Sunday 13 August 2017

The Frankenstein's Monster of Realism, Surrealism and Irrealism

Sometimes, such as when getting your latest script rejection from the BBC, it’s easy to say, “These idiots are just realism-loving idiots! They’ve never moved beyond the Kitchen Sink dramas of the 50s so you won’t get anything accepted by them unless it is set in 1) a Council estate; 2) a Welsh ex-mining village; or 3) somewhere “post-colonial” – it doesn’t matter where; Africa is good but the Indian sub-continent is better.” And while this is undoubtedly true (as it also is for some of the more established literary journals such as Granta), sometimes it is worth examining what realism actually is rather than just concluding, “I write surrealistic/irrealistic fiction so must therefore concentrate on slipstream and Bizarro publishers or the more adventurous genre publishers."  After all, doesn’t a lot of genre fiction actually take advantage of a lot of realist styles and tropes? So, when I am ranting at the BBC, what exactly do I mean by “realist?”

To try and make sense of it, let’s go back to one of the earliest examples of genre fiction (as at least we can then differentiate between what is realist or not and what is just weird whilst still retaining realist features). Frankenstein is often regarded as the first Science Fiction novel. However, when considering how realist this tale of reanimated dead flesh is, it is first important to discuss what the realist novel is, and then settle on a definition. Duranty, who edited a journal called Realisme, defined realism as a type of writing based on the everyday experiences of ordinary men and women, using the simplest possible language. Clara Reeves agreed, and wrote that the realist novel should describe events:

"...such as may happen to our friend, or to (as) to make them appear so probable (that we can believe)....that it is all real." (Reeves cited in Allcot, 1965, p.47)

This definition of realism has much in common with that of Ian Watt, who agreed that realist texts should individualise the characters and give full accounts of the times and places of their actions. These definitions are limited however, as much of J.G. Ballard's, and Philip.K. Dick's work adhere to these rules, despite being overtly surreal, as is, for example Kafka's Metamorphosis .

George Eliot admitted that any attempt at direct mirroring of reality was impossible because of the author's subjective perceptions distorting what could be "mirrored", an idea similar to Magritte's painting of a pipe (La Trahison des images), with the words "This is not a pipe", written below it. He is, like Eliot, right. It is not a pipe but an oil painting representing a pipe, in the same way that any novel isn't reality, but a list of ordered symbols representing the author's reality, a view proposed by the Structuralist, Roland Barthes.

Kettle regarded the realist novel as intimately linked with society, and thus a reflection and result of social upheaval, a view supported by George Levine's assertion that the moral unsettledness of Nineteenth Century England resulted in novelists trying to recreate and rediscover a moral reality through their works. This "hidden agenda" of the realist novelist was described by Marxists like Lukacs and Kettle, who argued that realism was not a passive reflection of what is.

Thus, a useful definition of realism would be that of Clara Reeves, with the addition that many realist texts should deal with controversial issues, and should possess original plots based on "real life" not fable. As Watt said, realism isn't inverted Romance (i.e. focusing on poor, immoral degenerates), but "all human experience". (Although again, there are many exceptions to this argument and as Dickens' work proves, such a loose term can be expanded on, because dreaming, and other altered states of consciousness, are subjectively valid experiences).

Kettle defined the Romance novel as being a non-realistic (presenting idealised, mediaevally chivalrous worlds), escapist genre that emphasized aristocratic and socially unchallenging attitudes, whilst diverting, entertaining and titillating the reader. Its characters also tended to be Good vs Evil stereotypes rather than "real". The Gothic Novel however, tried to combine the real and the fantastic, often containing supernatural elements and melodramatic or heightened language. Eva Kosofsky Sedgewick also described several features of the Gothic novel including: "tyrannical older men"; "sensitive heroines and their impetuous lovers"; "wild, ruined, feudal, (usually) European landscapes"; "a discontinuous involuted form in the novel"; "common topics such as doubles of characters, death-like states, dreams, and obscure family ties"; "unintellible writings", and "the possibility of incest, and the effects of guilt and shame" (Kosofsky Sedgewick, 1986).

This may seem like a lot of detail, but it is important to understand the meanings of these terms when describing how a text like Frankenstein adheres to or differs from standard realism. Is it, as The Gothic Novel attempted, indeed possible to combine the real and the fantastic?

The idea of Frankenstein being regarded as the first Science Fiction novel, is based on the idea of "picture (it) without the science, story!" (Stanley Schmidt in Analog Science Fiction, 1991). Unfortunately, on closer examination, this view is quite simplistic. The science is far from central - had Frankenstein used magic to create the monster the effect of the novel would have been much the same i.e. the main themes would still be that of Creator/Created, Moral Responsibility, Revolution of Order, and so on. Even Shelley herself does not describe "the Science" in detail.

