Monsters Born in the Full Spate of the Industrial Revolution

Franco Moretti

Franco Moretti

Monsters are born precisely out of the terror of a split society and out of the desire to heal it. It is for just this reason that Dracula and Frankenstein, with rare exceptions, do not appear together. The threat would be too great, and this literature, having produced terror, must also erase it and restore peace. It must restore the broken equilibrium — giving the illusion of being able to stop history — because the monster expresses the anxiety that the future will be monstrous. His antagonist — the enemy of the monster — will always be, by contrast, a representative of the present, a distillation of complacent nineteenth-century mediocrity: nationalistic, stupid, superstitious, philistine, impotent, self-satisfied. But this does not show through.

Fascinated by the horror of the monster, the public accepts the vices of its destroyer without a murmur, just as it accepts his literary depiction, the jaded and repetitive typology which regains its strength and its virginity on contact with the unknown. The monster, then, serves to displace the antagonisms and horrors evidenced within society to outside society itself.

In Frankenstein, the struggle will be between a “race of devils” and the “species of man”. Whoever dares to fight the monster automatically becomes the representative of the species, of the whole of society. The monster, the utterly unknown, serves to reconstruct a universality, a social cohesion which in itself would no longer carry conviction.

Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula the vampire are, unlike previous monsters, dynamic, totalizing monsters. This is what makes them frightening. Before, things were different. Sade’s malefactors agree to operate on the margins of society, hidden away in their towers. Justine is their victim because she rejects the modern world, the world of the city, of exchange, of her reduction to a commodity. She thus gives herself over to the old horror of the feudal world, the will of the individual master. Moreover, in Sade, the evil has a “natural” limit which cannot be overstepped: the gratification of the master’s desire. Once he is satiated, the torture ceases too. Dracula, on the other hand, is an ascetic of terror: in him is celebrated the victory “of the desire for possession over that of enjoyment”, and possession as such, indifferent to consumption, is by its very nature insatiable and unlimited. John William Polidori’s vampire is still a petty feudal lord forced to travel around Europe strangling young ladies for the miserable purpose of surviving. Time is against him, against his conservative desires. Abraham Stoker’s Dracula, by contrast, is a rational entrepreneur who invests his gold to expand his dominion: to conquer the city of London. And already Frankenstein’s monster sows devastation over the whole world, from the Alps to Scotland, from Eastern Europe to the Pole. By comparison, the gigantic ghost of ‘The Castle of Otranto’ looks like a dwarf. He is confined to a single place; he can appear once only; he is merely a relic of the past. Once the order is re-established he is silent forever. The modern monsters, however, threaten to live forever and to conquer the world. For this reason, they must be killed.

Like the proletariat, the monster is denied a name and an individuality. He is the Frankenstein monster; he belongs wholly to his creator (just as one can speak of “a Ford worker”). Like the proletariat, he is a collective and artificial creature. He is not found in nature but built. Frankenstein is a productive inventor-scientist, in open conflict with Walton, the contemplative discoverer-scientist (the pattern is repeated with Jekyll and Lanyon). Reunited and brought back to life in the monster are the limbs of those — the “poor” — whom the breakdown of feudal relations has forced into brigandage, poverty and death. Only modern science — this metaphor for the “dark satanic mills” — can offer them a future. It sews them together again, moulds them according to its will and finally gives them life, but at the moment the monster opens its eyes, its creator draws back in horror: “by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; … How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe…?”

Between Frankenstein and the monster, there is an ambivalent, dialectical relationship, the same as that which, according to Karl Marx, connects capital with wage-labour. On the one hand, the scientist cannot but create the monster: “often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.” On the other hand, he is immediately afraid of it and wants to kill it, because he realizes he has given life to a creature stronger than himself and of which he cannot henceforth be free. It is the same curse that afflicts Jekyll: “to put your good heart at rest, I will tell you one thing: the moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr Hyde.” And yet it is Hyde who will become master of his master’s life. The fear aroused by the monster, in other words, is the fear of one who is afraid of having “produced his own gravediggers”.

The monster’s explicit “demands” cannot, in fact, produce fear. They are not a gesture of challenge; they are “reformist” demands. The monster wishes only to have rights of citizenship among men: “I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be ever mild and docile to my natural lord and king, […] I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous”. Furthermore, when all kindly relations with humans have failed, the monster humbly accepts his marginalization, begging only to have another creature who is “as deformed and horrible as myself”. But even this is denied him. The monster’s sheer existence is frightening enough for Frankenstein, let alone the prospect of his producing children and multiplying. Frankenstein — who never manages to consummate his marriage — is the victim of the same impotence that Benjamin describes: “Social reasons for impotence: the imagination of the bourgeois class stopped caring about the future of the productive forces it had unleashed. Male impotence — key figure of solitude, in it the arrest of the productive forces is effected”. The possibility of the monster having descendants presents itself to the scientist as a real nightmare: “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror”.

