Blog 5 Personal Reflection: Images of Race in 19th Century Britain & Frankenstein

Having chosen to narrow the focus of my thesis to the ways that the concept of monstrosity in 18th and 19th century Gothic novels drew upon British imperialism, colonialism, and contemporary xenophobic fear, it has become necessary for me to develop a deeper understanding of Britain’s history in order to engage in effective racial readings of my primary texts. For this reason, much of my research has been dedicated to discerning how to draw parallels between the fictional, monstrous figures of novels and the racial stereotypes that spurned fear and loathing from the British public during this time period. In trying to identify the ways in which monstrous characters reflect the societal notion of the threatening “Other,” therefore, I have utilized my key search terms, such as “imperial gothic” and “monstrosity” in order to discover sources that will provide me with the information I am seeking. Choosing to tackle the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein first due to its lack of more obvious connections to racism and imperialism, I stumbled upon H. L. Malchow’s article “Frankenstein’s Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” This article has not only enhanced my understanding of the various overlaps that exist between British imperialism, racism, and Shelley’s fiction, but, when read in tandem with Shelley’s novel itself, has enabled me to have a new outlook on The Modern Prometheus and its interaction with racism.

I am particularly fond of Malchow’s article because it sets up clear connections between British imperialism and the country’s attitude towards those of other races and ethnicities in the 19th century. Because British imperialism and Britain’s construction/conception of racial identity and racial hierarchy are fairly expansive topics, I have found it challenging to narrow down my historical research or pick out which works will be most valuable to my thesis. By reading Malchow’s article, however, I have not only gained a more focused understanding of the “Napolenic Era” and Britain’s century-long development of the concept of the “Other,” but have also been introduced to the events and literature that filled Mary Shelley’s world with “both positive and negative representations of the black man…[particularly] in Africa and the West Indies” (99). Furthermore, this article also introduced me to other resources, such as Philip D. Curtin’s The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850 and Douglas Lorimer’s Colour, Class, and the Victorians: English Attitudes to the Negro in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, that center on the idea of savagery and monstrosity that shaped public opinion and societal conventions in Britain.

In addition, I was also enticed by this article due to its overall structure and its primary topics of focus. In each section, Malchow emphasizes how the portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster drew on either Britain’s attitudes towards foreigners, the fears and hopes of abolition of slavery in the West Indies, components of the Enlightenment, or “the expansion of the power of British empire over non-white populations in Asia and Africa.” This enables the article to draw straightforward connections between the text of Frankenstein and the development of the racist, Eurocentric perspective (93). For example, Malchow notes that Frankenstein’s hesitation to create a mate for his monster because he fears he will spawn a “race of devils” directly corresponds with the way in which Britain feared having “blacks free from the discipline of the white master [in which they could] …breed like animals unrestrained by decency or prudence” (Shelley 210;Malchow 113). In this way, Malchow’s article not only expanded my historical knowledge, but also gave me the opportunity to understand how to incorporate this knowledge into a textual analysis of Frankenstein.

When I first read this article, I possessed a general knowledge of British imperialism, but had never dedicated a significant amount of time linking the country’s imperialist actions to its impact on British culture and racial perceptions. While I admit that my first reading took a significant amount of time due to the fact that I had to research figures and topics with which I was not familiar, my subsequent readings allowed me to understand how Frankenstein’s monster not only exists as a representation of the racial “Other” in the novel, but serves as embodiment of the racial stigmas associated specifically with blacks by the British public. Frankenstein’s monster, like the stereotyped black of 19th-century Britain, is portrayed as “wild and dangerous, unpredictable and childlike” with a “dark and sinister appearance” and a lack of parental connections (Malchow 105, 102, 115). In this way, this article has enabled me to uncover how Frankenstein portrays the inevitable inferiority and assumed villainy of non-whites in 19th-century Britain; Despite the fact that the monster begins with an innocent desire for knowledge, freedom, and acceptance, he, like blacks of this time period, is trapped in a role of subordination and exclusion due to Britain’s patriarchal, color-prejudiced society.

2 thoughts on “Blog 5 Personal Reflection: Images of Race in 19th Century Britain & Frankenstein”

  1. The parallel of monstrosity and social stereotypes/monstrosities sounds like a good pairing and was definitely prevalent in victorian British literature. As we have seen in The Tempest, Caliban was described as monstrous and a slave as a subsequent result, perhaps speaking to the racial differences among the Victorian British? Frankenstein seems like a promising topic of focus for this idea as blacks represented through monstrous characters and an “otherness” as you put it.

  2. I agree that your post’s undertone of racial stereotype rooted in the historical background of imperialist England. However, I wonder if there is a possible religious background behind both the racial and monstrous components of the 18th & 19th Century ideology. I’m thinking of the Genesis story, The Curse of Ham, a biblical story which had been interpreted as a justification of racism from Shakespeare to the 19th Century. You should give Kwame Anthony Appiah and his essays on Race Theory a look for discussing this. This aspect might be complimentary to your readings of Philip D. Curtin and Douglas Lorimer.

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