Frankenstein and the Luddites

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In this article, one of our sympathisers (who posts as "Fred" on the ICC forum), makes an analysis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and relates the symbolism of this classic novel to the struggles of the working class of the time and their impact on bourgeois ideology.


Everyone has heard of Frankenstein. He is an ugly and destructive monster, concocted by his mad -scientist creator from bits of dead bodies, and beloved by Hollywood film-makers and audiences alike. Anything nasty and unpleasant, like nuclear bombs, can be referred to as "frankensteinian" ; AIDS could appropriately have been called as such.   But there's a flaw in all of this. Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley's novel published in 1818, is not the name of the monster, or "the creature" as she preferred to name it, but of the rich bourgeois medical student who manufactured  it,  after bouts of grave robbing, and whose name was Victor Frankenstein. 

A recent viewing of the film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein gave this viewer a shock. The "creature" is played by an unrecognisable ......... so ugly is his face with its stitches.   In one scene, in the depths of a very hard winter, he secretly assists a poor peasant family in whose barn he  is hiding, by pulling turnips out of the frozen ground,  which they can no longer manage themselves so hard is the frost. The creature himself has a massive strength and great reserves of energy. He leaves the turnips by their door.  They in turn place food for "the spirit of the forest".  And then it struck me. The "creature", the product of the bourgeois Victor Frankenstein's efforts, is none other than the working class.  And the whole story can be read as a myth about the creation by the bourgeoisie of the labouring class, on whom it depends, and of which it is so fearful and sees as something necessary, yes, but unpleasant, ugly, frightening and uncivilized.  Have things changed since then? (NB. A little research on the web confirms that this "Marxist" interpretation of the story has been around for some time.) 

But, if this is the case, and i think it must be, the question arises as to whether Mary Shelley knew what she  was doing, or whether the imagery of the story emerged from a subconscious response.  Well we don't know of course.  The story is set significantly in a revolutionary age at the time of the French Revolution, which was before Mary's birth.   But there were certain dramatic events nearer home during the years leading up to her story (1812-1817) that might well have put an awareness of the emergence and growing strength of the working class into her mind.  These events involved the Luddites, who doubtless struck fear into the hearts of the bourgeoisie with their machine breaking, potential for rioting, burning down buildings, and even dressing up as women in the streets. What monstrous horror it all was! What was happening to respectable society?  Did the lower classes no longer know their place?  

The bourgeoisie’s fear of the lower orders

The historian Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out that Britain had more troops fighting against the Luddites than it had fighting Napoleon in the Iberian peninsula. Parliament in Britain had a law imposing death on machine breakers, so seriously were the Luddites taken.  Byron, the poet and friend of both  Mary and Percy Shelley, in whose house they had been staying when the question of writing a horror story had first come up (Byron producing a draft of a story about Vampires - to be developed later by others into the Dracula and Vampire film industry) was moved to sympathize with the Luddites, saying they deserved pity not punishment, so miserable was their plight  as their jobs were taken over by cheaper unskilled labour using the new machine technology.  

Communists today may regret that the Luddites resorted to rioting and destruction, as not being best the way forward for the growth of proletarian solidarity and consciousness. But as Hobsbawm has also noted: there was no question of hostility to machines as such.  "Wrecking was simply a technique of trade unionism in the period before and during the early phases of the industrial revolution."   Yet such a technique may not have augured well for the development of the movement.   And then there is the question of revenge.   To lose your job is no fun, and to lose it to machinery and cheap labour an insult needing a vengeful act. Or so it can seem.  The Luddites took revenge.  The "creature", Frankenstein's monster, also takes savage revenge,on his creator and his creator's relatives.  It is truly a horror story.  But then everything involving the bourgeoisie is a horror story is it not, and even more so today? 

