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Frankenstein (Essay)

Literature (Year 12) - Essays and Close Readings

Jeckmen Wu

The word text comes from the Latin textus, which means ‘woven’. Discuss how meaning can be woven from reading intertextually in at least one text you have studied.

Frankenstein (1831) by Mary Shelley is full of intertextuality due to her parent’s prestige in the contemporary literary world, exposing her to many famous & often radical pieces of work, including her parents’ A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft and An Enquiry into Political Justice (1793) by William Godwin. Whilst those texts did exert a notable amount of influence, other infamous works such as Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirits (1807), Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and Volney’s Ruin of Empires (1791) can be read intertextually with Frankenstein to “weave” meaning. Extracting Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectics from the Phenomenology of Spirits, a master-slave power relation is revealed between Victor & his Creature, and their embodiment as literal ‘master’ (upper class) and ‘slave’ (lower class) reveals the idea of class inequality, or “class struggle” as Marx would later term it, and the promotion of class equality in the text. The allusion to Paradise Lost also occurs throughout many parts of the novel, but a comparison of Eve with the Creature allows us to weave meaning into the text, proposing the possibility of the Creature as female & hence, reflecting how the ‘female state’ is viewed as a ‘deformity’ (Aristotle) in the patriarchy. Additionally, reading intertextually with Volney’s Ruin of Empires introduces the concept of ‘the primitive state of man’, deriving from Rousseau’s idea of the ‘noble savage’. Hence, the Creature’s decline of humanity upon interaction with society “weaves” the meaning of the corruption of society, and perhaps even the monstrosity of man.

Pre-dating Karl Marx's ideas of Marxism, the contemporary philosophy of class equality was articulated in Godwin’s anarchism & Fourier’s utopian socialism. We can weave this meaning into Shelley’s text through an intertextual reading with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirits and his master-slave dialectic. This dialectic draws from the triad of “thesis–antithesis–synthesis”, where the original thesis lies with the existence of an undifferentiated consciousness who carries the ‘simple ego’ that it is the ‘absolute object’ (Hegel). When a moment of negation occurs, however, an antithesis emerges. The presence of another consciousness poses a threat to the other’s status and causes a struggle between the two that we see between Victor & his Creature. Victor establishes his position of the master as his creator and casts the Creature as the slave due to Victor’s refusal to recognise the Creature’s humanity. By denying him the basic human desire to be recognised & appreciated, the master-slave power dialectic is established. However, the dialectic always entails a reversal of roles when the slave realises that they are dependent on each other, hence making them both finite individuals. This first occurs when the Creature demands a female “companion”, which subjects Victor to “miserable slavery”. He claims, “You are my creator but I am your master”. However, Victor reneging on the promise to build him a female counterpart shifts the power back to him. This doesn’t last long though as he soon realises that he has been the “slave of [his] creature”, enslaved by the moral obligation to chase him down. The Creature, also driven by an “impulse” for revenge, realises that he has been “the slave, not the master, of an impulse which I detested yet could not disobey”. Hence, this binary opposition between master & slave, shifting constantly between the two, is ultimately the cause of conflict as they refuse to recognise their mutual dependency, or what Hegel calls the ‘double consciousness’. This, however, does occur in the novel, with Walton–the “moral centre” of the text–granting the Creature his recognition through the line ‘I called upon him to stay’, which ends all conflict & violence and the endless power swings. Having established this dialectic within the novel, we can connect it to the contemporary context to “weave” meaning. The granting of recognition by Walton, a “superior” being because he is a “man”, to an “inferior” being (the Creature), translates to class equality. The Creature’s composition of disparate parts embodies the unity and joint opposition of the working class against the upper class. His “gigantic stature” could also reflect the strength and population disparity between the classes. As the “inferior” Creature represents the working class, the “superior” man could be assumed to represent the upper class. Hence, by reading intertextually, we can weave the meaning of this text as a promotion of class equality, as symbolised by the mutual recognition between Walton and the Creature.

