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When an End Becomes a Means: Self-Expression in Marx and Shelley

When an End Becomes a Means: Self-Expression in Marx and Shelley

by Raymond Bradford


While they address different contexts, Karl Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein both investigate the alienation produced when self-expression serves as a means rather than an end. For Marx, the capacity for self-expression separates humans from animals and augments the relationships between individuals and themselves and between individuals and others. Marx argues that humans possess a propensity for self-expression, but capitalism alienates humanity by prostituting self-expression to achieve animal subsistence. Shelley's Frankenstein implicitly upholds aspects of Marx's doctrine of estranged labor by highlighting the alienation Victor experiences when he reduces his self-expression to a tool in a dehumanizing and all-consuming quest for undiscovered knowledge. Thus, while both works possess similar interpretations of the human and the value of self-expression in connecting individuals to themselves and others, Frankenstein suggests that the causes of alienation extend beyond external economic factors to encompass internally-perpetuated ambition. Shelley's concern with the allure of scientific glory at the expense of "domestic affection" accounts for Frankenstein's examination of alienation as a struggle induced internally.

Karl Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 provide an understanding of the human rooted in self-expressive activity. Marx begins by asserting that animals act only to preserve their own existence. Such "one-sided" activity occurs "under the domination of immediate physical need" (1016). Humans deviate from animals in their capacity to act and exist universally by producing for purposes beyond physical subsistence; they can produce "according to the laws of beauty" (1016) with themselves as ends in production. Marx refers to this self-expressive activity as "life activity" or "species-life," and he further contends, "In the mode of life activity lies the entire character of a species, its species-character; and free conscious activity is the species-character of man" (1016). Thus, for Marx, the ability to self-express single-handedly defines humanity.

Beyond its role in defining humanity, Marx argues that self-expressive activity draws individuals closer to themselves and others. In animal activity, the products of the animal's labor "belong immediately to its physical [body]" (1016). The end of the activity (the physical body) essentially lays claim to the activity and its products. Since individuals make themselves the objects of their labor in self-expressive activity, they allow their identities to absorb the products of a process of self-realization and self-connection. As a result, Marx notes, "[Man] sees himself in a world he made" (1016) when he confronts the fruits of his production. Moreover, Marx understands the human experience as an inherently social one. He expresses this in his statements, "When man confronts himself, he confronts other men" (1016) and "...the relation of man to himself is realized and expressed in the relation between man and other men" (1017). These comments suggest self-expression and confrontation connect individuals not only with themselves, but also with each other.

Predicated on this understanding of the human and life activity, Marx condemns capitalism for converting self-expressive activities into animal ones, dehumanizing and alienating laborers in the process. Since laborers work solely for cash to secure physical existence, physical existence replaces self-expression as the object of labor, or as Marx himself states, "Alienated labor reverses the relationship [of species-life] in that man, since he is a conscious being, makes his life activity, his essence, only a means for his existence" (1016). As a result, physical existence lays animal claim to the objects of the workers' labor and the labor process, alienating workers from themselves and each other. Workers fashion alien, independent powers in which they fail to see themselves. Since laborers lack opportunities to confront themselves and each other, estrangement occurs, self-realization dwindles, and valuable interpersonal relationships lose connection.

In Shelley's Frankenstein, Victor's process of creation parallels Marx's doctrine of alienated labor by suggesting that when individuals prostitute life activity for other ends, connections to the self and others consequently wither away. Victor allows pure unadulterated ambition and the thirst for glory through undiscovered knowledge to supplant himself as the object of his labor. As a consequence of displacing life activity and making it a means for his ambition, Victor alienates himself from the product of his labor, from himself, and from his friends, family, and colleagues.

However, before investigating Victor's gradual estrangement and dehumanization, a potential problem exists in viewing Victor's ambitious drive for glory as distinct from self-expressive life activity. Victor's ambition arguably represents self-expression at its fullest--an unquenchable drive to leave a personal impact on science and the world. While such an interpretation appears compelling, a closer examination of Victor's act of creation suggests that, on the contrary, he sacrifices self-expression as a penance to his ambition. As Marx notes, in self-expressive life activity, individuals see themselves in the worlds they create and can subsequently confront their creations to gain self-realization.

