Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) and the Democratic Spirit: How it Incorporates a Resistive Attitude
OVERVIEW/SUMMARY: Veteran Shakespeare actor Kenneth Branagh, both as director and as actor (Victor Frankenstein), follows fairly closely with Shelley's original tale of a narcissistic medical student/scientist who dares to create life from inanimate body parts despite warnings from his scientific colleagues. His creature (another veteran actor, Robert DeNiro) turns to revenge and murder after Victor abandons him and fails to create a mate for him. Victor then pursues the creature and eventually meets the ambitious, obsessive polar explorer Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn) before dying of exhaustion.
A Mob-Creature Revolts
Mary Shelley’s original text of Frankenstein presents us with an upper-class professional character who pursues his quest in separative isolation. We see a solitary man of rank and class pilfering charnel-houses and graveyards for body parts from the nameless rabble; his creature, assembled from pieces of the ignored masses, then turns on its creator with demands and on society transgressively. Victor’s creature serves as a politically somatic emblem of a Romantic-era budding democratic, sometimes militant revolutionary spirit that birthed strands of resistance to class, patriarchy, tradition, and authority that persist in and thread filmic adaptations of Frankenstein. Shelley’s possesses elements or suggestions of egalitarianism that reflect a resistive attitude toward unquestioned historical paradigms and stands as representative of democratic spirit.
Shelley’s ur-narrative positions a young patrician within a relationship toward a creature built from plebeian bodies, an aristocrat who considers the multitudes as expendables for carnal harvest. What deepens the implicit class division is Victor’s attitude toward that creation, for the aristocrat reacts to his mob-monster with revulsion and hatred; Victor engages in the process of creation with the narcissism of an isolative upper-class existence that fails to invest his lower-class crop with any dignity or respect. The creature’s rampage against Victor metaphorizes a revolt of the masses against the abuses and neglect of an aristocratic, patriarchal father-master. Symbolically, Shelley’s creature becomes a “body politic” that incorporates an upwelling spirit of the people. Displaying an unconscious attitude of class exploitation, Branagh’s Victor tells himself repeatedly that the parts are “raw materials, nothing more,” and the mob-creature repeats these words to him later on, an implicit defiant responding Voice of the classes confronting the callous attitude of the elite; the masses had become a mine for his self-centered pursuit.
The Creature's Body as "Voice of the People"
Branagh introduces components to this populist body that seem to empower the creature’s parts and infuse some dignity into the creature’s composition. In its animation, the Creature receives something approaching grassroots nourishment. In Shelley’s, Victor uses a unnamed common woman’s amniotic fluid for its unique nutritive properties ; not only do the masses provide the body with their various limbs and organs, but instill the body with the vitalizing, animative fluid of life-essence, acting as a necessary vivifying force to the creature. Assuming the lack of any aristocratic body parts in the mix, we can infer that the masses as a body not only have their own life, but generate their own life-energy apart from any societal class-hierarchy.
The creature is not a brute; Branagh adds an aesthetic dimension to his creation’s being. It is not enough that the creature have life, but enjoy a creative spirit and potentially engage in its own cultural production. The body parts of Branagh’s creature retain an organically biological, perhaps muscular memory of their former owners’ pursuits (Branagh calls them "trace" memories), for the creature asks why he can play the recorder. Its populist composition seems to have a cultural Memory that transcends body and time, the people speaking out creatively. If we regard the Branaghian creature as an amalgamation of multiple common persons, we see a collective Cultural Remembering that has survived death and previous body; the fact that it can play the recorder implies an ahistorical, deathless creative spirit in the people, passing continually with intergenerational persistence. Creature becomes cultural creator.
