The Political Geography of Horror in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein [View in PDF]
ELH - Volume 70, Number 2, Summer 2003, pp. 465-491 – Article
ELH 70.2 (2003) 465-491
Access provided by Webster University
[Access article in PDF]
The Political Geography of Horror in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Fred V. Randel
The monster who startles unsuspecting victims in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein by his sudden and fatal appearance seems to them to come from nowhere. He steps out of the placeless space of our most terrifying nightmares. For many fans of the novel and its filmic adaptations, the murders of Frankenstein are likewise situated in a shadowy land of Gothic fantasy and thrill-provoking manipulations of our unconscious. Thanks to recent scholarship, however, many of the historicities of Frankenstein—its interactions with French Revolutionary era discourses about gender, race, class, revolution, and science—are now as recognizable to informed readers as its psychodrama. 1 But we have only begun to decipher the significance of the geography of this novel, the rationale for setting its horrors in particular places, arranged in a specific sequence. Franco Moretti's Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 argues that "in modern European novels, what happens depends a lot on where it happens," but omits Frankenstein from his analysis. 2 Does it really matter that William Frankenstein dies at Plainpalais, Justine Moritz and Alphonse in or near Geneva, Elizabeth at Evian, and Henry Clerval in Ireland? Does Victor's trip through England and Scotland serve any purpose except to evoke personal memories of Mary and Percy Shelley? Why does the novel begin and end in Russia and the Arctic?
Mary Shelley inherited a usage of the Gothic that, in contrast with the expectations of many modern readers, foregrounded history and geography. As Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall have shown, Renaissance humanists used "Gothic" to refer scornfully to the architecture of northern European barbarians (as they viewed them), with particular reference to the Germanic and the medieval, but late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English Protestant writers typically set their "Gothic" fictions in Catholic southern Europe, while keeping the term's crucial association with the archaic and oppressive. 3 "Gothic," therefore, was implicated in shifting regionalist, [End Page 465] nationalist, and sectarian mythologies, but it was characteristically used to align the author and reader with the supposedly enlightened, against the anachronistic and benighted. "The present study," Robert Mighall writes, "will challenge the notion that settings in the Gothic are its most dispensable properties, by observing how various historical and political factors help to shape the narrative material and determine those settings." He excludes Frankenstein, however, from the history of Gothic and from his own treatment, on the ground that its greatest horrors are the product of enlightenment and a projected futurity rather than "legacies from the past." 4 I suggest, by contrast, that Mary Shelley's novel is an astute extension and complication of the political geography of Gothic, as applied to the spread of revolutionary ideas, and revolution itself, in Europe and beyond since the mid-seventeenth century. She complicates the Gothic fear of being pulled back into a despotic past by exposing the despotic residue which, in her view, can shadow—but not stop—a potentially liberating, progressive process. At a time when the Congress of Vienna had just given official status to a reactionary interpretation of the French revolutionary era and a reactionary reconstitution of Europe as a whole, Mary Shelley imagines a liberal alternative through the geographical subtext of a European Gothic fiction. She anticipates Percy Bysshe Shelley's "A Philosophical View of Reform" (1819) by opting for an international and comparatist frame of reference, invoking a relatively long-range perspective, and urging the need for the dominant forces of society to abandon Restoration intransigence in favor of fundamental reform—a liberal version of enlightenment—as the only alternative to the spread of violent revolution. 5
I. Ingolstadt and Northern Ice