In Frankenstein, Victor's relationship with the monster and the physical deformity of the monster itself demonstrate the complete prostitution of self-expression. Far from seeing himself in his creation, Victor views the monster as a "damnable fiend" and spends the majority of the novel avoiding confrontation with it, both in a traditional and a Marxist sense. Even if Victor had attempted reconciliation and Marxist confrontation with the monster, his act of creation would still fail to attain a self-expressive character, since the alien power he created fails to reflect any aspect of his identity. The physical features of the monster--its hideous deformity, unnatural proportions, and inhuman appearance--reinforce Victor's capitulation of self-expressive ends. Rather than reflecting him (or humanity), the monster's physical appearance reflects Victor's ambition; its grossly exaggerated size alleviated practical difficulties during Victor's science project. He states, "As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved to make the being of a gigantic stature" (52). The monster's allusions to Paradise Lost further reinforce Victor's lack of self-expression by juxtaposing God's creation of man in his image with Victor's creation of the monster, not reflective or even designed to be reflective of his image.

By consciously making his life activity a tool for his ambition, Victor falls victim to Marxist alienation and dehumanization. In his relationship to his labor, Victor bears similarity to Marx's worker; he physically produces an alien and independent power while simultaneously draining himself as his "cheeks [grow] pale with study" (53) and his "person [becomes] emaciated with confinement" (53). Victor also suffers a profound alienation from himself. He states, "I am a blasted tree; the bolt has entered my soul" (153), and further describes himself as "a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity... intolerable to myself" (153). Thus, Victor's act of creation alienates him from himself to the point that he envisions the prospect of self-confrontation and self-realization completely intolerable and potentially impossible. Victor's attempts to find solace in escape also fit within this framework by highlighting a perception of any alternative to self-confrontation as superior to facing the husk of his intrapersonal connections. For Victor, avoiding himself in nature or seeking to complete the alienation process in death appear preferable to addressing his own problematic and estranged identity.

Victor's relationships with others demonstrate similar deterioration as he subjugates his life activity to his ambition. He repeatedly references his alienation from others when he states, "I shunned my fellow creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime" (55), and later, as the process of production and alienation complete, "I saw an insurmountable barrier between me and my fellow men" (151). Victor's dream following the monster's creation visually reinforces the degradation of his interpersonal connections. In his dream, he sees Elizabeth and kisses her, only to watch her lips become "livid with the hue of death" (57). Her image fades away, and he finds himself holding the corpse of his dead mother. This, too, fades into the grinning visage of the monster, whose creation in waking life also replaced Victor's personal relationships.

Victor's multifaceted estrangement raises additional parallels to Marx's work in understanding the human and examining the object of alienated labor. Like Marx, Shelley apparently views intrapersonal and interpersonal connections as fundamental to humanity and happiness; their loss dehumanizes both Victor and his creation. When alienated from these relationships, hatred and misery overcome both characters; they fail to "feel the affections of sensitive [beings]" (140), and they lose their status as "[links] in the chain of existence" (141)--wording that portrays humans as inherently social and interconnected. Beyond advocating a similar understanding of the human, Shelley's novel parallels Marx's work in the ability for the ends of an activity to lay claim to the activity and its result. As discussed earlier, Marx argues that the object of an activity (such as physical existence or an individual's identity) lays claim to the production process and products inherent in the activity. Interestingly, Frankenstein provides a physical representation of this phenomenon. The monster physically takes from Victor all his close personal relations before claiming Victor's identity (hatred for the monster completely consumes Victor) and his physical vitality.

Although a Marxist reading of Shelley's Frankenstein shows a remarkable similarity between the production of the estranged worker under capitalism and Victor's creation of the monster under the driving weight of his consuming ambition, Frankenstein diverges from Marxist philosophy by suggesting that a willfully-pursued quest for inhuman glory can have the same effect as external societal and economical conditions in reversing the relationship between self-expressive life activity and base physical existence. The artistic and thematic aims of the novel account for this emphasis: Shelley seeks to remind readers of the presence of a relevant danger and a relevant choice--the choice to sacrifice heartfelt emotion at the altars of science and individualistic, inhuman ambition. Shelley herself states in the preface that one of the story's chief aims lies in the "exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection" (xiv), and Victor's deterioration reflects a failure to realize this amiability. Unlike Marx's laborer, who avoids his externally-induced labor "like a plague" (Marx 1015), Victor willfully engages in his creation process despite feeling "rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in a mine" (Shelley 55). He chooses the siren call of science and glorious discoveries "out of the common pathways of men" (21) over more humanizing emotions and the development of self-expressive connections. Marx indicts capitalism, not the laborers themselves, for dehumanization; Shelley essentially indicts Victor for his own dehumanization. Thus, while Shelley's moral considerations result in an investigation of an overwhelmingly self-induced alienation rather than the externally-driven estrangement of Marx's manuscripts, both works provide an ultimate caution against the prostitution of self-expression to achieve other ends.


Works Cited

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (in part). From Plato to Derrida. Ed. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann. 4th ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2003. 1011-1019.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Signet Classic, 1994.