Saturday, February 15, 2014

Frankenstein: Dominance Rhetoric Explained By Dysfunctional Parenting

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 and relationships of the 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”, which exemplify this idea of dominance. Frankenstein and his monster each refer to themselves as a “slave” to the other, and each has outbursts of claiming himself to be the “master”. This inconsistency comes from attempts for their relationship to stably and conventionally fit into that of a parent/child dynamic, which they are psychologically pressured to develop. The dysfunctional attempt at a social construct enslaves Frankenstein into a low-power parental role and the monster into that of a rebellious child.
Frankenstein and the monster share an unconventional relationship that crudely resembles that of a parent and a child. The monster has been “given” life by Frankenstein, as a father may give life to a child, and though the process differs, the cause and effect are parallels. Upon the monster’s creation, or “birth” in the context of a parent/child relationship, Frankenstein describes the monster’s first attempt to seek him out: “He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes… were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks” (Shelley 54). This is the first real interaction between Frankenstein and his monster, and when read through the lens of them as a parent/child pair respectively, the monster’s actions closely resemble those of a newborn baby. However, Frankenstein is anything but paternal to the monster in a social sense. The relationship is doomed into a strained, volatile father-son relationship with the rejection of the monster by its father. This reading of the novel is reinforced by the oscillating dominance rhetoric between the monster and Frankenstein.  
Frankenstein’s monster reveals his perspective on the relationship between him and his creator/father through the terms he uses to refer to each of them. To Frankenstein he explains, “Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine, my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me” (Shelley 107). At this point in the novel, the monster is attempting to reason with Frankenstein in a civil manner and act in that context of the respectful submission of a son to his father. He wants to have guidance from his father, and is looking to fulfil that relationship with his creator as his superior, even though he has been rejected already. In the passage though, the monster is accepting of his subordinate standing, but vaguely tests the idea that he could overcome his creator, the way a child may attempt to test a parent.
After being rejected once again by Frankenstein, the monster snaps: “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 he is willing to accept. The monster lashes out in this passage the way an adolescent might to a parent. In both cases, the subordinate figure challenges the dominant figure out of frustration from not getting the desired outcome. The monster is acting as expected for fulfilling his role as the child. Developmental psychologist, Martin Ford, suggests that the best a parent can do in these situations is to have “flexibility, a sense of humor, mutual respect, and a willingness to be tough when necessary” (Slade C12). As a father figure, Frankenstein especially lacks the last tool, “a willingness to be tough when necessary.” The problem with this parent/child relationship isn’t that the monster is acting so unpredictably, it is that Frankenstein is not providing enough structure and authority. Edward Charlesworth, an adolescent stress psychologist, explains this as: “Adolescents don’t want complete freedom. They need the reassurance of parental rules, which function as a kind of safe harbor when they lose control” (Slade C12).
Frankenstein is essentially a slave to the monster’s demands when he agrees 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 a 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 doesn’t perceive himself as being in any position of authority to the monster, even though the monster has expressed acknowledgment of being the subordinate. Therefore, Frankenstein does not adequately show his authority to correct the monster’s behavior, and the situation once again resembles a dysfunctional father/son relationship at the fault of Frankenstein’s submissive actions.  In an article entitled, “Who’s In Charge?”, this type of inaction is described to escalate: “Parents with low perceived power easily transform interactions into power contests” (Bugental 1298). This, in turn, has an effect on the child, as he/she may “feel self-important and overconfident, are conceited and boast, and are rebellious and disrespectful of authority” (Bayley 595). The cyclic nature of this behavioral pattern return to once again reinforce the parental behavior: “when paired with a child who might be interpreted as challenging their authority, [low perceived power parents] easily respond with escalating levels of negative affect and mobilization of efforts to regain control” (Bugental 1298). This chain of events is carried out in the way that Frankenstein neglects to address his responsibility for the monster and its actions by being a submissive parent. This creates tension in their attempt, at least unconsciously, to foster a functional parent/child connection because they each feed off of each other’s immaturity and deviation from the construct.
While the word choice when referring to each other depicts an stress of imbalance of power between Frankenstein and his monster, they both stray from their expected roles of parent and child, additively stressing their relationship. However, at the end of the novel Frankenstein’s death brings out the true feelings of the monster who 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” (Shelley 255). This incredibly self-aware passage supports all aspects of the monster’s enslavement by his status as a subordinate to Frankenstein, and the all-encompassing desire to challenge that, even though he does care for his creator. His care is evident in his exclamation in the instant of learning of Frankenstein’s death: “Oh, Frankenstein! generous and self-devoted being! what does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me?” (Shelley 254). This can be likened to a child wanting to challenge the parent, all the while unconditionally loving and respecting the parent. The fact that the pair didn’t conventionally fit into the child/parent relationship had an inflammatory effect on the monster’s actions, but only as a result of Frankenstein’s inactions.
Frankenstein also reveals that he was aware of his obligation as a father figure since the beginning. He says to Walton, “I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being” (Shelley 251). These duties that Frankenstein describes are comparable to those a father provides for his son. Frankenstein knows he hasn’t taken responsibility for his creation as an entity, but he goes a step further to acknowledge himself responsible for the monster’s “happiness and well-being” which is evidence of a parental obligation.
The relationship between Frankenstein and his monster is unstable from beginning to end. The circumstances under which the monster is created thrusted them into a strained father-son relationship that could not be appropriately sustained due to Frankenstein’s passivity. This lead to a power struggle in which both parties tried to evade their respective positions. The dominance rhetoric is explained by the tension in the inability for their relationship to resemble one of a functional father-son pair, though all along they each knew their place and their responsibilities to each other.

