The racial metaphor of Frankenstein

Detail from Milton Glaser’s cover art for Dick Gregory’s album Frankenstein, 1971

By Keely Savoie

Two hundred years ago this summer, the 18-year-old writer Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her husband-to-be, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, stood on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, with their friends poet Lord Byron and physician John William Polidori and dared one another to invent an original ghost story.

That legendary contest became the basis of Wollstonecraft Godwin’s novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, which is as resonant today as it was when it was first published in 1818.

Elizabeth Young, the Carl M. and Elsie A. Small Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, studies American literature and culture. She wrote a book identifying and analyzing racial metaphors in American responses to the Frankenstein story. Young recently returned from a bicentennial conference in Geneva celebrating the origin of Frankenstein. She discussed her research and teaching in light of recent events and contemporary politics.

Your research and work focus on the ways in which literary works reflect and inform our culture. Your book, Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor, examined the monster metaphor and how it has manifested itself in fiction, nonfiction, art, and film, particularly with respect to race. How has the metaphor been used and how has it transformed over time?

There are many racial resonances of the Frankenstein story in the United States. One important early example is from 1831, just after the Nat Turner Rebellion in Virginia, in which slaves revolted and killed dozens of white people.

After that, there was a debate about slavery in the Virginia legislature, and one of the legislators invoked the imagery of the Frankenstein story to defend slavery. He argued that if slaves were freed, they would all be like Frankenstein’s monsters, revolting against their masters.

On the other hand, you can find many more cases of people—including novelists, artists, and activists—using the Frankenstein story to argue against slavery and racial oppression. In the original novel, the monster himself is sympathetic and speaks eloquently about his enslavement. Also, in focusing on the relation between a creator and his creation, the metaphor provides a way to trace the origins of violence to an unjust relationship, and to talk about the inherent violence of oppression.

Today, the Frankenstein metaphor is still tragically relevant. The kinds of systemic violence against black men that has been so dramatically visible in the last few years is fueled by a culture in which white people continue to think of black men as monsters.

One of the most notable examples of this is in the case of Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, two summers ago. In his testimony, Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot Brown, said Brown looked like a “demon.” That is the language of black monstrosity, seeing black men as frightening monsters who must then be subdued.

Is Frankenstein relevant in other ways as a political metaphor today?

The metaphor of Frankenstein continues to be used in contemporary politics. For example, there have been numerous references to Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s Frankenstein monster. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is one of many people who have made the Trump–Frankenstein connection. This is a way of saying that the Republican Party, rather than distancing itself from Trump, needs to acknowledge that it is responsible for creating the conditions in which Trump flourished and ran amok.

You have been teaching at Mount Holyoke for 23 years. What keeps you growing as a professor?

Teaching my students is freshly rewarding each year. One example is the class I teach on American gothic literature and film. I begin it with stories by Edgar Allan Poe, which many students have already read and feel familiar with. The first week of class, I have them read some of Poe’s stories without any accompanying critical material. The following week, we look at slave narratives that were written around the same time as the Poe stories, focusing on their use of gothic imagery. The third week, we read Poe again, with the slave narratives in mind. This leads to discussions of the strong images of racial anxiety that pervade Poe’s work. Even students who feel they know Poe well find this revelatory.

As a teacher, it’s wonderful to have that kind of conversation in the classroom. Part of what is happening is the specific learning that the students are doing—reading gothic texts through the lens of race. But the other part of it is that they are debating how to build an interpretation of a literary text, and how to construct a persuasive argument. These are really exciting moments in the classroom. Students often come away with an expanded sense that “what I am reading is really giving me a different view of the world.” As a teacher, I find this absolutely wonderful.

Dare yourself. Visit us.