The Eternal Justice of Man: Why Frankenstein Continues to Serve as a Haunting Metaphor for the African-American Experience in the New World
“For an instant I dared to shake off my chains, and look around me with a free and lofty spirit; but the iron had eaten into my flesh, and I sank again, trembling”
-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
“Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!”
-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
It should come as no surprise that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein works as a remarkably capable metaphor for the African-American experience in the U.S. Much like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, Black Americans in the new world have had a frustrated history of trying to find their way in a society far too fixated and scandalized by outward appearance. Also similar to the events of the narrative, attempts of assimilation have been met with neglect, mistrust, hatred, and outright violent rejection. Additionally, this analogous relationship doesn’t stop with the emancipation proclamation or Brown v. Board of Education. Even in December of 2014, the image of the creature setting fire to a cottage after the senseless beating inflicted on him bears a troubling resemblance to the recent riots connected to the violent and controversial police actions in Ferguson, MO. But perhaps this convenient comparison isn’t entirely coincidental or derived. Historical and biographical information suggest that issues of imperialism and race relations are among the plethora of philosophical issues the young author chose to engage within her novel. A reading aided by this contextual information reveals another layer of meaning within the complexities of Frankenstein, whose implications are far reaching. One may hope that we indeed can heed the advice of Victor Frankenstein when he bids us “learn from my miseries and do not seek to increase your own,” or at very least, find cause to lament what man has made of man (Shelley, 152).
In the 19th century, mankind–Specifically, the European man–sought to subdue and exact dominion over the powers of nature more than ever before. It is commonly accepted that this kind of arrogant ambition is exactly the thing Shelley’s narrative calls into question. When she was writing Frankenstein, the way this issue most likely manifested itself was through the failings of European imperialism. Both of Shelley’s parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin often cautioned against imperialism and lent their support to the french revolution and the abolition of slavery. Though Shelley would never know her mother, it would have been impossible for her to escape her household without the influence of her passionate father, who, in his most famous work, Political Justice, argued against the accepted theory that climate had created different types of men with different capacities. Additionally, Shelley grew to intellectual maturity during a time when issues of a racial nature were a large component of the highly charged political atmosphere. H. L. Malchow maintains that between the black Jacobins in St Domingue and the parliamentary struggle to abolish the slave-trade it was doubtlessly “…guaranteed that issues of race played a significant contemporary role in the larger political debate surrounding the capacities and rights of mankind”(94). There’s really no possible way a woman of Shelley’s upbringing and intellect could have been naive to European fear and uncertainty surrounding the presence of a racial “Other” in contemporary politics. That Shelley was familiar with issues of race around the time of writing Frankenstein is a certainty. However, it behooves us to ask if there is any substantial evidence to prove that her familiarity with this topic bears influence on her writing.
From an initial reading of the novel, it doesn’t seem that Mary Shelley is trying to create a specifically “Negro” monster but a kind of unknown “Other,” which lends itself to having more universal implications as well as a higher terror-factor. However, there does exist evidence that her fascination with western Africans and those in the colonies did indeed influence her creation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, both in physiognomy and temperament. Based on a reading journal both Mary and Percy Shelley kept, we can see that they both read the first two volumes of Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa as well as a history of the British West Indies by Bryan Edwards just before the winter of 1816 when she began Frankenstein. These works are supposed to highlight the different racial characteristics of slaves from different parts of Africa as well as the horrors of slave rebellions. Shelley apparently found these readings engaging enough to spend “all day” and “all evening” absorbed in them (Journal, 9). Shelley’s description of the creature as “larger and more agile” than a regular man, “able to subsist on a courser diet,” and able also to endure “the extremes of heat and cold with less injury,” were common conceptions about the west african people and mirror many of the descriptions found within the accounts of Park and Edwards (Shelley, 81). Travels in the Interior even gives an account of a African guide who “mounted up the rocks where indeed no horse could follow him, leaving [Park] to admire his agility”(Park, 21). Compare this description to the scene in which the Creature eludes Victor Frankenstein among the rocks of Mount Saleve and we can see clear and present evidence that Shelley’s creature, at least in part, is influenced by her familiarity with common accounts of the Negro man (Shelley, 46).
While Malchow argues that the unusual, yellow color of the monster’s skin is intentionally chosen to be racially ambiguous, the contextual information based on the Shelley’s intellectual environment as well as her own reading journal is enough for us to at least consider reading Frankenstein within the context of African-American history(Malchow, 103). In this light, specific moments in the text emerge as of particular significance. Firstly, Victors original sentiments about the creature reflect western paternalistic attitudes towards “uncivilized” peoples when he claims “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, 28). Victor so desperately wants to be the father of a new species, but when that becomes a reality and he realises the species is one most difficult to control, the idea becomes a horror to him, which is why the largest horror comes to him when he considers the implications of creating a mate for the creature.
“Even if they were to leave Europe and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the demon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations? I had before been moved by the sophisms of the being I had created; I had been struck senseless of his fiendish threats; but now, for the first time, the wickedness of my promise burst upon me; I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race” (Shelley, 117).
Victor’s main concern is with his legacy. He abandons his work on the bride because he doesn’t want the world to remember him as the man who introduced a new race and created “precarious” relationship the new world. However, is this not the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade? Malchow states that “The success of Victor Frankenstein’s hubristic experiment immediately poses the central problem of the novel(139). That problem is whether or not he is willing to acknowledge his responsibility for his creation. He would have to accept the blame for the crimes committed by his creation, merely by virtue of calling it into existence and then turning his back on it. As we can see throughout the novel, Victor is not willing to do that and the consequences are severe. At least in some sense, entire generations of slaves, could be seen as an entity called into being, shaped, and deformed by the slave trade. In this sense, mere abolition, though irrefutably a good thing, is analogous to Victor, succeeding in his experiment and running from the room in terror.
Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus is an excellent metaphor for the Black American’s struggle in U.S., not by accident, but because Mary Shelley was keenly aware of the complex moral questions that arise from what she saw as mankind’s ambitious exploitations. In what was perhaps the most ambitious era of avarice in world history, America had simultaneously created and turned its back on its own “monster,” and although inroads to equality have been made, the effects of that singular evil that chattel slavery introduced to the world are obviously still working themselves out. It is true, I too like to imagine that if a bride had been created for Frankenstein’s creature, and the pair allowed to procreate, we might find their great-great grandchild in some campus library somewhere, peacefully studying Milton and Keats, but chances are, that’s not where we would find him. We might find him face-down in the street, or we might not find him at all.
Works Cited, Mentioned, or Consulted
Edwards, Bryan, and Daniel M’Kinnen. The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies. Philadelphia: J. Humphreys, 1805. Print.
Malchow, H. L. “Frankenstein’s Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” Past & Present No. 139 (1993): 90-130. JSTOR. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.
Rockel, Stephen J. “Review: Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 36.1 (2002): 174-76. JSTOR. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Frederick L. Jones. Mary Shelley’s Journal. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1947. Print.