The monstrous body of knowledge in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

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títuloThe monstrous body of knowledge in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
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The monstrous body of knowledge in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Author: Rauch, Alan. Source: Studies in Romanticism v. 34 (Summer 1995) p. 227-53 ISSN: 0039-3762 Number: BHUM95026809 Copyright: The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited. The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited. The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.

Galvanism ... independently of other advantages, holds out such hopes of utility in regard to ... mankind; a work containing a full account of the late improvements which have been made in it ... cannot fail of being acceptable to the public in general, and in particular to medical men, to whose department, in one point of view, it more essentially belongs.

Preface to Giovanni Aldini's Improvements of Galvanism (1803)(FN1).

Death snatches away many blooming children, the only hopes of their doating parents.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818).


NEW PERSPECTIVES ON FRANKENSTEIN ARE HARD TO COME BY. Recent scholarship has provided a wide variety of insights into the novel, making it a central text in feminist studies, the history of the novel, psychoanalytical criticism, and, of course, the impact of science on the novel.(FN2) For reasons that aren't entirely clear, however, the issue of the nature of knowledge--as a cultural artifact--has not been rigorously pursued. Part of the problem may well be that while Shelley(FN3) explores Frankenstein's character, she is deliberately unspecific about the details of his scientific work. Aside from passing references to his techniques and to his instruments, there is little in the novel that actually describes Frankenstein's scientific activity, much less his scientific context. Moreover, the narrative structure of the novel renders the creature a fait accompli--large, apparently ugly, and periodically violent--thereby obscuring its ontological design and development.

Although the reader never learns the details of Frankenstein's science or the degree of the creature's "monstrosity," one thing is clear: the monster, whatever else it may be, represents a remarkable "body" of knowledge. The nature of that knowledge, how it was obtained, how it was implemented, and what resulted from it, are my primary concerns in this essay. These concerns will touch on a central question for readers of Frankenstein: To what extent was the creation of the monster transgressive, morally repugnant, or both? I will argue that the creature, as an embodiment of knowledge, is neither.(FN4) Frankenstein's conception of the creature, however, is another story and what I hope to make clear is that, for Shelley, the moral integrity of the scientist has everything to do with the viability of knowledge. By ignoring the humane qualities that clearly make knowledge effective, particularly nurturing and caring, Frankenstein finds nothing admirable in what should be a remarkable creation.

Whatever else can be said about Frankenstein, there is no doubt that he possesses a remarkable amount of knowledge and, from a technical perspective at least, is enormously skillful. Moreover, Frankenstein's knowledge has no precedent; new and ambiguous, it represents both threat and promise to an uninformed public. What intensifies that double-edged nature of knowledge--as threat and promise--is the fact that "knowledge" was a male artifact in the nineteenth-century. Shelley's story, which revolves around the appropriation of reproduction by a man, underscores that concern. But I do not simply want to argue that Frankenstein is a transgressive tale about the usurpation of reproduction (from god or woman); rather it is about Frankenstein's seemingly willful misunderstanding of the value of the knowledge he gains in the context of reproduction.(FN5).


Shelley's critique of knowledge permeates the novel as a whole. The intertwining male narratives in the novel are persuasive, but not always convincing or reliable. Shelley requires active readers who will question the coherence and the consistency of all the narratives as they develop throughout the book. The novel is thus self-consciously constructed as a kind of "knowledge text" that functions in the tradition of the "thought problem." The compilation of male narratives is, of course, the work of two women, two manuscripts overseen by two M.S.s: Margaret Saville and her creator Mary Shelley. Together they silently preside over narratives that purport to be accurate and scientific. Their silence requires each reader, in a process that is similar to scientific discovery, to examine the narratives closely in an effort to determine their reliability.

