Wild-Goose Chase: Social Symbolism in James Whale’s Frankenstein

James Whale’s FrankensteinHorror films are traditionally considered escapist narratives that deviate from social and historical categories. If we consider the kind of setting that Horror films traditionally favour –the haunted house, the unspecified European village, the cabin in the woods…– with their abstract time and space and plots usually unconnected with any national history, we might say that the horror film is indeed a diverting narrative. Films however, as any other cultural text, are (un)consciously nourished by the social and political environment in which they are produced. American cinema in the 1930s was particularly prolific in this respect with the constant reimagining of various Depression era scenarios by the five major film studios.

The case of Frankenstein does not offer itself as a response to a specific Depression malaise. Quite the opposite: the film was based on a play by Peggy Webling–itself an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic–and then adapted for the screen by Robert Florey. It was Florey who gave the definite contours to the final film. According to the monographic Universal Horrors: “Florey compressed the novel’s lumbering narrative into a modernistic horror mode, confining the action to a handful of sets while retaining the allegorical feel of the material.” (Loc. 846, Kindle Ed.) Here I am less interested in the treatment of the source material than in the actual symbolical signification the film may have; the unconscious projection of historical, social and political categories in the scenes, dialogue and subject matter of Frankenstein.

Fredric Jameson’s doctrine of the “political unconscious” proposes a mode of interpretation which might help us unearth the hidden (repressed) webs of signification of this cultural text. But before proceeding to the analysis I shall write some notes on method. The first thing to bear in mind is that Jameson’s brand of interpretation is not necessarily a method but, as he himself asserts, a “semantic precondition for the intelligibility of literary and cultural texts.” (1981, 75) This semantic decoding of a text occurs in three different levels or frameworks. The first one concerns what Jameson calls “political history”: history in the traditional sense of events happening in a chronological timeline; in the second level, the text transposes the dialectical tensions between social classes; and finally the third deals with history “in its vastest sense of the sequence of modes of production and the succession and destiny of the various human social formations.” (75)

In the following pages I will explore various aspects (narrative, thematic, technical…) of James Whale’s Frankenstein which might prove useful for the analysis of the film based on Jameson’s three levels of interpretation. The assessment of the film under the proposed interpretive field will seek to ascertain the political, social and historical significance of Frankenstein as cultural artefact or as ideologeme in the larger arena of the early Depression era.

Shock and Horror

James Whale’s Frankenstein 2The horror movie cycle began as a move from Universal Studios to recover from a severe loss in revenues at the beginning of the 1930s. After seeing the successful performance of Todd Browning’s Dracula in box office, Universal announced they were going to produce more horror films. Their next project was of course Frankenstein and most of the cast from Dracula was to reappear in it, including Bela Lugosi in the role of the Monster. Robert Florey even did some reel tests with Lugosi as the Monster, Dwight Frye as Fritz and Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman. Frye and Van Sloan retained the roles but when James Whale took up the project, Lugosi left to work on Crimes of the Rue Morgue (1931) and Boris Karloff landed the iconic main role.

The question here would be: why would horror films be appealing to a Depression audience? Franco Moretti has noted the anxiety produced by horror narratives: “this literature, having produced terror, must also erase it and restore peace. It must restore the broken equilibrium — giving the illusion of being able to stop history — because the monster expresses the anxiety that the future will be monstrous.” (1982, 68) A similar anxiety can be traced in several of the films that take as their subject matter social, economical or political issues particular to the Great Depression. Films like Prosperity (1932), Gabriel over the White House (1933) or Wild Boys of the Road (1933) carefully staged some of the period’s more poignant preoccupations and found an inventive formal or narrative solution to alleviate, however briefly, the audiences’ anxieties. Similarly, horror films–or at least most of Universal’s Horror pictures–tended to eliminate whatever evil they would conjure to vanquish too, as it were, the external menace of a grim future.

Let’s look at some of the scenes of the film which were deemed problematic. An aspect of the movie that was deliberately controversial was the God question. In a way Frankenstein condone the almost divine empowerment of man through science while also underlying the possible consequences. But what is really frightening about in the creation of the monster is the potential danger of man-made constructs. Henry and Fritz collect dead limbs and organs from the graves and the ghettos. Frankenstein’s monster is a sort of patchwork, a miscellany of heterogeneous parts and as such he does not posses any sense of identity or individuality. Franco Moretti holds a similar idea comparing him to the proletariat: “He is the Frankenstein monster; he belongs wholly to his creator (just as one can speak of ‘a Ford worker’). Like the proletariat, he is a collective and artificial creature. He is not found in nature, but built.” (69) The reference to Ford is definitely relevant to our purposes and it will be relevant when we consider this relationship in terms of a dialectic of modes of production, but I would like to emphasize for the moment the sense of horror and shock that the monster inspires in its status of man-built construct whose prowess grows out the control.

The drowning of the peasant girl Maria is another sequence that deserves closer attention. This footage was actually lost for many years but now it certainly feels like an organic part of the film. Universal Horrors account of it is accurate: “the Little Maria footage adds to our sense of the Monster’s emotional evolution as Karloff’s expression of delight gives way to his panicky reaction to her death.” (Loc. 991) We can certainly see why this scene was unfavourably received, especially if we take into account the context in which the scene is framed. Maria’s father, a proletarian peasant, is forced to leave his child unprotected to go to work. When he finds out that her daughter was drowned, he carries her corpse all the way through the village to the Bürgermeister’s office gathering in the way a furious mob that subsequently proceed to find the killer and lynch him. Considering the poor working conditions of peasants, the ravaging unemployment and demonstrations which ensued as well as the instances of mob violence in 1930’s America, a scene like this would have perhaps hit too close to home.


By Yannick Bautista


James Whale’s Frankenstein main

Written by Yannick Bautista

Crítico y académico. Explorador de los abismos de la novela posmoderna norteamericana y el análisis cultural cinematográfico. Cursó estudios de maestría en McGill University.

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