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ELH 67.2 (2000) 565-587

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Facing The Ugly: The Case Of Frankenstein

Denise Gigante *

He approached; his countenance bespoke bitter anguish, combined with disdain and malignity, while its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes. 1

--Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

I. The Via Negativa of Ugliness

Whatever else can--and has--been said about Victor Frankenstein's monster, one thing cannot be denied: the creature is exceedingly ugly. But in what does this ugliness consist? Such a question is deceptively simple; any recourse to aesthetic theory is bound to come up empty. Traditional categories from the eighteenth century--the sublime, the beautiful, the picturesque--exclude the ugly, and though the grotesque (particularly prominent later in the nineteenth century) may at first seem related, it is never specifically invoked in Frankenstein and must not be confused with the ugly. While the etymological heritage of the grotesque combines both the comic and the horrific, the ugly lacks comic effect. 2 In fact, aesthetically speaking, the ugly simply lacks. If it is mentioned at all, it is treated as a negative form of the beautiful: either as a lack of beauty in general or as a gap in the beautiful object. 3 Hume, for example, speaks of "defects" or "blemishes" in the beautiful object in his essay "Of the Standard of Taste" (1757). 4 Because the ugly is assumed to be everything the beautiful is not, it emerges as a mere tautology. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke sums up the Enlightenment point of view: "It may appear like a sort of repetition . . . to insist here upon the nature of Ugliness." 5 Although Burke's binary of the sublime and the beautiful does not assert an antithesis between these two aesthetic modes, it adopts a bifurcated approach that Kant will later take up in The Critique of Judgement (1790). 6 For while Kant's third Critique transforms Burke's empiricist aesthetics substantially, it does not deviate from his basic assumption about the ugly, that it is a shadow form of the beautiful, its silent, invisible partner. [End Page 565]

This via negativa of aesthetic theory, however, will not suffice as a hermeneutic mode to account for the positive ugliness of Mary Shelley's Creature. If the ugly object lacks beauty, the Creature, as the aesthetic object of Frankenstein's "unhallowed arts" (1831; F, 339), functions more actively than lack. He not only fails to please, he emphatically displeases. And in his relation to the subject, Victor Frankenstein, he manifests precisely the opposite of lack: excess. In a recent psychological foray into the uncharted field of the ugly, Mark Cousins proposes a model of ugliness as excess, which Slavoj Zizek develops in his discussion of "Ugly Jouissance" and which will be useful to us here:

Contrary to the standard idealist argument that conceives ugliness as the defective mode of beauty, as its distortion, one should assert the ontological primacy of ugliness: it is beauty that is a kind of defense against the Ugly in its repulsive existence--or, rather, against existence tout court, since . . . what is ugly is ultimately the brutal fact of existence (of the real) as such. 7

Unlike the ghostly figments populating the Fantasmagoriana which Shelley originally set out to emulate on the shores of Lake Leman, Frankenstein's Creature is only too real. He is, like the blood and guts oozing from the fissures in his skin, an excess of existence, exceeding representation, and hence appearing to others as a chaotic spillage from his own representational shell. 8 While this portrayal might seem analogous to that of the Kantian sublime object, in which the representation of the thing [Vorstellung] in empirical form can never adequately present the Thing itself [Ding an sich], we must be careful to distinguish the ugly from the sublime object in order to explore a category not sufficiently accounted for by aesthetic discourse. For as this essay will show, ugliness in Frankenstein is less of an aesthetic experience than a question of survival.

Regardless of...