Shelley uses Realist techniques to describe scene, to develop the characters, and the narrative is generally structured by these character's actions. However, she also draws on techniques more familiar to the Gothic novel, melodrama, and (unsurprisingly) Romanticism. For example, Frankenstein, unlike most realist texts, constantly reminds the reader that it is a piece of fiction. Its structure is similar to many Gothic novels in having "stories within stories" told by one character to another. It consciously refers to other literary works, both in the novel (the Milton, Goethe etc that the creature reads), throughout the novel (the parallels between Frankenstein and the monster to Milton's God and Satan (and also God and Man, and Eve and Sin); between Clerval and the hero of Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey; between Frankenstein and Prometheus (both positive and negative aspects of the myth); and also outside the narrative, by subtitling the novel "The Modern Prometheus".

This referral to "what has gone before" is a contradiction of what we usually think of as realism. Similarly, like a modern myth, it has a definite beginning and end, unlike Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations, with their more "realistic" open-endings.

Also, Shelley uses melodramatic "Romance" techniques - many of the settings are not forges or towns, but Arctic Wastes, mountainous ice-floes, and turbulent seas. Similarly, her descriptions of the Joys of Nature and their relation to Man (as well as their ability to torment) is a very Romantic notion. (Importantly she also quotes many Romantic poets including Coleridge's Ancient Mariner (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, p41), Byron's Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage (Ibid. p54-55), P.B. Shelley's On Mutability (Ibid. p75-76), and Wordsorth's Tintern Abbey (Ibid p130) amongst others).

The Gothic elements of the novel are also seen in various scenes including the death of Elizabeth (pp165-166); the destruction of the monster's mate and his reactions, (pp139-141), and much of Volume II, Chapter 2 where the Gothically menacing mountains are climbed with supernatural speed by the creature. The settings and the use of elevated, emotional language are thus highly reminiscent of the Gothic novel.

The first appearance of the Creature (p38-39) is especially interesting as it mixes the Gothic (the famous description of the Creature, and Frankenstein's dream of Elizabeth's lips "...becoming livid with the hue of death....I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms.....I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel (of her shroud)"), with the Romantic i.e. the view that proportionate limbs, each beautiful in themselves, should result in a total beauty (all p39).

However, despite this, Frankenstein can still be regarded as realist because it reflects the many issues of the times. For example, Revolution, as had occurred in France, was regarded as a "monstrosity", and an affront to natural Order, in much the same way as Frankenstein's creation of the creature can be seen in attempting to usurp God, but also the creature could himself represent the revolutionary proletariat (ie from one point of view an uncontrollable destructive force, or on the other, a force that could be educated and Good, is in fact created "innocent", but is corrupted by social forces), as well as representing English attitudes to 'the foreign', the creature's narrative echoing that of a then-popular idea of "the noble savage". (He reflected the fears of the rulers if their physically powerful, but ignorant, ignoble savage was to be 'released' among polite (Western) society - the manner of his supposed death is reminiscent of the Indian custom of sati (the wife's jumping on the husband's funeral pyre), which was also regarded as either primitive or noble depending on the observer's point of view). In much the same way the monster could be seen to represent political radicalism, and working-class activity (as many sources at the time show with their own comparisons).

The responsibility of Science towards the people is still valid today, but was specially poignant to the Romantic Imagination (compare with Keat's fear that Science's explanation of the rainbow had robbed it of its natural beauty). In addition, the lack of any natural birth, the twisted creation of the monster, and the parallels between Frankenstein and the Eve myth (Gilbert and Gubar, 2000), which in turn links back to Paradise Lost, (Frankenstein creates the creature from parts of bodies, while Satan creates Sin "by his left side opening wide" (Paradise Lost, Book II,ll. 755ff), and God creates Woman by removing Adam's rib), emphasises Shelley's own unique view as a woman writer reacting against stereotyped ideas of femininity and motherhood (Moers in Walden 1995).

Thus, whilst Frankenstein can be seen very firmly as a realist text (it uses realist techniques, it addresses the above-mentioned, then-contemporary controversial issues, and its characters are 'original' and develop through the story), its use of Gothic and Romantic imagery and style, its multi-layered structure and conscious references to known Myth and Literature, stretches the boundaries of the realist novel as being about "ordinary people".

However, if we approach this issue from another angle, is there really anything as a purely “realist” novel? Let’s look at another nineteenth century novel, something that was written generations before Eliot and Joyce and Pound. Let’s look at something that has almost come to define the realist-loving BBC, Dickens’ Great Expectations. The novel does in fact show many examples of Gothicism, notably the appearance of Miss Havisham and Satis house (Dickens, Great Expectations, Penguin, p87-94), the first and second appearance of Magwitch (p36-39, and pp332-338), and the description of Wemmick's Gothic "castle" (p229), as well as convoluted plot 'coincidences' common in melodrama and Romances. However, these Gothic excesses are toned down by the unusual point of view (the adult Pip describes the thoughts of the child Pip), thus giving the reader an element of ironic distancing.