Lee Sterrenburg first showed why Mary Shelley chose Ingolstadt in Bavaria, as the place where Victor Frankenstein brought the monster to life. 6 An influential ultraconservative cleric, the Abbé Augustin Barruel, whose Memoirs, Illustrating the History of Jacobinism Mary and Percy read on their honeymoon, had claimed that the French Revolution was the product of a conspiracy of intellectuals originating in that university town. The novel's indebtedness to Barruel is even more extensive than Sterrenburg suggested. When Adam Weishaupt founded a secret society called the "Illuminees" at Ingolstadt on 1 May 1776, he "formed a monstrous digest," in Barruel's words, of the various kinds of subversive thinking [End Page 466] already current in the Enlightenment, much as Victor Frankenstein combines an assortment of body parts to form his monster. 7 Like Victor, Weishaupt led a double life at the University of Ingolstadt: distinguishing himself in respectable academic pursuits while secretly, in the privacy of his rooms, pursuing an invisible project. Both men took intellectual shortcuts: Weishaupt, unable to endure delay, recruited disciples by pretending to have a new "code of laws" that he had not yet formulated, while Victor Frankenstein makes an eight-foot giant, rather than a creature of normal human size, for the same reason (81; vol. 1, chap. 3). Weishaupt's secret society then infiltrated the Freemasons, penetrated France, enlisted the Duke of Orléans, and spawned the Jacobins, "that disastrous monster" which would wreak "days of horror and devastation." But the details of the conspiracy's growth are as mysterious as the comings and goings of Frankenstein's creature: "The monster has taken its course through wildernesses, and darkness has more than once obscured its progress." 8 This sentence, remarkably, is Barruel's, not Mary Shelley's, although it would, except for its neuter pronoun, be as suitable in the novel. No killing occurred at Ingolstadt in either version, but the monster formed in that place eventually causes multiple killings elsewhere. In borrowing from Barruel, Mary Shelley accepts his metaphoric equivalence between the French Revolution and a monster, together with his assumption that ideas can have profound social and political consequences. She also assimilates Barruel's suggestion that the conspiratorial secrecy and deceptiveness in which the monster was formed foreshadow major flaws in its socialization. But she adds a sympathy for the monster and an entrance into his thought-processes wholly lacking in the Abbé's diatribe against the Enlightenment and revolutionary change. She uses a conservative text as a sourcebook for political geography but without accepting its ideology.
Rather than constituting an exception, her method in treating Ingolstadt instantiates her systematic procedure in this novel. For example, her creature not only shares a birthplace with the French Revolution, but also a scene of putative endings. St. Petersburgh is the address from which Walton sends off his first letter on the first page of the novel, and St. Petersburgh was understood to be Napoleon's initial destination in his fateful Russian campaign of 1812. 9 The novel's subtitle—"The Modern Prometheus"—would have invoked Napoleonic associations for a contemporary audience. As Paulson observes, "Napoleon was associated with Prometheus by Byron and his own propaganda machine." 10 Victor's pursuit of the [End Page 467] monster across Russia, as "the snows thickened, and the cold increased in a degree almost too severe to support" (227; vol. 3, chap. 7), would recall for readers in 1818 the Napoleonic army's desperate retreat from Moscow by a northern route as a severe early winter began in November 1812: "The Russian winter, which began on the 7th with deep snow, greatly added to their difficulties and sufferings, and their bulletins acknowledge the loss of many men by cold and fatigue in their night bivouackings." Victor, like the Grand Army, forages for food, and lacks the Russian natives' ability to endure the temperature: "amidst cold that few of the inhabitants could long endure, and which I, the native of a genial and sunny climate, could not hope to survive" (228; vol. 3, chap. 7). The "sledge" (57; vol. 1, letter 4), chosen by Victor and later by the monster for transportation (228; vol. 3, chap. 7), repeats the vehicle reportedly used by Napoleon when he left his army in Russia and headed secretly back to Paris: he "set off in a single sledge under the title of the Duke of Vicenze." 11
The French army was never trapped amidst ice floes in the Arctic like Victor, his creature, and the men on Walton's ship. But the atmosphere of baffled movement, wintry disorientation, and despair which envelops the novel's characters is a figurative counterpart to the plight of Napoleon's retreating forces. A celebrated account of the latter, published in France in 1824, supports the connection. The Count de Ségur, Napoleon's Quartermaster-General on the Russian Campaign of 1812, invokes the metaphor of a ship on a sea of ice to describe the French decision to throw into a Russian lake the trophies of the conquest of Moscow: "There was no longer any question of adorning or embellishing our lives, but merely of saving them. In this shipwreck, the army, like a great vessel tossed by the most violent storm, was throwing overboard on a sea of ice and snow everything that might encumber it or delay its progress." 12 Although Mary Shelley could not have read Ségur when she wrote the 1818 Frankenstein, she and the Count were drawn to similar symbolic seascapes to represent the same momentous historical events.
