“I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created […] the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.”
With lines such as the one quoted above (from Chapter 10), Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is loaded with indications of Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s disgust with the monster he created. This therefore poses the question of why Frankenstein created the monster in the first place. A common interpretation suggests that Frankenstein has a god complex and creates the monster out of arrogance, simply because he can, rather than for the good of humanity as he claims. Another school of thought cites that the monster is created so that Mary Shelley can warn her readers about the dangers of the misuse of science. However, when one attempts a Marxist reading of the text, it can be observed that the monster’s creation is a necessity. In the capitalist, post-Industrial Revolution society of the novel, Dr. Frankenstein’s own terms do not factor in as the creation of the monster becomes a historical inevitability (the Marxist idea that certain events are bound to happen as a result of the past).
The view that Frankenstein’s hubris (or excessive pride), which manifests in the form of a ‘god complex’ causes the monster to be created presents itself through an analysis of the scientist’s character. His overconfidence is seen to also stems from his reasoning that his opinions are facts which he believes to such an extent that the loss of his mother makes him hope that, with the right ‘formula,’ he could have some form of control over life. At this point, his obsessive search for the proper formula that could create life began. It has been suggested that Victor Frankenstein wants to understand how to cheat death, and he had allowed himself to be overcome by self-conceit and a lust for power. If successful, Victor believes he would be revered by the creature and be a human god, as seen when 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 position as god is reaffirmed when Frankenstein calls himself “the Adam of [his] labours,” in a Biblical reference to the first man created. He further compares himself to Satan, saying “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel.”
He is postulated also to feel the need to demonstrate that he can create life, and endeavours to go ahead with it simply to prove this. After he does create the monster and successfully reanimates the dead though, Frankenstein is disgusted by his creation and shuns it, with the monster then feeling abandoned. This is felt to be similar to Jesus Christ’s Biblical cry of “Why hast thou forsaken me, Father?” to god, while here Dr. Frankenstein becomes the father/god-like figure to the monster. The novel quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost, referring to Adam bemoaning his fallen condition with “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man, did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?” This can be related to the monster’s thoughts, as he conceives of himself as a tragic figure, shunned by his creator like Adam, though he strives to be good. These rhetorical questions epitomise the monster’s ill will toward Victor for abandoning him in a world relentlessly hostile to him and foist responsibility for his ugliness and eventual evil upon Victor. He has also been compared, in his desire to obtain forbidden knowledge, to Goethe’s Faust, who went on a quest for knowledge, made a deal with the devil, and is rescued by God. Unfortunately, Victor does not have the benefit of divine intervention and, unlike Faust, knows he will not be saved and instead will perish without redemption. He is therefore similar to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, based on Goethe’s work and other German stories on the character Faust. While this analysis of Frankenstein’s character, deeply flawed as he is despite his accomplishments, provides some insight as to why he may feel the desire to create the monster, it does not provide a sufficiently holistic view of the events of the novel, and what they mean for society.
Due to the tragic and certain end that the characters are doomed to, critics have also attributed the creation of the monster to Mary Shelley’s desire to critique an abuse of science. She is not opposed to science or progress, but rather what comes with this advancement: irresponsible scientists. Certain critics such as Anne K. Mellor who reads Frankenstein as a ‘Feminist Critique of Science’ hold that the monster upon his creation may potentially be a clean slate, a ‘tabula rasa’ (the Latin epistemological theory propagated by philosopher John Locke that a person is born without innate qualities or knowledge, and that everything learned is a result of one’s environment). They thus believe that Shelley puts forth the nature versus nurture debate in her text, by proposing the question of whether Frankenstein would not be the evil creature he became if he had been ‘nurtured’ differently. Critics wonder if he grows as horrid as he does simply because Frankenstein shuns him, running away in shock and horror the moment he sees the “ugliness” of what he has created, even as the monster reaches out to him.
With the interpretation (of only his experiences making the monster a gruesome being), Frankenstein is criticised, as a placeholder for irresponsible scientists, for his thoughtlessly and arbitrary interactions with science. This interpretation comes close to, but stops just short of, the mark as it approaches a sort of societal critique that a Marxist reading of the novel posits. In her criticism of “what comes with science” as Mellor propounds, Shelley exposes a capitalistic society where the creation of Frankenstein’s monster is a historical inevitability, bound to happen due to the events of the past. The system of capitalism necessarily thrives on systemic unemployment since only when a portion of the population is unemployed is it possible to exploit labourers to work for less wages, to create a higher profit. Thus a class of people is created with nothing to offer but their own worth; the labourers become indistinguishable from their labour, and they become the means of production themselves, systemically exploited. Frankenstein’s monster becomes representative of this class, made of severed parts of the dead bodies of the working class, with his existence reflecting the result of capitalism: the creation of a societal terror, a “race of devils.” He is feared because he is unfamiliar, with the society’s fears of the unknown projected onto him, in a manner similar to the way Donald Trump’s narrative attempts to project all of society’s fears onto Muslims and Mexicans, essentially arguing that with them expelled, all problems will be solved. The supposed ‘evils’ of society are represented in the monster and his symbolic expulsion from society through the novel brings catharsis, so that the hegemony, or the oppression of a particular social class, can be reinforced. It is a form of wishful thinking, and the true fears of the society (the fear of the hegemony coming to an end) are assuaged.
