Who is the Monster in ‘Frankenstein’?
December 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
With the class divide in society increasing and a generalized anti-capitalist sentiment starting to develop in many countries once again, I think its an opportune moment to glance back at Frankenstein, a monstrous tale ridden with class. A novel I think that forces you to consider the question of who is and who isn’t the monster in our society.
Who is the real monster in Mary Shelly’s Gothic classic Frankenstein ? I’m reminded of the opening to the Walt Disney classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame where a riddle is posed about the story that follows, ‘who is the monster and who is the man?’
The answer to the question and the riddle is shaped by your position in society. In Frankenstein we have two primary contestants for the title of monster, on the one hand Victor Frankenstein, an upper class liberal intellectual driven to create what he comes to see as an abomination, and on the other hand the ‘Monster’ itself, a creation abused and rejected from its ‘birth’ and therefore driven to seek revenge upon human society and its creator in particular.
The most obvious answer , I suppose, is that Frankenstein’s Monster is the real monster of the text. However the Monster can only be portrayed as truly monstrous from a certain point of the view, that is from the viewpoint of the wealth elite such as Victor Frankenstein. For them the Monster is a nightmarish vision of anarchy and revolt with it’s roots in bourgeois and elite society’s terror of the growing anger of the working masses, whose action have sprawled out of the control of the authorities.
In order to grasp this we have to examine the context in which Mary Shelly was writing. Frankenstein was first published in 1818 and so was born into a world of class conflict and rapid industrialization. In the decades leading up to the creation of the novel, the Luddite movement in Britain arose, responding to the worsening economic conditions of the industrial laborers. The Luddites ‘attacked and destroyed machines that were intended to replace human labor, particularly in the trades of weaving and stocking-making.’ Shelly was directly connected to the politics surrounding the Luddite movement through her friend Lord Byron. Byron had used his maiden speech in the House of Lords to attack the savage reprisals against the Luddites that had been proposed by the Tory’s. Also, Mary Shelly’s husband, Percy Shelly, was concerned with the radical politics of the time.
In this context then the Monster takes on a particularly political light. For just like Victor, the ruling classes of Europe have created in the working masses a monster outside of their control, or in the words of Karl Marx ‘What the bourgeoisie produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.’
You can look at this connection between the Monster and the industrial proletariat in another way, from the point of view of the created rather than the creator. In Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, they describe how ‘hateful… and embittering it is’ to live under capitalism, to be in a world dominated by someone else. Likewise, in the Monster’s final speech towards the very end of the book (and of course throughout) we hear it say ‘ I miserable and abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on’. The source of his anger is directed towards his creator not only for spurning him but because Frankenstein ‘dared to hope for happiness; that while he accumulated wretchedness and despair upon me he sought his own enjoyment.’ How alike is this to the worker in Marxist theory who feels anger towards the system not only because she/he is oppressed but because the capitalists are living it up at their expense. The literary critic, Paul F’linn puts it this way ‘Just as Frankenstein’s creation drives him through exhausting and unstinting conflicts to his death, so too a class called into being bu the bourgeoisie and yet rejected and frustrated by it will in the end turn on that class in fury and vengeance and destroy it.’
The other candidate for the monster status is Victor Frankenstein, the creator of the Monster. Shelly’s critiques of Frankenstein’s actions are quite sharp, and it is not just the character that she is critiquing but I would argue the bourgeois class he represents. Frankenstein is driven to create life in order to prove the unbeatable power of reason over the world, he says that ‘Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and poor a torrent of light into our dark world.’ At first Frankenstein appears as a heroic liberal intellectual par excellence, with a beautiful family, nice upbringing (at one point Victor Frankenstein says of his parents that ‘I was their plaything and their idol’.), and despite the tragic death of his mother, Victor comes out as enduring pain and woe.
Once he has created the Monster, however, Victor starts to develop into a rather off-putting and unattractive hero. He collapses into a kind of sickened state following the creation of the Monster, and when the Monster starts to take his revenge against him he feels only contempt and revulsion at its existence. So when Frankenstein meets the Monster again he says, ‘Begone, vile insect! Or rather stay, that I may trample you to the dust!; And When the Monster finishes his story of abuse and isolation and asks for Victor to create another Monster as a mate, Frankenstein similarly replies ‘Begone! I have answered you; you may torture me, but I will never consent.’ The Monster is able through reason and argument rather than ‘torture’ to sway Frankenstein to his side temporarily, only to have Victor destroy the mate once it is created and betray the Monster yet again.
For those who sympathize with the Monster’s plight then, it is the creator who comes off looking like the monster.
If you are sympathetic to the rule of authority, to the rights of the elite to do whatever they want and to hell with the consequences, then you are likely to agree with Frankenstein that despite his wrong doing in creating this Monster, the only just thing to do now is end its life. However if you are a part of, or identify with the creation rather than the creator, if when you read about the development of the Monster’s life and can feel some empathy, if not see some similarity, then I would argue this will profoundly shape your understanding of who is the real monster in Frankenstein.
So for you ”who is the monster and who is the man?’