Against the novel's final setting of Northern ice, one contrasting image has striking force: the monster's planned suicide by fire on the book's final two pages. The comparable historical image is the burning of Moscow by the Russians, as the Napoleonic army prepared to settle into it for winter quarters. 13 The monster's announced motive—that his "remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch, who would create such another as I have been" (243; vol. 3, chap. 7)—resembles the Russian action insofar as it [End Page 468] immolates something priceless of one's own to deny use of it to another. The novel is not proposing that the monster represents the anti-Napoleonic forces of the Czar. Rather, the creature's trajectory from birth in Ingolstadt to death by fire, amidst Northern ice, is a figure for the history of the French Revolution. Not only Napoleon's victorious career, but also the revolutionary age itself seemed to have met its fatal blow in the flames of Moscow and the consequent retreat. With the Grand Army now severely reduced in size and morale, Napoleon's days were numbered. His message in this period was the same as the monster's inscription on trees and stone: "My reign is not yet over" (226; vol. 3, chap. 7). But for the Emperor of the French, the end was in sight. The dominant powers, which had assembled at the Congress of Vienna, sought to convince the world that the French Revolution itself was now finally over.
But was it? In the novel's last line, the monster is "lost in darkness and distance," producing a sense of obscurity and open possibility, rather than certainty. The monster's inscription echoes beyond Napoleon's fate to suggest the possible return of revolutionary violence. The novel uses the idea of a recently completed French revolutionary history as a point of departure for a sustained confrontation with the international legacy of revolution, including its promise, its violence, its possible continuance, and its geographical emplacement.
For the Byron-Shelley circle, Geneva was above all the city of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the deeply flawed but uniquely prophetic and instigative intellectual father of the French Revolution. During the sojourn of Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley there in 1816, they read and wrote about him extensively. Geneva was also the site of actual revolutionary events in both 1768 and 1794. Mary's three and a half months in and near the city gave her an incentive to read about its history and an opportunity to draw upon the living memory of natives and long-time residents. Frankenstein puts this geographically specific material to use.
Frankenstein's monster commits his first murder—the killing of Victor's youngest brother, William—just outside the ramparts of Geneva in Plainpalais (98-99, 102-3; vol. 1, chap. 6), to which Mary had attributed political significance in History of a Six Weeks' Tour: [End Page 469]
To the south of the town is the promenade of the Genevese, a grassy plain planted with a few trees, and called Plainpalais. Here a small obelisk is erected to the glory of Rousseau, and here (such is the mutability of human life) the magistrates, the successors of those who exiled him from his native country, were shot by the populace during that revolution, which his writings mainly contributed to mature, and which, notwithstanding the temporary bloodshed and injustice with which it was polluted, has produced enduring benefits to mankind, which all the chicanery of statesmen, nor even the great conspiracy of kings, can entirely render vain. From respect to the memory of their predecessors, none of the present magistrates ever walk in Plainpalais. 14
Both Frankenstein's creature and revolution engage in "temporary bloodshed and injustice," which readily invite a response of wholesale condemnation. That is precisely the response given to the Genevese political executions in the source most readily available to an English reader of the early nineteenth century: Francis d'Ivernois's A Short Account of the Late Revolution in Geneva. 15 Ivernois, like Barruel, was an emigré who had settled in England, but unlike the Abbé, he had credentials as a political moderate: a supporter of the Genevese revolutionary settlement of 1768, he was the principal historian of that earlier revolution, in which his father had been a major participant. In an emigré society of monarchists, the younger Ivernois was a republican who supported a somewhat extended franchise, but he thought universal suffrage inevitably caused mob rule. He was entrusted by the Genevese government with negotiating a treaty with France, when Geneva was under siege by a French army in 1792. In July 1794, while Maximilien Robespierre was at his height of power, an uprising occurred in Geneva, instigated partly by France and partly by disenfranchised residents of the city-state. A Revolutionary Tribunal now preempted the constitutional government. Under the influence of intimidation by "the savage multitude," and without credible judicial proceedings or evidence of violation of law, according to Ivernois, the Tribunal executed eleven persons, including at least four magistrates, two of whom were ex-syndics or presidents of Geneva. Ivernois sums up these events—including the executions which Mary Shelley links to Plainpalais and to William's murder—as a "work of horror" or "horrors." 16 Mary Shelley, whose only son at the time was also a child named William, registers the horror; in that sense, she is no apologist for murder. But she refuses to demonize the revolution or the monster: the first, she claims "has brought enduring [End Page 470] benefits to mankind," and the second, she gives a sympathetic hearing on the basis of Rousseau's revolutionary philosophy.