As Marx puts it, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” Thus history is not made under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, transmitted from the past. The historical event here has been the onset of capitalism that led to all production being driven by a profit-motive, thus effectively separating the workers from the end product, since the division of labour allows them to only participate in one part of the production process, creating a sense of alienation. There is a split also between the owners of the factors of production and the sellers of the raw material. With this as the system in place, profit being converted back into capital becomes necessary, or it would become dead money. In an attempt to resolve the split, further production is carried out, which only widens the split even further and entrenches capitalism more deeply. Žižek poignantly points out, “It is this inherent contradiction which compels capitalism to permanent extended reproduction to the incessant development of its own conditions of production […], which is to say that the ‘normal’ state of capitalism doesn’t exist. From the very beginning, capitalism imminently lacks balance.” This depiction of society evident in Shelley’s work is a response to the utopian view presented by figures like Proudhon (a utopian socialist, as Marx and Engels refer to him, concerned with attempting to rise above the bourgeoise), her father William Godwin, and her husband PB Shelley, who paint notions of perfect societies without considering how these societies could be created or sustained. These utopian socialists believe socialism can emerge without any form of class struggle or political revolution, while Shelley is able to identify the inevitability, through history’s course, of monstrous beings (like the one she created). As Marx writes,
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.”
The gaps identified in the society’s structures are seen at times to be missing from the text. As Franco Morretti puts forward in ‘The Dialectic of Fear,’ “There are no factories in the novel” and so the monster cannot be utilised. However, knowing this gap to be a real historical fact, it can be seen that there is a space outside of the zone presented in the novel. Outside this human civilisation is a space that is barbarian and uncivilised, and it can be observed in the minute instances, such as when Frankenstein’s brother William is murdered. This incident occurs outside the city, underlining the fact that such a space exists. The race of devils exists outside the realm of human civilisation (as they are created artificially and are abnormal). Victor’s education (his Promethean quest for knowledge, equating him to the mythical figure who stole fire from the Greek gods to give to the humans, just as Frankenstein cheated god to create his own being) takes place outside the family.
Mary Shelley’s writing, however, can be criticised for not identifying the right solution to the problem she has identified in society. Although aware of the problematic system of capitalism, she wishes to go back to the previous state, that of feudalism, without recognising the issues with that form of society. She desires going backward into the past, which she finds to have been natural. The novel takes on an escapist note at this point, as she tries to avoid the social revolutions that Marx thinks to be inevitable with a self-destructive and contradictory system like capitalism; she ignores the promise that the emergence of the proletariat holds, as well as the problems of the previous feudal system. Since it is impossible to move backwards in time to an idyllic past (primarily because one does not exist), it is necessary instead to move forward and, through revolt, reach a better state organically.
Moretti explains how Frankenstein’s greatness is always affirmed through a negation. “Man is well proportioned, the monster is not; man is beautiful, the monster ugly; man is good, the monster evil. The monster is 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.” It is almost an imperialist expression in his other-ising of the monster (as Edward Said posits in his Orientalism that the first step to dominance is to establish a difference, a binary, so that the imperialist can define himself against the orient, as everything they are not). It also presents a view of how the monster is an imitation of an imitation, since man made in god’s image has tried to recreate this image in his form, and so is a copy of a copy, twice removed from god and so is grotesque. He himself says this in his cry of “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.” This thus begs the question, who is the monster at all? The answer to that question depends on whom you ask: for the ruling classes who fear the social order being reversed, the proletariat will be monstrous; but with the class-based domination clearly being imposed by the bourgeoisie, this becomes ambiguous in light of the class struggle, and it is no longer obvious that the monster is indeed a monster. In the words of Karl Marx, “what the bourgeoisie produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”
Anne K. Mellor. ‘Frankenstein: A Feminist Critique of Science.’ 1987.
Christopher Marlowe. Doctor Faustus. 1947.
Franco Moretti. ‘The Dialectic of Fear.’ 1982.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust. 1832.
Jon D. Wisman. ‘Why Marx Still Matters.’ 2013.
Karl Marx. Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1848.
Slavoj Žižek. The Sublime Object of Ideology. 1989.