment thought, in Volney in particular, only to find that that thought and its ideals do not apply to it: not only do the De Laceys give it very short shrift indeed when it throws itself on their mercy but, and this is what is perhaps more important, the very categories of Enlightenment thought itself are totally unable to accommodate it. For what the Monster 'represents' is that which exceeds representation on all sides, that confounds categories and scrambles codes, that refuses to be classed. It is this that is troubling, that perhaps those very notions for which the 'working class' is indebted to the Enlightenment, above all the notion of 'class' itself, are not those best designed to accommodate and give legitimacy to those myriad and heterogeneous experiences and aspirations and groupings that are its own. Rather the possibility must be entertained that these seemingly 'enlightening' notions are none other than the most cynical imposition of a mode of thought which makes any alternative to itself impossible, literally 'unthinkable', monstrous. In other words, what seemed so much like the possibility of escape, was, in fact, a capitulation, a capitulation to a mode of thought that privileged categorization and division, classification and conflict, representation and monstrosity at the expense of heterogeneity and sharing, migration and festival, repetition and transcendence -- that mode of thought that serves only one class, the bourgeois class, and the capitalist economic formation.

It is not that the 'monstrous' or the alien cannot be accommodated altogether. This is what the story of Safie shows. Safie is as much an outsider as is the Monster, coming, as she does, from an alien race and culture. But her accommodation is achieved only by means of a number of strategies and compromises. First, she is idealized as a 'sweet Arabian', virtually transformed into an 'oriental princess'; secondly, she is given a Christian mother which goes some way to giving her honorary European status; thirdly, she is shorn of any problematic features, of any embarrassing awkwardnesses. This is {69} achieved by virtually splitting her in two: while Safie is allowed to embody all that might be accommodated in the alien, it is on her father, an archetypal 'wicked Turk', that has been loaded all that might be feared and execrated. It is this that explains why, in this idealized reworking of the main theme of the story, two are required to take the place of one: if Safie and her father were a unit, that is if the complexity and difference and intractability of the orient were truly represented, it would be 'monstrous' too -- definitely not to be let in. But therein lies the hope: if the 'monstrous' is that which cannot be accommodated by a society wedded to 'class' then it may mean that in pondering afresh what this monstrosity actually is we shall find some clue as to what might be the alternatives available to us.


We might begin by recapitulating what have been those forces and potentialities that have accumulated around the figure of the Monster in the course of what has been written so far. Early on, for example, before the Monster made its appearance but in anticipation of that event, we considered those material practices and instituted plays of difference -- the body, labour and language -- that made possible all those ideal constructs such as an immaterial speech, the search for a chimerical Pole, or the immediacy of thought to itself (see above, pp. 49-50). What these practices and differences fractured were all the consolations of a self-sufficient identity and the self-evidence of the 'cogito' (p. 50). With that fracture the security and transparence of the systems of classification characteristic of Enlightenment thought -- of which Frankenstein is a last avatar -- fell into disarray, consigned henceforth to be no more than an ideology such as that embraced and mouthed by the De Lacey family in their protected pastoral asylum. It is this that the massive heterogeneity of the Monster and its resistance to all categorization most disturbingly threatens. For the Monster confounds all classifications and identifications: it is alive and dead, male and female, master and slave, pursued and pursuer, parent and child -- all at once. Rather than allowing itself to be located in a system of classification what the Monster embodies is a radical dispersal of roles and states and a nomadic roaming across and between them. The Monster is always ahead or behind, always elsewhere, ever in a condition of migratory adjacency. Moreover the tracery of these {70} migrations, like the scars on its body, are not the investments of limits but the openings of boundaries, the splitting of ever new laminations, the establishment of ever fresh surfaces. The Monster's wounds are not the evidence of a history but the sensitized possibility of a beginning. Or, rather, it is because there has been a history that there can be a beginning -- just as there can be identity because there is difference, or thought because there is language. One does not begin with the punctuality of a birth but the reappropriation of a scattered genesis. One begins, that is, with repetition.

Earlier, when we were considering how the Monster was 'made' we looked at, first, the education it received at the hands of the De Lacey family and, secondly, at the secretive processes of its physical constitution in Ingolstadt. What we omitted to make any reference to at all is what was probably the most decisive experience of all: that is the Monster's discovery of Frankenstein's detailed journal of the four months preceding its creation. What the discovery and perusal of this journal allows the Monster is a reading of its own coming into existence; it allows it, that is, the dubious luxury of reliving, of repeating as in a kind of primal therapy, the trauma of its own constitution. What the journal reveals is that the Monster had not been born but made, that its originality was essentially derivative, that it was an unholy amalgam of heterogeneous and discrepant materials, that its uniqueness was supplementary and subsequent to a bewildering diversity. Worse: the Monster discovers that it has been old before it has been young, dead before it has been alive, worm-ridden before it has been fashioned. On all sides, then, what the Monster finds is that it is not contemporary with itself, that it is radically divided, that it has always been anticipated, provided with a body that is not its own, the product of a process of production that is indifferent to it, and allowed to speak only a language that cannot accommodate it. But perhaps it is in this very moment when the Monster discovers its negative relationship with all that constitutes it -- life, labour and language -- that the true nature of its monstrosity becomes clear. It is that with the very dispersal of its genesis, the indifference of its origins, the multiplicity of its histories, a certain choice becomes possible. It is to allow the dispersed, the indifferent, the multiple to return. But perhaps it is not enough to talk of a 'return'. In the course of his extraordinarily elegant account of the eclipse of Enlightenment thought and the emergence of a 'thought' that might be termed {71} 'modern' Michel Foucault announces with almost breath-taking nonchalance:

