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  • Literate Species: Populations, “Humanities,” and Frankenstein
  • Maureen Noelle McLane

When one is studying man, what can be more exact or more rigorous than to recognize human properties in him?

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method

I began the creation of a human being.

—Victor Frankenstein

In his 1797 essay, “Of an Early Taste for Reading,” William Godwin announced that “Literature, taken in all its bearings, forms the grand line of demarcation between the human and the animal kingdoms.” 1 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus—boldly dedicated to “WILLIAM GODWIN, Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &c.”—may be read as a critique of her father’s pronouncement. 2 Shelley’s corporeally indeterminate but decidedly literate monster asks us to consider whether literature—taken in all its bearings—was or is indeed a useful “line of demarcation between” human and animal. The fate of the monster suggests that proficiency in “the art of language” (110), as he calls it, may not ensure one’s position as a member of the “human kingdom.” Shelley shows us how a literary education, so crucial to Godwinian perfectibility, presupposes not merely an educable subject but a human being. Read through Godwin’s dictum, the trajectory of Frankenstein’s creation offers a parable of pedagogic failure—specifically a failure in the promise of the humanities, in letters as a route to humanization. 3 In assuming language and literature as domains available to him, the monster succumbs to the ruse of the humanities, the belief that “intellectual and literary refinement,” in Godwin’s terms, might be the route to his humanization. The novel demonstrates, perhaps against itself, that the acquisition of “literary refinement” fails to humanize the problematic body, the ever-unnamed monster. The monster thus introduces and embodies an anthropological problem which literature fails to resolve (within the novel) and yet which literature displays (in the fact of the novel itself). The perfectibility of man meets its violent contradiction in a speaking, [End Page 959] reasoning being which men, women, and children throughout Europe are unable or unwilling to recognize as a fellow species-being.

The meaning of “species,” like the meaning of the monster, is not self-evident and indeed remains suspended through most of the novel. I will argue that Victor Frankenstein’s final deliberations about the monster’s future transform and fix the functional meaning of species; moreover, it is Victor’s introduction of Malthusian discourse which allows him to arbitrate, in the last instance, the question of the monster’s “species.” The argument requires that I examine the monster’s request for one “of the same species” (140) through the broad contours of the Malthus-Godwin debate, with Malthus representing the principle of population and Godwin the principle of perfectibility. I understand the discourses of population theory and human perfectibility to be part of the same discursive and historical field: Malthus and Godwin appear (in this essay as they did to themselves) as representative antagonists within that field. 4 It was, of course, Godwin’s vision of almost unlimited human improvability, and his defense of universal benevolence as the criterion of moral action and political justice, which most irked Malthus. Indeed, it was Godwin’s essay “Of Avarice and Profusion” (published in The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature [1797]), which provoked Malthus to launch his extended attack on Godwinian radicalism, Condordet’s theory of mind, and poor relief in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Malthus and Godwin maintained their mutually antagonistic positions for several decades; in 1820 Godwin finally published his own Of Population: An Inquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, being an answer to Mr. Malthus’ Essay on that Subject. Godwin wrote of his quarrel with Malthus and the surrounding debate, “[such] speculations have now been current for nearly twenty years.” 5

Written toward the end of that twenty-year period, Frankenstein should be read in part through the historical specificity of the Malthus-Godwin controversy. During Mary Shelley’s lifetime, her father was known publicly as the antagonist of Malthus as well as the author of Political Justice and Caleb Williams; any discussion of Godwinian “benevolence...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 959-988
Launched on MUSE
1996-12-01
Open Access
No
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