Friday, March 23, 2012

Richard McKita, Revision #2

Early in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titular doctor describes the depths of his obsession with the project of creating a new form of living creature. He withdraws completely from all social activity, and fails to respond to the regular letters he receives from his family. He claims that his father would be justified in becoming angry with him because of the break in communication, even though it happened because of Frankenstein’s involvement in his work, because:

... A human being in perfection ought to always pursue a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say: not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed, if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru would not have been destroyed. (Shelley, 51)

I find this passage extremely revealing to the point that it complicates the typical reading of the novel as exclusively a morality tale about the dangers of technological progress and unlimited scientific inquiry. I think the issue that Shelley is bringing to us is much more specific and political. A close reading of the novel reveals a work which serves as a vehicle for Shelley’s critique of the Enlightenment, exposing its hypocrisies and the irrationality which is paradoxically embedded in its attempt at a totalizing logic. Frankenstein shows the Enlightenment as a project which has to a significant extent failed in its own goals, giving birth to an entirely false system of 'universal rights,' and reducing human life to a solitary, atomized state. Shelley places of the rationalist man of the post-Enlightenment world within, rather than above or beyond, the history of human folly. That her criticism, here, is in fact grounded in the Enlightenment is clear from the references she incorporates into her novel.

For a working definition of the Enlightenment, I look simply to the most basic and broad historical accounts of the rise of scientific rationalism in Europe during the eighteenth century. Encyclopædia Brittanica offers the Enlightenment as “a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and man were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide assent and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and the celebration of reason, the power by which man understands the universe and improves his own condition. The goals of rational man were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.” It is exactly this broad historical movement toward reason and individualism (the emphasis on freedom and personal happiness being politically central) to which I am referring in my work here. Mary Shelley herself was the child of atheist anarchist William Godwin and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as the husband of the politically radical atheist poet Percy Shelley. In effect, she was at the very least surrounded by a thoroughly modern intellectual atmosphere and therefore could not have avoided contact with the ideas of the Enlightenment, and as I will demonstrate, evidence within her novel shows that she was directly engaging with the ascendance of eighteenth-century scientific rationalism which the modern history of ideas refers to as the Enlightenment.

At the end of the quoted passage, Frankenstein claims that interference with the "domestic affections" (familial love and community) of man, through obsession, greed, or other consuming distraction, has led to a great number of the major catastrophes throughout history. But it is obvious that Frankenstein's downfall has a modern character. It comes about through the rationalist individualism of his day, not through the type of military expansionism that destroyed “the empires of Mexico and Peru,” though the two concepts – science and imperialism – are closely linked. The monster itself is created at the height of Frankenstein's obsessive solitude, and only appears to him definitively once more when he is again totally alone in the dizzying landscape of the winter mountains. It is, truly, the child of Frankenstein's self-obsession, and through its own story we realize the horror of its predicament: it is absolutely alone in its uniqueness, without any fellow creatures with which it can connect or relate. It stands alone, outside of and rejected from the human community, though in watching the family at the cottage it desires and attempts (and ultimately fails) to enter it. Victor’s voluntary abandonment of human community in service of his enlightened-individualist project of conquering nature and human knowledge in solitude leads him to create a being incapable of participating in human community at all, and the plot of the novel outlines the awful results.

Diana Reese, in her essay “A Troubled Legacy: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” insightfully points to the remarkable similarity between the following passage from Rousseau’s autobiography The Reveries of A Solitary Walker and the style Shelley uses in the monster’s, as well as his creator’s, soliloquies:

So now I am alone in the world, with no brother, neighbor or friend, nor any company left me but my own. The most sociable and loving of men has with one accord been cast out by all the rest. With all the ingenuity of hate they have sought out the cruellest torture for my sensitive soul, and have violently broken all the threads that bound me to them. I would have loved my fellow men in spite of themselves… (Reese, 60)

Rousseau shares major autobiographical details with Victor Frankenstein as well: both Genevans, both haunted by the early deaths of their mothers, both fascinated by the solitude of the state of nature. Victor himself also embodies the general qualities of the Enlightenment philosopher outlined by Adorno and Horkheimer in their essay “The Concept of Enlightenment.” The speech by M. Waldman, which at the beginning of the novel entices Victor to throw himself fully into the study of natural philosophy, declares that the modern chemists “penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places” whereas ancient mystics and alchemists “promised impossibilities, and performed nothing.” Victor is inspired by this lecture to “pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley, 42). This mirrors exactly Adorno and Horkheimer's conception of the Enlightenment project as a “disenchantment of the world,” the desire to “dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge” (Adorno, 1). Victor embodies both the individualist, solitary character of the Enlightenment man as well as his scientific, rationalist goal of disenchantment.