In The Luddites 1811-1816  Marjie Bloy writes: 

“Stocking knitting was predominantly a domestic industry, the stockinger renting his frame from the master and working in his own 'shop' using thread given to him by the master; the finished items were handed back to the master to sell.  The frames were therefore scattered round the villages; it was easy for the Luddites to smash a frame and then disappear. Between March 1811 and February 1812 they smashed about a thousand machines at the cost of between £6,000 and £10,000. In April 1812 the Luddites burned the West Houghton mill in Lancashire. Samuel Whitbread, an MP, said of the event ‘As to the persons who had blackened their faces, and disfigured themselves for the purposes of concealment, and had attended the meeting on Deanmoor, near Manchester, it turned out that ten of them were spies sent out by the magistrates... These spies were the very ringleaders of the mischief, and incited the people to acts which they would not otherwise have thought of’. [Parliamentary Debates, lst Series, Vol. 23, Col.1000, (l8l2)] The authorities were incapable of stopping the attacks so the government felt obliged to put in place special legislation.  Machine-breaking had been made a capital offence in 1721; in 1811 a special Act was passed to secure the peace of Nottingham.  At the Nottingham Assizes in March 1812, seven Luddites were sentenced to transportation for life; two others were acquitted”.

It's worth noting here that "the blackened faces" contained government spies, an historic confirmation of the great duplicity of the ruling class and their penchant for Machiavellian strategies, even at the beginnings of the workers' movement. Did they dress as women too? 

So, to return to Mary Shelley and her frankensteinian creature. Given the public activities of the Luddites, she may well have seen in her "scientifically" produced creature at least a reflection  of the emerging and if-it-did-but-know-it all powerful working class.  As the author of the novel, or perhaps as a woman, she does not find her "creature" as obnoxious as do most of the other characters in the story.  As one commentator has said: the monster is the nicest person in the book. But then if he is "the working class" and most everyone else in it is bourgeois, and pursuing somewhat selfish interests as they do, then this is no surprise.  In the middle of the novel Shelley undertakes to educate her creature, allowing him to learn to speak and then undergo a ferocious course of reading, centered largely on Milton's Paradise Lost which introduces the idea of the creature being an Adam who really requires an Eve. Perhaps what he really required was an Edward had he but known it.  But this is a complication I will not be taking up here. The story ends in the frozen Arctic wastes, where both master and slave are cremated on the same funeral pyre. The creature by choice burned alive. 

Working class, or capital itself?

You might of course interpret this story in a different manner, and see the creature not as the embodiment of the working class but as the materialized form of capitalism itself: ugly, frightening and immensely powerful. Yet even in this latter understanding the creature remains the product, the creation of the bourgeois Frankenstein; as is capitalism itself the uncontrollable and unwitting creation of the bourgeoisie as a class.  Is such ambiguity the sign of good story? 

But why is the tale so full of fear?  The creature himself is fearsome to behold; strong and inclined to violence if frustrated.  What he seeks is love and understanding; a very human requirement, and not one we would associate with unfeeling and relentless capitalism the system.  Then there is science and the scientific endeavour. It is Frankenstein's ill-considered attitude to science which allows him to invent something he comes very much to regret.  Rather like later scientific inventions such as the nuclear bomb and chemical and biological weaponry.  Is science, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, another matter to be feared?  Is the bourgeoisie always an irresponsible and immature class only capable of acting responsibly in the realm of profit pursuit where of course anything goes?  

And then there are the Luddites.  Not mentioned as such in the novel, but then neither are the bourgeoisie or working class.   Is it from the Luddites that the initial fear underpinning  the story originated?  I speculate of course.  But the Luddites were not typically working class as we understand that class now. They were an early manifestation of working class protest.  You might even see them as having aspects of terrorism in their behaviour.  They blackened their faces, cross dressed, smashed machinery and burned down factories. They doubtless instilled fear in the bourgeoisie.  Who exactly were they? What did they want? Why did they behave in such a frightening and theatrical manner?  We might compare them in some ways in their activity, to the Mau Mau in Kenya, using fear, secrecy and terrorism in pursuit of their aims, and installing an  inexpressible anxiety in their bourgeois suppressors.  But the example doesn't properly hold - the Mau Mau being an aspect of the bourgeoisie themselves, looking for national liberation, which the Luddites were certainly not - only the form of protest may be compared. 

That the creature represents Napoleon, as seen by the English bourgeoisie, is not I think one we can go along with.  Pulling turnips, living with peasants, learning to read surreptitiously, these are not things easily associated with Bony, though he was of course, through and through, a manufactured creature of the  bourgeoisie himself! 

Fred