Paradise Lost by John Milton narrates the Biblical fall from Eden, but it can be read intertextually with Frankenstein to weave the meaning of the Creature as a representation of the “monstrosity” of female in the patriarchy based on the hitherto treatment of women as 'other' and the peripheral position they continue to occupy as a result. This idea derived from the Platonic belief that value increases as proximity from the origin decreases, denoting that Adam and his ‘manly grace’ (Paradise Lost) is far superior to Eve and her female form, which has been given a long line of monstrous self-definitions that is embodied by the “hideously deformed” figure of the Creature. The connection between Eve and the Creature can be formed by the fact that they both experience the “fall” after tasting the fruits of knowledge & language, after which the Creature develops a self-consciousness and realises his “miserable” isolation: he comments, “sorrow only increased with knowledge”. The imagery & language used to convey the moment when Eve and the Creature see their own reflection also invites this connection–Eve “[looks] into a clear smooth lake” and she “started back” (Paradise Lost). Similarly, the Creature “[views] himself in a transparent pool” and “started back”. The clear connection between them invites the interpretation of the Creature as metaphorically female. Therefore, his peripheral position in society and, most importantly, his “deformed” figure becomes significant as it suggests that the female form is monstrous and hideous, an ‘obscene version’ (Gilbert & Gubar) of an original divinity–that being God in terms of humans, whom image Man was based on, and Victor in terms of the Creature, whom image the Creature was based on. Hence, reading intertextually with Paradise Lost has allowed me to “weave” the interpretation of the Creature as female and, hence, representative of how both entities have been defined as “monstrous” by the male gaze.

Rousseau’s idea of the ‘noble savage’ was an embodiment of the innate goodness of humanity prior to corruption by society’s evils. This idea was adopted by Volney in his Ruin of Empires in the form of ‘the primitive state of man’. There are startling similarities between the two pieces of work (Volney & Shelley) to the point where it would be considered plagiarism in modern times. The Ruin of Empires describes an ‘orphan, abandoned by the powers which produced him’ and who is led to ‘[wander] in the bosom of the forest… led to seek food’ ‘by the pain of hunger’. Almost mirroring this narrative, the creature, who is essentially an ‘orphan’ after being abandoned by his creator upon his creation (‘[Victor] rushed out of the room’), also wanders the forest collecting “berries, nuts & roots” to satisfy his “hunger”. In this current state, we witness the harmonious existence of man in nature, a harmony that is disrupted by the inherent evil of society and socio-political institutions. Upon his encounter with society, ‘the social contact necessary to establish his humanity instead dehumanises him’ (Bok) and he realises his position as an outcast, an “abhorred monster”, a “daemon”, and a “fiend”, as his Creator defines him as. Consequently, his humanity declines and his “benevolence” disappears as he goes on a ruthless murder streak. By not embracing the Creature, someone who is radically & categorically different, “Other”, from Man and rejecting him, society has written him as a “monster” and, thus, we have become the authors of monstrosity. This suggests that although the Creature was created by a single scientist, he was shaped by social ostracism and mass denial of sympathy & humanity. Hence, by reading intertextually with Volney’s Ruin of Empires, we can “weave” the meaning of the text as a criticism of the monstrosity of society & mankind.

Frankenstein (1831) by Mary Shelley can be read intertextually with Hegel’s, Milton’s & Volney’s works to “weave” meanings of the text. The meaning of the text as a promotion of class equality is woven through a connection to the master-slave dialectic in a Phenomenology of Spirits (1807), while the interpretation of the Creature as female and, hence, suggesting that the female form is considered a “monstrous image” of God in our patriarchal society, is woven by the intertextuality with Paradise Lost. Additionally, connecting the novel to the Ruin of Empires reveals the text to be a criticism of society and its discriminatory attitude towards those who are deemed as “Other”.

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