An Exercise in Literary Deconstruction: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I am by no means an expert in deconstruction, nor a conscious enacter of deconstructionist readings of literary texts, but I recently experimented with deconstruction for a master’s level class on literary theory that I am teaching. The rudimentary results of my project are presented below, in a cross-post from my class blog Theories of Literature and Culture. The painting above is by one of my favorite romantic painters, Casper David Friedrich.

An Exercise in Literary Deconstruction: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

By Christopher Conway

Deconstruction in literary studies assumes that meaning and representation are a function of displacement, contradiction, multiplicity and deferral. Often, deconstruction in literary criticism works through the identification of binaries or oppositions and then by their dissolution or displacement through critical practice. What might appear to be singular, fixed, centered or meaningful becomes slippery, elusive and plural.

In theory handbooks, deconstruction is often summarized, encapsulated and historicized, but it is rarely practiced in such a way to clearly illustrate its application as an approach to a literary text. The comments that follow are my attempt to perform such an illustration of deconstruction. The analysis that follows is an exercise, rather than a finished product or argument.

For my experiment, I have chosen the opening paragraphs of Frankenstein. Here they are, I quote them in full:

“I am by birth a Genevese; and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic. My ancestors had been for many years counsellors and syndics; and my father had filled several public situations with honour and reputation. He was respected by all who knew him for his integrity and indefatigable attention to public business. He passed his younger days perpetually occupied by the affairs of his country; a variety of circumstances had prevented his marrying early, nor was it until the decline of life that he became a husband and the father of a family.

As the circumstances of his marriage illustrate his character, I cannot refrain from relating them. One of his most intimate friends was a merchant, who, from a flourishing state, fell, through numerous mischances, into poverty. This man, whose name was Beaufort, was of a proud and unbending disposition, and could not bear to live in poverty and oblivion in the same country where he had formerly been distinguished for his rank and magnificence. Having paid his debts, therefore, in the most honourable manner, he retreated with his daughter to the town of Lucerne, where he lived unknown and in wretchedness. My father loved Beaufort with the truest friendship, and was deeply grieved by his retreat in these unfortunate circumstances. He bitterly deplored the false pride which led his friend to a conduct so little worthy of the affection that united them. He lost no time in endeavouring to seek him out, with the hope of persuading him to begin the world again through his credit and assistance.

Beaufort had taken effectual measures to conceal himself; and it was ten months before my father discovered his abode. Overjoyed at this discovery, he hastened to the house, which was situated in a mean street, near the Reuss. But when he entered, misery and despair alone welcomed him. Beaufort had saved but a very small sum of money from the wreck of his fortunes; but it was sufficient to provide him with sustenance for some months, and in the meantime he hoped to procure some respectable employment in a merchant’s house. The interval was, consequently, spent in inaction; his grief only became more deep and rankling when he had leisure for reflection; and at length it took so fast hold of his mind that at the end of three months he lay on a bed of sickness, incapable of any exertion.

His daughter attended him with the greatest tenderness; but she saw with despair that their little fund was rapidly decreasing, and that there was no other prospect of support. But Caroline Beaufort possessed a mind of an uncommon mould; and her courage rose to support her in her adversity. She procured plain work; she plaited straw; and by various means contrived to earn a pittance scarcely sufficient to support life.

Several months passed in this manner. Her father grew worse; her time was more entirely occupied in attending him; her means of subsistence decreased; and in the tenth month her father died in her arms, leaving her an orphan and a beggar. This last blow overcame her; and she knelt by Beaufort’s coffin, weeping bitterly, when my father entered the chamber. He came like a protecting spirit to the poor girl, who committed herself to his care; and after the interment of his friend, he conducted her to Geneva, and placed her under the protection of a relation. Two years after this event Caroline became his wife”

The first thing I will endeavour to do is identify any apparent contrasts or conceptual oppositions that may suggest a stable, coherent or centered construction of meaning. (We know that deconstructive approaches to literature are suspicious of such constructs or constructions of meaning, so finding them will facilitate our work as deconstructionists greatly.)

I notice that there is, indeed, a binary in this opening passage. There seems to be an opposition between a man-of-state (a character who will turn out to be Mr. Frankenstein Sr., the father of the narrative “I” who speaks in the passage) and a man-of-commerce, Mr. Beaufort, who turns out to be the grandfather, on the maternal line, of the same narrator.

Mr. Frankenstein Sr. is a distinguished man of public affairs. Note the use of the words public, honor and reputation to establish his identity, as well as the suggestion that his power is also a function of geneaology: “My ancestors had been for many years counsellors and syndics…” etc. Clearly this is a great man, the member of a long line of great men who have served Geneva well. He’s doing quite well, there’s no trouble with him at the outset.

