Thursday, January 23, 2014

Frankenstein: Dominance Rhetoric Indicates Characters Projecting Self-Enslavement

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shows the relationships between characters through their persuasive arguments. With much of the plot hinging on decisions made as a result of another character’s influential assertion, the rhetoric of these assertions is extremely telling of the motivations of characters involved. In particular, Frankenstein and the monster share very powerful exchanges, the specific wording of which brings up notions of a pendulating slave/master relationship through words like “choice” and “obey” as well as the direct terms: “slave” and “master”. Frankenstein and his monster each refer to themselves as a “slave” to the other, and while each has outbursts of claiming himself to be the “master”, they only individually struggle with enslavement by their respective choices.
As Frankenstein is the narrator of his own story, he is the only character in his story into which the reader has insight to unspoken thoughts and struggles: all other characters’ struggles are conveyed through dialogue or Frankenstein’s observation and interpretation. Having access to Frankenstein’s thoughts allows the reader access to his perspective on the master/slave relationship between he and the monster. When Frankenstein is under the agreement to create a female companion for the monster, his specific use of the word “slavery” resurfaces in the context of him looking ahead past his presumable last transaction with the monster beyond his state of current misery and debt. He expresses these feelings with specific description of his situation as unwilling slavery: “My promise fulfilled, the monster would depart for ever… and put an end to my slavery for ever” (Shelley 172) and a page later says, “it was the prospect of that day when, enfranchised from my miserable slavery, I might…forget the past” (Shelley 173). Here, Frankenstein explains his promise to the monster as an act of slavery he has been forced into with himself as the slave and the monster as the master.
Frankenstein’s monster reveals his perspective on the relationship between him and his creator through the terms he uses to refer to each of them. Contrary to his given role, the monster, through his dialogue with Frankenstein, grows to proclaim himself to be the more powerful. After being agitated by Frankenstein, the monster snaps at Frankenstein: “Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master; -- obey!” (Shelley 191). This passage contains evocative words like: “slave”, “unworthy”, and “obey” all to refer to Frankenstein in this statement made by the monster. The monster makes a point here to be as dominant as possible though his rhetoric in order to challenge his given role as subject to his creator, which he has previously acknowledged.
While the word choice when referring to each other depicts an imbalance of power between Frankenstein and his monster, they both challenge their expected roles in relation to each other. When the issue is looked at more broadly, neither of them can strongly hold the position of “master”, nor do either of them confidently believe they can. However, this makes sense if their words and actions are framed in conjunction with the idea that they are both individually enslaved by their respective choices. This realization comes both to the reader and the characters near the end of the novel.
Among Frankenstein’s last words, he admits that the slavery was an obsession mainly in his own mind: “I may still be mislead by passion. That he [the monster] should live to be an instrument of mischief disturbs me; in other respects, this hour, is the only happy one which I have enjoyed for several years” (Shelley 252). This passage exposes much about Frankenstein’s view of the situation. He specifically admits that he may have been over-consumed, and in his final moments, once he puts thoughts of the monster out of his mind, is able to enjoy his existence, if only for a brief moment before his passing. This shows that he only really struggled with breaking his own commitment to the strife.
Frankenstein’s death brings out the true feelings of the monster who relays them to Walton when they interact. The monster reflects, “I knew that I was preparing for myself a deadly torture; but I was the slave, not the master, of an impulse which I detested, yet could not disobey… Evil thenceforth became my good. I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen” (Shelley 255). This incredibly self-aware passage supports all aspects of the monster’s enslavement by his own choices; he says that he was a slave to an impulse that had to then show through in his actions in an effort of identity consistency, as if his willing choice personified him from that moment on, even if he didn’t support it any longer. This shows that the monster was not trying to fit into a master/slave relationship with Frankenstein, but rather had trouble being the master of his own choices, which he eventually became a slave to.
Both the monster and the creator in this story struggle to find their position as a master or a slave to one another, which the rhetoric emphasizes in moments of a struggle for dominance. However, neither can recognize (at least not until the very end) that they each only struggle to break from the master that is their individual choices that have essentially enslaved them and unyieldingly engulfed both individuals’ thoughts, words, and actions.

Works Cited:
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.


Jake Stambaugh said...

I think that the conclusion you draw is very interesting, and the statement that you make about Frankenstein and his monster both being slaves to themselves in a way is very strong. I think that if you were to revise this paper you could focus more on the rationalizations that both the monster and Frankenstein use when rebelling from their perceived slavery, as you focus mostly on their complaining. In all, I enjoyed reading the paper and thought the arguments were very well constructed.

Adam said...

Your introduction is provocative and interesting - I'm very curious to see where you go with it.

You do a very good job compactly presenting Victor Frankenstein's twists and turns on the topic of guilt, although I think there might be a missing analysis of some of the material surrounding the creation here. Are you comfortable arguing that his dream (of Elizabeth transforming into the corpse of his dead mother) doesn't have anything to do with your argument? In particular, you trace the transition from his interest in immortality to repugnance to guilt - but I'd argue that his dream already covers all of this territory. At the least, I think it's something you'd want to address in a revision.

I love how you catch Victor's hints about his own duality. One way of expanding this essay would be to change the focus to being about Victor's fractured identity more explicitly.

You do a very good job exploring the vagueness surrounding ultimate guilt in the novel. I'd argue that you need to explore at least one more dimension here - while we could point to Victor, or the monster, or to society at large as "the" guilty party, you're missing another obvious candidate. Victor's parents are another possible guilty party - after all, they brought Victor up (and there are a number of details on this subject) with a very particular idea of his rights, his position in society, etc. In an electronic text you might search for the words "plaything" and "idol" and also for the passage about Frankenstein's total lack of superstitious dread (this is in the buildup to the monster's creation).

You end vaguely. That's ok in a short draft - you've already done a lot. But what I'm most interested in, ultimately, is what *you* have to say about guilt and innocence after having done some serious thinking about it. Was there a crime? Are there criminals? Or is *Frankenstein* all about unlucky people and bad circumstances? At the end of the day if you're going to perform a sophisticated reading of the novel around issues of guilt and innocence, you want to be able to say something much more precise (and directed toward future thinking) than you manage to at the end of this draft.