“Race of devils”: this image of the proletariat encapsulates one of the most reactionary elements in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ideology. The monster is a historical product, an artificial being: but once transformed into a “race” he re-enters the immutable realm of Nature. He can become the object of an instinctive, elemental hatred; and “men” need this hatred to counterbalance the force unleashed by the monster. So true is this that racial discrimination is not superimposed on the development of the narrative but springs directly from it: it is not only Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley who wants to make the monster a creature of another race but Frankenstein himself. Frankenstein does not, in fact, want to create a man (as he claims) but a monster, a race. He narrates at length the “infinite pains and care” with which he had endeavoured to form the creature; he tells us that “his limbs were in proportion” and that he had “selected his features as beautiful”.

So many lies — in the same paragraph, three words later, we read: “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 […]. his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” Even before he begins to live, this new being is already monstrous, already a race apart. He must be so, he is made to be so — he is created but on these conditions. There is here a clear lament for the feudal sumptuary laws which, by imposing a particular style of dress on each social rank, allowed it to be recognized at a distance and nailed it physically to its social role. Now that clothes have become commodities that anyone can buy, this is no longer possible. The difference in rank must now be inscribed more deeply: in one’s skin, one’s eyes, one’s build. The monster makes us realize how hard it was for the dominant classes to resign themselves to the idea that all human beings are — or ought to be — equal.

But the monster also makes us realize that in an unequal society they are not equal. Not because they belong to different “races” but because inequality really does score itself into one’s skin, one’s eyes and one’s body. And more so, evidently, in the case of the first industrial workers: the monster is disfigured not only because Frankenstein wants him to be like that, but also because this was how things actually were in the first decades of the industrial revolution.

In him, the metaphors of the critics of civil society become real. The monster incarnates the dialectic of estranged labour described by the young Karl Marx: “the more his product is shaped, the more misshapen the worker; the more civilized his object, the more barbarous the worker; the more powerful the work, the more powerless the worker; the more intelligent the work, the duller the worker and the more he becomes a slave of nature. […] It is true that labour produces […] palaces, but hovels for the worker. […] It produces intelligence, but it produces idiocy and cretinism for the worker.” Frankenstein’s invention is thus a pregnant metaphor of the process of capitalist production, which forms by deforming, civilizes by barbarizing, enriches by impoverishing — a two-sided process in which each affirmation entails a negation. And indeed the monster — the pedestal on which Frankenstein erects his anguished greatness — is always described by negation: man is well proportioned, the monster is not; man is beautiful, the monster ugly; man is good, the monster evil. The monster is a man turned upside-down, negated. He has no autonomous existence; he can never be really free or have a future. He lives only as the other side of that coin which is Frankenstein. When the scientist dies, the monster does not know what to do with his own life and commits suicide.

The two extremes of Frankenstein are the scientist and the monster. But it is more precise to say that they become extremes in the course of the narration. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel rests in fact on an elementary scheme, that of simplification and splitting (“The whole of society must split into the two classes…”). It is a process that demands its victims, and indeed, all the “intermediate” characters perish one after the other by the monster’s hand: Frankenstein’s brother William, the maid Justine, his friend Clerval, his wife Elizabeth, his father. This is a sequence echoed in the sacrifice of Philemon and Baucis, as Faust’s entrepreneurial dream dictates the destruction, in the figures of the two old people, of the family unit and small independent property.

In Frankenstein too, the victims of the monster (or rather of the struggle between the monster and the scientist, a struggle which prefigures the social relations of the future) are those who still represent the ethical and economic ideal of the family as an “extended’ unit: not just the relatives, but also the maid and the fraternal friend Clerval. Clerval, in comparison with his contemporary, Victor, is still placidly traditionalist: he, unlike Frankenstein, has chosen to stay in his parents’ town, in his family home, and to keep their values alive. These values are corporative, localistic, unchanging: the ethic of the “common road” praised by Robinson Crusoe’s father. Frankenstein himself ends up being converted to them, but by then it is too late: “how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. […] Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries”.

Frankenstein’s last words reconnect with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s preface, which gives the aim of the work as “the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection” [Preface 2]. Nor is it by accident that his words are spoken to Walton, since Walton is essential for the communication of the work’s message. Like Frankenstein, Walton starts out as the protagonist of a desperate undertaking, spurred on by an imperious as well as an aggressive and inhuman idea of scientific progress: “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought” [Letter 4.6]. But Frankenstein’s story puts him off. In the end, Walton accedes to the protestations of the sailors, who are frightened for their lives, and agrees to come back “ignorant and disappointed” [Walton 8] to his homeland and his family. Thanks to his conversion, Walton survives. And this confers on him a dominant function in the narrative structure, in the book’s system of “senders” of messages. Walton both begins the story and ends it. His narrative “contains”, and thus subordinates, Frankenstein’s narrative (which in turn “contains” that of the monster). The broadest, most comprehensive, most universal narrative viewpoint is reserved for Walton. The narrative system inverts the meaning of Frankenstein as we have described it, exorcising its horror. The dominant element of reality is not the splitting of society into two opposing poles, but its symbolic reunification in the Walton family. The wound is healed: one goes back home.

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