Theories of literature can be seen as different ways of reading a text and lead the reader to different types of interpretation. They are in a way, different points of view of examining a literary work. This essay aims to interpret Mary Shelley’s celebrated novel “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus” in relation to three different literary theories; Structuralism, Post-structuralism and Feminism. In this essay, essential features of each approach towards literature are being applied on the very same literary work, “Frankenstein” that is, enabling the reader to reinterpret the text time and again and reveal its literary value and complexity.
FRANKESTEIN AND STRUCTURALISM
The only reason we can understand a literary work is because we understand the greater system, the greater structure that supports it. According to Structuralism, the readers ought to perceive the novel under a greater structure. They have to concentrate on “the big picture”. The novel is undoubtedly abundant in such systems, such relations between concepts. According to the founding father of Structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure, language is arbitrary, relational and constitutive and all these principles can be applied to the novel. That is to say, we understand the entire novel by focusing on how the opposites are designated. The notion of darkness is understood in relation to its exact opposite, light, the notion of hero in relation to villain etc. It is also made clear that meaning does not pre exist in these definitions but is rather externally attributed to the different characters of the novel. That is exactly the reason why some of these opposites overlap as the plot unfolds, i.e. the hero becomes the villain, appearance versus acceptance etc.
In giving life to his creature, Victor serves as a God and a parent. However, although Victor’s ambition and achievement may well be heroic, it is he who is the actual villain because of his irresponsibility to take care of his creature. The “hero”, as far as structuralists are concerned, is therefore the monster. He shows heroic qualities in his kindness towards the De Lacey family, and his intelligence in learning the human language. Saussure claimed that “in language itself there are only differences and no positive terms”. Structuralism, as already stated is concerned with binary oppositions within texts. Just as “black” is “not white”, the Monster is “not-Victor” deeming him the hero. Victor, on the other hand, appears to be the hero for much of the novel due to the admiration he receives from Elizabeth, Clerval and in particular Walton and the monster. In fact, Walton writes to his sister in Chapter 24 telling her of Victor during his last days: What a glorious creature must he have been in the days of his prosperity, when he is thus noble and godlike in ruin. ”
Another example of such a binary opposition could be appearance and acceptance. The monster seeks acceptance immediately upon receiving his new life. However, he never manages to get it as long as its creator Victor cannot face his own creation due to its repulsive appearance. “Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bedroom chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep”. The monster receives acceptance neither from its father nor from the rest of the world. Feeling lonesome, the monster seeks to find acceptance in the civilization but gets neglected due to its alien appearance. Even his demand to have a female companion is denied by Frankenstein when the two of them talk to each other.
According to Saussure, meaning is arbitrary and this applies to the literary work as well. That is to say, when Tom calls Victor Frankenstein the creature’s father, this immediately gives the impression that he should be the creature’s protector. However, when he runs away from it and neglects it, he is no longer seen as a “fatherly” figure since his behavior does not comply with what the word father denotes; ideals of a loving and caring protector. Similarly, Frankenstein is a doctor which connotes some sort of responsibility and help to any living person. However, unable to help the creature, William, Justine and Elizabeth, Frankenstein may no longer seem as a doctor according to structuralism.
Moreover, Structuralists are interested in finding recurrent patterns and motifs as part of the greater structure.One of the most obvious examples would be the use of the text.Throughout the novel Frankenstein, we see the exchanging of texts everywhere. Even the structure of the story is an exchanging of text; the whole literary work is a series of letters. This exchanging of letters is a very important structural characteristic. This constant sending and receiving letter has an important role to play on the plot, it actually builds on it. The passing of a text often signifies a life changing event. When Victor for example writes to Elizabeth to go and hide, the monster ends up killing her.
Another structural element in the essay is the use of the word “knowledge” and what this actually means throughout the novel. According to a structuralist’s perspective, the meaning is externally attributed to a word rather than inherently preexisting. The need to defy what “knowledge” actually is, is prevalent throughout the whole novel. Three main characters were used to search for one thing in common or important to them; knowledge. Sadly, the results of their search were completely different than they had expected or anticipated. Walton, blinded by his ambition, believed that search for knowledge of the route to the North Pole would bring fame to his name, but learned that he has ended up only with the danger to the lives of his crew.Similarly, Frankenstein driven by his passion and unable to accept his own limitations learned that passion for knowledge harms his judgment and the excess of his action leads to shocking consequences. Finally, the creature, driven by its unhappiness, believed that knowledge would be the answer but his efforts and hopes were in vain since the world never accepted it.
FRANKESTEIN AND POST STRUCTURALISM
Another way of reading a literary work is designated by the so-called “Post-structuralism” movement. Post-structuralism constitutes in a way, the evolution of structuralism taken to its logical conclusion, breaking the self-imposed boundaries of its thought. Post-structuralism points out the fact that it is the system, (the greater structure that structuralists sought to find) that creates us, that creates our identity. Through a meaning-making process and our interpretation of symbols one develops their subjectivity and identity.