Shelley's narrative technique is an inclusive one, conscripting the reader into a participatory process that is diametrically opposed to Frankenstein's isolationist and exclusionary methodology. As a representation of knowledge acquired by "M.S.," the text itself as some readers have pointed out, has a monstrous quality. Daniel Cottom argues persuasively that there is an intrinsic monstrosity to all representational forms, from monsters to novels. "The monster," he writes "figures as the text insofar as Frankenstein may be regarded as a pure work of art or of some other abstraction that conceals the labor of its origin."(FN6) But the author of this text has not only assembled a set of narratives for the reader, she has allowed the reader to become part of that structure; this revisionary approach to knowledge anticipates, as we will see, feminist critiques of science. The structure also serves as a constant reminder of Frankenstein's fear of knowledge's social context. The solitude and seclusion that Frankenstein seems to require for his work can only result in knowledge that can have neither context nor value. For Mary Shelley this is intended to be the most frightening aspect of her novel.

Shelley, of course, makes certain that the reader understands how extensive Frankenstein's knowledge must be--of physiology, surgery, medicine, and chemistry--in order to create his creature. Shelley's concern about the integrity of Frankenstein as scientist is particularly evident in Frankenstein's description of the events surrounding the construction of a female creature. Filled with inconsistencies and contradictions, this part of the narrative draws our attention to Frankenstein's shortcomings. Equally important here is the realization that Walton, who mediates the narratives of Frankenstein and the monster (in addition to his own), cannot be relied upon for much more than simple reportage. The reader, thus embedded in the logic of the narrative, is compelled to be observant and critical in spite of the text, and "learns" a critical skill necessary both to conduct science and to critique it.(FN7).

Though he makes an early claim for wanting to father a "new species," Frankenstein feigns astonishment at the monster's desire for a female companion. "I was bewildered," he tells Walton, "perplexed and unable to arrange my ideas sufficiently to understand the full extent of his proposition" (140).(FN8) Yet, clearly the proposition was as much a part of Frankenstein's original agenda, as it now seems to be part of the monster's. Frankenstein would have Walton believe that the idea of a female is completely new, when a female creature was fully anticipated at the very beginning of his work. Walton here, as elsewhere, fails to object to this apparently obvious inconsistency. But his passive role as auditor does more than simply allow for Frankenstein's long narrative to continue; Walton's silence, frustrating as it is, engages our own sense of logic and inference.

Shelley's embedded critique does not end here; in the ensuing pages, she underscores Frankenstein's preternatural resistance to the monster's desire for a mate or, simply, for his companionship. Once Frankenstein decides that he cannot complete the female creature he has made at the monster's request, he tells Walton that he destroyed her by tearing "the thing" to pieces. Frankenstein is then able to persuade Walton and perhaps even himself that he would never have considered the project had it not been for the monster. But the monster's position is reasonable even in Frankenstein's account of the story.(FN9) "Instead of threatening," Frankenstein reports him as saying, "I am content to reason with you" (141). Needless to say the monster's ominous warning that "we may not part until you have promised to comply with my requisition" (140) is a threat, and by this time, he is already responsible for the deaths of William and Justine. But the fact of the matter is that the monster, in asking for a mate, is merely trying to find a social context for his own existence. "The monster's desire for his mate," writes Peter Brooks, "may itself be a substitute for his real, his absolute demand, which is for recognition by his creator."(FN10) Brooks recognizes the monster's essential need to be bound to Frankenstein if there is any chance for it to be situated in the world. The same, of course, ultimately holds true for Frankenstein himself who remains isolated and, in Brooks's sense, inarticulate, without the creature. Seeing that Frankenstein has rejected his own "society," the creature simply wants him to take responsibility for having created a social being artificially. That Frankenstein is unable to understand that he owes the creature companionship, in one way or another, is consistent with his inability to see any value in social exchange.

As a prerequisite to creating the female creature Frankenstein demands that the monster and his companion must "quit Europe forever, and every other place in the neighbourhood of man" (144). The agreement seems both fair and, in terms of Frankenstein's enlightenment context, rational; yet only pages later Frankenstein brutally dismembers the female ostensibly on the grounds of having been "struck senseless by fiendish threats." Frankenstein then describes his actions in a way that makes them seem a response to "malice and treachery." But it is irrationality that most marks Frankenstein's response in this frantic moment. When confronted with the very real problem of what to do with the knowledge that he has generated, Frankenstein is at a complete loss.