Even the burning of Miss Havisham at Satis (I've already referred to the Indian ritual "sati"), which could be seen as spontaneous combustion (believed to be caused by depression, guilt or Sin), is carefully left as possibly realistic by her sitting too close to the fire (easier than explaining the scientific plausibility of the phenomenon as Dickens did after Bleak House).

Thus while Dickens undoubtedly worked within a realist framework, he did make use of other genres such as Gothicism, exaggeration and melodrama to reinforce his realities. He disliked the realist tendency of being "frightfully literal and catalogue-like" (Dickens in Walder, 1995), and his multi-genre approach means that it can have as many meanings as his readers mean to infer on it.

The names of the characters are realistic, but not strictly realist, as they are symbolic. Pip is like a bud ready to grow; Estella is cold and beautiful like a star; Miss Havisham does indeed have a lot, but her life is a sham; and the resonance of evil in Magwitch should be obvious. Only dependable Joe and Biddy have perfectly natural names.

Elements of Great Expectations are also heavily symbolic. Parts of the body, especially the hands (Pip's coarse hands, His burning of his hands when saving Miss Havisham, his "fake" mother, Magwitch's clasping of Pip's hands at several important times including his death etc) take on symbolic meanings. (However, a point not before mentioned is Magwitch's threatening to cut out Pip's liver (the symbol of purification and regeneration), as opposed to Miss Havisham's frequent pointing to her heart (she lacks one and tries to break his)). This heavy use of symbolism, irony and heavy exaggeration, makes Great Expectations break many realist conventions. Indeed Leavis wrote that Dickens found "a freer form of dealing with experience" that enabled readers to move....from the "real" world of everyday experience into the non-rational life of....spiritual experience" (Leavis, 1970, p289), a point reinforced by Wilson, who claimed that Dicken's work touched on repressed areas of the personality, Pip thus standing, like Dickens, both inside and outside Victorian society, an idea revealed through Pip's relationships with the other characters.

Thus, it can be seen that in some ways, an over-eagerness, either on my part or on publishers and broadcasters, to too readily categorise my work as “surreal” or “irreal” or “bizarre” should be avoided as even old stalwarts like Great Expectations or early genre fiction like Frankenstein do, to both lesser or greater extents, seem to break many of the realist "rules" by using techniques stolen from other genres, they enlarge the meaning of the realist novel through this cross-fertilisation. This creates multi-layered works, that while they are good examples of "real" people developing because of their actions, their use of allegory, symbolism, and Gothic techniques such as the "doubling" of characters, create a deeper emotional response through wider points of reference. Indeed, this could explain my own reticence to identify my own work as Bizarro, as much later Bizarro now seems to have become mired in its own tropes, clichés and stereotypes and are, for want of a better expression, “weird for the sake of being weird.” I rarely write material like that, instead using surreal or irreal elements to highlight or magnify issues that the protagonists are feeling, using those weird elements to make their emotional states manifest in physical reality.

Still, I doubt such insight will help when it comes to submitting radio drama to the BBC. So perhaps I may just write my next play about a menopausal Indian woman who lives in a Welsh ex-mining town now that her children have left the nest. That sounds like the BBC all over.


Allen, R, (1995), "Reading Frankenstein", in Walder, D. (ed) The Realist Novel (Approaching Literature), London, Routledge in association with the Open University.

Barthes, R. (1986), "The Reality Effect" from The Rustle of Language Blackwell, pp141-8.

Dickens, C (1965), Great Expectations, London, Penguin.

Gilbert, S. and Gubar, S. (2000) The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press.

Kettle, A. (1977), "Realism and Romance" from An Introduction to the English Novel - Volume One: Defoe to George Eliot: 1, pp28-36.

Kosofsky Sedgewick, E. (1986) Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Methuen & Co.

Levine, G. (1981), "The realistic imagination" from The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterly: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley, University of Chicago Press, pp5, 6, 8, 15-22.

Regan, S (1996). "The Language of Realism", in The Language of Realism, A210 The Open University Audio Cassette 1, Side 1, Bands 1 & 2, The Open University.

Said, E. (1994), "Culture and Imperialism" from Culture And Imperialism Vintage, ppxiv-xvii, 73-5, 77-8.

Shelley, M (1818), Frankenstein, Oxford, Oxford World's Classics Edition.

Tomlinson, N (1995) Study Guide 1, Shaftesbury, Dorset, Blackmore, Longmead, The Open University.

van Ghent, D. (1961), "On Great Expectations" from The English Novel, Form and Function, Harper & Row, pp128-38.

Walder, D. (1995), "Reading Great Expectations", in Walder, D. (ed) The Realist Novel (Approaching Literature), London, Routledge in association with the Open University.

Watt, I. (1972), "Realism and the novel form" from The Rise Of The Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, pp9-23, 33-36.

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