The novel of Frankenstein is about the desire of man to become “God” and create life. Dr. Frankenstein is a man trying to control meaning and signification by creating a creature that he believes he can control. However, once the creature is released into the world, it is exposed to human culture that rejects it and treats it no differently than a monster. The monster is exposed to literature as well which consequently has a great impact on the development of its personality and identity. Mesmerized by the powerful language of Lucifer, the monster identifies with him. As a matter of fact, the monster did not have a distinct personality until it comes upon the four books. Mary Shelley has obviously chosen with great care the books that the monster reads. She makes an effort to trace the literary genealogy and genesis of her monstrous character and to come up with a scene of auto-identification through the reading of these books.
The poem by Percy Shelley containing the verse that the monster quotes is previously quoted by Victor when he is going up the mountain to meet his creation. Both the creator and the creation quote the same poem in different instances. Literature then, changes our conception of the world. Freedom or free flow of things (words, thoughts, and lives) seems to be the cause of Victor’s melancholy and the monster’s tragedy. There is no final destination, no fixed emotional state, no security and this is exactly what post-structuralism is about. It emphasizes the uncertainty and the “fluidity” of meaning due to the fact that we people have different referents.
Victor becomes a godlike figure when he manages to create the monster. The creature, just like Adam, feels lonely and asks for a mate. However, it seems to resemble more to Satan than to Adam and goes on even further as to identify with him: “I ought to be thy Adam but I am the fallen Angel”. He thus highlights the fact that although he had all the potentials to be good, he ended up on the wrong side because of the discrimination and the denial of the society. However, Victor himself identifies with the fallen angels as well: “Like the archangel who aspire omnipotence, I am chained in eternal hell”. If Victor Frankenstein can be linked to both Adam and Satan, who or what is he really? Here we are obliged to confront both the moral ambiguity and the symbolic slipperiness which are at the heart of all the characterizations in the novel. The concept of “self” as a single entity is a fictionalconstruct because the individual consists of multiple tensions often diametrically opposed and the very same person can represent elements both of good and evil.In fact, it is probably these continual and complex reallocations of meaning among characters whose histories echo and re-echo each other that have been so bewildering to critics. As a result, we as readers cannot derive to a univocal meaning since there is no certainty and meaning seems rather just an illusion.
Deconstruction is looking for things in a literary work that do not add up, or are missing, in order to further validate the author's point. Inconsistencies in Frankenstein include Frankenstein being intelligent enough to create a monster but not to destroy it, the monster remaining nameless throughout the book, and Justine being tried for a crime that Frankenstein knew she was innocent of. The use of such inconsistencies exemplify that Frankenstein was never able to take responsibility for his actions. When looking at the book Frankenstein from a deconstructionist view, the reader finds that Mary Shelly used those inconsistencies to exemplify Frankenstein's selfishness and inability to own up to what he had done.
In Shelley's novel, the meaning of creation is unclear. The traditional line that separates creation and destruction is made less clear, less distinctive. Deconstructive theory then adequately explains Frankenstein, in that absolute meaning is indeterminable, but it also fails in that the binary oppositions that deconstructive thinkers would apply to the novel are broken down and reversed. Shelley's novel contradicts traditional thinking, which seems appropriate considering the grotesque, monstrous nature and subject of the novel.
Frankestein and Feminism
The last literary theory to be applied to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is widely known as “Feminism”. Feminist criticism comes in many forms, and feminist critics have a variety of goals. Some have been interested in rediscovering the works of women writers overlooked by a masculine-dominated culture. Others have revisited books by male authors and reviewed them from a woman’s point of view to understand how they both reflect and shape the attitudes that have held women back. A number of contemporary feminists have turned to topics as various as women in postcolonial societies, women’s autobiographical writings, lesbians and literature, womanliness as masquerade, and the role of film and other popular media in the construction of the feminine gender. The main point is that “feminists” have concentrated their efforts on the study of women and women’s issues. The feminist approach towards the novel of Frankenstein poses and explores the following questions: “What happens as a result of trying to sidestep the female part of creation or propagation? What happens when you marginalize women and when you attempt to keep women on the sidelines?.”
The feminist politics of Shelley’s novel exists in the critique of Frankenstein’s decisions to create a masculine mode of reproduction: he creates the male creature; he creates and then uncreates the female creature. It’s that absence that creates the monstrosity that ultimately undoes Frankenstein. Thinking about the absence of women in this fashion helps us to see that the novel is not necessarily about finding answers but is about asking different sorts of questions: about the nature of society, about the nature of creation, about the power of the environment to shape character, about the relationships between men and women, individuals and society. When the term “feminist text” comes to mind in regard to literature, we typically think of a novel with a strong female lead. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a predominately male oriented novel, strays from this stereotype and instead includes an abundance of subordinate female characters that shape the novel into the feminist text that it is. These characters range from the soft spoken love interest of Victor, Elizabeth, to the strong-willed Safie, to the near creation of the Monster’s female companion. Through male narration, Shelley depicts how these women are thought of and treated by the male characters, even deliberately putting them in situations that subtly frame her own opinion pertaining to feminist ideologies.