Frankenstein's violent treatment of the female creature is both disturbing and intriguing. If Frankenstein can be read, as Elissa Marder suggests, "as the attempt to forget the mother's legacy entirely," the female creature was certainly galling to Frankenstein for its potential to reappropriate the role of reproduction. Frankenstein, Marder writes, is driven by a compulsion "to circumvent the necessity of passing through the mother in order to give birth and be born."(FN11) It is worth arguing further that Frankenstein, as repulsed as he is by the creature he has created, is completely unable to contemplate the notion of a female embodiment of knowledge. Such a "natural" embodiment, Mary Ann Doane argues, would normally offer "a certain amount of epistemological comfort" since the biological role of the mother renders her "immediately knowable."(FN12) Because mothers offer at least "the possibility of certitude in historical knowledge," they are "aligned with the social function of knowledge." Doane's contention that without the mother, both "the story of orgins" and narrative itself become unstable, helps explain much of the narrative tension in the novel.

The dismemberment of the female, as Ludmilla Jordanova points out, has a long history in medical conceptions of women's bodies.(FN13) The female body was frequently conceptualized as a fragmented form in terms of the way it was viewed and the knowledge that was derived from it. Thus when nineteenth century obstetrical procedure dealt with an unexpelled placenta by removing the placenta in fragments, it was consistent with the way women were perceived in general and with the way in which they were healed. The physicians who attended Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, interceded very quickly and worked assiduously to remove the placenta piece by piece. This process, which often disregarded the condition of the patient as a whole, was painful, dangerous, and frequently resulted in severe infections and many deaths,(FN14) as it did in the case of Wollstonecraft. This gruesome procedure, while not necessarily motivated by malice, surely retained an air of cruelty and violence that is evoked in Frankenstein's destruction of the female.


The events immediately following Frankenstein's destruction of the female creature are also worth looking at briefly, if only to underscore Shelley's interest in eroding Frankenstein's credibility. When he returns to his Scottish laboratory to dispose of the remains of the second monster, he places them in a basket with stones and drops them irretrievably into the sea. This act, according to Frankenstein, is consistent with a commitment to abandon the scientific practice and the scientific frame of mind that led to the creation of the monster. Yet while waiting for the cover of darkness to dispose of the "relics" of his work, Frankenstein passes the time in a revealing way: "In the mean time," he says offhandedly, "I sat upon the beach, employed in cleaning and arranging my chemical apparatus" (168). If Frankenstein is indeed serious about his "solemn vow never to resume my labours," this pastime, which suggests that Frankenstein has plans for future scientific projects, is anything but idle or innocent; yet Walton and presumably most readers overlook this part of Frankenstein's narrative. The act of cleaning equipment, which under most circumstances would hardly seem worth noting, stands out here because it suggests a moment of honesty in an otherwise entirely fabricated narrative. Frankenstein's story is, ironically, belied by a moment of unguarded candor, an important moment, given the way it undermines the integrity of narrative and communication, which, for better or worse is the cornerstone of scientific practice.

Frankenstein, by undermining narrative, rejects the central tenets of scientific practice: application, dissemination, or exchange. Frankenstein, in hoarding knowledge and storing it, so to speak, in one creature, seems to be missing the apparent point of science. The comments of Shelley's parents, whose works she read closely, are telling on this score. "Truth," wrote Mary Wollstonecraft, "must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice."(FN15) Godwin's sentiments, not surprisingly, are similar. "Knowledge and the enlargement of intellect," he argues in Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), "are poor when unmixed with sentiments of benevolence and sympathy."(FN16) The link that Godwin sees between science and virtue suggests the posture that Frankenstein professes to assume, though certainly not the actual spirit of his enterprise:.
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