Plainpalais is the site of a monument to "the glory of Rousseau," whose "writings mainly contributed to mature" the revolution of France as well as Geneva. By locating the novel's first murder at a spot consecrated to the memory of the prophet of revolution, situated just outside the city where he was born and bearing its own history of revolutionary bloodshed, Mary Shelley establishes an equation between the monster's murders and revolutionary violence. Although some recent critics position this novel in a conservative direction, her explicit ruminations about Plainpalais suggest otherwise. 17Frankenstein itself is sympathetic to the monster of revolution and, as David Marshall and James O'Rourke have shown, is pervaded by the philosophy and literary precedent of Rousseau. 18 Even the murder of the child William is seen through a largely Rousseauvian lens. Following the Genevese philosopher's revolutionary premise, that all human beings are naturally good, Mary Shelley claims that the monster is naturally good as well, but society has imposed its evil ways upon him. 19 As in Rousseau's state of nature, the creature's first feeling toward others is pity: he stops stealing food from the De Laceys "when I found that by doing this I inflicted pain on the cottagers," and he gathers wood for their fire to save them labor (137; vol. 2, chap. 4). When his first effort to tell his story is brought to a traumatic end with an unmerited beating by Felix De Lacey, he refrains from striking back though "I could have torn him limb from limb" (160; vol. 2, chap. 7). He saves the life of a "young girl" who has fallen into a stream, only to be shot by her male companion (165; vol. 2, chap. 8). Biased people torment him solely because of his appearance, but he has still not harmed or sought to harm any of them, and he yearns for acceptance in some kind of social unit. He concludes that his only chance for a friend is to talk to a child who is "unprejudiced" because society has not yet corrupted him (166; vol. 2, chap. 8). Young William, however, turns out to be already the product of an artificial and malignant society: he labels the creature with visual stereotypes—"monster," "ugly wretch," and "ogre"—and pulls social rank upon him by insisting that his father is "a Syndic" (167; vol. 2, chap. 8). The creature is finally stained by the social evil that already infects William. By killing the boy, he shows the extremity of social wrong that surrounds him, and he illustrates the need in the novel's implied system of values for profound social and political change, in the direction of greater inclusiveness. But he [End Page 471] never ceases to have a core of natural goodness, as his final remarks about his persistent craving for "love and fellowship" attest (243).