More specifically, one should have a close look at the female characters that appear in the text. First of all, in the very beginning of Victor’s part of the story, we learn of how his mother was acquired by his father. His mother was at the mercy of a sick father who had lost all of his wealth and was subjected to a life of plaiting straw poverty until Elder Frankenstein came to her rescue: “He came like a protecting spirit to the poor girl, who committed herself to his care, and after the interment of his friend he conducted her to Geneva, and placed her under the protection of a relation. Two years after this event Caroline became his wife.”Elizabeth Lavenza enters into the story in a similar fashion. In a feminist context, Elizabeth’s primary role within the novel is to expose the way in which women are viewed and treated by men and society as a whole: submissive, docile, and present for the sole purpose of men’s pleasure and convenience. When she first appears in the novel, Elizabeth is described as being ‘very fair’ with hair that was ‘the brightest living gold’, with ‘cloudless’ ‘blue eyes’ and ‘bearing a celestial stamp in all her features’. It is from aspects of her such as these, and other constructions of her appearance that make her attractive to Caroline (Victor’s mother) ‘above all the rest’ of the orphan children she is with when she first appears in the novel. This means that before we even are properly acquainted with her character, with her personality, talents or voice, we have been given this exceedingly positive construction of her solely because of her appearance. So, this would seem to suggest a certain importance in the looks of females; if they are attractive then that gives them a positive characterisation despite personality. It can be argued that after this initial portrayal of Elizabeth she never really develops as a character, in fact she is almost defined by her appearance to Victor, one of our main protagonists and narrative voices in the novel.There is evidence in the text to suggest that Victor sees Elizabeth solely as an object, something used to gain pleasure from rather than being a human with actual feelings. To him, she was ‘beautiful and adored’. Although this could be seen merely as an exclamation of affection, it may also be an instance of him admiring her as a person based on her beauty. It is interesting that the word he uses to describe her is ‘beautiful’ rather than perhaps kind, intelligent or interesting, instead she is summarised by him based on her appearance. It is also worth pointing out the second descriptive word ‘adored’. Instead of using another adjective to describe her, Victor instead describes her effect on him, giving us a sense that she is there for his pleasure and performs little to no other task in the novel. Feminism can also be discussed in the novel through the female monster, a character that never actually comes to be.
The female monster is seen somewhat less affectionately by Victor. Whilst carrying out his creation of her he stops to think what he is doing by making another ‘fiend’ on Earth and decides to destroy her before she is ever given life. This decision, however, is made by Victor after he contemplates the possibility of children. It is not the monster herself that Victor is fearful of, but the fact that if she were to be created she would have a sense of self, rationale, and human-like needs. As stated by Williams “he’s afraid that she might have her own way of thinking. Female autonomy, in Victor’s eyes, becomes a terrible threat”. The monster’s desire for a mate “as hideous as myself” is an “ironic repetition” of Victor’s desire for Elizabeth, “the material form of his ideal self-representation” and as Johanna M. Smith rightly puts it, because Victor destroys the female monster, the monster retaliates by destroying Elizabeth. Generally speaking, in terms of action Frankenstein’s female characters remain marginalized throughout the entire novel.
Last but not least, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, issues of gender identity are explored through the creation of an unnatural monster set in an otherwise idyllic society. The unusual nature of the monster’s birth as well as his subsequent experiences serve as counterpoint to foreground the significance of female gender roles in British society, and ultimately suggest that far from being merely companions to men, women instead play a central role in contributing to the stability of the prevailing social order. It is important to note that Frankenstein was published anonymously, that its woman author kept her identity hidden. Similarly, no women in the novel speak directly: everything we hear from and about them is filtered through the three male narrators. In addition, these women seldom venture far from home, while the narrators and most of the novels other men engage in quests and various public occupations. These facts exemplify the 19th century’s emerging concept of separate spheres, a concept that itself exemplifies a middle-class ideology of domesticity.
In conclusion, by reading critically and applying different literary approaches on the novel “Frankenstein or a modern Prometheus”, one can definitely come to appreciate the complexity of this very novel, which in turn allows multiple interpretations. Adopting a structuralist’s approach one examines the intertextuality, recurrent patterns or motifs in the novel as part of the greater structure. On the contrary, a post-structuralist’s approach requires the acceptance that meaning is not unique, but the system that underlies language and its structure is rather chaotic. In this sense, in order to understand one needs to think in terms of binary oppositions and their relation between them. Finally, the novel gives an insight into the world of feminism, by closely examining the role of the female characters and their role in the British society of the 19th century.