Decolonializing Frankenstein There are two monsters in Mary Shelley's novel: Victor, and creature.

Photo by Lewis R. Gordon

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) is, among many things, a proto-postcolonial text. Shelley, after all, was not only a precocious writer but also an anti-colonialist defender of freedom. It was no accident that her classic work was told through an explorer, Robert Walton, attempting to traverse the northern seas and, through finding a path across the North Pole, opening routes for new possibilities of conquest and domination. After hearing Victor Frankenstein’s tale and speaking with his creation, that seafaring voyager abandoned his mission and sailed home.

It is also no accident that Shelley chose to name the tragic protagonist of her eponymous novel “Frankenstein.” The Latin word francus, from which the name “Frank” and by extension “Frankenstein” emerged, means freedom. The novel’s theme is enriched by the ill-fated creator’s given name. Speakers of the English language already know what “Victor” means. Together, the names suggest freedom’s victory. Or, if we stick to the actual order, they announce victory’s freedom. If the second, why should the victorious, by chance, need freedom? Shouldn’t freedom emerge from being victorious? Is this a case of existential irony where winner loses? As the adage goes, we should be careful about what we wish for, since receiving it may occasion misery.

In Shelley’s day, the answer to the question of the quest for and exemplification of freedom pointed singularly to man. Today, having learned the problems with that formulation, we say the human being. Either formulation brings forth a basic observation. The human being embodies the anxieties of and struggle for freedom. The first occasions proverbial fear and trembling; the latter often builds worlds of strife, degradation, and oppression. Overcoming the second is, in our age, the story of decolonization in the hopes of achieving a better world.

Frankenstein is, in a way, a story of a man’s desire to be liberated from himself. By extension, it is a story of human beings. Nearly 150 years later, Frantz Fanon explored similar themes. His first effort, Black Skin, White Masks, is in effect from the perspective of the creature’s desperate search for love and recognition. Fanon’s last, The Damned of the Earth, focuses on the bondage of nihilistic portraits of creators and the created. The first effort affirmed the poignancy of Shelley’s narrative. The latter attempts to overcome its, and many colonial subject’s, shortcomings.

Frankenstein is, in a way, a story of a man’s desire to be liberated from himself.

To set the stage, let’s begin with myth. A theme that emerges in existential thought and much mythic literature is the human-producing significance of disobedience and violence. It is a recurring element of cosmological myths, which, after offering portraits of a perfect or near-perfect and pristine universe, poses the problem of the introduction of human beings. Why bring us into the picture when in every instance we mess things up? The answer usually narrates a creator’s act of love, often narcissistic but sometimes devotional and self-sacrificing, or, if not those, effort to escape boredom.

The creation always disappoints the creator. The path to damnation often begins with an act of disobedience that leads to violence. Why, if the human being is introduced in material form, do processes of animation ranging from the breath of a deity to its base excretion or exquisite kiss not produce what to human beings today is nothing short of familiar and tragic? Why the introduction of negative actions? Why not the production of new kinds of angels?

From an existential perspective, the consequence is obvious. The material form shares much with the rest of creation, but disobedience and its radical implication—violence—bring to light a divergence from the rest and makes manifest something godlike through the ability to defy gods or, in the traditions that dominate much of the planet since the fifteenth century, an absolute deity. I write, of course, of freedom.

Freedom, however, brings along responsibility. What often follows from that is, unfortunately, guilt. In the Book of Genesis, the call to Adam in the Garden of Eden, for example, was, “Where are you?” while Eve and he hid, experiencing shame, guilt’s ally. Literature across the globe reveals a human longing for freedom without responsibility, or at least guilt-free freedom, freedom without shame—a freer freedom, so to speak. Francus, from which we saw the name Frank emerged, refers not only to being free but also to being at liberty or exempt from service. Victory’s freedom— Frankenstein—would then be absolute license. What would that be, however, but to become a god or, if not worse or at least equal, a monster?

Similar to Shelley’s creature, Fanon’s black embarks on a journey, born of rejection, through successive paths of failures.

Hubris has its consequences. Shelley, we should remember, subtitled her novel the modern Prometheus. Variations of the myth of Prometheus offer many causes, but all conclude with the deviant Titan’s punishment.