Even the mob has a tender side, and the creature’s aristocratic father fails to consider this possibility. DeNiro’s monster asks Victor whether it has a soul, investing his people-parts with a sensitivity that demands dignified humanity and compassionate treatment. An aristocratic Victor can only answer no, for as a patrician he has not paused to consider whether the body or the multitudes have a collective spirit. Moreover, it contemplates its own moral structure, asking whether its body parts came from good or evil beings, implicitly wondering if it is "good." As such, we see the Creature-as-crowd reflecting on its moral fiber both corporeally and metaphysically, two levels as an emblem of the people seeking out its identity as a separate Self with its own dignity. As he walks through the dusk muttering, we see him repeating words that reflect affective longing for connectedness and depth: “Father,” “Family,” “Friend.” While the Creature resists the patriarchy that is his paternal creator, along with the historical political argument of the aristocracy as the benevolent, paternalistic “parent” of a socially stratified society, the Creature soulfully yearns for Victor in speaking the Name of the Father. The Creature's body has--and is--its own vox populi.
The Creature's Body as Threat of Mob Excess
The creature’s body emblematizes a threat of the excess of democratic spirit in mob rule that menaces violence against public order. If Victor is an elite with intellect and superior education--a "good" brain, the persistent filmic trope of the creature’s damaged or defective brain creates a mob-body without governing reason, yielding to fury and destruction. The Creature's body comes alive to express rage because its aristocratic father refuses to accord it with recognition of a reified identity.
From the outset of Shelley’s, there is the menace of uncontrolled lower-class passion in the creature; Branagh’s Victor begins with the main somatic material of an enraged, anonymous plebeian who expresses a resistive, defiant attitude toward state and law with the refusal of inoculation. His adamant opposition to Dr. Waldman’s remonstrances incorporates a lower-class refusal to submit to hierarchical imposition of authority; even more, the objector denies Waldman as a representative of the government any right to subject his body inside and out to political authority. In the pauper's resistance, we might see the people's rebellion toward upper-class attempts to "improve" the body (politic) through programs not only that the governing hierarchy has created without plebeian input, but which the elite now imposes on the commons without their consent and forcefully. Even a body such as his, crippled and weak, musters enough strength to revolt against the dictates of the state with a violent deed: the damage to Waldman's law-enforcing body. Later, the man, about to hang, rejects the moral authority of the crowd as holding any power over him or his actions. As he shouts his reciprocal condemnations on the crowd, the nameless cripple has become an double emblem of resistance: a plebeian body against the overbearing state elite and the individual who presumes to himself the right to challenge traditional morality with an equal right to follow his own moral code apart from society.
An aristocratic Victor has neglected to oversee the development of the Creature's mind and reason, and its plebeian parts act of their own will and in the only way their muscles know how, unable to understand its own strength. Recalling the killing of young William, Deniro says, "You gave me these motions, but you didn't tell me how to use them." The Creature's body-Voice then expresses the mercurial instability of its inherent primal drives: "I have such love and rage in me. If I cannot have one, I shall indulge the other." Implicitly, if an upper-class mentor such as Victor cannot acknowledge the needs of its charge, the masses have the agency to act blindly against the order that has abdicated its tutelary duties.
DeNiro’s creature kills the cottagers’ landlord, mirroring 19th-century tenant uprisings against unjust landowning authority. Branagh’s representation of the multitude’s potential to explosive transgression persists. A metaphor of the commons’ political threat against a stratified Europe occurs as the mob-creature attacks the aristocratized Elizabeth and removes her heart; Shelley’s era always contained the underlying unspoken apprehension that the working-class might rise up to remove the very life-seat of the hierarchy and destroy it.
Popular unrest is always lurking in the celluloid background. Branagh portrays it repeatedly, adding a frenzied scene of public vigilantism as the infuriated mob, rejecting the right of the state to establish the mechanisms of the orderly process of law for Justine, circumvents that ruling group with its own standards of justice; if the Creature’s mob-body acts of its own accord apart from exterior restraints, the people as a body possess their own agency to rupture the bounds of reason.