Mr. Beaufort, however, seems to be a less fortunate case, and perhaps a study in contrast with Mr. Frankenstein. Unlike Frankenstein Sr., he is not a man-of-state or public affairs. He is a man of commerce, a merchant, whose fortunes are tied to the vagaries of capitalism, lending and the market. He is described as being proud and having “an unbending disposition”. But is he really that different than Frankenstein? He has a “flourishing state…rank and magnificence” and he is also described as quite honorable for squaring away his debts.

My first deconstructionist move, then, may be to suggest that though it may appear that we see a contrast or antagonism between the affairs of state and the affairs of commerce, these two concepts actually interact in ways that are more complex than a simple opposition would suggest. For one thing, Mr. Beaufort may be seen as essentially the same as Mr. Frankenstein (for having honor, rank, state), and as such, his ruin destabilizes the apparently natural success of Mr. Frankenstein as a man-of- state. We may be led to believe that Mr. Frankenstein’s influence and stature springs from his commitment to the public life, or a family tradition of public service, but really, his power is only a function of money and circumstance. What is naturalized in the first paragraph, family honor as linked to tradition and public service, is destabilized or decentered by the phantom of another Mr. Frankenstein, a man of great power, rank and honor, who through a series of accidents (‘mischances’) becomes ruined and impoverished. That other Mr. Frankenstein is Mr. Beaufort, who at first may seem like a kind of opposite, the man-of-money to Mr. Frankenstein’s man-of-service. Indeed, what does Mr. Frankenstein do when he seeks out Mr. Beaufort to rescue him? He wants to persuade him to “begin the world again through his credit.” The man-of-state, of service, whom we may consider at first as distinct from the world of commerce represented by Mr. Beaufort, now seeks to become a money-lender to help his friend. Can we really call Mr. Frankenstein a public servant vis-à-vis a comparison with Mr. Beaufort? It would appear, then, that this apparent binary of man-of-state versus man of commerce does not hold up.  Through these moves, we undermine (some would say ‘deconstruct’) certain essences or associations that hold one kind of identity (public servant) as being superior to or distinct from another (merchant).

One of the more fascinating ways of exploring the start of Frankenstein is to think about gender and gender roles. The authorial “I” stakes a claim to identity by writing, in the first line: “I am by birth a Genevese; and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic.” By doing so, he effectively lays claim to the story of his father, that man-of-state who is a product of a geneaology of great public servants. Mr. Beaufort is the narrator’s grandfather, and his financial ruin results in a secondary status as a father-figure. In other words, our narrator, Victor Frankenstein, defines himself vis-à-vis his father (the success story) and not through his grandfather (the failure). The obvious explanation of this is that Victor Frankenstein privileges patrilineality over matrilineality. So it would appear that we are faced with another binary, one that powerfully orders the terms of father, grandfather, mother, etc., into a meaningful matrix.

But now that we have our target, a centered, apparently stable set of structures (patrilineality versus matrilineality), and a set of categories of meaning (mother, father, etc.), we can go to work and see if it all holds together or not. Please note the age difference between Mr. Frankenstein Sr. and the orphaned Ms. Beaufort. Also, note how he takes a “protective role” over her, as if he were a surrogate father to her. In this frame, Ms. Beaufort becomes Mr. Frankenstein’s surrogate daughter and a sister to Victor, as opposed to a mother-figure. If we hold to this logic, Mr. Beaufort, rather than being a grandfather to Victor, becomes like a second father. The terms mother, father, grandfather, brother and son thus begin to lose integrity and change places. Their meanings are displaced and exchanged between one another in ways that cannot be resolved or finalized with ease. This kind of instability is also in evidence when Mr. Beaufort’s illness is described in the arc of a ten month period of convalescence culminating in death. Beginning at three months, he becomes prostrated, and at ten, he dies, birthing an orphan, his own care-giver daughter. In other words, Mr. Beaufort’s illness is a kind of pregnancy that incapacitates him, he is like a mother of sorts to his own daughter. It would seem, then, that conceptual categories related to family identity are destabilized in the narrative, leading to a blending of them, leading to a deferral or flickering from one positionality to another. There is not a single father, or mother in these opening paragraphs, but a series of signifieds that elusively exchange, transfer and postpone a singular, stable definition. In other words, the meaning of such terms is plural, not stable or singular.

Should we continue reading Frankenstein, we could continue to try to identify the illusion of ordered meaning and subvert it through analysis that demonstrates that words and concepts are, to a certain degree interchangeable, or ever-changing in their meaning, depending on their context within a sentence or paragraph or chapter. We could continue branching out our analysis and noting an ever-expanding network of possibilities for understanding the meaning of certain concepts.

If we were inclined toward psychoanalysis, we could easily take these opening paragraphs of Frankenstein and pursue their analysis toward a place of stable, predictable models and conclusions: the Oedipal or Electra complex, the castration complex, etc. In so doing, we would have left the territory of post-structuralism and deconstruction into something quite different. That’s not what this exercise has been about, however, and I will leave it to another to explore it.

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