Academic journal article Essays in Literature

On the Sublime and Beautiful in Shelley's 'Frankenstein.' (English Woman Author Mary Shelley)

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

On the Sublime and Beautiful in Shelley's 'Frankenstein.' (English Woman Author Mary Shelley)

Article excerpt

The categories of the sublime and the beautiful were once the subject of heated debate as the dual focus of much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century aesthetic discourse. Their function in Shelley's Frankenstein needs to be translated for our time, a task Anne K. Mellor has begun in her excellent and comprehensive work. I present an alternative to Mellor's reading of the sublime and the beautiful in Frankenstein, taking particular exception to her conclusion that the text represents Shelley's "affirmation of the beautiful over the sublime" (Approaches 104) and identification of "moral virtue with the aesthetics of beauty" (Shelley 126). I see, on the contrary, a critique of beauty in Frankenstein on aesthetic and ethical grounds, the theoretical foundation for which can be found in Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman.(1) In an often overlooked subtext of Frankenstein, the aesthetics of the beautiful works to enslave women and secure their dependence on men as objects of exchange under patriarchal domination. In the book's primary plot, society's valorization of the beautiful is responsible for the monster's abandonment and abusive treatment, fueling his bitterness and murderous rage. The sublime settings in the text, on the other hand, provide a space where the marginalized can be heard. In contrast to the power of beauty, which works to contain and maintain social distinctions and hierarchies, the sublime in Frankenstein opens the way for the excluded to challenge the dominant discourse. Shelley's critique of Victor's fanatic hubris in the face of nature's sublimity is not to be understood as a moral affirmation of the beautiful over the sublime.

Victor sets Frankenstein's bloody plot into motion when he rejects the being he had worked so hard to bring to life. This curious scene in the book is cursorily treated by Victor in his narration. He finally succeeds in bringing the creature to life, then he bolts, "unable," he says, "to endure the aspect of the being" he had created. The creature is "ugly," a "thing such as even Dante could not have conceived" (56-57). This is justification enough for Victor's decision to abandon the helpless one, as it is for all the subsequent abuse inflicted upon the creature. He is shot at and stoned. Even the virtuous Felix De Lacey cannot resist the urge to beat him viciously with a stick. Frankenstein's angelic little brother William responds to the creature's advances with cries of "monster," "ogre," and "ugly wretch" (136). Only the blind De Lacey is able to treat the creature with any kindness. After Victor has to listen to the creature's pathetic tale of suffering, he begins to feel some compassion and briefly entertains "a wish to console him." But these feelings quickly turn to "horror and hatred," when he looks again at the creature and sees the "filthy mass that moved and talked" (140). "Begone! Relieve me from the sight of your detested form," Victor cries when he first meets the monster face to face on the mountain top.

The creature places his hands over Victor's face saying, "Thus I relieve thee, my creator . . . thus I take from thee a sight which you abhor" (97). The only character in the book to speak out against the injustice of having one's worth determined solely on the basis of one's physical appearance is the monster. He protests to Walton:

Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me? Why do you not hate Felix, who drove his friend from his door with contumely? Why do you not execrate the rustic who sought to destroy the saviour of his child? Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings! I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice. (210)

Faced with the "barbarity of man," the monster despairs of ever being accepted into the human community. "The human senses," he laments, "are insurmountable barriers to our union" (102, 138). …

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