Testimony and trope in Frankenstein

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Author: Sara Guyer
Date: Spring 2006
From: Studies in Romanticism(Vol. 45, Issue 1)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 18,894 words
Lexile Measure: 1440L

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That at the "bottom" of the human being there is nothing other than an impossibility of seeing--this is the Gorgon, whose vision transforms the human being into a non-human. That precisely this inhuman impossibility of seeing is what calls and addresses the human, the apostrophe from which human beings cannot turn away--this and nothing else is testimony. The Gorgon and he who has seen her and the Muselmann and he who bears witness to him are one gaze; they are a single impossibility of seeing.

--Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1)

IT IS NO SURPRISE THAT MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN, OR THE MODERN Prometheus (1818/1831) has received attention as a work of fictional autobiography. Shelley was married to a poet in whom we continue to have prurient as well as intellectual interest and in whose prose the novel opens; she was the daughter of two enormously influential theorists and fiction writers, well known for their ideas about and practices of parenting. Moreover, Frankenstein is composed of three first-person autobiographical accounts and is framed by a preface and an introduction that recall the notorious ghost story contest that was the story's initial occasion. For these reasons, and others still, Shelley's novel has been read both as a legible autobiography of a woman author (daughter and wife), and as an allegory of autobiography in which Shelley's monster is understood as "a figure for autobiography as such." But to read the monster as "a figure for autobiography" is already to suggest that Shelley's monster is the figure of autobiography: prosopopoeia, the "fiction of an apostrophe." (2) Indeed, prosopopoeia and apostrophe condition and name the central events in Frankenstein--the discovery of the origin of life, the pursuit of the ends of man (and earth), and the creation of a monster witness to the ends it suspends. As a story of the crisis of the human, and as an account of inhuman survival, Shelley's novel raises key questions not--or not only--about autobiography and its figures, about the assumption of a self in and as writing, but rather about testimony and its figures. Along these lines, the novel initiates a rethinking of romantic rhetoric attuned to the tensions and intersections not only of autobiography and fiction, but also of testimony and poetry. The novel shows how lyric figures effect human life as a life beyond life; it shows that the rhetoric of romanticism is a rhetoric of survival. (3)

"the apostrophe from which human beings cannot turn away"

When he was seventeen years old, Victor Frankenstein's parents arranged for him to leave their "domestic circle" in Switzerland for Ingolstadt, Germany, so he might "enter the world and take [his] station among other human beings" (28). (4) His mother's death causes him to delay his departure by many months, but once at the university, Victor spends two years studying chemistry under the direction of M. Waldman and M. Krempe, and finally "becom[es] as well acquainted with the theory and practice of natural philosophy...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A149851573