Given the observation of “modern,” let us turn to Fanon’s critical reflections. In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon observes that the black is a white construction. Before the emergence of Euromodernity at the end of the fifteenth century, the world was premised neither on races of white and black people, nor subsequent formulations of brown, red, and yellow. There were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and many other kinds of people such as Ibo, Luo, Nubian, Shona, Tallensi, Tswana, Venda, and Yorùbá, and many others in Africa, or Celts, Francs, Norsemen, Slavs, and more in Europe, or Apaches, Aztecs, Chippewa, Hopis, Incas, Iroquois, Sioux, Taínos, just to name several in the Americas, or Ainus, Chams, Koori, and Maori in the Asian and Oceanic regions of the Pacific, and many more. The world in which the black is created, which makes the black indigenous to it, is also full of prohibitions and rejections, central among which is that it is also one in which blacks do not belong. The black, then, suffers from a peculiar melancholia, a form of bereavement from having been born of rejection. That world demands one solution. Become white.

Similar to Shelley’s creature, Fanon’s black embarks on a journey, born of rejection, through successive paths of failures. There is the failure of public appearance despite mastery of cultural resources such as language. Erotic recognition, marked by an effort to find a mate or the sanctuary of love, fails. Retreat into the life of dreams offers nightmarish reminders of reality. Even defiance through affirmed negation such as Negritude, valorized blackness, culminates in sorrow and tears. Without hope, the location of abnormality, monstrosity, raises the problem of being beneath human while reaching for human appearance.

Frustration emerges, however, where appearance from such a creature is illicit. To see such a creature is to witness a violation of sight. In response, Fanon’s demand was to become what he called “actional.” He wanted to be able to do something. If the black must be erased, could it not be through a transformation beyond whiteness—which for Fanon is, by the way, death? As he wrote in his recently published play, Parallel Hands (2017), “To no longer see mute whiteness / To no longer see death….”

Fanon’s answer was a call for a movement from the black to the Black. The Black is a creature created by the black. There is a paradox here, since the black, defined as mere effect in the world, could only do so if the Black were living inside the contradiction of that imposition. Fanon thus ended Black Skin, White Masks with a prayer to his body to be a question, to be a possibility. What becomes of this possibility?

There are crucial differences between Frankenstein’s creature and those created through colonization. The latter, after all, are descendants of people who had their own creation myths, their own understandings of disobedience, violation, responsibility, and freedom. Though Frankenstein’s creature was patched together from what once lived, not all of those pieces were human. Those elements stood primarily as material. The colonial creature is born, however, of dehumanization. Thus, the demand is not for the birth of the human but, at first, a call for re-humanization. In the case of people mashed together from different cultures under colonization, the point remains since each culture was once appreciated as a living human one. The problem, however, is that Euromodern colonialism added an ingredient that bars such return.

To make matters worse, the addition of indigeneity, resulting in “natives,” pushes colonized subjects into the past. Through notions of primeval belonging—in a word, primitiveness—to belong to the future calls not for a return, but instead for an overcoming. In other words, the path beyond Euromodern colonization is not pre-modernity but instead a form of post-Euromodernity. This, in effect, comes down to an alternative modernity. This is so because at the heart of being modern is to belong to the future. Fanon’s Black, then, is Afro-modern.

The Damned of the Earth (1961) is Fanon’s final return to the problem of historical belonging. The title offered here is my translation. It is most popularly known by its 1963 translation The Wretched of the Earth. My translation is truer not only to the French but also to what Fanon argues in that work.

Fanon begins with a bold thesis. Decolonization is always violent. This often-misunderstood observation emerges from colonialism. Settler societies claim to be just societies. To eradicate or change them, then, is to implement injustice. Fanon’s point is that the tragedy of colonialism is that both sides cannot win. The victory of one is the loss of another. Either the colonized live with continued illicit appearance—violence against their existence—or reject it and become agents of what is for the settler unjust change. There is, after all, only one form of nonviolence most settlers, if not all, would accept, and that amounts to maintaining the status quo. Defying the settler-creators in acts of violence, which include all acts of defiance or efforts of social transformation, the agents of decolonization then become new kinds of creatures. Returning to Frankenstein, we now have some crucial elements in place for analysis.

First, what are such creatures? As manifestations of freedom, they should be “human.” There is, however, a problem. They have agency (proven through disobedience), free will, and, as they eventually discover, the ability to commit violence. Instead of guilt and shame, however, they are dominated by resentment. It is Frankenstein’s creature’s envy that transformed his suffering into violence onto his creator’s family. His disobedience emerged from violating Victor’s repeated order to leave his family and him alone. The closest thing to experiencing guilt is how the creature responds when Victor dies, and this death does not occur by the creature’s hand.