The monster, who represents the culmination of Victor’s egoistic solitude, also apes Rousseau’s style when lamenting his fate as a permanent outsider. Its origin story, in fact, closely mirrors the account of human history found in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (Reese, 51). Rousseau claims that human beings in the state of nature possess a faculty for self-love and compassion which is warped by entrance into society. The monster's tale contains a description of the innate kindness he feels toward other living beings: “This trait of kindness moved me sensibly. I had been accustomed, during the night, to steal a part of [the Delacys'] store for my own consumption; but when I found that in doing this I inflicted pain on the cottagers, I abstained, and satisfied myself with berries, nuts, and roots...” (Shelley, 121). Rousseau holds that human beings acquire self-love and compassion before the ability to reason, though he also believes that humans naturally develop the latter as well. Like Frankenstein’s monster, who acquired profound disgust for his own body after encountering humans who feared and abused him, a human being who becomes civilized inevitably begins to compare himself to others and develops tendencies toward hatred, jealousy, and competition. Rousseau views incorporation into society as something which makes men dependent on one another, and debases them.

However, even as Rousseau decries civil society as a negative influence on man, he recognizes the possibility of reforming it through the creation of universal equality and human rights: “Reason, then, is set the task in the discourse of reestablishing, through its own methods, a prior state of affairs that the very progress of reason, as Rousseau maintains, has destroyed” (Reese, 51). For Rousseau, a rationally derived system of human rights would allow man to regain the total independence which incorporation into society took from him, even as society itself remains intact, and therefore return to man his original qualities of compassion and self-love. Here is where we begin to see the monster as a living embodiment of the problems and hypocrisies found in the utopian claims of the Enlightenment. The monster developed in a manner described by Rousseau, but its salvation at the hands of his Enlightenment is not to be found.

In discussing this issue in particular, Reese notes that the logic employed by the monster in its demand for a mate strongly mirrors arguments which can be found the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, a moral law must be absolutely universal, applying equally to all rational beings, and be formed entirely through pure logic without regard for any empirical, real-world facts whatsoever. As Reese puts it, “Instead of seeking out necessity sufficient to the formation of an object of knowledge within the chaos of accumulated facts, Kant frames the highest ethical imperative (understood as the pursuit of “law”) in terms of establishing a necessity prior to the facts, a necessity argued to be inherent to reason” (Reese, 55). The odd thing is that Kant specifically says that the set of “rational beings” includes more than just human beings: “Everyone must admit that a law [ein Gesetz], if it is to hold morally (i.e., as a ground of obligation), must imply absolute necessity; he must admit that the command: thou shalt not lie, does not apply to men only as if other rational beings had no need to observe it” (Reese, 56). In this way, the monster essentially serves as a sort of hypothetical test-run of Kant's idea: the monster is undeniably a rational being which is well outside the bounds of what is normally called human. He should, by the logic of Kant, have access to all the universal rights nominally granted to human beings, including the right to participate in life as part of a community.

Victor does indeed recognize the strength of the logic expressed in the monster's pleas. He is an enlightened man who follows Kant's argument; nevertheless, he refuses to grant his creation's demands. Here Shelley is creating a close parallel with the political situation regarding women after the French Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen aspired to the kind of universal, natural rights favored by philosophers like Kant and Rousseau. It also quite conspicuously left millions of people – including women and slaves – without suffrage or political power of any sort. This situation was parodied by Olympe de Gouges in her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen of 1791, which followed each point of the original document, altering the language to make obvious the many ways that women were unjustifiably left out of the supposedly universal liberation of the Revolution. We can see a very clear similarity between de Gouges' document and the protests of the monster that he be allowed to tell his story before being dispatched by his creator. The monster mocks at Victor for wishing to execute him in revenge before he has a chance to speak his peace: “The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defense before they are condemned [...] You accuse me of murder, and yet you would with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!” (Shelley, 108). Similarly, de Gouges points out the fact that women have the right to be executed as men but lack the right to speak freely: “[...] woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum” (de Gouges, Article X). As the child of one of the world's most prominent feminists of her time, Shelley likely would have been aware of de Gouges and actively interested in developments for women during the Revolution, which initially held great promise for advances in gender equality (Lauren, 20). It seems clear that Shelley was, at least in part, involved in essentially the same project as de Gouges in her characterization of the monster. Both authors drew attention to the hypocrisy of supposedly “Enlightened” men who speak openly of “universal” rights, but at the critical moment recoil from their own logic and refuse to grant others, including women, the benefits of those rights.

