The Gothic Romantic Literature Of Mary Shelley English Literature Essay
Recent scholarly trends in Gothic Romantic literature, of which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a prime example, seek to highlight the arbitrary, socially constructed prejudice against the physically and mentally disabled, a historically marginalized group who are often represented in Gothic literature as monstrous and at times even demonic. At the same time Gothic literature illustrates the shocked response of the dominant culture that assumes an able or normative body, it, as Shelley’s novel demonstrates, interrogates and deconstructs cultural preoccupations with definition and taxonomy. To my knowledge, no critical endeavor to explicate how a filmic adaptation of Shelley’s novel refunctions the novel’s subtle treatment of the disabled body has been attempted. I assert that James Whale’s filmic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shifts the paradoxical narrative focus surrounding disabled bodies in Shelley’s novel to a myopic locus of culture anxieties pertaining to ideological notions of abnormality and deviance—two very significant threats to the improvement of human hereditary traits, particularly in the age of Eugenics.
When addressing the continual dialogue between Shelley’s novel and Whale’s filmic adaptation, it is necessary to provide a brief historical and philosophical context for Shelley’s novel (and by extension, Gothic Literature) pertaining to disabled bodies. The aesthetics of the new humanism, so central to the conception of literature, is linked to the Enlightenment phase of scientific, political, and economic thought that finds its full expression in the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment Schools, Synder argues, “taught the body was the sum of the entire person. The doctor’s medical or clinical gaze was believed to penetrate surface illusions, in near-mystical discoveries of hidden truth” (172). The Gothic mode is largely a response to Enlightenment ideologies concerning the modern sense of the “individual”. The development of modern humanism, of the idea of “man” as the ultimate value and as autonomous, individual, self-moving and self-willing is argued to have occurred between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries (Foucault 1970, 386-7). The question of the human is provoked in literary texts above all by means of what is not human, and in post-romantic literature in particular by the presentation of monsters and mutants. Shelley’s novel, Anolik asserts, “presents human difference as monstrous, and then, paradoxically, subverts the categories of exclusion to argue for the humanity of the monster” (2).
One particular method by which Shelley’s novel demonstrates this ambivalence toward Enlightenment ideologies surrounding disabled or mutant bodies is by keeping Frankenstein’s creature perpetually outside of the reader’s view or gaze. As Gilman argues, “the act of seeing is the act of the creation of historically determined (and therefore socially acceptable) images that permit a distinction to be made between the [healthy] observer and the [diseased] Other” (7). Shelley’s decision to keep her creature “hidden” from the eyes of her readers is predicated on the evocation of two distinct (seemingly disparate) emotional responses—terror and pathos. To return to Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke argues “whatever is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime” and “our ignorance of things causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions.” To view Victor Frankenstein’s hideous creation is to give shape, dimension, and proportion—a reality--to something that would otherwise be left to the workings of the unpredictable, often terrifying imagination. By hiding the monster from our view, Shelley thus provokes a sense of paranoia which involves fear localized in the shape of something monstrous, an indistinct terror of the imagination. Gothic Film, through its manipulation of the space around the body of the monster (e.g. the casting of shadows), has a unique way of transposing the fear and recoding the visual into spectral horror that Shelley evokes through absence. By “viewing” the monster, however, what is lost is the feeling of pathos for the Creature Shelley so deftly evokes from her readers. Victor himself admits he is moved to something close to compassion and sympathy for the Creature as he recounts his tale of loneliness spurred by the rejection of an inhumane society. This pathos quickly dissipates and turns into revulsion as Victor once more gazes upon his hideous creation. The scene between the Monster and the blind De Lacey in the cottage is one of the most poignant instances of pathos in the whole novel. Because film must convey through visual representation, all sense of pathos for the Creature portrayed in Shelley’s novel is lost. This loss radically alters the novel and is why the filmic adaptations (specifically Whale’s Frankenstein and its derivatives) must restructure the novel’s plot turning Shelley’s philosophical, articulate Creature into a grunting, soulless monster.
While the Gothic is certainly grounded in historical conditions, which themselves give rise to changes in technological, economic, and cultural formations, it also transcends specific historical moments by articulating the anxieties surrounding social, sexual, and temporal borders of subjectivity. Pertaining to disabled bodies, Whale’s filmic adaptation can be said to reformulate Shelley’s narrative, transmuting it from a deconstruction of Enlightenment humanistic ideologies surrounding physiognomy and aesthetic difference it into the anxiety of genetic abnormalities that was sustained and perpetuated by the Eugenics movement, a period in the 1920s that provided the tools and rationale for a hygienic drive toward the inflation of perfection and normalization. Primarily, the Eugenics movement finds its historical roots in two major publications: Darwin’s Origin of Species published in 1859 and Sir Francis Galton’s (Darwin’s half-cousin) Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development published in 1883. Galton’s work on hereditary genetics associated a masculinist model of intellectual accomplishment with familial hereditary patterns. Thus he made a key linkage between biological determinism and the significance of the individual’s social contribution. This proved to be the critical step in the constructing of eugenics ideology toward disabled, ethnic, and sexual “others”.