For some perspective, consider the African-American character Cross Damon, the anti-hero of Richard Wright’s novel The Outsider (1953). His name, like Victor Frankenstein, speaks for itself. A cross has many meanings from the geometrical to the theological. Referring to two intersecting lines, it also signifies decision, as in what one faces at a crossroads. Yes, as creatures of choice, we all have our proverbial cross to bear. The cross serving as a symbol of salvation in Christianity is another. As an adjective, it also means to be annoyed, irritated, or vexed—in other words, pissed off. The name “Damon,” however, is tricky. It is derived from the Greek damazo, which means “to tame.” In Greek mythology, Damon is the friend of Pythias (“to rot”), whose place he took in prison in wait of execution. The Greek story had a good ending of a king so impressed by Damon’s courage and Pythias’ fidelity in returning to fulfill his death sentence that the latter was pardoned. Wright played with this myth but transformed it through layers of the unforgiving world of classism, colonialism, and racism, where “Damon” would be heard more as “Demon,” since to commit the crime of being born black is unforgivable. From crossed-tame to crossed-demon, the novel ends with Cross Damon lamenting at his final breath, after committing several homicides, that he had one regret: he was dying feeling “innocent.”

This innocence, of course, could only emerge as an admission that Cross Damon was dying not as an adult, mature, or responsible being—in a word, human or, in the language of old, a man. If such is the case, such creatures also raise questions about whether they should exist, since their emergence seems to lead, after a path of destruction, nowhere. In each story, the creator should not have existed because of what he has created, so he (and sometimes she, as in the original Grimm brothers’ fairytale “Little Snow White”) is destroyed. That conclusion points back to the creator. If the creator became such through having created the created, then the creator should not have been, in effect, created. The creator should not have created himself as a creator. In Victor Frankenstein’s case, this conviction demanded, after confession, mythic resolution through the cleansing force of burial in the icy northern sea. The creature, which by then faces all the repercussions of disobeying Victor’s orders, vows to destroy himself through the cleansing force of fire. It is no accident the first is the mythic symbol of the feminine and the latter of the masculine. One returns to the mother; the other, at least through avowal, to the father’s fire from which he began.

The colonial version raises two portraits. As we have seen, in Black Skin, White Masks, there is only one option for the black from a narcissistic father of racist colonialism. Become white, become the father, which equals death. Fanon’s answer, through the Black, was the possibility, announced in prayer, of becoming a question. The Damned of the Earth, however, offers another choice. Take on the role of creator—as opposed to the creator—and build a new humanity.

Olta Shkembri, Untitled

Fanon is critical of the national bourgeoisie of most postcolonies in his time. They attempted to create their creator’s image, which they offered to their people as their own. This grammar of imitation and repetition, of taking on one’s creator’s image and projecting it onto one’s created, is a form of changing players but not games. The created, we should remember, achieve their freedom through disobedience, whose implications point to violence. Thus, the problem with the colonizing model of creator’s love is its narcissism. What, however, if the love is such that instead of setting as the condition of legitimacy that the creature be in the creator’s image—love only of oneself—the creator understands the value of his transcendence or love beyond himself?

The creature in Shelley’s novel asks for a mate, which the creator begins to assemble but then tears apart. For the creature, the act of creating is entirely in the hands of the creator. He does not ask himself about whether what he wants could be created by other means. If he were to do so, he would raise the possibility of a different kind of creator. If creating must be an act of love, such an effort would introduce love of a different kind. It is the failure to see otherwise that leads the creature to vow to Walton only one solution when his creator dies.

A monster is a warning, which means it is also showing something.

Walton, at that point in the novel, is for the reader the only direct witness of the creature. We have here an important element through which the story of the creature is also one of witnessed monstrosity. As Jane Anna Gordon and I argue in Of Divine Warning: Reading Disaster in the Modern Age (2009), a monster is a warning. The word “monster” emerges from the Latin noun monstrum (“divine omen,” “portent,” “supernatural appearance”), which is from the verb monere (“to show”). Think of words such as “demonstrate” and “admonition” or “premonition.” A monster is a warning, which means it is also showing something. In the world of myth, admonitions have divine and nefarious origins.

Seeing an admonition raises a complicated set of obligations, however. Think of disaster. The word, from Italian dis conjoined with astro (in Latin, astrum), means fallen star or planet. That which falls from the heavens was in many societies seen as a bad omen. To be among the heavenly is, after all, good. Thus, to fall is a sign of something gone wrong. To see this sign raises a problem. For whom is such a sign? A “catch-22” emerges. If one accepts the sign and the disaster as one’s own, the sign ends there. If one flees to the sanctuary of others, one approaches them as the continuation of the sign. One becomes what Jane Anna Gordon and I call a sign continuum. This continuation of the sign makes one not only a disaster but also, as a warning, a monster.

