Between the eighties and nineties I was not much involved with academic life. When I returned to teach Open University students a course on “Approaches to Literature” I was surprised to discover that a novel I had thought to be on the periphery of literary focus had become a central part of the curriculum.
Earlier, I had taken for granted, that Frankenstein was an example, certainly a good example, of the gothic form. This form, in my unmodish innocence, unaware how the genre of the gothic had been reclaimed as significant, I regarded as suspect because I thought of gothic as tending towards sensationalism which failed to get inside situations as, say, Jane Austen’s realism did. It worked, that is, on the level of external sensation, or excitement, of the reader, rather than leading the reader into psychological penetration of what was being presented. So while Frankenstein may have been an interesting example of the literature of the time, reflecting the ideas of the time, it did not have inherent strength as a great work of literature, limited as it was by its genre. Such was my old-fashioned view.
So you can guess my surprise when on returning to academe I discovered the same devalued Frankenstein as being given a central role as a classic. Why the sudden elevation? In these intervening years the feminist revolution hit literary studies. So….. you might ask? What has the gothic of this novel, not focused on an exploited female, but centred on male creator and male creature to do with feminism? At first that might seem a difficult question to answer. True, poor Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s betrothed, suffers grievously and then on the wedding night is slaughtered. But she is simply a casualty of the central opposition, too vestigial a character in the novel, for that to be the feminist justification. No, the answer comes in a word that the feminist revolution brought in to the understanding of literature; a word linked to the whole development of critical theory. The word is otherness.
“Otherness” came to prominence in sociology as a word expressing not just difference between one group and and another but a constructed difference based on the hierarchical model of power. So, in terms of feminism, “otherness” was a role prescribed for the female, or ” constructed” in society by the patriarchal male to regulate the position and decide the functions of the female. Those in power, the privileged, assumed normalcy. Outside of that, were those that were treated as other. Feminism meant opposing this regulation, this devalued otherness in favour of equality; an opposition which involved not just fighting against outward political and economic limitation-male franchise, male dominance in the work place- but also the inward limitation of assigned stereotypical forms of behaviour (such as the female being associated with roles of domesticity, nurturing, housework, etc).
In this way, the movement is from the external obvious oppression to internal cultural oppression. Identity politics comes to be developed: “the personal is political” became a popular feminist slogan.
Well and good, you say- and we all may sympathise now with that idea of feminism- but how does that relate to Frankenstein with its male protagonists. The answer takes us a little further beyond immediate feminism. Other identities are similarly constructed according to the hierarchy, deemed to privilege the white male. As well as the feminist, there is also the race narrative, reacting against racism, including the colonial and post- colonial positioning of other races in relation to the dominant tribe. Then we come to gays, and then trans and gender identities, and disabled and whatever other group that can be construed as victimised within a narrative of otherness.
Once you look at Frankenstein this way you can see the fit. The Creature is constructed. The Creature is then condemned for who and what he is. He seeks recognition: he is spurned, rejected, abandoned by his creator. Not only that, but because he appears different, although he harbours feelings of longing for sympathy and endorsement, he is rejected and condemned by society. When he learns about society (educated by default though a hole in the wall) he finds that this kind of rejection has been inherent within human society. A rage builds up within and when rejected he acts violently. This confirms his evil inferiority of nature in the understanding of his creator. The two are involved in a destructive cycle of destruction and violence.
Hence the importance of Frankenstein. That is why it has become such an established classic for our time. For it is archetypal, the modern myth outlining and predicting the fallout of the post- revolutionary struggle towards equality. Published in 1818, it foreshadows Marx, the struggle of the exploited workers and all the other struggles-the feminist, gays, the fight against patriarchy, against the traditional structure of the family, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Mermaids etc- which might come under the umbrella of cultural Marxism. Now these severally may be causes for which you have some sympathy but in Frankenstein you have a work that represents in essence the whole process for these various identities. The Creature constructed to live and yet be different, rejected and denied the right to be the creature he might seek to be. The logic of cultural Marxism finds in Frankenstein the iconic myth of power relations. So when feminism ultimately required the revaluation of the curriculum it is not surprising that the significance of Frankenstein came to be re-assessed.
Shelley brought up by feminist May Wollstonecraft, and by William Godwin who heralded the perfectability of man through equality, a great supporter of the French Revolution with her husband Percy Bysshe, also a Godwinite, was fascinated by “Paradise Lost”. But it was a Paradise Lost less based on Genesis than on a reading of Milton’s work similar to that of William Blake(also a radical supporter of the French Revolution), a reading that sees not God but Satan as the hero, as Blake puts it “Milton was of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. In Paradise Lost. God the hierarchic Authoritarian Father, the Law -maker, punished and condemned Satan to Hell. Satan, so condemned, seeks a kind of heroic revenge, inspiring Man to oppose God.
What this understanding of the myth fails to record is the moral significance of the need for redemption. For Frankenstein is potentially noble but allows himself, through his obsession, to go against the good; the Creature is not only rejected and therefore deserving of our sympathy, especially because he shows finer feelings, but in his bitter revenge and uncontrolled rage becomes evil. They are not representative of two opposing sides, one good, one wrong. Both require redemption submitting themselves to God, and then through mutual understanding and forgiveness. But Frankenstein in his obsessive male pride has forgotten God. The Creature is only a human construct, uninspired by God. What is missing in this modern myth, what is missing in cultural Marxism, is the understanding of an Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who writes in his great work The Gulag Archipelago 1973 : “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between political parties either- but right through every human heart.”