Mythos of Creation in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

Also published on the online literary journal O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!

Mary Shelley’s renowned work of gothic fiction Frankenstein (1818)[1] is the quintessence of the literature of terror which confronts contemporary society’s repressed fears and anxieties and projects them in the image of supernatural, nightmarish monsters. The creation of the Monster in Frankensteincan be analysed from two perspectives – firstly, from the point of view of Victor Frankenstein himself, his overreaching aspirations which become the prime reason for the events to unfold the way they do in the course of the novel; and secondly from the point of view of the author, Shelley, whose anxieties take shape in the figure of a hideous beast and its equally hideous creator.

Victor Frankenstein’s ambitions are clear – to “bestow animation upon lifeless matter”, owing to his interests in the fields of anatomy, chemistry and natural philosophy. And so, he plunders graveyards and charnel houses in search of material to fashion a new being, which he shocks into life with electricity. Although Frankenstein claims to be taking up the arduous task of creating a new being for the advancement of science and the betterment of humanity, a critical insight into the novel’s plot reveals that Frankenstein conducts his experiment more out of arrogance and out of a desire to become like God. He says, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” His statement makes it clear that his intention is to cheat death by becoming immortal in the hearts of the new species he creates and to become a demigod of sorts on Earth. As we find out, however, Frankenstein succeeds in stitching together various parts of human corpses to create his new being and reanimating the dead but is immediately repulsed by his creation its ugliness and demoniacal features and therefore abandons it – “Now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” Frankenstein falls into a deep depression and shuns his creation, perhaps because now that he’s conquered death, his replacement as God is complete. Still, Frankenstein is not the caring, benevolent God of Christianity who creates Adam and grants him a companion, Eve, and provides him shelter in the Garden of Eden. Frankenstein is malevolent, abandoning his creation and refusing to create a female companion for it so that ultimately it is left alone, an outcast to society.

7152004-l“Now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”

The remainder of the novel is devoted to describing the horrors Frankenstein is forced to encounter as a result of his act of transgression. He is haunted by horrific nightmares, and finds his family and loved ones murdered by the Monster who, enraged at the way his father-figure deserts him, seeks revenge. Frankenstein’s character is similar to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust[2] who signs a deal with the devil in order to acquire superhuman knowledge and attain God-like powers. Unlike Faust, however, Frankenstein does not have the benefit of divine intervention. He understands that he cannot be saved and instead will perish without redemption. His punishment for dabbling in divine domains may be seen as a kind of warning to those over-rationalising, overambitious intellectuals of the Enlightenment era – “[…] trespass not against the Lord, and so wrath come upon you and upon your brethren.”[3] Literary scholar Dr. Don McGuire, noting that the theme of divine retribution echoes through the art and literature of the Romantic period, draws a parallel between Frankenstein and Francisco Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Sonwhich again acts as a warning to those who wish to be placed on the same plane as God.[4] Drawn from Greek and Roman mythology, Goya’s painting depicts the Titan Saturn eating one of his own children.  According to the myth, it had been foretold to Saturn that one of his children was destined to overthrow him in the future. Fearing this loss of status and power, the Titan sees his children as a threat. He therefore devours them, one by one. Similarly, Shelley’s Frankenstein poses a direct threat to God’s omnipotence and hence meets with dire consequences. One may say that Frankenstein, too, is devoured or consumed in God’s wrath.

Saturn devouring his Son by Francisco Goya

Shelley’s reasons for creating the Monster from her imagination are far more complex. Critics have argued that the representation of Frankenstein and his Monster emerges from the world of class conflict and rapid industrialization that the author is born into. In the decades leading up to the writing of the novel, the Luddite movement in Britain arose, responding to the worsening economic conditions of the industrial labourers, and Shelley was directly connected to the politics surrounding the Luddite movement through her friend Lord Byron.  Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was also concerned with the radical politics of the time. Her anxieties regarding the country’s politics (which can also be seen as the general concerns of the age) are therefore reflected in her novel. The Monster and Frankenstein take on a particularly political light in this context, according to critics. A Marxist reading of Frankenstein explains that just like Frankenstein, 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.”[5]

