I spent the last month or so of the last semester shuttling myself between the library, class, and my room. Despite my best efforts, my workload landed on me with just enough weight at just the right time to make sure that I couldn’t stop studying or working for even one full day. One of the enormous final projects I had to work on over the next month was my final paper for one of my English classes: Forms of Life—Animals and Humans in the 18th Century. That class was every bit as paradoxically badass and mind numbing as it sounds. Anyway, for the last month I devoted part of each day to reading a bit of Frankenstein in preparation for that final; and because I have the self-discipline of a hamster in a cocaine experiment, I also spent some time rewatching Chappelle’s Show every night before bed. Not the best strategy for passing my finals, sure, but oh well. Somehow, the two works made more sense to me side by side than individually, so in a way, Dave Chappelle helped me do well in that class. Thank you, Mr. Chappelle.
Before I get to Chappelle, though, let me go through Frankenstein for the benefit of those of you haven’t read it, and also just to give an idea of how I read the text. Frankenstein is one of those books that’s managed to beat the odds and survived almost two centuries to become a classic of 19th Century Western lit. It’s also one of those books that’s been mutated by pop-culture into something much different than the original work. Today, when you say “Frankenstein” we think of this guy, and we couldn’t be more wrong. That’s not Frankenstein at all, that’s Frankenstein’s monster, also simply known as, the Creature. Frankenstein is the name of the scientist who creates the Creature in a laboratory following the untimely death of his mother. Some scholars would suggest that there’s some seriously oedipal shit going on in that scene, including suggestions that the Creature is a metaphor for Frankenstein’s penis and the hubris-ridden act of Frankenstein playing God to “give birth” to a monstrosity reflects his unspoken need to come to terms with his mother’s passing by “[attempting] to usurp her biological female function” (Lehman 52) in “a grotesque act of lovemaking, the son stealing into the womb that bore him in order plant his seed” (Sherwin 885)
Yeah, English academics are fuckin crazy sometimes. Now, admittedly a lot of this doesn’t have anything to do with Chappelle, but these supplementary readings did inform my view of the Creature, and how monstrosity operates in Frankenstein at large, which in turn shaped my understanding of how Chappelle deals with alienation on-screen and off-screen on his show (and the there is a very permeable border between the two worlds in his work, but I’ll get to all that later; it’s Frankentime now). If we accept Sherwin and Lehman’s basic premise as true, that Frankenstein creates the Creature in a twisted attempt to come to terms with his Mommy issues, then it can be said that the Creature is an extension, a physical manifestation of Frankenstein’s inner monstrosity. The treatment of the Creature’s body before and after his animation lend credence to this idea. When the Creature is just a mishmash of reassembled (stolen) body parts on the operating table, Frankenstein’s thoughts are consumed with an eagerness to explore “with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame” (Shelley 78), the wording of which should indicate to you just how creepy this guy is. As Frankenstein looks down on his lifeless work, he simply refers to it as a “thing” (83), but also describes it as beautiful. Once the Creature comes to life, “the beauty of the dream vanishe[s]” and the “thing” suddenly becomes a “monster” (84). Though the Creature is, without a doubt, physically repulsive, his ugliness is simply a reflection of the ugly circumstances of his birth. Only once the monstrosity within Frankenstein that drove him to “give birth” to the Creature in the first place is manifested in the animated form of the Creature, is Frankenstein able to recognize his monstrosity for what it is. The suddenness of this epiphany causes him to flee from his creation in disgust. As Frankenstein hides in his bed, the Creature slinks off into the night, not to be seen or heard from again for two years. In that time, Frankenstein descends into madness for a few months before slowly emerging back into sanity—further indications that it was his own monstrosity apparent in the Creature, not the Creature’s physical form itself, that he found so abominable.
In the interest of not boring you to death, I’m gonna skim ahead a little bit. Basically, what goes down is that Frankenstein has to go back home to his family when he finds out that his little brother, William, got murdered. When he gets back to Switzerland, he sees the Creature in the distance and becomes convinced that he killed William.Unfortunately, no one knows the Creature even exists, so Frankenstein has to sit there as one of his family friends (Justine) is put on trial and convicted for the murder of his brother. This causes Frankenstein’s cousin/fiancé, Elizabeth, (yeah, gross) to despair, since she doesn’t believe that Justine is guilty and starts to lose all her faith in humanity after watching her whole town condemn one of her friends to death for a crime she didn’t commit. Now that he’s got a dead brother, a dead friend, and a really sad fiancé/cousin, Frankenstein gets catapulted into a full-on depression reminiscent of the most hilarious stereotypes of Appalachian living, loving and losing passed down by bad country songs and rumors of kids with six fingers. He starts going for long walks in the mountains (the Swiss Alpalachians, anyone?), and this is when he encounters the Creature again.
