Organic Monsters

Is the monster a monster? In other words, according to the novel, what’s monstrous, what’s a monster?

I have suggested that one way to think about close reading, and to begin to think about the complications of language, is to use the OED. Here is an entry for “organic” that I looked up today (some cross-fertilization; for my course on Environmental Writing). Notice one of the uses is taken from Coleridge (the author of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) from 1817, the year before the novel is first published.

6. Of or relating to an organized structure compared to a living being.

a. Of, relating to, or characterized by connection or coordination of parts into a single, harmonious whole; organized; systematic.

1817 S. T. COLERIDGE Biographia Literaria I. xii. 237 The fairest part of the most beautiful body will appear deformed and monstrous, if dissevered from its place in the organic whole

What catches my eye here is that the organic becomes monstrous–in effect, inorganic–when it is cut off from a larger whole, system; when there is a loss of relationship, connection. In this sense, the monstrous is not the opposite of human, it is when the human is separated from the larger context of humanity, or when humanity is dissevered from its place in the organic whole of life. Monsters, in this sense (it seems to me) are neither made nor born as such; they are neglected into being. Consider also the OED entry for “monster.”

This view that the monster is or begins as organic and beautiful, but becomes inorganic (or ugly or inhuman, etc), shows up in some recent retellings (or extensions) of Frankenstein in film. One version in particular we will explore: Blade Runner. The lesson there is that the monsters seem more human than their human creators. Its an extension of the novel, by way of science fiction and visions of cyborg replication. But it is something that Shelley also has in mind. As we have seen through some close reading of the novel, Victor is giving birth to his creation–something parodied in this recent New Yorker cartoon (with thanks to Jeremy for the link). However, as usually is the case with such parody, the joke seems less on Victor or the novel, and more on the contemporary reference to parenting–what to expect when you’re expecting.

Based on your reading of the novel, particularly with the implications you see raised (answered and unanswered) by the end, how would you forward Shelley’s Frankenstein into a contemporary reproduction? What would your text (film or multimedia or print) emphasize? How would it illustrate, borrow, authorize and extend Shelley’s version?

By the end, I pay particular attention to Victor’s use of the word species (as in “my duties towards the being of my own species”) and the use of the word being. Is the creature a human being? What does that mean for the novel? When thinking about such keywords, I find it helpful to track the places where the word appears–something that I do more and more these days using Google Books (sorry Birkerts–it’s a research tool). I find that there are 66 appearances of the word “being.”

Are there horror films you know where the monster is not a generic monster, but something more organic, maybe even a human? A possible recent example, the film “Get Out,” here discussed by the director Jordan Peele. For him, “society is the monster.”

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One Comment on “Organic Monsters”

  1. […] Organic Monsters (comppost.wordpress.com) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tags: English literature, Fiction, Frankenstein, Human, Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein […]


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