Mary Shelley – Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (Shelley, 1986) has, since its publication in 1818, entered the bloodstream of the public imagination. Not only has there been a wealth of retellings in the popular arena, from Boris Karloff (1935) to Kenneth Branagh (1994), but critics have constantly made use of its narrative and mythic properties; reading into it anything from the rise of issues concerned with cloning (Goodall, 1999) to notions of aesthetics and the creative nature of the artist (Wohlpart, 1998).

In this essay I would like to compare Shelley’s novel with the short story An Outpost of Progress by Joseph Conrad (1961) and examine the extent that, in terms of form, each represents as much a continuity or, at least, an evolution between the beginning and end of the nineteenth century as they do revolutionary change. I will, firstly, look at the socio-political inferences of Frankenstein, utilizing Edward Said’s notions of Orientalism (1995) and the creation of psychosocial others and how this manifests itself in the very fabric and form of Shelley’s work. I will then go to examine the same in Conrad’s story, looking at the ways in which the shifting political paradigm, with a greater awareness and interest in Imperial discourses, affected the form of the text itself.

I will then, move on from this to attempt an ethnographic deconstruction of Conrad’s story, using some of the theoretical tools outlined in Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1999), tools such as “brisure”, “differance” and “supplement” in order to assert that what had changed, in the years after of the publication of Frankenstein was the concretization of an Eurocentric world view that was, not only internally flawed but reflected again in the form and structure of the work produced. By doing this I hope to examine, also the extent that form and content are as much a product of socio-political and socio-economic forces as thematics and poetics.

Shelley’s novel was published at a time of enormous social and scientific change as well as personal bereavement and loss (Nitchie, 1970). 1818 was a year surrounded with socio-political events that would, eventually, herald the end of one paradigm and the beginning of another. The ten years either side of the publication date would see, not only the scientific works of Luigi Galvani, Allessandro Volta and Michael Faraday, the founding fathers of electrical experimentation and development (Stafford Hatfield and Lenard, 1933) but also the assassination of Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be killed in office (Russell, 1905), the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 (Read, 1958) and the continuation of Luddite protests in Yorkshire, Cheshire and Lancashire (Barker, Halevy and Watkin, 1949: 156).

1818 also saw the birth of Karl Marx, a portent symbol if ever there was one of the changing face of the social situation in Europe.

It was then, as we can see, a time of anxiety and tension, not just socio-politically but also personally, for Mary Shelley. These two strands of nineteenth century concern; the political and the scientific merge in the narrative of Frankenstein to form a network of complex signification. From its very opening chapter , the novel centers its narrative within strict socio-economic borders:

“I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic. My ancestors had been for many years counselors and syndics, and my father had filled several public situations with honour and reputation.” (Shelley, 1986: 289)

It is obvious here, by the evocation of Frankenstein’s Genovesan roots that we are witnessing something more than the creation of a character. Frankenstein is synecdochic with the larger body of white European aristocracy; heralding from the accepted birthplace of Christopher Columbus he is an obvious symbol of mid-Enlightenment humanity and exists as the rational, reasoned stable to the supplement of the monster and the other; whether that be socio-political or cultural.


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