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Figuring Gendered Creatures

Image from Maja Nilson collage series, “Zoo” (2009)
Jun 24 2020

 

The following blog post is co-authored by Nika Mavrody, PhD Candidate in English and a 2020 Digital Humanities Graduate Fellow, and Regina Ta, a First Year Undergraduate Research Intern at CESTA. Their collaboration represents a new program at the lab that pairs graduate fellows and undergraduate researchers to pursue new digital humanities projects developed in the Graduate Fellowship Program. The text is adapted from their presentation at CESTA's Digital Humanities Virtual Showcase on May 29, 2020.1


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) is a study of a scientist and his creation. It is also the story of a lonely voyager--Walton, an Arctic explorer-- who finds a friend:

Letter II, Walton writing to [his sister] Mrs. [Margaret] Saville:

I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy; and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most sincere evil. I have no friend. Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavor to sustain me in dejection. I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling. I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me; whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. (11)

Shelley’s first novel, written after a cold season in Geneva, is based on the “German stories of ghosts” she and her friends amused themselves with at night, crowding “around a blazing wood fire” at night, before her “two friends left...on a journey among the Alps.” (4)

We did not include Frankenstein in the corpus of ‘novels of love’ we assembled to run word vector experiments. Designated as a genre by the critic Vivian Gornick in the essay collection, The End of the Novel of Love (1997), the ‘novel of love’ runs alongside the canonical European novel to codify the regime of bourgeois modern love by circulating the ‘code of love’ through narrative. The literary ‘code of love’ travels through narrative artworks like novels, published in books with the invention of the printing press. “Already by the seventeenth century,” writes Niklas Luhmann in Love as Passion, “it was common knowledge that the lady had read novels and therefore knew the code” (31).

Our corpus of ‘novels of love’ included thirty-six classic fictions of romantic intimacy based on Nika’s dissertation research, from The Fair Jilt by Aphra Behn (1688) to The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920). We did not include Frankenstei, because although Shelley’s first novel is threaded through by novel of love intertexts, read against Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847), The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794), and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847) by literary critics like Ellen Moers and Gaytari Spivak, unlike these other novels, Frankenstein doesn’t follow a plot of romantic intimacy: the creature is denied the bride he begs from his creator.

We started our work by text-mining the corpus for analogies with the help of a word2vec model that Nick Gardner embedded into a Jupyter Notebook for Giovanna Ceserani’s course Virtual Italy: Methods for Historical Data Science.

woman is to wife as man is to what? we asked the word2vec model. Here is how it answered:

 

The computational lens gave us fresh insight, showed us different possible interpretations of the results:

+ What Regina read: does this figure tell us a woman is only recognized when she becomes a wife, whereas a man is recognized at birth, when he becomes a son?

+ What Nika read: could the figure be telling us that if, in the novel of love, the woman completes her story when she becomes a wife, the man completes his when he produces a son, or a male heir?

Next we looked for collocations, “a series of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance.” In linguistics, collocations are words “habitually juxtaposed with another with a frequency greater than chance.” In the OED, to ‘collocate’ is to “place side by side, or in some relation to each other; to arrange.”

When we asked the word2vec model to collocate the word ‘woman,’ it showed us ‘creature.’

Creature: a name for Frankenstein’s creation, assigned at birth. Here is Victor, witnessing the awakening of his labor and toil:

the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. (45)

With his dull yellow eyes glimmering in the half-extinguished light, hard breath, and agitated limbs convulsing, the awakened creation belongs to a different class of creatures than what the novel could, up until this dark birth, have shown the reader, or known.

The first creature Shelley’s novel gives us is Victor, seen through the lonely eyes of the voyager: “I never saw a more interesting creature,” Walton writes to his sister Margaret in the outer epistolary frame. Walton repeatedly designates the stranger as a ‘creature,’ a term he attaches to sentiments of sympathy and esteem:

My affection for my guest increases every day. He excites at once my admiration and my pity to an astonishing degree. How can I see so noble a creature destroyed by misery without feeling the most poignant grief? He is so gentle, yet so wise; his mind is so cultivated; and when he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, yet they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence. (18)

In their conversations, Victor likewise characterizes himself as a creature (“No creature could have more tender parents than mine”), and then extends the designation to the woman he loved, in past tense prior to her death at the hands of his monstrous progeny.2

“I once had a friend, the most noble of human creatures

Elizabeth Lavenza became my playfellow, and, as we grew older, my friend. She was docile and good tempered, yet gay and playful as a summer insect...Her figure was light and airy; and, though capable of enduring great fatigue, she appeared the most fragile creature in the world. While I admired her understanding and fancy, I loved to tend on her, as I should on a favourite animal. (25)

The story of Victor’s lost love routes through the scene of creation, the dull yellow eyes of the creature-cum-monster awakening to the dim light. The creator asks, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how to delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?”