Victor does indeed recoil in terror from his creature's request: he instantly begins to imagine an apocalyptic scenario in which the monster and his mate will reproduce and overtake humanity. Adorno and Horkheimer write:

In the authority of universal concepts the Enlightenment detected a fear of those demons through whose effigies human beings had tried to influence nature in magic rituals. From now on matter was to be controlled without the illusion of imminent powers or hidden properties. For the enlightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion. […] Its own ideas of human rights then fare no better than the old universals. (Adorno, 3)

Victor's seemingly irrational reaction to the monster's demands, then, is exactly consistent with the processes of what the Enlightenment views as rationalism. Truly universal rights would result in groups of “others” which cannot be controlled effectively by the scientist because they are not like him. In Victor's mind, the monster could potentially do anything, including destroy the world, if given the freedom which it has logically presented as its right, and therefore the universal principles which demand that it be treated as an equal must be discarded. The Enlightenment, as Adorno and Horkheimer present it, and as Victor embodies it, is willing to dispense even with what are ostensibly its own greatest achievements and justifications for itself in the service of total control. And total control is always what Victor was after in his quest to create life: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of their child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (Shelley, 49). And so Enlightenment individualism, the creation of the sovereign self which possesses natural rights and freedom, serves only to deny itself by refusing those who it designates as 'others' that very individuality (represented politically as citizenship), reducing the individual to nothing more than a homogenous self which is subject to totalitarian, rational control: “Each human being has been granted a self of his or her own, different from all others, so that it more surely could be made the same. But because that self never quite fitted the mold, enlightenment throughout the liberalistic period has always sympathized with social coercion. The unity of the manipulated collective consists in the negation of each individual and on the scorn poured on the type of society which would make people into individuals” (Adorno, 13).

In the end we find that the Enlightenment, for Shelley as for Adorno and Horkheimer, cannot solve through its own methods the problems it creates in severing man from his community or social relations, pre-empting her contemporary critics who might claim that the Enlightenment institution of universal human rights would prevent such a catastrophe of atomization as that outlined in Frankenstein. However there are those who see the post-Enlightenment rationalist-individualist man less cynically and in fact claim that modernity has granted us even more ways to connect with other humans than ever, including, by the 21st century, the ability to communicate with others instantaneously at great distance through the Internet. However, we find that modern communication technology has almost the exact opposite effects than those predicted by futurists. In the introduction to his book On the Internet, philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus cites research by Carnegie Mellon University which found that “greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants’ communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness” (Dreyfus, 3). Later, he cites another study by Stanford University which suggested that the internet was “creating a broad new wave of social isolation in the United States, raising the specter of an atomized world without human contact or emotion” (Dreyfus, 50).

It is the ironic fact that even as we appear to be more and more “connected” by communication technology, we in fact place less and less emphasis on actual communication with and emotional investment in other people and suffer real negative consequences from that state of affairs. If we expand its scope from simply a son's separation from his family to the relationship between individuals in society as a whole, we could easily see the paragraph quoted at the beginning of this essay as an indictment of the modern suburb, which physically distances neighbors from one another, replaces family bonding with television, videogames, and the Internet, nullifies community and interdependence by requiring car travel to big box grocery stores, etc. while prioritizing pursuit of personal wealth, perpetual entertainment, and a hollow "American Dream." In the same way, the monstrous ‘others’ who are outside post-Enlightenment capitalist hegemony – the poor and working classes, women, people of color, the Third World – are pushed aside even as the hegemon depends on them in greater numbers for labor power. This reading, it seems, has a great deal more modern resonance than simply the vague idea that technology, generally, may be bad for us if we happen to broadly go "too far," however far that might be. Instead Shelley is presenting us with the possibility of a genuine social tragedy: that all the children of modernity, both its leaders and its underclass, may find themselves entirely without a place in any human community.

In order to reverse or mitigate this tragedy, a re-evaluation of the post-Enlightenment project must take place: not a reversion to the conservative or traditionalist nuclear family of the DeLacys, who reject the monster as harshly as anyone else in Frankenstein, but instead a careful balance of reason and scientific advancement with acknowledgment of the social and emotional needs of human beings, and a genuine, non-hypocritical commitment to universal principles which do not succumb to totalitarianism. Whether this particular project is possible is not clear – finding this kind of hope in Frankenstein requires us to read between the lines for alternatives rather than simply receiving it from a happy ending – but the existence of critical thought along these lines in the work of the authors cited seems to suggest it is at least intellectually approachable, which is a beginning.


Adorno, Theodore and Horkheimer, Max. “The Concept of Enlightenment.” Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 2002. Print.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. On the Internet. London and New York: Routledge. 2009. Print.

"Enlightenment." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 23 Mar. 2012. <>.

de Gouges, Olympe. Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen. “Liberty Rhetoric and Nineteenth-Century Women.” CUNY, 1998. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.


Lauren, Paul Gordon. The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen (Pennsylvania

Studies In Human Rights). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

"Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2012. <>.

Reese, Diana. “A Troubled Legacy: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the Inheritance of Human Rights.” Representations. Vol. 96, No. 1 (Fall 2006): pp. 48-72. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

Shelley, Mary and Ward, Lynd. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 2009. Print.

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