Before committing his first murder, the creature resorts on one occasion to violence of a lesser kind. When he learns that he will never get a second chance to try to gain the friendship of the De Laceys because they have permanently abandoned the cottage in fright, he burns the unoccupied structure down at night (163; vol. 2, chap. 8). This episode bears a striking resemblance to a famous event in the revolutionary history of Geneva. In January 1768 the city faced a constitutional crisis, as the patricians who controlled the Small Council were locked in dispute with the General Council of Burghers about the respective rights of each body and how restrictively citizenship should be defined. One night a public building burned to the ground, and it was believed by many that the burgher faction set the fire. The patricians agreed to a major constitutional compromise, which secured the public peace. The incinerated structure was a theater built by the patricians in defiance of the burghers' view, articulated by Rousseau in his Letter to M. d'Alembert on the Theatre (1758), that such an institution would corrupt Geneva's republican manners and morals with aristocratic decadence. 20 The first revolution in the post-Enlightenment West—and the first to bear the imprint of Rousseau—had, as one of its central events, a nighttime conflagration similar to that which Mary Shelley uses as the first act of violence by a Genevese thinker's creation. 21 A happy outcome followed in the city-state in 1768: patrician accommodation and a more inclusive political order, which lasted until royalist France imposed the reactionary Black Code on Geneva in 1782. In Frankenstein, on the other hand, continued rejectionism and exclusion make bloodshed inevitable.
William's death is followed by another: the authorities in Geneva execute the innocent servant, Justine Moritz, for the crime. This fictional miscarriage of justice is rooted in Genevese political history. The revolutionary executions in Geneva in the summer of 1794 had been swiftly followed by Robespierre's fall and execution, and the Thermidorean Reaction in Paris. Geneva too recoiled against radical excesses and sought scapegoats. Six weeks after Jacobinism seemed triumphant in Geneva, a reactivated Revolutionary Tribunal condemned four members of the radical Mountaineer faction to death although, according to Ivernois, "no positive evidence was adduced" to support the charges, and testimony was introduced implicating the judges in the crimes for which they condemned the defendants. 22 As [End Page 472] in Justine's wrongful execution, the institutional punishment for one fatal crime becomes another murder.
The only observer who behaves creditably at Justine's trial is Elizabeth Lavenza. While Victor Frankenstein remains silent, despite his knowledge of who killed William and his own responsibility for making that creature what he is, Elizabeth speaks eloquently in defense of Justine's character. But her testimony fails to overcome the "public indignation" against the defendant (111; vol. 1, chap. 7), and the guilty verdict follows. There is a precedent for this combination of male silence and admirable, though futile, female intervention amidst popular frenzy. Ivernois's account of the history of Geneva in the summer of 1794 includes this memorable episode:
One generous effort, indeed, was made by the women of Geneva (for the experiment was too hazardous for men to engage in), who, to the number of two thousand, went in a body to the Revolutionary Tribunal, to intercede for them ["the unhappy victims"]; but their tears and entreaties had no other effect, than that of exposing them to the brutal ridicule of the Judges, who ordered the fire-engines to be got ready, in order to administer what they profanely called, the rights [sic] of Civic Baptism.
Elizabeth speaks not merely for herself in Mary Shelley's book, but for a multitude of women who, in recent Genevese history, had bravely sought to inject generosity into a dehumanized political context—and who had been spurned for their efforts.
Justine's execution is, in one sense, highly untypical of Geneva's experience in 1794. Ivernois contrasts France's conduct with his own city's:
In one point indeed, and in one point only, the French are still without a rival; for out of no less than 508 persons, on whom different sentences were passed, on the late occasion, there was but one Woman, who was condemned to be imprisoned for life, for having given assistance, and forwarded letters, to some French Emigrants; and it is more than probable, that even this sentence was obtained by the influence and intrigues of the French Resident. 23
The murdered females of Frankenstein, to the extent that they represent revolutionary executions of women, point to French rather than Genevese political history. Yet Geneva does not escape responsibility since its native son, Rousseau, hovers over French as well as Genevese practice, as the monster's involvement with Justine's death [End Page 473] reveals. He admits planting on the sleeping young woman the incriminating evidence—a necklace taken from William's body—that led to her conviction (168; vol. 2, chap. 8). But he echoes Rousseau's explanation of evil by shifting the blame onto society. It had deprived him of the love of women, such as Justine, because of his appearance, and through the "lessons of Felix, and the sanguinary laws of man," it had taught him "how to work mischief" (168; vol. 2, chap. 8). Rousseau not only provides a philosophical defense, but a specific precedent for the monster's deed. When Rousseau was about nineteen years of age, he stole a pink and silver ribbon and blamed an honest, young female servant named Marion for the theft. His accusation, he believes in retrospect, probably prevented her from finding another situation, and betrayed her into a life of misery and friendlessness. 24 In occupation, gender, innocence, and unjust fate, Justine is Marion's mirror image. Rousseau professes excruciating remorse for this deed, as does Victor for his silence, but remorse fails to help the two young women. The legacy of Rousseau, including the treatment of women and the sidestepping of personal responsibility, is as Janus-faced and problematic for Mary Shelley, as it had been for her mother in Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She is much indebted to the Genevese thinker, but she seeks a more balanced and inclusive way to rectify the social wrongs that he exposes.