He falls asleep, dreams of first of Elizabeth, then of the corpse of his dead mother. When he awakes, “the dim and yellow light of the moon” recasts the ‘creature’ as a monster: “I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created.” (46)

Again and again, he names his creation a monster in the pages that follow: “I dreaded to behold this monster” (48), fearing “still more” that others should see him. The fear seizes his imagination—“I imagined that the monster seized me; I struggled furiously, and fell down in a fit” (49)—and maintains its grip: “The form of the monster on whom I had bestowed existence was for ever before my eyes, and I raved incessantly concerning him.” (50)  

The creature thus learns his second name:

And what was I?...I was not even of the same nature as man...When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned? (111)

Born a ‘creature,’ the creation comes to regard himself as ‘a monster, a blot upon the earth.” Drawing on critical accounts and dramatic adaptations of the novel, Charles E. Robinson argues that this distinction encodes moral judgment:

In effect, Mary Shelley forces each reader (and viewer) to be complicitous, having to use a name and make a moral judgment about Frankenstein’s creation: those who use the word ‘Creature’ tend to sympathize with him (and excuse his actions); those who use the word ‘Monster’ tend to hold him accountable for his murders. (220)

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Frankenstein wasn’t in our first corpus. But its creature called to us from the figure the word2vec model created when we asked it to generate collocates for the keyword ‘woman.’ The figure brought us to a research question: what was Frankenstein, could it be a novel of love?

We created a second corpus, one including Frankenstein, and a third, one that excluded everything but Frankenstein, and asked the word-vector model to read the three corpora with us. We also asked a GloVe model Mark Algee-Hewitt trained on the US Novel Corpus to search through 9000 texts representing “a collection of contemporary American fiction spanning the period 1880-2000.” We relied on this as our control corpus, a standardized body of texts that might allow us to interpret the results more accurately.

When we asked the word2vec model to collocate the word ‘woman’ in the second corpus, it showed us another creature:

‘Creature’ is a collocate of ‘woman’ in both corpora of novels of love, with and without Frankenstein. It is not listed as a collocate of ‘woman’ in the control corpus:

Next, we asked the word2vec model to produce collocates for the word ‘creature.’

In the first corpus (above), ‘woman’ is the most significant collocate for ‘creature.’ The second most significant collocate is ‘innocent.’ When we added Frankenstein to the first corpus to create the second corpus (below) ‘woman’ is still the most significant collocate. (Interestingly, Google’s predictive text suggested we replace the term ‘corpus’ with ‘creature.’ In the OED, the first definition of the word ‘corpus’ is “the body of a person or animal. (Cf. corpse n.1).” The dictionary’s first definition of the word ‘creature’ is “a created thing or being; a product of creative action; a creation.”)

The second most significant collocate changes from ‘innocent’ to ‘wretch.’3

In the US Novels corpus, neither ‘innocent’ nor ‘wretch’ collocate with ‘creature.’ The word ‘woman’ does. So does the word ‘brute4.’

In the US Novels corpus, neither ‘innocent’ nor ‘wretch’ collocate with ‘creature.’ The word ‘woman’ does. So does the word ‘brute.’4

These findings are anything but conclusive. They point to mysteries, questions for further work: Why is the word ‘woman’ attached to ‘creature’ in the ‘novel of love’ and in 20th-century American literature?  Why are these feminized creatures ‘innocents’ when the ‘novel of love’ forgets about Frankenstein? Why do they become wretches when she remembers him? Why does 20th-century American literature figure ‘him’ as a brute?

