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The ceaselessness of Frankenstein, Foucault and Fitzgerald

I have never been the greatest fan of Frankenstein (1818). That is not to say that I actively dislike it; rather unfairly, I think my reluctance stems from reasons that do not directly concern the novel itself.

Namely, I dislike its misconstrued hyper-commercialisation within the window of Hallowe’en. I also found the fangirl-esque hysteria surrounding the gothic – which dominated every tutorial we ever had on it at university – tedious, though this, of course, is no fault of Shelley’s.

Upon sitting down, therefore, to watch the National Theatre streaming of Nick Dear and Danny Boyle’s 2011 stage adaptation of Frankenstein, I felt somewhat sceptical. Happily, I could not have been more wrong or more pleasantly surprised.

The production was mesmerising – both aesthetically and intellectually – from start to finish and epitomised what I, personally, have always considered to be the very best, most compelling, and most astute aspects of the novel: its consideration of life, the politics of its creation, and its value.

The production, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller as Frankenstein and the Monster on alternating nights, differs from the novel on several significant fronts. The one in which I was most interested was, however, the ending. *SPOILER* Instead of both dying at the end, this particular rendition of Frankenstein sees both man and monster walk off stage together, alive – though, admittedly, only just.

Indeed, it is during this final scene that we are made truly aware of the extent to which Frankenstein’s relationship with the (his) Monster has become one of interdependence. The absence of Shelley’s original frame narrative is effective in focusing our attention, almost exclusively, upon the interactions that occur between these two individuals.

The entire play – and, indeed, the novel – is a fluctuating struggle for power between them, but it is only during the final moments of the play that the audience fully appreciates the culminating and, crucially, lasting implications of this struggle that is without cease.

As the Monster observes, ‘we have a compact we must keep: he lives for my destruction, I live to lead him on’. Thus are their fates almost impossibly intertwined, as the Monster sits, tenderly cradling Frankenstein’s – whom he fears to be dead – head in his lap, insisting that ‘while you live I live and when you go I must go, too’.

It was precisely this image of interdependence that brought to my mind, as I sat watching, the work of Michel Foucault – specifically, that concerning power.

In 1982, Foucault published his essay ‘Le Sujet et le Pouvoir’ (‘The Subject and Power’), in which he observes that ‘while the human subject is placed in relations of production and of signification, he is equally placed in power relations which are very complex’.

Foucault suggests that, in order to exist as subjects, we are dependent upon a source of power. He identifies two different ways – one external and one internal – through which this is possible: either we become ‘subject to someone else by control and dependence’, or we remain ‘tied to [our] own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge’ and rely upon the power of autonomy.

Either way, ‘power exists only when it is put into action’, and thus our subjectivity is reliant upon our interactions with others. As such, the relationship between subjectivity and subjection may be understood, in turn, as one that is inherently interdependent.

Accordingly, Frankenstein and the Monster are portrayed as being and becoming increasingly, mutually dependent upon each other; Frankenstein lives for the Monster’s destruction – as he later reveals to him: ‘only you gave me purpose’ – and yet, in as much as the former defines the latter’s existence, the Monster’s own existence is, too, defined by Frankenstein, for whom he lives to lead on.

Each lives for the other and, as if to illustrate this, upon realising that Frankenstein is in fact not dead, the Monster immediately leaps up, crying: ‘up you get! We go on to the pole, on to the source of the magnet!’

This reference to ‘the magnet’ was likewise of especial significance, in calling to mind another novel, Caleb Williams (1794) – written, incidentally, by Shelley’s father, William Godwin.

The story centres upon the young, eponymous boy and his master Falkland, between whom there exists a ‘magnetical sympathy’. Like Frankenstein and the Monster, the two are united by the knowledge of a crime – a term used loosely here, in reference to Frankenstein; whilst he ‘plays God’ in ‘building a man and giving him life’, Falkland conversely takes away another man’s life.

At the beginning of the novel, Caleb observes retrospectively how ‘the whole fortune of [his] life was linked’ to Falkland’s story. Throughout the novel, the two become dependent upon each other for identity; bound together in, and ultimately united by, a master-slave dynamic, that causes Caleb’s heart to ‘[bleed] at the recollection of [Falkland’s] misfortunes as if they were [his] own’.

Frankenstein and the Monster are similarly bound to each other, initially in a master-slave dynamic, though this does appear to change over the course of the production. As Foucault observes in The History of Sexuality (1976), power is ‘everywhere’: it is a ‘multiplicity of force relations’ that ‘constitute their own organisation…through ceaseless struggling and confrontations’.

Such ‘ceaseless struggling’ is, of course, what drives the entire premise of Frankenstein – both the novel and the production – until, ultimately – and here I return specifically to the play – the Monster observes how ‘the son becomes the father’ and ‘the master the slave’.

Indeed, the Monster is portrayed as being – and as having become – the man that Frankenstein could never be. As Frankenstein himself observes during the final scene, ‘every chance of life I had I threw away; every shred of human warmth I cut to pieces’.

He proceeds: ‘I do not know what love is’, to which the Monster replies ‘I will teach you’, thus reversing the power relation that has until that point governed their shared existence.

When contemplating the politics of this master-slave dynamic in relation to Foucault, it strikes me as instructive to also consider Nietzsche, of whom Foucault is in many respects reminiscent. Writing in 1887, Nietzsche suggests that ‘in order to exist at all, slave morality from the outset always needs an opposing, outer world...it needs external stimuli in order to act – its action is fundamentally reaction’ (On the Genealogy of Morals).

Indeed, when watching the final scene of Frankenstein, one is made acutely aware of this notion of action being ‘fundamentally reaction’. In response, for example, to the Monster’s question ‘why do you treat me like a criminal?’, Frankenstein replies ‘you killed my wife!’, to which the Monster retorts ‘you killed mine’, before pressing further: ‘did I ask to be created?’

So it continues, until Frankenstein says ‘go on, walk on, you must be destroyed’; the Monster responds ‘god boy, that’s the spirit…up, up, up…come, scientist…destroy me…destroy your creation’ – highlighting, in turn, the ‘recalcitrance of will’ that Foucault identifies as being at ‘the very heart’ of all power relations – and off they go, into the darkness and the mist.

Towards the end of Caleb Williams, Falkland observes how ‘things are gone too far to be recalled’ and, watching Frankenstein and the Monster disappear off together, one has the sense that the same may be said of their own situation.

During his preface to the novel, moreover, Godwin describes Caleb Williams as ‘a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man’; the fact of destruction being the openly declared name of the Monster and Frankenstein’s game makes this resemblance all the more uncanny.

Upon watching the two of them stagger of stage, I was reminded, too, of Fitzgerald’s famous last words in The Great Gatsby: ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past’.

As, however, the monster observes – ever astutely – ‘we can only go forwards, we can never go back’, and therein, I suppose, lies the problem.

- Cleo O’Callaghan Yeoman

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