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"Frankenstein's Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain" by H.L. Malchow

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Henry Fuseli, "The Negro Avenged". Malchow cites this image as a contributor to the image of a black slave as a destructive force, with brute strength and bestiality (108). Image source:

In Malchow’s article "Frankenstein’s Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain", he explores the feelings of Shelley’s contemporaries about blacks and their role in society, specifically the abolitionist sentiments and radical beliefs of her parents and future husband, Percy Shelley (Malchow 96). At the dawning of the Romantic period, the image of the black slave shifted from the exotic to a scantily clad being imploring pity for their cause of freedom (Malchow 98). This pity harkens to the pity Rousseau discusses, where before reason beings pity those around them. Malchow also points out that Shelley was reading a great deal of literature at the time she was writing Frankenstein (99).

Race Imagery in the Creature Edit

Malchow shifts from history to literary analysis, first describing the creature's appearance. He repulses every human he encounters, and he reacts violently to these rejections, killing Frankenstein’s younger brother in one of these encounters (Malchow 102). Malchow states that the creatures’ large stature and his dark appearance is stereotypical of the description of black people in the travel and adventure literature circulating at the time (Malchow 102). With yellow eyes, black hair, and black lips that contrast his white teeth, the creature seems to recall racist, contemporaneous depictions of the black slave (Malchow 103). The other quality he draws specific attention to is the monster’s super human strength and his ability to scale mountains any normal European cannot, and his ability to withstand the harsh conditions of those mountains (Malchow 104). Stereotypes circulating during this period suggested that Africans could withstand extreme heat and cold much better than Europeans, surviving on very little sustenance, exemplified by the creatures’ meager diet (Malchow 105). He also draws attention to the fact that Frankenstein chasing his monster all over the Arctic is not unlike a slave driver chasing a runaway slave (Malchow 104).

Nature vs. Nurture Debate Edit

Malchow argues that the monster seems show both sides of the slavery debate. It was believed that slaves were childlike and had unpredictable tempers, which, paired with their massive strength, could be deadly. The creatures’ rage, according to Malchow, comes from deep within, something that is inherent in his nature (105). However, how much is derived from the environment the monster is raised in, and how does that affect his rationale? Had he been accepted and educated would he be different? This is the heart of the anti-slavery debate at this time (Malchow 105).

In some ways, Frankenstein is a depiction of the abolitionist, eager to create and instruct someone in the right way. However, Victor drops the ball with this, and the monster is never fully able to rise to true humanity, degraded to wander the forests and fend for himself. Had he been properly educated, things may have been different. The way that Frankenstein withholds education is typical of a slave-master relationship, the one with knowledge is the one with the power (Malchow 117).

Works Cited Edit

Malchow, H.L. "Frankenstein's Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain." Past and Present no. 139 (1993): 90-130. Web.

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