The Reversal of Power: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein
As Victor Frankenstein of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein delves deeper into his search for the causes of life, he becomes consumed by his quest for the answer to his question as he toils over his creation – a decrepit but mortal form compiled of various body parts. He pushes himself to the edge of his capacity for labor, and in the process isolates himself from his family, his human needs, as well as the rest of mankind. When his project is complete, however, Frankenstein finds himself to be immediately repulsed by his finalized work and distances himself, leaving the creature to go off into the world and fend for itself without any knowledge of human society. Faced with this new set of circumstances the creature soon becomes completely separate from Frankenstein, a massive power entirely independent of its creator. This shift in control from the laborer to the product of the labor reflects many of Karl Marx’s ideas expressed in his “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” as well as in “The Communist Manifesto.” It is useful to approach Frankenstein through a lens crafted by Marx’s ideas as such an approach reveals the alienation that Victor Frankenstein feels both from others while in the midst of his work, the hostility he feels towards the product of his labor, the Creature, once he is past his fit of obsessive construction and is able to view it in a new light, as well as the control that the creature is able to exercise over him as soon as it has grown to be its own autonomous being.
To begin, at the very start of Victor Frankenstein’s fixation on his work he severs his ties with the world outside his laboratory almost completely, focusing only on his attempts to animate his lifeless creature. He loses all sense of time and connection with the natural world as he states, “The summer months passed while I was thus engaged, heart and soul, in one pursuit. It was a most beautiful season; never did the fields bestow a more plentiful harvest, or the vines yield a more luxuriant vintage: but my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature” (Shelley, 81). Reading this passage through a Marxist lens, however, it becomes apparent that this is an excellent example of Marx’s first form of alienation from labor: alienation of man from nature. Marx finds this to be meaningful as he believes that “As plants, animals, minerals, air, light, etc., in theory form a part of human consciousness, partly as objects of natural science, partly as objects of art – his spiritual inorganic nature or spiritual means of life which he must prepare for enjoyment and assimilation – so they also form in practice a part of human life and human activity” (Marx, 63). In this statement Marx is raising the idea of nature as an essential part of human existence, particularly in that many of the things that bring happiness are things that are considered to be acts of human nature. Therefore, through isolating himself from the outside world and from the deeds of Mother Nature, Frankenstein is denying himself the simplest pleasures in life and is furthering his separation from society.
Building further on this point, Frankenstein’s obsession begins to prevent him from taking the necessary steps to care for his own mind and body. He is unable to separate himself from his work, and as a result is unable to stop creating it despite his own needs as he states, “My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement […] My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (Shelley, 81). In losing his ability to tend to himself, Frankenstein exhibits the second form of alienation from labor: the alienation of man from himself. This is significant in that it begins to explain the way in which one can lose touch not only with the world around him but with his own mind as well. Marx claims that what separates man from other species is his ability to build as a means of creating beauty as opposed to only creating out of necessity, a theme that reoccurs throughout Frankenstein as Victor attempts to create what he defines as a beautiful being out of the collected remnants of human body parts. He states that due to this way of thinking “This production is his active species-life. Through it nature appears as his work and his actuality […] he produces himself not only intellectually, as in consciousness, but also actively in a real sense and sees himself in a world he made” (Marx, 64). With alienation of man from himself, however, Marx states that “It changes his superiority to the animal inferiority, since he is deprived of nature, his inorganic body” (Marx, 64). Viewing Frankenstein’s alienation process through this lens, it becomes clear the ways in which he is being robbed of his natural ability to create for himself. In losing this, he is losing part of what makes him characteristically human.
Furthermore, Frankenstein breaks off from his family almost completely, refusing to reply in his own handwriting even to the letters of his beloved cousin Elizabeth. When his companion Clerval comes to check up on him he picks up an unopened letter delivered several days before his visit that reads: “My dear cousin, I cannot describe to you the uneasiness we have all felt concerning your health. We cannot help imagining that your friend Clerval conceals the extent of your disorder: for it is now several months since we have seen your hand-writing; and all this time you have been obliged to dictate your letters to Henry […] Dear Victor, if you are not very ill, write yourself, and you’re your father and all of us happy” (Shelley, 88-91). By examining Frankenstein’s actions through Marx’s fourth form of alienation, the alienation of man from man, it becomes clear the full effect that locking himself away with his work has had on Frankenstein. In losing his ability to face himself he also loses the ability to face others, producing a system in which man is unable to comprehend what his labor is for, even in the case of producing for others.
Finally, as the creature is jilted by Frankenstein and becomes completely independent from him and as Frankenstein attempts to return to his life before his project, the creature confronts him as an aggressive and foreign object. The hostility that is felt between the laborer and the product of the labor as well as the threats that the creature places upon Frankenstein’s conscience is an example of how rather than the object becoming an extension of himself, he has become a slave to its power.Marx states in his works, “If man is related to the product of his labor, to his objectified labor, as to an alien, hostile, powerful object independent of him, he is so related that another alien, hostile, powerful man independent of him is the lord of his object. If he is unfree in relation to his own activity, he is related to it as a bonded activity, activity under the domination, coercion, and yoke of another man” (Marx, 65). This passage relates directly to control that the creature exerts over Frankenstein, similar to the control that not only the product holds over the worker but also the power the employer carries.
It is useful to read Frankenstein through a lens crafted by Marx’s works “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” and “The Communist Manifesto” in that it adds new depth to the relationship between Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. By examining Victor Frankenstein’s interactions with the natural world, his ability to cater to his own human needs, and the way he maintains his relationship to others during his fit of obsession using Marx’s various steps of alienation of labor it becomes clear the ways in which creating for beauty or excess results in fixation and estrangement from the rest of humanity. In addition to this, Frankenstein’s monster can easily be viewed as a symbol for the control and power that the laborer’s creation holds over both the laborer and society in the way in which he attempts to frighten Frankenstein into submission to his will. Using Marx, these aspects of Frankenstein are made apparent and the ideas are made more complex than they would be if the text were to be read alone.
Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein. D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf, eds. 3rd ed. Canada: Broadview, 2012. Print
Marx, Karl. Selected Writings. Lawrence H. Simon ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994. Print.
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