Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Mediation's Sleight of Hand: The Two Vectors of the Gothic in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Mediation's Sleight of Hand: The Two Vectors of the Gothic in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Article excerpt

Frankenstein advances bipedally, oscillating in tone--one fantastically optimistic step followed by one of deep despair--an ambulation that mirrors the novel's thematic oppositions, announced, for instance, when the creature wonders about fire, "How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!" (1) Or about humans, "Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?" (89). The foundational readings of George Levine and Mary Poovey argue that with Frankenstein Shelley criticizes the Promethean ambitions of her contemporaries. Poovey writes that Shelley portrays Promethean desire "not as neutral or benevolent but as quintessentially egotistical," and concludes that, for Shelley, the imagination is "an appetite that can and must be regulated--specifically, by the give-and-take of domestic relationships." (2) Both Poovey and Levine contrast romantic values with sentimental values and position the Gothic in the mode of critique. Recently, however, Frances Ferguson seconded William St. Clair's suggestion that Percy Shelley's anonymous review of Frankenstein "be taken as an authoritative statement of what [Percy] and Mary Shelley regarded as the meaning and message of the work." (3) The review places blame not on the Promethean hero but on the arbitrariness of sentimental attachments, claiming that "[T]oo often in society, those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments, are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed, by neglect and solitude of heart, into a scourge and a curse." (4) Thus, for Percy Shelley, Frankenstein faults not romantic egoism but rather the cloistered judgments of the sentimental. These contrary readings lend credence to Lawrence Lipking's attribution of a moral ambivalence to the novel. He writes, "Should Walton give up his dreams? Should nature be left alone? Is ambition the source of evil? The novel firmly answers Yes and No." (5) But rather than a moral ambivalence, here, I argue that in Frankenstein Shelley sets a Gothicized sentimental against a Gothicized romantic in a double-directional critique. She critiques the utopian spirit in the genres of both the romantic and the sentimental by Gothicizing her two heroes, treating both Frankenstein and his creature as the fallen angels of conflicting value systems and setting the two against each other as antagonists. (6)

Except for Robert Walton, who never encounters the antagonists together alive, Frankenstein and his creature have no mediator, a sign that, although the story is cluttered with media--letters, journals, books, gestures, songs--there may in fact be no happy medium between the two. While Frankenstein is likely the most mediated novel of all time--its various incarnations slipped almost immediately away from Shelley--it has also been read by Ellen Moers, U. C. Knoepflmacher, William Veeder, Anne Mellor and others as intimately personal. (7) It began with the collaborative and competitive play of friends, and also with the solitary play of a dream. These proliferating vacillations are odd considering how much of the novel concerns middle states of being. Frankenstein ought to be the paradigmatic novel for what W. J. T. Mitchell called "medium theory." Mitchell writes that theory is "beginning always in the middle of things," (8) and his description of medium theory likewise begins in the middle, with Fredric Jameson's assertion that theory supplants philosophy "at the moment it is realized that thought is linguistic or material, and that concepts cannot exist independently of their linguistic expression." (9) To this Mitchell adds a corollary, that it is "a small step, one I'm sure Fred would assent to, to note that thought is not just 'linguistic or material' but mediated by what Raymond Williams calls material practices." (10) This small step, in fact, introduces a significant change to his medium theory. Not simply theory that operates in the middle of things, "somewhere between the general and the particular," it becomes theory that theorizes the middleness of things and the thingishness of the middle. …

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