Before the end of the eighteenth century man did not exist -- any more than the potency of life, the fecundity of labour, or the historical density of language. He is quite a recent creature, which the demiurge of knowledge fabricated with its own hands less than two hundred years ago: but he has grown old so quickly that it has been too easy to imagine that he had been waiting for thousands of years in the darkness for that moment of illumination in which he would be finally known.22
It is Foucault's principal thesis that with the demise of Enlightenment thought based, as it was, on the self-evidence of the 'cogito' and the transparency of representation to itself, what emerged in its place was an order of knowledge based upon the problematic status of 'man' himself as a labouring, living, speaking creature. Knowledge is no longer the deployment of categories in a space of representations -- 'to give new names and arrange in connected classifications' (p. 308) to quote M. Krempe again -- but the laborious dwelling on what it means to have a history (and be subject to time), a body (and feel need), and a language (and to experience desire) which confound as much as constitute the securities they afford and deny.

In the light of Foucault's work it is now possible to see -- and it is our shame not to have seen it before -- what has been Mary Shelley's most remarkable achievement, even though it is thrust before us on almost every page of the novel: that is the invention of 'man'. There is not place here to rehearse in detail Foucault's account of that configuration of knowledge that centres on the emergence of 'man' but even if we take the most general headings of his discussion it is not difficult to see to what extent the problematic he describes is anticipated and illustrated by Frankenstein.

The first characteristic of modern thought that Foucault describes is what he calls the 'analytic of finitude', that is that man finds himself irredeemably confronted by the finiteness of his condition, deprived of any hope of transcendent salvation. For the first time man finds himself the lone subject and object of his own history. It is man who lives, speaks and labours but in all these processes he finds himself in a condition of

{72} necessarily subjacent density, in an irreducible anteriority, a living being, an instrument of production, a vehicle for words which exist before him. All these contents that his knowledge reveals to him as exterior to himself, and older than his own birth, anticipate him, overhang him with their solidity, and traverse him as though he were merely an object of nature, a face doomed to be erased in the course of history.23
This is precisely the experience that must have been the Monster's in its perusal of Frankenstein's notes: that far from being the sovereign subject of its own fate it was dependent on and subject to a process of labour, a body, and a language not its own. Paradoxically, however -- and here I simplify Foucault's argument drastically -- this discovery of finitude becomes the very ground of modern knowledge. In a curiously secular version of the Pascalian wager, since there is nothing to lose, for all is lost, there is everything to gain by slowly beginning again the accumulation of a knowledge which will never be but limited but might well be endless.

The second characteristic of modern thought that Foucault describes is what he calls the 'empirical and the transcendental'. This, in a sense, complements what has been described in the discussion of the 'analytic of finitude' for if that provides a knowledge based upon the finitude of the body, that is an empirical accumulation of facts, it is necessary to articulate that knowledge upon the inherited wisdom of culture. It is necessary, that is, to articulate a painfully emerging knowledge on the achieved and constituted knowledges of the past, to articulate what might be described as the nature of knowledge -- its anatomo-physiological conditions -- upon a history of knowledge -- those 'sedimented significations' which become the raw material of ideology. Caught between the two, a knowledge of a positivist type on the one hand and an eschatology on the other, man finds himself both reduced and promised. This, painfully and immediately, is the experience of the Monster, caught between the anatomo-physiological discoveries of its body and the sclerotic doxology of the De Laceys. It is the principal dilemma that the Monster faces throughout the book: that its experience never conforms with what it has been taught, that its body and the discoveries of its senses are denied and travestied by the language and the history that are available to it.

