A Deconstructive Reading of Shelley's Frankenstein
I considered devoting part of this blog to a summary of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but I feel like that is probably unnecessary for anyone who chose to read this blog, which provides a theoretically distinct reading of the novel. For some background info on the novel, or for a refresher, there are a variety of articles on the novel (be sure to read articles on the actual novel by Mary Shelley and not one written about an adaptation of Frankenstein). As a disclaimer, I think that this article will be of more interest to those who are very familiar with the novel.
This article is relatively short, but I wanted to share regardless for anyone who is interested in the academic discussions surrounding Shelley's Frankenstein.
The Philosophy of Deconstructionism
This article is actually based on a paper I wrote for one of my grad classes after an exercise done in class, which I found to be really interesting. The assignment was to choose an essay from the back of our Johanna M. Smith edition of Frankenstein, and each essay was a different theoretical reading of the novel. The essays included contemporary criticism in the fields of Marxism, Feminism, Gender Studies, Cultural Studies and Deconstruction. We then acted as a mouthpiece for that specific literary theory.
I decided to focus on an essay by Fred Botting, which actually combined multiple contemporary critical theories, but mainly Deconstructive Theory, because Deconstructionism is a movement I always struggled with a bit in school. It is a complex movement that often appears contradictory because contradiction is at the heart of its philosophy. Deconstructionism is a philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that calls into questions all claims of absolute truth, meaning and identity. According to Deconstructionists, there can be no absolute truth for the following reason: all meaning can be broken down into a system of signs (words, language). These signs only exist in relation to other signs. Words only have meaning because of their contrasting relationship with other words. For example, we may assign meaning to the word "blue", but that meaning essentially is that "blue" is not "red", "yellow," or "green," etc. When we attempt to define words, we do so by contrasting it with other words.
So Deconstructionists refuse absolute truth and meaning of any word because that word only exists in relation to something else, not as an absolute truth on its own. Therefore, Deconstructionists view language as a system of oppositional pairs: good/bad, male/female, speech/writing, nature/culture, self/other etc. Everything can be paired with an opposite.
Further (as if this idea isn't complex enough), Deconstructionists assign a hierarchy to these binary oppositional pairs. One of the two binaries is given a position of higher value than the other, as they believe human nature instinctively separates things into a hierarchical system. The general rule of thumb for assigning one binary the higher position over the other is to determine which term represents "presence" and which term represents an "absence." Presence occupies a position of dominance in Western thought over absence, because absence is what happens when you take away something present. Good is valued over bad because bad is the absence of good. Traditionally, male is seen as dominant over female. Etc.
This is the simplest way I could explain the theory of Deconstruction, and there is plenty more to it if anyone is interested, but for the purpose of my work with the theory applied to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, this definition is inclusive enough (it really is an exhausting theory).
Blurred Lines of Opposition
The focus of my paper is on the binary pair creation and deconstruction. It seems safe to assume that when faced with the binary pair, creation and destruction, creation (seen as "presence") would be placed above the concept of destruction (seen as "absence") in a hierarchy of the two binaries.
In the beginning of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the concept of creation is glorified. Victor’s creation will be the means to answer some of largest questions of the universe. His particular creation of a living human being composed of deceased bodies using electric currents is exalted as a wondrous and advanced scientific undertaking. The result of his creation though is disastrous.
Creation is meant to be a happy and beautiful thing, but the creature says to Victor, “my form is a filthy type of yours.” Victor’s creation is not “a perfect creature, happy and prosperous” such as God’s creation, Adam, in Paradise Lost, but a hideous monstrosity made from the flawed vision of Victor, “wretched, helpless, and alone” (Shelley 116). As creation becomes a monstrous concept, it is no longer situated in the higher tier of the binary opposition; or rather it is no longer viewed with the absolute certainty of meaning and value as it would traditionally be viewed.
As Victor’s creature learns to communicate and observe society, he begins to realize his utter isolation, not only from society but also from his own creator. He learns that no other has been created like him, and when Victor will not create another like him, he becomes violent and destructive, killing Victor’s family and in doing so, he destroys Victor. Victor’s creation becomes his destruction, and the clear distinctive line between creation and destruction is blurred.
In Shelley's novel, the meaning of creation is unclear. The traditional line that separates creation and destruction is made less clear, less distinctive. Deconstructive theory then adequately explains Frankenstein, in that absolute meaning is indeterminable, but it also fails in that the binary oppositions that deconstructive thinkers would apply to the novel are broken down and reversed. Shelley's novel contradicts traditional thinking, which seems appropriate considering the grotesque, monstrous nature and subject of the novel.
The Modern Prometheus
The blurred line between creation and destruction can be seen not only directly from the story of Victor and his monstrous creation but in the second title of the work as well, which is The Modern Prometheus. The story of Prometheus is one that calls into question the assumed value of the concept of creation and makes vague the distinction between creation and destruction. Prometheus was given the honorable task by Zeus to create man. Though there are cultural variations in the myth of Prometheus, the general story tells of mankind being made of clay by the hands of Prometheus.
After creating mankind, Prometheus gives them fire stolen from the gods, promoting human progress beyond what the gods had allowed and intended. In western thought, Prometheus’ tale represents the striving of mankind to acquire power that is beyond them, which tends to lead to disaster. Prometheus is given an esteemed and honorable task to create human life, but he takes his authority for granted, assuming more power than he is granted. When Prometheus gives fire to mankind, which he created, his creation then becomes his damnation, his destruction, as he is eternally damned by Zeus to have his liver eaten daily by vultures. The distinctive lines of opposition are again blurred by the pen of Mary Shelley.