At first, Frankenstein decides he’s going to kill the Creature, since he feels responsible for his actions and thinks that he’s unleashed a horrible child-murdering monster on the world. But the Creature discourages him by, well, talking, and reminding him that he’s much bigger than Frankenstein, so it wouldn’t really be a fair fight anyway. The Creature is actually a lot more eloquent than Frankenstein ever shows himself to be;
“How can I move thee? Will no entreaties cause thee to turn a favourable eye upon thy creature, who implores thy goodness and compassion? Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity: but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow-creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me. The desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge. I have wandered here many days….These bleak skies I hail, for they are kinder to me than your fellow-beings. If the multitude of mankind knew of my existence, they would do as you do, and arm themselves for my destruction. Shall I not then hate them who abhor me? I will keep no terms with my enemies. I am miserable, and they shall share my wretchedness. Yet it is in your power to recompense me, and deliver them from an evil which it only remains for you to make so great, that not only you and your family, but thousands of others, shall be swallowed up in the whirlwinds of its rage. Let your compassion be moved, and do not disdain me. Listen to my tale: when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me. The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they may be, to speak in their own defence before they are condemned. Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man! Yet I ask you not to spare me: listen to me; and then, if you can, and if you will, destroy the work of your hands.” (119)
Anyway, Frankenstein agrees to hear the Creature out, and this is when we get his side of the story.
While Frankenstein was wetting his bed and generally failing at life, the Creature was wandering around his house, lost, confused, and totally overwhelmed. The Creature may have been almost twice Frankenstein’s size from birth, but at the moment of his animation, he’s basically nothing more than an infant. So when he jacks Frankenstein’s coat and heads out into the wild, he’s acting purely on instinct—he hasn’t been socialized or acculturated in any way, he has no language skills, and he has no idea how to fend for himself. Basically, the Creature is abandoned by the closest thing he ever had to a parent the second he comes to life. Cold, hungry, and alone, he wanders through the wilderness till he comes to a hut, and walks inside, drawn by the warmth. The old man living there tears out of the house screaming, which confuses the young Creature. After he eats all the food in that house, he keeps walking till he finds a village. But when he enters it, the townspeople also flip shit and chase him out with torches and pitchforks and rocks. Even before the Creature learns how to speak, before he has any chance to develop an identity (an absence his lack of a name attests to), he knows that he’s unwanted. Now that he’s learned his lesson, the Creature finds a little hut in the middle of nowhere and builds himself a hovel to hide in. At first, he’s just there to steal food from the occupants, the DeLaceys, but eventually, he discovers more and more about them, becomes interested in them, and starts to yearn for their company. Through his observations, he learns language, and with it, discovers that the family he’s been stealing from is very poor and struggling to feed themselves. Wracked with remorse, the still-kindhearted Creature starts foraging for his food, and starts to chop a fresh batch of firework for the family every night and leaves it out for them to find in the morning.
Through observation, the Creature eventually learns about families, and how status is determined in human society. Realizing that he possesses “no money, no friends, no kind of property” (136) and that “No father had watched [his] infant days, no mother had blessed [him] with smiles or caresses” (137), the Creature is forced to ask, “what [am] I?” (136). Hence, isolation begets alienation as the Creature realizes that he is not a proper human being, and therefore, without access to any natural community of his own. Thus, the Creature’s progression towards monstrosity (independent of the monstrosity in Frankenstein that begat him) begins. Learning to read does nothing to slow this down. First, the Creature reads Paradise Lost and compares himself to Satan, who was also unwanted, as well as Adam, who was made by a distant Creator and then left alone. Even then, he knows these are imperfect comparisons, since Adam had Eve and Satan had his demons while he has nobody to comfort or affirm him. Soon, the Creature finds Frankenstein’s notes in the pocket of the coat he stole, and reads “the minutest description of [his] odious and loathsome person…in language which painted [Frankenstein’s] own horrors”, the Creature’s own self-loathing is “rendered…ineffaceable” and he comes to see himself as “a monster so hideous that even [Frankenstein] turned from [him] in disgust” (144). With the earlier comparisons of the Creature to Adam, Frankenstein can be read as the Creature’s God, making his abandonment of his creation all the more psychologically violent.
In trying to understand the development of the Creature’s monstrosity, I ended up reading some theory on the psychological process of torture. Bernatchez notes the importance of a “verbal component” in torture that forces “the victim to be complicit in their own self-annihilation by ‘betraying themselves’” (Bernatchez 207). With the betrayal of secrets and information, the subject of torture thus submits to the will of the tormentor and participates in his or her own psychic and physical destruction. The Creature’s realization that he is “a monster” is a similar betrayal, in that by answering the question of “what he is” that has echoed throughout the narrative, the Creature is forced to cast aside his desires for virtue and community and admit his monstrosity. And yes, the forced isolation of the Creature, and his slowly building psychological estrangement from humanity at large, is something that I would be willing to call torture. Society at large being the torturer in this case.