Marx’s and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto (1848) describes how “hateful […] and embittering it is” to live in a capitalist set up and to be dominated by someone else. The Monster’s final speech towards the end of the novel likewise comments on his pathetic conditions of existence – “I miserable and abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.” It is not only angry because it has been spurned by its Creator, but also because Frankenstein “dared to hope for happiness; that while he accumulated wretchedness and despair upon me he sought his own enjoyment.” The Monster’s sorry state of affairs bears a striking resemblance to that of the working class in Marxist theory which is oppressed and at whose expense the capitalist class accumulates wealth and leads a lavish lifestyle. Critic Paul O’ Flinn sums up the relation between Frankenstein and Marxist theory by saying, “Just as Frankenstein’s creation drives him through exhausting and unstinting conflicts to his death, so too a class called into being by the bourgeoisie and yet rejected and frustrated by it will in the end turn on that class in fury and vengeance and destroy it.”[6]

Frankenstein is very clearly a bourgeois capitalist in the novel; an educated businessman from a wealthy family. While discussing the events of his life with Walton, he explains, “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”. 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 oppression of capitalism is also evident in the way the bodies of the dead are exploited by Frankenstein for his own benefit – “I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? […] I collected bones from charnel houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. […] The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation.” It is worth noting here that capitalism dissects workers down to their body parts and views them in terms of the use of each body part, and nothing more. This concept is also illustrated later on by Victorian authors like Charles Dickens in whose Hard Times (1854) the factory workers are called “hands”, as if their identities are determined only by the sweat and toil of their bodies.[7]

image3What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.

Shelley demonstrates her criticism of capitalism by eliciting sympathy for the Monster throughout the novel. The reader is then forced to consider the question of who the real monster is. The creature that Frankenstein gives birth to is monstrous only from the point of view of the wealthy ruling class for whom the Monster is a nightmarish vision of anarchy and revolt. Frankenstein’s fear of and disgust with his own creation is symbolic of the bourgeois and elite society’s terror of the growing anger of the working masses, whose actions have sprawled out of the control of the authorities. Victor Frankenstein thus emerges as the real monster in the novel. As literary scholar Franco Moretti points out, “anyone can see that the monster dies without producing any progeny.”[8] And this is because once the creator, the bourgeois capitalist is dead, the proletariat, too is dead, since the bourgeois and proletariat define and validate each other’s existence. Shelley’s killing off of the protagonist reflects her desire to halt capitalist progress at a historical juncture before the world spirals into dystopia. Moretti explains this by saying, “Wishing to exorcise the proletariat, Shelley, with absolute logical consistency, erases capital from her picture too. In other words, she erases history.”

As aforementioned, Shelley’s work is an archetype of the literature of terror wherein the Monster is more than just an odious creature of imagination; it is a cultural category employed to emblemise a culture’s nightmares.[9] On this subject, critic China Miéville posits, “Epochs throw up the monsters they need. History can be written of monsters, and in them. We experience the conjunctions of certain werewolves and crisis-gnawed feudalism, of Cthulhu and rupturing modernity, of Frankenstein’s and Moreau’s made things and a variably troubled Enlightenment, of vampires and tediously everything, of zombies and mummies and aliens and golems/robots/clockwork constructs and their own anxieties. We pass also through the endless shifts of such monstrous germs and antigens into new wounds.”[10] In fact the word Monster itself is derived from the Latin word monstrum, which in turn derives from the root monere – to warn. The creation of the Monster in the novel is therefore, above all, a warning against the act of transgression and of the poisonous effects of industrial capital.

[1] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. Worldview Critical Edition.

[2] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust. 1808. Online.

[3] The Holy Bible. 2 CHRONICLES 19:10.

[4] Cousins, Sarah Handley. “Frankenstein: Monster of the Enlightenment”. The History Buffs Podcast. 2016. Online.

[5] Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. 1848. Online.

[6] O’Flinn, Paul. “Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein”. Popular Fictions: Essays in Literature and History. 1986.

[7] Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. 1854. Worldview Critical Edition.

[8] Moretti, Franco. “The Dialectic of Fear”. New Left Review, 136 (Nov.-Dec. 1982), 67-85.

[9] Asma, Stephen. T. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. 2009. New York: Oxford University Press.

[10] VanderMeer, Jeff. “China Miéville and Monsters: ‘Unsatisfy me, frustrate me, I beg you.’”Weird Fiction Review. 2012. Online.


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