The last murder to occur in Geneva or its environs is that of Alphonse Frankenstein, Victor's father. He dies of an apoplectic fit, brought on by grief shortly after learning of Elizabeth's murder (220; vol. 3, chap. 6). From the point of view of political geography, the two most important things about him are, first, that he was a syndic, as William tells the monster just before his own murder (167; vol. 2, chap. 8) and, second, that his death is the indirect result of the monster's killing. Syndics were not merely high public officials, but chief executives, the apex of political authority in Geneva. Two of those executed by order of the Revolutionary Tribunal in the summer of 1794 were ex-syndics, like Alphonse, who has long since withdrawn from public life. To kill a syndic was the closest the republic of Geneva could get to the traditionally most horrendous crime of regicide, the act taken by the French National Convention in January 1793. Alphonse's death in Frankenstein carries some of the traditional aura of a ne plus ultra insofar as it is a culmination of a relentlessly murderous logic, which carries us through a sequence of victims, beginning with "W" (William) and ending with "A" (Alphonse) in consistent reverse alphabetical order. 25 But the novel rejects both [End Page 474] the traditionalist view that killing the king is the ultimate crime and the radical view that regicide is a major ingredient in achieving a just society. Alphonse's end is anticlimactic, briefly told, and lacking in the emotional force and impact on the narrative of all the other monster-caused deaths in the book. Mary Shelley rejects the hierarchical premise that society's happiness depends chiefly on the presence or absence of a king, president, or syndic. She substitutes a more egalitarian model, in which the fate of a child, a servant, or a spouse may be at least as influential.
In the lives of the novel's major characters, the natural death of Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein, Victor's mother, just outside Geneva is more consequential than the death of his father. It helps motivate Victor to master the boundary between life and death by creating the monster, and, by a dream-logic that supplements the literal narrative, it becomes the book's first murder. Victor eliminates the role of the mother in the birth which he causes in his laboratory, and immediately afterwards—as if reaping the consequences—dreams of holding his own mother's corpse in his arms (85; vol. 1, chap. 4). She had died of scarlet fever in the same chapter as, and just one paragraph before, he left home to study in an all-male environment in Ingolstadt (72-73; vol. 1, chap. 2). The demarcation of this chapter so that these two events constitute a unified textual space implies an equation between them: his abandoning female companionship and input at this point is tantamount to killing her. It is the erasure of the mother, not the killing of the father/ruler, which plunges the world of Frankenstein into catastrophe. The prototype behind this entire process is the death of one's mother after, but in a sense because of, one's own birth—an experience that happened first to Rousseau in Geneva, and later to Mary Shelley in London. These events left the surviving offspring in situations fraught with a potential for matricidal guilt. Mary Shelley responded by foregrounding the positive value of the maternal role and striving intensely throughout her life to be the kind of mother her mother wanted to be. Rousseau and Victor, by the implied value system of this novel, exacerbated their guilt: Rousseau by taking his five newborn children from their mother and abandoning them to the Foundling Hospital; Victor, his fictional counterpart, by not only eliminating the role of the mother from the birthing process, but also by repeatedly abandoning the offspring. 26 Geneva's eighteenth-century political prophet, from the point of view of Frankenstein, has been the source for all of Europe of a salutary revolutionary inspiration—and of a model of society that reinforces [End Page 475] longstanding gender-based and dehumanizing suppressions and exclusions.