There are, then, two monsters in Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus: Victor and the creature. Both, after all, are warnings. The name “Prometheus” means, by the way, foresight or forethought. The word “theus” is a variation of Zeus or Deus—in a word, god. The modern Prometheus is thus a form of divine forethought being offered to the listener or reader. Walton, bearing witness to each, we should remember, abandons his mission of conquest.

Two alternatives are posed. Press on to destruction and death or, acknowledging monstrosity, abandon the journey of creation. Are those the only alternatives?

Fanon, born under colonialism, wants nothing to do with repeated death. If monstrosity is his condition, what kind of divine warning is he? In his famous foreword to The Damned of the Earth, the French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre offers an answer: Europe’s violence turned onto itself. Sartre oddly functions, in his admonitions, both like Walton and a monster of his own. His effort to declare what he sees becomes a sign continuum, a warning through another warning of what is to come, and his counsel to European man is the same. Turn back. Abandon your mission. Too many readers of Fanon’s classic text unfortunately stop at the end of Sartre’s foreword and, as a consequence, fail to learn that Fanon offers an alternative.

The word damned has origins in soil. The Hebrew word adamah, referring to human, from which we get Adam, also means earth, dirt, ground, soil, or specifically red dirt, red soil, or red clay. The damned of the earth, though often interpreted as referring to the communist international, offers a special, mythic redundancy. The earthly of the earth acknowledges being grounded. In that grounding, the creator and the created do not yoke the future. Instead, through realization of not being gods, the human path of freedom is proffered. The word human, derived from homo carries the same connotation. Think of humus (dirt, earth, ground). As a deviation or upsurge, the human being is the paradox of the ground not remaining in its place. To produce ground that remains still would be the folly and brutality of stimulated freedom crushed into submergence.

We come, then, to an alternative model of love as a commitment to freedom on its own terms, where the free is not mimetic but open. This model, however, requires addressing the guilt question.

Fanon, similar to Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, thought of guilt as an unhealthy feature of being human. It requires experiencing a responsibility that one does not want. If, however, there is embracing responsibility without guilt, a new way of being human, perhaps more healthy, would be born. Though Fanon’s hopes were political manifestations of freedom, we could close here with the mature recommendation for the created taking on the responsibility of creating through also overcoming the seriousness of being full of themselves. Freedom, in other words, is a call to overcome the misguided self in the celebration of every generation, according to Fanon, having its mission to fulfill or betray.

Fanon’s arguments reveal the problem of last nations.

Fanon’s message serves as an important warning for our times. Sharing Nietzsche’s observation of an age of “last men,” those whose values are poisoned by envy and resentment to the point of hating anyone who transcends them, Fanon’s arguments reveal the problem of last nations. This emerges when a society comes to believe its transcendence signals the end of the world. To ward off such a possibility, such nations, many of which in the Euromodern world are nationstates, become imperial and block the flourishing of others in the name of their security. The effect of taking themselves too seriously renders other social possibilities stillborn. Nietzsche posed the overman as the healthy alternative to the last man. The overman is over himself, is no longer full of himself. He is a man who celebrates the freedom of others, and in so doing, has a healthy relationship to freedom. This, unfortunately, is not the path of Euromodern colonial states and their heirs. The last nation, last nation-state, and last states are saturated with poisonous, impotent values of class exploitation, racism, xenophobia, and investments in human degradation.

Getting over the nation, nation-state, and state requires the courage of commitment to imagination and freedom. It requires setting afoot the conditions, as Fanon declared, for a new humanity. What does doing such mean?

Returning to Frankenstein, we encounter, as we did with Black Skin, White Masks, a limit to transcend. The creature, after all, imagined creation only from his creator. He demanded repetition. If he, however, took responsibility for positive creation, creating possibility, the message from The Damned of the Earth demands that those of his kind become creators.  Instead of yoking the future, however, this alternative demands becoming a condition for its possibility instead of its enslavement. It requires not only becoming a question but also taking on the responsibility of what is to be done.

Lewis R. Gordon

Lewis R. Gordon is a philosopher, musician, and global political intellectual. He is Professor of Philosophy with affiliation in Jewish Studies, Caribbean and Latin American Studies, Asian and Asian American Studies, and International Studies at UCONNStorrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; Honorary Professor at the Unit of the Humanities at Rhodes University (UHURU), South Africa; and the Boaventura de Sousa Santos Chair in the Faculty for Economics at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. He is the author of many books, including, Of Divine Warning (with Jane Anna Gordon, Routledge), and, more recently, Fear of Black Consciousness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Penguin Book in the UK). He edits the American Philosophical Association blog series Black Issues in Philosophy and co-edits the book series Global Critical Caribbean Thought.

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