What Is A Monster? Essay
Peter Brooks' essay "What Is a Monster" tackles many complex ideas within Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the main concept that is the title of the essay itself. What is the definition of a monster, or to be monstrous? Is a monster the classic representation we know, green skin, neck bolts, grunting and groaning? A cartoon wishing to deliver sugary cereal? or someone we dislike so greatly their qualities invade our language and affect our interpretation of their image and physical being? Brooks' essay approaches this question by using Shelley's narrative structure to examine how language, not nature, is mainly accountable for creating the idea of the monstrous body.
Brooks begins his argument by analyzing the relationships of the novel and how they build tension between the characters. He speaks to how the narrative frame itself positions the reader to "supplement" the story of the "speaker", which in the case of Frankenstein is both the text itself and the individual narration of the characters. Most importantly, he sets up how Frankenstein's narrative frame, essentially a series of conversations relating one characters unresolved issues to another, begins creating the concept of the monster. Creation of the monstrous, in the idea of Brooks happens solely through language, a medium deemed corrupt and insufficient. This is the source of the monstrous, as Brooks reveals that through the Monster's exposure to the world, he no longer takes part in the imaginary order as he finds that he cannot be accepted on appearance alone, and instead uses language as a tool to express his desires.
However, this proves to be insufficient, as once the monster uses the symbolic power of language, an expression of the conscious, he no longer can quantify what his desire actually is. By using language to express his desires, and knowing that he is using language as the ends to a mean, he is creating an excess of meaning that has no direct tie to a signified any longer - there is too much signification and no signifier. Actual unconscious desire that the Monster seeks is not apparent to him, and that lack of meaning tied to one's desire is passed on through his plea to his creator, Victor Frankenstein. Subsequently this "lack" of meaning touches Victor's tale to Walton, and finally the reader as a surrogate receiving Walton's letters to his absent sister. The Monster becomes a symbol (and signifier) of the detachment from unconscious desire (the signified) created by language and relationships, a "monster" in the truest sense of the form, signifying deficiency and the unnatural, an object beyond comprehension and meaning itself. By extending beyond meaning, the Monster no longer is part of an interlocutionary relationship, but a symbol to be discussed, viewed, and compared.
Brooks' argument takes a firm look at the text and how it uses language to position the internal mechanics of desire. Since what we desire is no longer part of our vocabulary in language, we...
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INTRODUCTORY ESSAY TO OUR EXPLORATION OF MONSTROSITY
Explanation of Color Scheme/Spatial Metaphors of Site
Glossary of Terms
The Oxford English Dictionary lists five definitions for monster:
1. Something extraordinary or unnatural; a prodigy, a marvel.
2. An animal or plant deviating in one or more of its parts from the normal type; spec.,
an animal afflicted with some congenital malformation; a misshapen birth, an abortion.
3. An imaginary animal (such as the centaur, sphinx, minotaur, or the heraldic griffin, wyvern, etc.)
having a form either partly brute and partly human, or compounded of elements from two or more
4. A person of inhuman and horrible cruelty or wickedness; a monstrous example of (wickedness,
or some particular vice).
5. An animal of huge size; hence, anything of vast and unwieldy proportions.
The word 'monster' in America today can mean all of these things, though in the common vernacular it is
generally used as 3 and 5 above: 'Monsters' are creatures we become on Halloween; we drive 'monster' trucks
and look for jobs on 'Monster.com.' 'Monster' implies largeness, a quality almost universally admired in
American culture. But what does the existence of monsters (as 'imaginary' animals) in a culture signify?
A culture's monsters emblematically embody its most acute anxieties. Cultures create and ascribe meaning
to monsters, endowing them with characteristics derived from their most deep-seated fears and taboos.
The body of the monster, then, becomes the site of these cultural proscriptions, representing the taboos of the
societies that spawn them: "the monster's body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy
. . . , giving them life and an uncanny independence" (Cohen 4). A monster cannot be contained. A monster
disobeys its master, overspills its margins, consumes its benefactors. We make scapegoats of our monsters,
attributing to them our own misdeeds and faults while using them as vehicles for intergenerational transfers of
taboos and morals.
The monster becomes a way of explaining the seemingly inexplicable. The humanoid form most monsters
assume is our own--familiar yet unfamiliar--and transgressions performed by the monster reinforce its status as
'other:' "In its function as dialectical Other or third-term supplement, the monster is an incorporation of the
Outside, the Beyond--of all those loci that are rhetorically placed as distant but originate Within" (Cohen 7).
A monster dwells on the fringes of what is culturally acceptable (Grendel). Banished to the physical and social
hinterlands, he is also border guard (Sasquatch). Whoever crosses into the monster's realm has also transgressed,
broken the taboo, courted contamination. The transgressor must then encounter the monster on its own terms.
In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud writes that taboo, originally a Polynesian word, means something
that is simultaneously sacred and profane (821). Taboo does not solicit silence nor encourage ignorance, but
demands rather an awareness and deliberate avoidance of the sacred/profane object or action. Taboo is
characterized by a "dread of physical contact . . . . [and a conviction] that violation will be followed by
unbearable disaster," which is not necessarily "external" or physical (828). The violator of a taboo likewise
becomes taboo and must be avoided. Freud writes that the transgressor "has the dangerous property of
tempting others to follow his example . . . . He is therefore really contagious [emphasis mine], in so far as
every example incites to imitation and, therefore, he himself must be avoided" (832).
Acknowledging that any system of categorization is somewhat arbitrary, subject as it must be to the
caprices and whims of its creators, we propose four categorical rubrics of origination for our discussion of
monstrosity, with the premise that each monster symbolizes one or more cultural taboos: Reanimated
Monsters (once-dead monsters revived); Ecological Monsters (monsters with environmental origins);
Human Monsters (genetic freaks and psychotics); and Technological Monsters (monsters coming into being
through the (mis)application of technical knowledge). Such a taxonomy allows for the cross categorization
of monsters with multiple narratives of origin (thus the vampire might be viewed as both a human and a
reanimated monster). A table of taboos and monsters is included within this site, encouraging comparisons
and debates about the meanings of the monsters and their relations to one another. Furthermore, each over-
view contains a "Monster Blender" which visually depicts the melding of related creatures, reinforcing the
similarities of the monsters and ourselves. Perhaps the horror derived from cinematic and literary monsters
stems from the latent monstrosity that lurks within each and everyone of us.
Click here for the Childhood Monsters Essay