Woman: Resistive in Life and Death
Shelley’s Elizabeth represents a passive female domesticity, but Shelley’s adheres faithfully to a filmic adaptative lineage through the twentieth century that empowers its Elizabeths with agency. A celluloidal Social Contract has included them as participants in decision-making where the ur-text would not have. In an interesting redux reversal of the original text, Branagh’s Elizabeth, urged to accompany Victor to Ingolstadt, actually exercises agency in the decision to remain domestic. Later, she compels Victor to reveal truth to her when, in a failure of the patriarchy, he admits, “I don’t know what to do.” Visiting Victor during the plague, she offers to help him in his research, presenting the potential of intellectual democratization in the inclusion of women into the scientific community.
She asserts agency in both life and death, immolating herself in a “doubled” resistance to the dual patriarchy of Victor and creature. Even more subtle is the amalgamated class-resistive structure of the reanimated Elizabeth-Justine woman. A working-class servant, Justine provides a torso that suggests the leaderless commons; it is the head of Elizabeth, however, who, although a plebeian yet raised as an upper-class lady, that leads in rebellion against her patriarchal patrician creator-father Victor’s demand that she pay homage to his name. Head governs, but requires the agency that is the body to move about in the autocratic paternal space that is Victor’s lab. The dual-woman becomes an emblem of two forms of resistance. As a “creature” of class who has risen to the higher ranks of society, Elizabeth is a liminality between plebeian and aristocrat that harnesses the energy of her mob-body in movement through the laboratory away from Victor’s control; moreover, as a female, she has resisted speaking The Name of the Father or submitting to Victor's patriarchal law. Branagh’s bi-class creature also reflects an immortal working-class spirit, for even in death the resistance of a somatized underclass against the hierarchical emblem of the living aristocrat does not die.
Science as Resistance: Endless Perfectibility, Democratization of Death, and the Inclusive Community
Frankenstein as an ancestor text challenges parameters of authority, especially through science. There is even a “democratization” of death as Victor continually challenges the epistemological acceptance and assumption that death is final and conquerable through the limitless horizons of scientific progress. Shelley’s contains a new trope to the effect that reanimation reflects science’s ability of what Alexis de Tocqueville called “indefinite perfectibility.” Branagh’s Victor believes that science possesses endless opportunity for advancement and improvement of human life. de Tocqueville noted of democratic societies:
[T]he image of an ideal perfection, forever on the wing, presents itself to the human
mind. Continual changes are then every instant occurring under the observation of every
man: … ; whence he infers that man is endowed with an indefinite faculty of
improvement. … [H]e tends unceasingly towards that unmeasured greatness so
indistinctly visible at the end of the long track which humanity has yet to tread.
Shelley’s reflects a modern belief that even the autocratic rule of death as a metaphysical reality over human life is not complete. Through his experiments, Victor uses science to resist death, making the body of the creature a locus of rebellion against the governance of existential limits. The people and their Collective Spirit never die.
The ur-narrative casts Victor into an isolative role, situating science with the upper-class male. Adaptive works depict science as a collegial, egalitarian activity. With Branagh, the resistive democratic spirit within science reaches a new level. Cleese’s Waldman allegedly “broke into heaven and lectured God on science” (Shelley’s). Victor and Krempe debate the finality of death, valorizing the public dialogue that the original Victor lacks. Victor sheds his isolation as Branagh cinematically compels him into a community debate on ethics and morals; Clerval survives to serve as a counterpoint perspective, with Waldman as a participant in the community until he becomes a “colleague” even after death. The Frankensteinian film corpus serves to expand the concept of “science” as an activity that not only focalizes democratic spirit and resistance to traditional paradigms of authority, but also privileges participative collaboration of the multitudes over solitary questing of superior class.
CONTRIBUTOR(S): Garrett C. Jeter (original)
de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Vol. 2. Trans. Henry Reeve. Project Gutenberg.
7 February 2013. Web. 18 February 2014.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Robert DeNiro. TriStar Pictures, 1994. DVD.