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Example English Literature Essay
From the novel Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) edition Chris Baldick argues that “the ‘monster’s’ most convincingly human characteristic is of course his power of speech.”
Explore the significance of the ‘monster’s’ voice in Mary Shelley’s novel.
Few texts have pervaded the cultural consciousness to take on the afterlife of a haunting myth, as with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). To a twenty-first century reader, the image of ‘Frankenstein,’ often wrongly identified as the creature rather than creator, has become conflated with that of Boris Karloff, an actor in a 1931 filmic representation, which, in a true expression of creative license, was a non-speaking role. However, readers of the text will remember the creature as both intellectual and articulate in voicing his account of life through to the projection of his death. This paper seeks to explore the significance of the creature’s voice, arguing that it adds a philosophical and moral dimension to the novel that would have otherwise been absent.
The narrative structure of Frankenstein involves imbedded stories, where tales appear nested within other tales. Even the very epistolary nature of the text itself is fraught with tension, as the final pages reveal the letter-writing to align itself more closely with journal entries, with the poetic ending to the text neglecting either a form of signing off to the reader or a self-reflexive ending common to diary entries. This makes us question whether Walton’s sister, Margaret, was indeed the intended reader of the entire narrative, which notably and often conceals the letter-writing format to allow the action of the narrative to take precedence.
The narrative structure thus problematises any interpretation of language as straightforward and individually assigned and distinct. A study of Frankenstein as a gothic novel would introduce readings of cultural binaries, where the juxtaposition of normal and human with monstrous and inhuman would suggest that the creature’s voice was intended to sharpen these distinctions. However, as Joyce Carol Oates argues, ‘everyone in Frankenstein sounds alike’ (1983: 549). All events are relayed retrospectively; conversations have often been mediated by knowledge of more recent events, and have been filtered, in the creature’s case, through an expanding consciousness. Voices echo one another, in a blurred and indistinct fashion. This is largely because the epistolary format means that the only voice we hear is actually Walton’s own, and even this has been mediated for a selected female readership. The monster’s voice is largely heard through his petition to the one who seeks his ruin, and even the reliability of Walton’s tale is mediated and arguably jeopardised by his earnest desire for friendship and his wish that Victor would fulfil that role.
Noticeably, the voice of the creature appears identical in both Walton’s account of Victor’s story and of Walton’s narration of his own encounter with the creature. This is largely attributable to the fact that all events are filtered through multiple layers, including Walton’s own memory. Interestingly, Oates further argues that it is naive to read Frankenstein as one would a novel, for ‘it contains no characters, only points of views; its concerns are pointedly moral and didactic…’ (1983: 549). Baldick interprets this as ‘dialogical openness,’ (1997: 44) whereby the moral framework of the novel is an open debate between the perspectives of Victor, the creature and Walton. The employment of multiple narrations is an effective tool for undermining verisimilitude, as it compromises the certainty of identity and narration, proving these to be unknowable and always mediated. These ‘contrasting’ points of view do not hold fast; the monster is both sympathetic and vengeful, and his reflections are unreliably mediated by his transformation into a heightened state of consciousness.
In terms of the creature’s identity as a gendered being, many feminist critics have argued that the creature is constructed as a woman through his acquisition of language. The creature’s passive surveillance of domestic life mirrors the female sphere, and his education is largely informed by Felix’s tuition to his intended bride, Safie. As one criticism that is oft levied against Mary Shelley is that her female characters do not take an active stance but conform to traditional ideas of femininity, we have no reason to believe that Safie’s education is atypical or controversially aligned with the masculine sphere. Although it is outside of the remit of this essay to speculate on a gendered construction through language, it is important to note that the creature’s voice is a product of an education largely intended and deemed suitable for the domestic sphere.
As a foreigner, Safie is allowed access to the shared collective that is language; however, her right of access is granted on the grounds that she has a musical voice and a ‘countenance of angelic beauty and expression.’ (Shelley, 1993: 93) She does not posit a challenge to conventional definitions of normality. Indeed, the blind De Lacey permits a conversation with the creature before his impressions become mediated through the eyes of the dominant group. Participating in a shared system of language is thus only effective in generating empathy or connection up until the moment that sight is introduced. Shelley reveals here that language may be knowledge, but it is not wisdom. Indeed, De Lacey mimics the reader, for the oral nature of storytelling restricts visibility and privileges the command of language.
The creature becomes highly articulate, and is also considered persuasive by both Walton and Frankenstein. Walton responds to the monster’s declaration by stating,
His voice seemed suffocated; and my first impulses, which had suggested to me the duty of obeying the dying request of my friend, in destroying his enemy were now suspended by a mixture of curiosity and compassion. (Shelley, 1993: 187)
However, Walton can only register the persuasiveness of the monster’s words whilst he is neglecting the sensation of sight. To sustain communication with the creature, he must avert his eyes, for as soon as his eyes encounter the deformed being, his indignation returns and his sympathy dissolves. Likewise, Frankenstein destroys the female being that he is creating, after gazing upon the monster’s distorted features and being consumed by a fit of passion. The monster’s articulate powers of persuasion are thus rendered subservient to sight, which takes precedence over a convincingly human-sounding tongue. Echoing the villagers, who pass condemnation before allowing the monster to speak, Victor states upon first encountering the monster in his bedchamber; ‘he might have spoken, but I did not hear’ (Shelley, 1993: 40). The creature correctly articulates that ‘the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union’ (Shelley, 1993: 119).