Even after having admitted to himself that he is most likely a monster the Creature still longs for human society, and hopes against hope that he might be able to convince the DeLaceys to see him as an equal after they see past his physical appearance. The Creature would not have done well in high school, and this goes down exactly how you think it might. The DeLaceys freak out and chase him from the cottage, prompting the Creature to sneak back at night and burn their house down before fleeing into the wilderness. This passage from civilization to wilderness, marked in the progression of events by fire, metaphorically tracks the Creature’s descent from humanity to monstrosity. Alone, again, the Creature curses his “Unfeeling, heartless creator” who “endowed [him] with perceptions and passions, and then cast [him] abroad for the scorn and horror of mankind” (152). At this point, “the mildness of [the Creature’s] nature [has] fled, and all within [him is] turned to gall and bitterness” (Shelley 152) by his experiences. With nothing left to lose, the Creature sets out in search of Frankenstein to take his revenge. Along the way, he saves a young girl drowning in a stream, only to have his good deed rewarded with a bullet in the shoulder from her father, pretty decidedly killing any compassion left in him. But even when the Creature first finds William, he displays some humanity. Convinced that if he can “educate [William] as [his] companion and friend, [he] should not be so desolate” (154), the Creature approaches the child as if he were unprejudiced. However, William resists him, calling him a “Hideous monster” and threatening him with the power of the Frankenstein name. Once again rebuked and forced into the role of monster, the Creature spares no mercy in killing the child in order to avenge himself to his creator. With the blood of a child on his hands, in stark contrast to the life of the other child he saved, the Creature’s transformation into a monster is complete, as the murder evokes no guilt or shame in him, but rather “exultation and hellish triumph” (154). After this, he has no problem with planting evidence on a sleeping Justine in order to implicate her in the crime and make his escape.
Which brings us back to the mountain, where, having just admitted to killing his brother, the Creature has quite understandably pissed Frankenstein off. Before I get to that though, what I want to point out is that nothing about the Creature’s monstrosity is innate or essential—it’s simply the only rational reaction that he can have after living a lifetime on the fringes of a society that doesn’t even want him to exist and certainly doesn’t recognize him as a conscious being. Whatever crimes he commits against people are reactionary, and once again the monstrosity ascribed to him, while this time more indicative of his internal decay, is the reciprocal, mirror image of the monstrosity of a society that cannot bring itself to accept him based on his physical appearance alone. We as readers understand that the Creature is an empathetic, human-like being, and thus we are able to pity him and understand that he has been dehumanized with time. In other words, we know that he is a monstrosity not because he was born that way, but because his oppression has been so brutalizing and complete that he has no way of being anything else. To quote Jelani Cobb, “Oppression, almost by definition, is a set of circumstances that bring out the worst in most people,” and we clearly see this played out in the Creature’s character development. The Creature himself is even aware of this, remarking that his “vices are the children of a forced solitude that [he] abhor[s]; and [his] virtues will necessarily arise when [he] live[s] in communion with an equal” (Shelley 158). Even as oppressed, othered, demonized and degraded as he is, the Creature recognizes that his problem is the absence of agency, and asks Frankenstein to make a wife for him so that he can have at least one other being to share his existence with. After pleading with his creator, and offering to take his bride and disappear into the remotest corner of the world and never bother people again, the Creature eventually convinces Frankenstein.
But as you may have gathered by now, Frankenstein, who is the origin of the Creature’s life and oppression, is kind of a shitty person. Driven into a genocidal mania by the fear of sharing the planet with a race of dark-skinned, monstrous beings, Frankenstein destroys the Creature’s bride’s body in front of him. In retaliation, the Creature murders Frankenstein’s good friend Clerval, and also kills Elizabeth on their wedding night. Finally just as alone as his creation, Frankenstein embarks on a suicidal journey across the world to hunt down and kill the Creature that eventually leads him to the North Pole. Frankenstein dies before he can accomplish his task, but having lost his creator, the Creature doubles back to mourn over his body. Realizing that he has killed his father and his God, the Creature curses himself and doubles back to the pole with the intent of self-immolating. In their last moments, both characters acknowledge their own monstrosity and offer a glimpse of the humanity that remains within them:
Frankenstein: “In a fit of enthusiastic madness…I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure…his happiness and well-being” (Shelley 216).
The Creature: “Once, I falsely hoped to meet with beings, who…would love me….But now vice has degraded me beneath the meanest animal…I…am an abortion, to be spurned at” (219-220).
Both characters admit their failings, and confess their own monstrosity in the end. Frankenstein as an arrogant creator whose failure to accept responsibility for his creation resulted in his downfall, and the Creature as an individual who abandoned all hope of being loved and allowed his self-hatred and self-loathing, born of the crushing oppression he endured throughout his life, to consume and destroy him from within. The Creature’s comparison of himself to an aborted fetus, perhaps the cruelest metaphor in the work, is a painfully precise illustration of the role of social rejection and alienation in his turn towards monstrosity.
Now, why did I just take up 3000 words giving you an intense overview of Frankenstein? Because I wanted to flesh out some of the themes I picked up on in Chappelle’s Show and Frankenstein in the context of the novel first. Next post, I’ll be drawing thematic parallels between Frankenstein and some of the sketches on Chappelle’s Show, and also considering these ideas in the context of the politics behind the show and Dave Chappelle’s personal decision to leave it all behind.