We don’t have the answers yet. For now, what we have to offer is ‘friendship,’ figured below by the word2vec model for our third ‘novel of love’ corpus-creature, made of Frankenstein only:

“How can we interpret these results?” asked Nika, thinking she’d found conclusive proof that the word2vec model heard what her heart thought it knew, that Frankenstein could be a ‘novel of love’ that revises ‘the code of love’ as a ‘code of friendship,’ figured as aural transmission. For instance, here the blind old man extends a compassionate ear to the creature:

The old man paused, and then continued, ‘If you will unreservedly confide to me the particulars of your tale, I perhaps may be of use in undeceiving them. I am blind, and cannot judge of your countenance, but there is something in your words which persuades me that you are sincere.’ (125-126)

Unlike the “beautiful child” who places “his hands before his eyes and utter[s] a shrill scream” when he catches sight of the monster, the blind elder does not judge on countenance. He listens, and he hears sincerity in the creature’s words.5

In Figure 8, all the terms run up against each other numerically. The heart is heard, but still there is death and much sister men etc. How can we reconcile what he word2vec model read with our literary analysis? How can we interpret the computational results, which accord with our literary analysis but fall far from statistical proofs?

“By reading them in terms of all the possibilities that they inspire!” says Regina.

Here’s an attempt:

The word ‘friendship’ appears seven times in Frankenstein.

ONE

 

I-I have lost everything and cannot begin life anew

TWO

he bitterly deplored the false pride which led his friend to a conduct so little worthy of the affection that united them—

THREE

not the tenderness of friendship nor the beauty of earth, nor of heaven, could redeem my soul from woe—

FOUR

I was indifferent, therefore, to my school-fellows in general; but I united myself in the bonds of the closest friendship to one among them

FIVE

I found that my understanding improved so much with every day’s experience that I was unwilling to commence this undertaking until a few more months should have added to my sagacity—

SIX

his wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart—

SEVEN

I had money with me and gained the friendship of the villagers by distributing it—

Perhaps we can simply interpret fig. 8 as a poem, a call and response. When we call for ‘friendship,’ the word2vec model calls back:

heart heard
still death much
sister men
thus mountains words
other towards therefore
some fear lovely
first geneva
its who?

The answer is ‘friendship.’

 

View the corpus of ‘novels of love’ by Nika Mavrody

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NM: Frankenstein is central to my dissertation. This summer, I am reading it alongside Percy Shelley’s “On Love” (published 1880) and Niklas Luhmann’s Love as Passion (1982). Through these three texts, I hope to develop a better understanding of how modern subjects make contact with each other, and how that contact comes to take the name ‘love.’

In my earlier computational work, I used Tableau to visualize qualitative analysis. The collaboration with Regina took my research further than I could have gone alone. My dissertation will be better because of it. I am really grateful to CESTA for matching us up.

& to Regina: thank you tremendously for all your beautiful and careful work.

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Regina Ta is an Undergraduate Research Intern studying Comparative Literature and the Digital Humanities. Nika Mavrody is a Ph.D. candidate in English studying the novel of love. She is a Digital Humanities Graduate Fellow and a member of the Stanford Literary Lab.

References

Brooks, Peter. Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Harvard Univ Pr, 1993.

Gigante, Denise. “Facing the Ugly: The Case of Frankenstein.” ELH, vol. 67, no. 2, Johns Hopkins University Press, June 2000, pp. 565–87. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/elh.2000.0015.

Gornick, Vivian. The End of the Novel of Love. Beacon Press, 1997.

Luhmann, Niklas. Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Moers, Ellen. “Female Gothic: The Monster’s Mother.” The New York Review of Books, vol. 21, no. 21, 1974, pp. 24–28.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text. Penguin, 2018.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 1, University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 243–261.


 1. Header image from Maja Nilson collage series, “Zoo” (2009).

 2. The death scene: “While I still hung over her in the agony of despair, I happened to look up. The windows of the room had before been darkened; and I felt a kind of panic on seeing the pale yellow light of the moon illuminate the chamber. The shutters had been thrown back; and, with a sensation of horror not to be described, I saw at the open window a figure the most hideous and abhorred. A grin was on the face of the monster; he seemed to jeer, as with his fiendish finger he pointed towards the corpse of my wife.” (190)

 3. “It is true that I am a wretch” the being confesses in the final pages of the novel, in his farewell before departing to “exult in the agony of the torturing flames” (214-216).

4. In McTeague (1899), Frank Norris attaches the word ‘brute’ to atavistic masculinity. e.g. “Every other Sunday he became an irresponsible animal, a beast, a brute, crazy with alcohol.”

5. Brooks sees “the opposition of sight and speech” as the central issue of the novel. Denise Gigante’s “Facing the Ugly” is about “the ugliness that precedes and predetermines” the designation of monstrosity (568). Situated in 18th century aesthetic theory, Gigante’s scope is limited to visual ugliness, what Brooks calls “specular...relations, in which he is so demonstrably [a] monster,” innocent children run when they see his face.