Works Cited:
1. Bayley, Nancy. "Review of The Psychology of Parent-child Relationships." The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 35.4 (1964): 595-96. ProQuest. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.
2. Bugental, Daphne Blunt. "Who's the Boss? Differential Accessibility of Dominance Ideation in Parent–child Relationships." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76.2 (1997): 1297-309. ProQuest. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. <>.
3. Hymer, Sharon M. "The Imprisoned Self." Psychoanalytic Review 91.5 (2004): 683-97.ProQuest. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. <>. (Read as background research, though not actually cited in the revision)
4. Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.

5. Slade, Margot. "Accepting Teen-Age Rebellion." The New York Times [New York] 19 Aug. 1985: C12. ProQuest. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. <>.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Your thesis statement is very effective at encapsulating a complex & demanding idea. "The dysfunctional attempt at a social construct enslaves Frankenstein into a low-power parental role and the monster into that of a rebellious child."

A minor point, pertaining to your second paragraph. Neither the world nor literature are lacking in images of bad/domineering/abandoning fathers. You circulate around this fact, but aren't as coherent when pinning down what *type* of father Frankenstein is, unlike in the last paragraph, where you are so effective at explaining a complex idea.

"In the passage though, the monster is accepting of his subordinate standing, but vaguely tests the idea that he could overcome his creator, the way a child may attempt to test a parent." -- I liked this a lot.

Your use of Slade is effective, and your analysis of the encounter is good, although I do have one thing to nitpick. Is the problem that Victor lacks the willingness to be tough, or is the problem (and of course this is a problem that arises in the real world) the *ability* to be tough. It's a serious question, and one which could lead, if you wished, to an additional round of revision. Is there the potential here for a more normative relationship, or is it hopeless?

Question: how should we read the master/slave rhetoric in conjunction with the father/son rhetoric, given especially the 200 year gap? In other words, slavery was a real institution, and ideas about parenting were rather different. You have hit on some critical terms and have some interesting thoughts about them, but one interesting & worthy approach would involve *historicizing* them.

I liked the discussion of power contests, etc. It would have maybe been more effective if you had broadened the scope of what parts of the text you're looking at - note how the journey across the arctic is framed as a kind of contest...

I think your discussion of how both Victor & the monster return to norms (kind of) at the end is insightful, although I'd like to here something more about Victor's certainty that it is his first duty to destroy the monster, despite his parallel duties as a father. Your conclusion also raises interesting questions. Why [is it impossible] "for their relationship to resemble one of a functional father-son pair, though all along they each knew their place and their responsibilities to each other"? Does the impossibility arise from the monster's power, his abnormal birth, Victor's obsessions, or is the problem basically social? Could the problems have been solved (and if so, is there a utopian idea implicit deep in this dystopian novel?). In other words, I think your analysis is sound and well-conceived. The next step would be to pursue the consequences of that analysis more vigorously.