Luisa's Lens

"The more we study, we the more discover our ignorance." - Percy Blysshe Shelley

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: A Marxist Reading


Horrifying, thrilling, bone-chilling: these are the characteristics of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The tale of a doctor whose creation to benefit humanity turns into a horrible monster, this horror story is as much a criticism of society as it is an entertaining science fiction fantasy. A Marxist reading of the text shows that this work is an active agent exposing and criticizing society's oppressive economic and ideological systems. The fear played upon in this work is in actuality a fear of revolution.

Every literary work is a reflection of the context surrounding it, including historical, social, and economic context (Rivkin 644). For this reason, it is pivotal to examine the context surrounding the text before delving into analysis.

Frankenstein was first published in 1816. Its author, Mary Shelley, was the daughter of two radical philosophers: Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin (Smith 7). While this biographical information may seem irrelevant, it is important in this case precisely because the radical ideas of her parents may give us an idea of the author’s own opinions on the historical events surrounding the setting for her novel.

As Warren Montag argues, the novel itself is set in the 1790’s, approximately one hundred and fifty years after the 1642 Revolution in England, which is mentioned in the text (385). Thus, the work itself alludes to revolution and is placed during a revolutionary time. In fact, there were two revolutions going on at this time: the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution.

The main historical event during the 1790’s was the French Revolution. This idealistic revolution had as its main goal to establish a social order based on reason and justice and had many supporters even in Britain at the time, including Shelley’s parents. Her father even wrote a work in support of the revolution, which would eventually be censored after the British government declared war on France in 1793 and began to prosecute supporters of French revolutionaries (Smith 8). It is logical, then, that Shelley would mention the English revolution in place of the French revolution so as to avoid censorship by her eliciting sympathy for an oppressed monster in her story.

The Haitian Revolution also took place in the 1790’s. This revolution for Haitian independence began as a slave revolt and, once the slaves in Haiti defeated Napoleon’s army, established the world’s first Black republic (Reinhardt 246). It may be ideal, then, that the novel is situated at this time, as oppressed slaves fought and won their independence from oppressors. It is logical that Shelley would sympathize with these slaves, as her parents were both abolitionists. Her mother, a renowned feminist, often wrote of women as slaves to men, and she also criticized slavery explicitly in her review of Olaudah Esquiano’s Interesting Narrative (Bugg 655).

As its historical context reflects, oppression is an important theme in the text. The novel itself is set in a time of social upheaval. While oppressed citizens are fighting for their rights, slaves fight for their independence on the other side of the globe. In the novel, an educated scientist creates a monster that goes out of control. Shelley’s work plays on society’s fear of creating monsters that go out of control and create revolutions.

Clearly, Dr. Frankenstein represents the ruling class in this work. As Marx explained in his Communist Manifesto, only two true classes exist: the bourgeoisie, or the owners of the means of production, and the proletariat, or the working class (Marx “Manifesto” 220). It is important to consider, then, that Dr. Frankenstein himself is indeed an educated character from a wealthy business background: “My family is one of the most distinguished of [Geneva]. My ancestors had been for many years counselors and syndics; and my father had filled several public situations with honour and reputation. He was respected by all who knew him, for his integrity and indefatigable attention to public business” (Shelley 40). Further, the doctor, or creator, is the owner of the means of production in that he owns the means of creation, for just as the bourgeoisie creates the proletariat, this doctor creates a monster that ends up attempting to kill him. The experiment spirals out of control in the same way that oppressed people revolt: “Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells” (Marx “Manifesto” 225). Dr. Frankenstein is a symbol for oppressive society.

Similarly, the monster is a symbol for oppressed people. He is the proletariat that revolts against the bourgeoisie in class struggle. First, his mere composition reflects that of the proletariat. For instance, he is created by the bourgeoisie, and of various different parts at that: the monster is composed of bones from charnel-houses, parts from dissecting rooms, and pieces from slaughter-houses (Shelley 58-9). This is similar to the proletariat in that it “is recruited from all classes of the population” (Marx “Manifesto” 228). The monster, like the proletariat, is a mixture of different segments from various parts. In addition, the monster is larger than his creator. The doctor recalls, “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large” (Shelley 58). The monster’s gargantuan stature reflects the tremendous population of the working class, which far outnumbers the few aristocrats. Further, he is tougher than the doctor, just like the proletariat is stronger than the bourgeoisie: he reminds his creator, “thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine; my joints more supple” (93). The monster’s simple lifestyle reflects the lifestyle of the workers; he does not need the luxury of the aristocrats but only a meager amount of nutritious food to eat and a simple bed. Thus, his very composition is symbolic of the laborers who were composed of many different types of people, larger in numbers, physically stronger, and less dependent on luxury than the upper classes.