This takes us to the third feature of modern thought announced by {73} Foucault: the contemporaneity of the 'cogito' and the unthought. He writes:

Man and the unthought are, at the archeological level, contemporaries.24
Earlier he has explained this by a series of questions that might well have been prompted by considering the fate of the Monster:
How can man be that life whose web, pulsations, and buried energy constantly exceed the experience that he is immediately given of them? How can he be that labour whose laws and demands are imposed upon him like some alien system? How can he be the subject of a language that for thousands of years has been formed without him. . . ?25
The Monster, the produced effect of a labour, a body and a language not its own, is never in the place that they would assign it, and the place in which it finds itself is not reducible to the available co-ordinates of labour, life and language. Anomalous and exorbitant with respect to all that would define it the Monster is the very figure of the unknown that haunts modern thought. This must be understood properly: the unthought is not something waiting in the shadows to be brought to light at some later date. The unthought that haunts the modern world is that that is the very condition of its knowledge. The basic paradigm of modern thought is not that of question and answer but the elaboration of 'problems' -- the problem of gender, the problem of age, the problem of meaning, the problem of identity. It is that paradigm announced in the Monster's cry:
What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them. (p. 170)
In no more telling way does the Monster announce its modernity than in its perpetually posing such problems: am I alive or dead, male or female, parent or child, natural or artificial, victim or assailant. . . . Our tragedy is that we consider ourselves safe in possessing an answer to such questions.

Finally, Foucault speaks of 'the retreat and return of the origin'. Finding himself everywhere anticipated, invested by a myriad determinants, forestalled and pre-empted by all that precedes him, man cannot comfort himself with the punctuality of a birth or the innocence of a {74} simple origin. But it is the very heterogeneity, indifference and asynchronousness of the chronologies that invest him that allows man to disperse himself amongst different times and different histories. In this sense the 'origin', or even 'origins' is that ecstatic choice made possible by the very plethora of geneses available to him. Man can become the locus where the old can be as contemporary as the new, where the already embraces the not yet, and where transcendence is made possible by repetition. By this reversal man no longer exists 'in' time but becomes, rather, the very field where many different times might mingle -- the times of plants and of rocks, the times of beasts of prey and their victims, the times of individuals and crowds, of dynasties and exiles, of many births and many deaths. It is such a commingling of times, all indifferent and alien, that the Monster endures and enjoys: it is both of the past and of the future, a part of nature as well as the product of science, fossil as well as sentient, master as well as slave, dead as well as alive. Given this predicament, volatile in the extreme, neither the Monster nor man should resign it or himself to being the passive victim of a history that bears down upon him, but should be prepared to rejoice in the fact that it is in him that many histories are possible. In this sense the Monster is not that on which history has left its scar, but the very wound from which time can flow. It is this that is the experience of the Monster: not that it takes place in a beginning, but that a beginning takes place in it:

Soon a gentle light stole over the heavens and gave me a sensation of pleasure. I started up and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees. I gazed with a kind of wonder. It moved slowly, but it enlightened my path, and I again went out in search of berries. (p. 145)
What the Monster is, then, is 'man' as he emerged as the foundation of knowledge at the beginning of the nineteenth century and it is that that makes it monstrous for in many ways we have still not come to terms with that creation. The Monster is the body we still fear, the conjugation of sexualities we would deny, the lawlessness we disguise from ourselves, the histories that are available to us, the beginnings we flee like the plague. The Monster threatens our pathetic little identities, the bland securities of our answers, the crassness of our accommodations; it fractures the claustrophobic closure of our calendar, and it offers the hope of unspeakable ecstasies.


1. See J. Derrida, '. . . That dangerous supplement . . .', in Of Grammatology, trans. G. Spivak, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1976, pp. 141ff.

2. E. P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1968, p. 660.

3. The Letters of M. W. Shelley, ed. B. T. Bennet, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1980, vol. I, p. 5.

4. All references to Frankenstein are to the Penguin edition, ed. Maurice Hindle, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1985.

5. 'A Defence of Poetry' in Shelley's Prose, ed. D. Lee Clark, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1974, p. 293.

6. ibid., p. 297.

7. ibid., p. 283.

8. ibid., pp. 278-9.

9. ibid., p. 297.

10. ibid., p. 294.

11. M. Foucault, The Order of Things, Vintage Books, New York, 1973, p. 237.

12. M. Praz, Introduction to Three Gothic Novels, ed. P. Fairclough, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1968, p. 25.

13. Thompson, op. cit., p. 799.

14. See the essay on Wuthering Heights, Chapter 4 in this volume.

15. S. Gilbert and S. Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1979.

16. G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Viking Press, New York, 1977, p. 75.

17. E. Moers, Literary Women, Garden City, New York, 1976, pp. 93 ff.

18. Letters, p. 12.

19. Thompson, op. cit., p. 768.

20. ibid., p. 819.

21. L. Sterrenberg, 'Mary Shelley's monster: politics and psyche', in The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. G. Levin and U. C. Knoepflmacher, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982. See also Paul O'Flynn, 'Production and reproduction of Frankenstein', in Literature and History, Autumn, 1983, pp. 194-213, and E. Jordan, 'Spectres and scorpions: allusion and confusion in Mary Barton', in Literature and History, Spring, 1981, pp. 48-61.

22. Foucault, op. cit., p. 308.

23. ibid., p. 313.

24. ibid., p. 326.

25. ibid., p. 323.