In his famous essay ‘The Dialectic of Fear’ (published in New Left Review #136, Nov-Dec 1982) Franco Moretti used Marxist and Psychoanalytic criticism to provide a coruscating account of the twin monsters of bourgeois culture: Dracula and Frankenstein.
The entire essay is well worth reading and is findable online if you hunt about. Here are some of the best bits about Frankenstein (the book):
Like the proletariat, the monster is denied a name and an individuality. He is the Frankenstein monster; he belongs wholly to his creator (just as one can speak of ‘a Ford worker’). Like the proletariat, he is a collective and artificial creature. He is not found in nature, but built. Frankenstein is a productive inventor-scientist…). Reunited and brought back to life in the monster are the limbs of those – the ‘poor’ – whom the breakdown of feudal relations has forced into brigandage, poverty and death. Only modern science – this metaphor for the ‘dark satanic mills’ – can offer them a future. It sews them together again, moulds them according to its will and finally gives them life, But at the moment the monster opens its eyes, its creator
draws back in horror: ‘by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; . . . How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe . . . ?’
Between Frankenstein and the monster there is an ambivalent, dialectical relationship, the same as that which, according to Marx, connects capital with wage-labour. On the one hand, the scientist cannot but create the monster: ‘often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion’. On the other hand, he is immediately afraid of it and wants to kill it, because he realizes he has given life to a creature stronger than himself and of which he cannot henceforth be free. … The fear aroused by the monster, in other words, is the fear of one who is afraid of having ‘produced his own gravediggers’.
‘Race of devils’: this image of the proletariat encapsulates one of the most reactionary elements in Mary Shelley’s ideology. The monster is a historical product, an artificial being: but once transformed into a ‘race’ he re-enters the immutable realm of Nature. He can become the object of an instinctive, elemental hatred; and ‘men’ need this hatred to counterbalance the force unleashed by the monster. So true is this that racial discrimination is not superimposed on the development of the narrative but springs directly from it: it is not only Mary Shelley who wants to make the monster a creature of another race, but Frankenstein himself. Frankenstein does not in fact want to create a man (as he claims) but a monster, a race. He narrates at length the ‘infinite pains and care’ with which he had endeavoured to form the creature; he tells us that ‘his limbs were in proportion’ and that he had ‘selected his features as beautiful’.
I was watching The Bride of Frankenstein yesterday; appreciating the fact that James Whale invented the self-analysing comic horror film decades before Wes Craven thought it would be tremendously cute to have characters in a slasher film talk about the narrative rules of slasher films.
At one point, the insane, camp, gin-swigging Dr Pretorius (played by the ridiculously watchable Ernest Thesiger) shows Frankenstein (Colin Clive) his collection of creations: tiny people that Pretorius grew from cultures and… well, it’s pretty much indescribable. Watch it for yourself. If you’ve never seen it, you need to.
It isn’t explicitly said, but clearly both Pretorius and Frankenstein anticipate (the former with relish and the latter with fear) the breeding of a new race. Pretorius, for all his campness and his disdain for every human female he meets, seems interested in the breeding potential of these creations of science.
Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s monster turns out to have survived the first film and, having learned to talk, expresses his demand for a “friend”… by which he is taken to mean a woman with whom he can mate, though he doesn’t express this desire himself. What the children of Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester would have looked like is odd enough to contemplate by itself, without imagining babies with cuboid heads and electrified, badger-striped hairdos.
It got me thinking about the origins of the novel Frankenstein. I don’t mean all that stuff that’s supposed to have gone down at the Villa Diodati, which is depicted at the opening of Bride of Frankenstein as an arch costume drama, rather than the hazy blur of bullshitting and indolence and copping off that it probably was. I mean the work and influence of Luigi Galvani, who suggested in 1791 that electricity was an innate property of animal life, and that it might even be the “vital force”… supposedly after noticing the legs of a dead frog kicking when he touched the nerves with his scapel during a lightning storm. (I’m told he was searching for the testicles, having formed the theory that frogs kept them in their legs.) Galvani’s conclusions about animal electricity were flawed and were superceded by Volta, but ‘galvanism’ caught on as an idea. And as morbid, gothic entertainment. Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini became something of a hit, giving demonstrations of how dead bodies could be made to react to electrical charges.
In one famous incident in 1803, Aldini had the corpse of a just-hanged murderer, George Foster, brought from Newgate to the Royal College of Surgeons, where he electocuted the body, causing its jaw to twitch and one of its eyes to open. When Aldini probed its rectum, the body is said to have arched and kicked and raised its fist as though in fury. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? This was one of many such experiments carried out by many scientists at the time. There was another guy who claimed to have briefly reanimated some decapitated kittens. …