Ioana Barbu – The Subaltern in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Ioana Barbu – The Subaltern in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The Subaltern in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in disagreement with the mentalities of her time, having formulated what I would argue is an (almost) postcolonial viewpoint on the treatment and exclusion of certain members of society. To Shelley’s inquiries one can juxtapose the more recent societal analysis of Professor Spivak. She sees knowledge as a commodity that is subjected to trade. Therefore, it can be used to satisfy its producers’ interests. Victor Frankenstein does not want to achieve a new facet of knowledge for financial reasons, nor is it his purpose to achieve knowledge for its own sake, but knowledge to him is still a commodity that can guarantee his academic immortality. Here are his words: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source” (Shelley 44). Moreover, Spivak argues that Western authors reproduce hegemonic structures by means of the language they adopt. For instance, female and/or feminist authors typically use words that can sometimes be included in the „writing under erasure” category. In Mary Shelley’s novel, the hegemonic structures that are easily sensed throughout Victor Frankenstein’s speech regarding his Promethean act prove that he regards his creation as an object that exists for the sole purpose of guaranteeing his everlasting glory:

Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. 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 his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. (Shelley, 44)

Furthermore, he never considers his creation to be a human or to possess any degree of humanity whatsoever (even from before the moment he gave his creature life). Victor’s attitude presents a noticeable resemblance to the way in which Western culture sees and treats the ones they refer to as „the others”. The testimony of the unjust treatment and social seclusion resides in the words of the so-called “monster”, who is dragged without his will into this social order, made as such to purposefully reject him, and who feels the cruelty of the solitude to which he is condemned: “Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred” (Shelley 107).

Another concept of Spivak’s that can be discussed in relation to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that of agency. Agency refers to the ability of an individual to make their own decisions, no matter to which ethnic group or to which social class they belong. But the subaltern is not given this ability because they represent the marginalized members of society from the poorest and least developed environments, who benefit from no platform that they could use to make themselves heard and understood. In Mary Shelley’s novel, the „other” becomes more than an object to be discussed by society members who, by luck’s lottery, were given the right to speak and have their opinions considered. He gains the status of subject (even if this status is not actually consolidated as it will be further analyzed) by being given a voice and the ability to make his story heard.

Frankenstein’s „monster” is rejected by the world in which he so desperately wants to fit, but the readers get to hear his perspective, train of thought and the way in which he processes trauma. As an example, the „monster” helps the family in the forest, portraying a minimizing mirror of society, to whom he grows an emotional attachment without their knowledge of it, by reconstructing their home when it’s broken. He is treated as an equal by the only member of the family who was unable to see him (“‘Enter,’ said De Lacey, ‘and I will try in what manner I can to relieve your wants; but unfortunately my children are from home and, as I am blind, I am afraid I shall find it difficult to procure food for you.’” (Shelley 109), but he is driven away by the others who had no visual difficulty, proving that the only difference that makes him unwanted and secluded from society is a superficial one. Another example is when the creature saves a man from drowning and, due to his unusual appearance, he is met with yet another act of violence and rejection by the witnesses of the event. Therefore, no matter how good-natured his actions were, the „monster” could not be understood by society because they did not want to see his actions and their meaning truly and fully, being able to perceive only the insignificant (physical) differences.

The most important aspect discussed in Spivak’s essay represents the ownership of inequality and the way in which Western culture addresses the Other. Western readers do not manifest an interest in other writers that do not belong to the same paradigm. In Frankenstein, this detail is illustrated by the presentation of the creation of the „monster” from both Victor Frankenstein’s and the “monster’s” perspective and the different reactions to these events of Walton’s. During their interaction, Walton puts Victor on a pedestal due to the admiration he has for the scientist. When the creature tells his own story, Walton does not empathize in the least with him. The „monster” is not his equal because of the lack of physical resemblance between the two of them. Here, the subaltern is given the impression that he can speak for himself, that he can have his side – his voice – heard. But the „monster” has no credibility and is not paid attention to by the representative of Western culture (Walton). Therefore, one can deduce that his voice is not to be heard by the representatives of his present that reject him, being trapped in their world filled with social rites, emptied of meaning and understanding, but by the readers. As such, one can argue that Frankenstein can be read as a subversive and primitive manifesto for the condition of the subaltern. What’s more, the novel also presents the reader with the fact that women have no voice: they exist in the text, as in nineteenth century society, only as an embodiment of tranquility for the male protagonist. They appear throughout the text (firstly his mother and then Elizabeth) as submissive side-characters whose only purpose is to bring happiness to Victor Frankenstein. Their role is true to life for the epoch, the woman being portrayed as a supporting character with no complexity or depth. This void of characteristics is purposefully allowed to exist in Mary Shelley’s novel to shed light on this attitude in society.  

Frankenstein shows, in a fairly anachronical manner, if we decide to read it as postcolonial novel, the endeavors to encapsulate a set of ideals that target the revolutionary movements regarding the acts of empowering and giving a voice to marginalized categories of people and giving them the possibility to be a full, well-rounded subject, not just a mere object of discussion.

Works cited:

Abdalkafor, Ola. „Gayatri Spivak.” Deconstruction and the Ethics of Postcolonial Literary Interpretation, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, London, 2015. 

Gordon, Lewis R. Decolonializing Frankenstein: There are two monsters in Mary Shelley’s novel: Victor, and creature. The Common Reader, October 26, 2018, Decolonializing Frankenstein – Common Reader (wustl.edu).

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, Alma Classics, London, 2021.

Spivak, Gayatri. „Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader, Columbia University Press, 1993.

Ioana Barbu

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