Autism and Articulation in Mary Shelley’s Novel and Beyond

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By Julia Miele Rodas

Frankenstein, the subject of extraordinary popular attention as a horror text, has been reinterpreted across an astonishing array of graphic media. In these modes, our common delight in Frankenstein’s creature comes most often from the thrill of fear and disgust. But at its very foundation, Mary Shelley’s text demonstrates at least as great an interest in political philosophy as it does in the allure of the gothic tale. Shelley’s preoccupation with the revolutionary politics of her historical moment is manifest throughout the novel, specifically evoking philosophical concerns about natural rights, enfranchisement, poverty, education, and what constitutes humanity. It may come as little surprise then that the Creature has also been an icon for those interested in the representation of disability. As Lennard Davis, in his foundational disability studies text, Enforcing Normalcy (1995), observes: “We do not often think of the monster in Mary Shelley’s work as disabled, but what else is he?”

Disability scholarship on Frankenstein, such as Mark Mossman’s “Acts of Becoming,” has focused primarily on the monster’s body and appearance. Of equal concern is the representation of the Creature’s articulate life: the difference between the eloquent being who emerges in Shelley’s Frankenstein and the mute or grunting monster as represented in popular culture. Mimicking the exaggerated physical disfigurement and disability of the monster as it is depicted in film and stage performances, the dumb-ness of the monster in popular culture may thus be examined in the context of modern debates about autism, agency, and articulation. Indeed, Shelley’s careful delineation of the Creature’s language and social development resonate powerfully with the idiosyncratic quality of autistic language and social development—and the writer’s evident concern about the Creature’s having a voice and being heard reflect contemporary concerns about voice and agency in autistic community.

Ernest Thesiger, as Dr. Pretorius, and Boris Karloff, as the Creature, in a scene from the 1935 Universal Pictures film Bride of Frankenstein directed by James Whale. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

It is widely believed that Shelley’s narrative of the Creature’s emergence into language is informed by Enlightenment theories about infant language development. The Creature comes into being, like any human infant, without language and his entire sensory experience is fused and indefinite; his sense of self, other, and greater world without distinct boundaries or symbolic order. As the Creature puts it, “all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses.” The Creature’s pre-verbal social gestures, his attempts to connect and communicate with others, recapitulate the indeterminate gropings of human infancy in which touch and sign, self and other, communication and exploration are merged. The Creature’s very first interaction with his maker might describe the motions of an ordinary infant with his parent: “His eyes ... were fixed on me. His jaws opened and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks ... one hand was stretched out.” In Shelley’s script, as in literature on infant development, such gestures are seen as interested, intelligent, and communicative, even when they are without clear deliberation or when they are unaccompanied by conventional symbolic language.

Boris Karloff, as the Creature, and Marilyn Harris, as Maria, in a scene from the 1931 film Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and produced by Universal Pictures. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

In light of this parent-child dynamic, what happens if we imagine the Frankenstein story as an encounter between neuro-typical and autistic humanity? Surprisingly, the way this encounter plays out in Shelley’s novel anticipates the cultural history of the monster that follows: the universal response to the Creature is to reject not only his person, but also to silence his attempts at self-representation. In his encounter with the elderly De Lacey, the Creature begs that he will “not be driven from the society and sympathy of [his] fellow creatures,” but his petition is then obscured by the screams and blows of De Lacey’s son. And with his maker, Victor Frankenstein, the Creature argues logically and persuasively for his natural rights: “You, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind.” But Frankenstein also declines to allow the Creature any voice, saying, simply, “I will not hear you.” Repeatedly, the Creature endeavors to be heard, despite his apparent difference; but, again and again, the social response is to drive him away so that he cannot speak, or, as with his maker, to resist listening.

Promotional photograph of Boris Karloff as the Creature in 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and produced by Universal Pictures. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Scholars, including Lennard Davis and Burton Pollin, have observed that the profound social aversion that the Creature encounters cannot be explained entirely by his appearance: in addition to his visible disfigurement, the Creature also seemingly fails to fit into some greater social mechanism. When we watch Boris Karloff’s monster — moaning, grunting, and stumbling — in the classic 1931 film, what we see is a logical extension not of the way the monster is represented in Shelley’s text, but of the ways in which other characters in that text respond to him. Shelley’s narrative offers the gift of interiority: she makes room for the Creature to tell his own story from his own point of view. But for those characters who come upon the Creature during the course of the novel, his interiority is unimaginable, impossible. For them, the Creature is not a “being,” as Percy Bysshe Shelley calls him, but a voiceless monster, the precursor of Karloff’s incarnation, without personhood, without a sense of self, his articulation reduced to nonverbal groaning and his intelligence effaced by overwhelming social incompetence. The afterlife of the Creature in popular culture, stripped of the novel’s first-person narrative, allows little room for motives or explanations and almost no room for the monster’s viewpoint.

For autism studies, the politics of voice in the ongoing cultural narrative of Frankenstein is particularly compelling, since questions of how autism speaks, and who speaks for autism, are hotly contested in present-day debates. On one side, disapproving, disappointed society — perhaps even a parent rejecting his creation — on the other, the idiosyncratic offspring who vies for a chance to speak for himself and to have his gifts acknowledged and accepted. When Shelley penned her gothic fantasy of oppression and disenfranchisement, she may have been thinking of the rights of man in the political terms of her own historical moment, but the monster she launched into being continues to evolve and develop, constantly taking on renewed political meaning. Long a valued member of the disability community, the Creature also makes a very persuasive autism advocate.

Keith Jochim, as the Creature, and John Carradine, as the elderly De Lacey, in a scene from the 1981 Broadway production of Frankenstein written by Victor Gialanella; photo by Martha Swopes. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

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This essay is an abridged version of a talk presented at The New York Public Library.

Watch a video of the talk on www.nypl.org

Julia Miele Rodas, PhD is an associate professor of English at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. She teaches and writes about literature and disability. Her work has appeared in Victorian Literature & Culture, Dickens Studies Annual, the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, Disability Studies Quarterly, Victorian Review, and other venues. Rodas co-edited the forthcoming collection The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability, and she is currently working on a book theorizing autistic voice and aesthetics in familiar texts.
 

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