Indeed, the word monster, which Shelley frequently repeats, is derived from the Latin word mon-strare, which means ‘to show… bodily anomaly signified’ (Ingebretsen, 2001: 211). It thus implies an element of display, of visual difference. Interestingly, the way that the monster interacts with humans throughout the course of the novel alters from being visually sighted to, as in the last few encounters, his presence being heard or detected through sound. This calls into question the very notion of his monstrosity, as he has been transformed from an object on display to a being, endowed with the powers of communication. Baldick argues that the ‘monster’s’ most convincing human characteristic is of course his power of speech’ (1997: 45). Harold Bloom echoes this premise: the creature is both more ‘intellectual and more emotional’ and ‘more human than his creator’ (1965: 613). The ability to experience and convey pain is transmitted entirely through the creature’s use of language: voice enlightens where the narratives of others fail.
The creature is portrayed as thoroughly a product of the grand narratives that were central to the Romantic period, born a blank slate with works of cultural standing subsequently informing his mind. His moral and intellectual compass is largely shaped by the reading of three texts, which form what Peter Brooks refers to as a ‘Romantic cyclopedia universalis’ (1993: 205). Mastering the Romantic worldview enables him to speculate and self-identify as a sympathetic figure. One such influential text that forms his education is Milton’s Paradise Lost, which seeks to recast the tragedy of creation on a scale of mythological and biblical magnitude. The creature views his struggle through the lens of Milton’s epic, as a victim of the violation of the natural order. Indeed the epigraph of the novel, also from Paradise Lost, laments his very existence:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? (Milton, 1873: 743-745)
Borrowing a line from such an epic work underpins the central argument of a disgruntled creation wrestling with his creator. By allowing the monster’s viewpoint to dominate the epigraph and frame the novel, Shelley provides an authorial and sympathetic sanctioning to the monster’s plight of unsolicited existence.
The techniques that Shelley uses to construct the monster’s voice are both informed by and a comment on the philosophical views held by leading figures at the time of writing. The creature is not merely presented as a sympathetic character, but as a portrayal of emerging consciousness. In the act of relating his narrative, the creature does not repeat the incident that had originally formed such an unfavourable impression upon Frankenstein. That is to say, the creature does not begin his tale from the scene where he invades his creator’s bedchambers and is rejected in his quest to seek community. Shelley thus sacrifices an opportunity of soliciting sympathy from the reader through allowing the monster to offer an explanation of innocence that would have added colour and dimension to Victor’s account. The creature’s story leaves Frankenstein’s account unmodified, neglecting the tale of rejection for a higher purpose.
Shelley instead commences the monster’s narrative from his dawning of consciousness, and compares it to that of a newborn. Arguably, Shelley plays with philosopher John Locke’s idea that we are born as a blank canvas, with the mind a ‘white paper void of all character’ (1952: 11, 1, 2). The monster actively sets out to acquire language out of his need for human intimacy, mirroring the acquisition of language of a child. Infancy has its stem in the Latin word infans, which translates to one ‘who cannot speak’ (Brookes, 2004: 606). He thenceforth learns language through imitation, as a child would; learning is thus how one forms human consciousness. The creature learns through causation and effect, often experiencing pain and learning how to address the sensation by taking action.
Upon mastering language, the creature retrospectively constructs a narrative out of a flood of competing sensory signals that characterised his early days of education. By relaying his past impressions through an enlightened state of consciousness, the monster shows that he has the emotional sensitivity of a baby who weeps upon first entering the world. This evocation is not just using heavily emotive language to elicit sympathy from Victor, but through the narration of his initial sensations, the reader is positioned to view him as one would a vulnerable, abandoned child.
As Jones argues, Shelley ‘emphasise[s] the importance of learning to the emergence of human consciousness and understanding’ (2003: 158). The monster hypothesises that a mastery of language will bring him into communion with humans, and compensate for deficiencies of countenance. In this aim, he acquires articulacy and understanding of the cultural codes that construct human civilisation. The acquisition of education results in producing a voice that ultimately proves ineffectual, as it only heightens his disconnection to the social group that he desires communion with. Importantly, the relationship between Felix and Safie demonstrates that romantic attachments can transcend language barriers. However, as Jones argues, the cultural discourses that the creature seeks to emulate ‘are borrowed from the very ideology that excludes him’ (2003: 211). Shelley shows that language is artificial, a cultural construction that benefits only the ruling class.
In Frankenstein, the creature’s voice has been intricately crafted by Mary Shelley to aid her portrayal of a sympathetic character, who refuses to conform to our expectations of the ‘other’. Shelley problematises conventional ideas of what is monstrous, revealing a character whose speech at the very least simulates human consciousness, but also is inseparably connected with and filtered through another’s way of seeing. The creature’s narrative is a profound philosophical and moral comment on the Romantic consciousness, ultimately revealing that no perspective reigns supreme, and labels and perceptions of difference collapse at their very borders.
Baldick, C., (1997) In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Bloom, H., (1965) Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus, Partisan Review, xxxii, 618.
Brookes, I., (ed) (2004) Chambers Concise Dictionary. New Delhi: Allied Chambers.
Brooks, P., (1993) What is a Monster? (According to Frankenstein) In Body Work. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, pp. 199-220; reprinted in Frankenstein/Mary Shelley (1995) ed. Fred Botting. New York: St. Martin’s Press, pp. 81-106
Ingebretsen, Edward J., (2001) At stake: monsters and the rhetoric of fear in public culture. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Jones, Jonathan D., (2003) Orphans: childhood alienation and the idea of the self in Rousseau, Wordsworth and Mary Shelley. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
Locke, J., (1952) “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” in Great Books of the Western World 35 ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.
Milton, J., (1873) Paradise Lost. London: Basil Montagu.
Oates, Joyce C., (1983) Frankenstein’s Fallen Angel. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 10, No. 3 Mar., pp. 543-554.
Shelley, M., (1993) Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text, ed. Marilyn Butler, London: William Pickering.