According to Gelder, “film, with its radical political implications, sees violence as rooted in personal deficiencies, to be labeled, literally, ABNORMAL and so sub-human” (122). Perhaps the most ostensible alteration to Shelley’s narrative in Whale’s filmic adaptation comes at the point where the added character of Fritz, Henry Frankenstein’s neurotic lab assistant, pilfers the Goldstadt Medical College laboratory extracting the “abnormal” brain by default (upon hearing a loud noise, he drops the jar labeled “normal brain”). The implication of Fritz’s theft, which is often ignored by scholarly treatments of Whale’s adaptation, is that the disabled body (Fritz is overly anxious, hunchbacked, and engaged in criminal activity) invariably will give rise to another disabled body; the monster that Frankenstein will create is inherently flawed as a product of his nature. The pro-eugenics film takes up an explicit argument informed by ideologies of pangenesis- the belief that one kind of disability can (d)evolve into other forms of disability. This assertion is prefigured and substantiated by the medical gaze of Dr. Waldman who delineates the physical/visual defects of the “abnormal” brain and provides a scientific/historical basis for his assertion in that the individual to whom the brain belonged was a violent, deviant criminal. This premise of involuntary repetition (a phenomenon that, according to Freud’s notion of the uncanny, forces upon us the idea of something fateful and inescapable) of disability or deviance radically alters Shelley’s narrative from one which the violence of Frankenstein’s creation emerges as a response to societal injustice to biological ideologies of normalcy, inferiority, and the “irreparable” disabled body (Richter xxx). In Shelley’s narrative, we read the following passage:
Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded,
I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me
happy, and I shall again be virtuous (pg).
Wherein Shelley’s novel far more hinges on the creatures capacities (especially since the creature’s essential plea to Frankenstein is that his moral formation is radically unfinished), Whale’s text demonstrates and perpetuates the disenfranchisement of disabled individuals from levels of participation and experience, afforded to “normative” bodies (those possessing “normal” brains). Thus Whale’s adaptation suppresses audience sympathy for the monster because his abnormal brain obviates the necessity for contemplation of societal misgivings which may lead the “abnormal” or deviant to criminal activities. As Pimatuan points out, visitors to the Frankenstein exhibition (a venue to promote Whale’s filmic adaptation) could view the “Poster of Brains of Criminals” which was illustrated by Harry H. Laughlin for the Second International Exhibition of Eugenics in 1921.
The scene of creation in Whale’s adaptation is a noteworthy addition to Shelley’s narrative that is itself a discourse on disabled bodies. Prior to the commencement of the experiment that will give his creation life, Frankenstein deridingly remarks to the onlookers (still annoyed at Victor Moritz’s assertion that he is inhuman and crazy), “one man crazy, three very sane spectators”, giving credence to the aforementioned idea that the gaze or view of the spectator presupposes a healthy observer while those who are the object of the gaze are inherently flawed and diseased. The creation scene disseminates (or perhaps inseminates) the idea that cognitive deficiencies are visible on the body. Shelley resists this cultural tendency to link physiognomy and psychology, particularly when constructing differently enabled characters. After the creation scene Whale uses the camera to direct the collective gaze of viewers onto Frankenstein’s creature. The close up of Frankenstein’s monster, with its idiotic, half-averted stare, gives the audience the opportunity to place themselves individually in the role of single spectator and therefore wielder of the medical or clinical gaze. From this privileged position, a data-gathering tool or a nonverbal communication technique, the audience is trained to become careful observers of patient signs and symptoms. This position of authority, Anolik argues, allows the viewer to “draw upon their social power to create and replicate categories that contain and exclude others who do not fit into rationally and scientifically constructed notions of what is healthy, and thereby human” (5).
Frankenstein’s creation in Shelley’s novel is an articulate, well-read, rational being that largely becomes a product and reflection of its society-- calloused and inured through repeated neglect and isolation. The decision by Whale to make Frankenstein’s creature, a dumb and grunting brut is one which is perhaps necessitated by the visual medium in which it is reproduced, but one that significantly alters the discourse of Shelley’s narrative concerning society’s role in the creature’s recidivist behavior. Whale’s decision to present the creature as a threat to the general population instead of one with a personal vendetta against his creator’s family, is also a choice by Whale that reflects the anxieties surrounding the disabled in the post-World War I Eugenics era. This movement from the private to the public from Shelley’s narrative to Whale’s adaptation is one indicator of how disability was gradually transformed from a private family/community affair where bodies broke down, evinced human vulnerability and interdependence of human lives, into a national scourge that had to be sequestered and ultimately ejected from a shared hereditary pool called the “national stock” (Snyder 180). The “national stock” would later become an integral and ubiquitous term in the rhetoric of the Nazi party.
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