It is also important to consider that the monster elicits sympathy, which further demonstrates Shelley’s criticism of capitalism. The creature begins his life with good intentions but, after repeatedly experiencing malicious treatment from humans, understandably turns to violence. This turn from innocence to evil reflects the way the working class began the French revolution with good hopes and beneficent intentions but grossly ended the revolution with the Reign of Terror, horrific violence, and numerous guillotine slaughters. He began his life with good intentions, just as the working class, in its attempts to overturn capitalism, often begins revolution with hopes of ending poverty: “Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity: but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me” (94) Then, just as the French revolution at length turned sour, the monster explains his change in temperament in response to being shot by a man after saving a drowning child: “The feelings of kindness and gentleness, which I had entertained but a few moments before, gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth. Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind” (125). Detested for his mere appearance, the monster explains that he is worthy of sympathy, and his anger towards mankind only develops because of his abuse, just as the working class goes through stages of development: “The proletariat goes through various stages of development. At first the contest is carried on by individual laborers, then by the work people of a factory, then by the operatives of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploits them” (Marx “Manifesto” 228). The monster is hardly to be blamed for his outbursts, as the working classes could hardly be blamed for resorting to revolution in hopes of improving their living conditions.

Perhaps we should consider that the tale of Frankenstein also seems to go beyond economics to criticize the very superstructure of Shelley’s contemporary society. Its tale of monsters being created is not simply a history of capitalist society but a criticism of the oppressive institutions that guide our society. Among these are capitalism and slavery, which may fall under capitalism in that it is economic. Let us consider, however, that the tale reciprocates the role of master and slave, just as the Haitian revolution did. Indeed, although Doctor Frankenstein creates the creature to improve life for humanity, in the end, the slave becomes the master, returning to intimidate its creator and eventually kill him. The monster uses his intimidating physique to threaten and abuse his creator: “Slave, I have reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember that I have my power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master; - obey!” (Shelley 146). It is notable, then, that Shelley is playing with the master/slave relationship, for in this binary, the privileged term is dependent on the second term, giving the slave power over the master. By doing this, Shelley is calling into question the very institutions and ideologies of society, and criticizing capitalism is only one way of doing that.

According to Marx, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” (Marx “German” 656). The ideologies in question here include both Enlightenment thought and religion. First, it is clear that the idea of progress and individualism is being questioned when the monster is created. The doctor is working toward progress when the monster is created: the doctor reflects in creating the beast that “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into the dark world” (Shelley 58). This torrent of light represents what Enlightenment thinkers though of progress in science and technology. However, science and technology are the very reason that the monster is created (Montag 388). Shelley’s own voice comes through in her book when she states that “If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have been spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed” (59). Shelley completely rejects Enlightenment ideology in her story.

Frankenstein is as much a rejection of society's crippling oppression and exploitation as it is an entertaining read. Shelley not only rejects capitalism but also the ideology that supports it. Shelley’s monster reminds us that oppression creates monsters and a threat to itself. More than anything else, it reminds us that “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (Marx “Manifesto” 233). Any society that exploits and oppresses creates opponents who are capable of overthrowing that society. It is precisely this fear that is played upon in the horror story.

Works Cited:

Bugg, John. ““Master of Their Language”: Education and Exile in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’” The Huntington Library Quarterly. 68.4 (2005). 6 May 2009. 655-666. JSTOR.

Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2005. 643-646.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin Classics, 2002.

Montag, Warren. “The “Workshop of Filthy Creation”: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein.” Frankenstein. 2nd ed. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford, 2000. 384-395.

Reinhardt, Thomas. “200 Years of Forgetting: Hushing up the Haitian Revolution.” Journal of Black Studies. 35.4 (2005). 6 May 2009 246-261. JSTOR.

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. “Starting with Zero.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2005. 643-646.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 2nd ed. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford, 2000.

Smith, Johanna M. Introduction: Biographical and Historical Contexts. Frankenstein. 2nd ed. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford, 2000.

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