FRANKENSTEIN 200: Of ‘Frankenstein’ and the White House

A tale born out of a ghost-story competition between Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and English poet Lord Byron, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus has exceeded 300 editions and inspired more than 90 films – in addition to hundreds of academic texts and comic books, even – over the past two centuries. The book was first published anonymously in January 1818 and continues to be cited today in conversations concerning scientific progress, ethics and sometimes, the vanity of humankind.

In this issue, Western News celebrates the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein with insights from faculty across disciplines.

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To read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at 200 is also, coincidentally, to read it one year into Donald Trump’s presidency. The novel’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, indicates the folly of a human who steals fire from the gods and assumes for himself divine power, just as Victor Frankenstein attempts to replace God by creating human life from an act of solitary will, rather than the natural means of sexual congress.

While Trump has evidenced no such ‘hands-off’ attitude toward women, he does share Victor’s hubris, practised on a larger political stage. We watch as POTUS blithely disregards the advice and experience of people around him to advance his obsessions, just as Victor Frankenstein fatally disregards his father’s advice to avoid the specious alternative sciences of the ‘Natural Philosophers.’ And, just as Trump’s ambitions leave dispossessed peoples in their wake, so too do Victor’s ambitions: his young brother William, the servant Justine, Victor’s wife Elizabeth and eventually Victor himself. All fall prey to the power-lusts of the Father-God. Frankenstein of 1818, then, gives us a window into the toxic masculinity that is so identifiable 200 years later.

The conventional Gothic trappings of Shelley’s novel tempt us to identify Victor’s toxicity, condemn it and leave it at that. Here is a man who, like so many others of the Gothic genre, shows us masculine oppression writ large.

It’s an oppressiveness eagerly targeted by contemporary women’s marches against Trump and #MeToo campaigns against sexual abuse of women. But what made Shelley’s novel so remarkable for its time is that while it insisted on condemning the misogynistic, narcissistic power Victor assumes for himself, it also made the psychology of that power-lust complicated, ambivalent and self-contesting.

Unlike male villains of today, Victor Frankenstein is interesting. He may emerge from the novel as a villain (a dead one, to be sure), and his murderous Creature may drift off on an ice floe, but the novel never stops inviting us to think about the genesis of men’s toxicities, the subtexts of desperation behind the exercise of power and the feeling of dead-endedness in all those masculine pursuits.

Frankenstein never justifies or excuses masculinity, but it does make it a subject of study.

Shelley actively resists an assumption we in this millennium sometimes embrace in our encounters with masculine toxicity ­– that any intellectual engagement beyond denunciation is somehow a betrayal of the victim, a misplaced sympathy for the devil. Shelley is concerned not only with what masculine power does, but with what masculine power is and is not. We too need to understand those nuances today.

At the most obvious level, what masculine power does in the novel is kill people: children, well-meaning friends and, perhaps most importantly, women. Indeed, the Frankenstein’s Monster of popular culture places this murdering machine within a panoply of other serial killers: Dracula, Edward Hyde, the Mummy, the Wolfman. But Shelley herself has built no such machine. It is her purpose in Frankenstein to anatomize the story’s acts of violence and masculine brutality.

Among the formative experiences that compel the Creature to murderous rage is abandonment by his father at the moment of his birth. Like the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which the Creature reads, he is a son obliged to declare war on the father who created and then rejected him. Victor’s own early interest in the origins of human life was transformed into a fatal obsession by his father’s peremptory declaration that such work is “sad trash,” an intellectual dismissal accelerating Victor towards folly while meant to protect him from it.

Well-meaning paternal toxicities continue with the Creature’s disastrous relationship with blind patriarch De Lacey, whose son Felix believes the Creature a danger to his family. That domestic toxicity (which proceeds, paradoxically, from domestic love) not only confirms the Creature’s thoroughgoing misanthropy, it prepares him for the most important moment of parental cruelty, the Father-Creator’s refusal to provide his son a wife.

In the novel’s turning point, Victor agrees to ‘father’ a bride for his Creature, but in this novel families are as toxic and dangerous as they are loving and supportive. Victor fears this next ‘child’ may be even more malign than the male or, worse still, that his monstrous son might himself become a father, whose “race of devils” would destroy the earth. Witnessing Victor create, and then wantonly destroy his female partner, the Creature vows he will kill Victor’s own bride and eventually Victor himself. Thus do responsible fathers behave and protect family.

So what does any of this have to do with reading Frankenstein in the age of Trump? Quite a bit.

When I first started teaching this novel, and Gothic novels like it, it was through the theoretical lens of Judith Butler in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To Butler, gender and sexual politics would meet a dead end if merely trying to identify power as it operated at the hands of the empowered, and to resist that power by claiming rights for the disempowered. Butler believed such categories were always too slippery and shifting. (Victor Frankenstein is in many ways a victim in Shelley’s novel, as he is the victimizer; the same can be said for the Creature and anyone within a Gothic novel’s vortices of power.) Instead, Butler suggested, we must identify the weaknesses inherent in the person expressing power, then exploit those weaknesses in the face of the person himself.

If Victor, if the Creature – and if Trump – present toxic displays of masculine power, that is because such power’s toxicity is always eating the male from the inside. Power in these cases is as much about compensating for feelings of loss of power, and for the instability that must deny it is really there.

A powerful man’s toxicity is his masculinity, his pride in what he has and his fear he has it to lose. Victor’s vanity leads to the deaths of innocent people and ultimately to his recognizing his impotence and powerlessness. It becomes Victor’s political demise, as well as his personal downfall. Might we work for the same deflation in that Modern Prometheus, Donald Trump?

Steven Bruhm is a professor in the Department of English and Writing Studies.

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Read more from the Western News celebration of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein with insights from faculty across disciplines.

Frankenstein cannot help but remain a text for our time by Wendy Pearson

Bequeathals create ‘life,’ enable research and learning by Tim Wilson

Mary Shelley warned me there’d be days like this by Tim Blackmore

Embracing the loneliness of monsters by Christopher Keep

Of Frankenstein and the White House by Steven Bruhm