This paper sets out to examine the grammatical expression of agency from feminist perspective. The general question is: who acts? The specific question is: what can I do? There are three stages to this enquiry. I begin by outlining these grammatical issues for feminist discourse through particular reference to the work of Diane Elam. I then discuss them in more detail through engaging with Michael Halliday’s claims for a functional grammar before proceeding to develop and illustrate what they might signify for feminisms through readings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Angela Carter’s short story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’. I intend to involve the reader in these processes. I do not intend to promote one kind of feminism or discourse above another but rather to ask questions of them all.
Lizzie Knowles completed her PhD thesis at the University of Edinburgh in 1998. This thesis investigates the possibilities and problematics of feminist grammar through reading literary texts by women. She is now engaged in writing short stories.
She held the baby to the fire [...]. She held the fire to the baby. Bertrande dropped the baby in the fire. She said it was not an accident.
Later, the priest tried to sort out the right words. Bertrande. The baby fell in the fire by accident .
This paper sets out to address the issue of the expression of agency in feminist discourses. It considers what this expression conveys about who acts, whether s/he does so intentionally and what capacity is given to I to act. For instance, in stating that different feminist discourses adopt different strategies according to their philosophies, I insert the notion of intentionality through ‘adopt’ but I abstract the notion of individuals at work by talking about what feminist discourses do rather than what feminists do. Yet I determinedly declare what it is that I do. I aim to endorse the feminist academic I who seeks to show what it is that she does and take responsibility for it, even as I recognize that there will be other readings of my words and actions that I have not seen, that are outwith my control. It is this duality of simultaneously knowing and not knowing that characterizes my feminist vision. I hope the reader will engage both with what I write about and the ways in which I do so: I intend that s/he will respond as s/he reads.
I begin by focusing on those strategies produced by Diane Elam in Feminism and Deconstruction  before engaging in more detail with the range of grammatical possibilities of expression of agency open to feminisms through an encounter with the work of Michael Halliday. I proceed to illustrate the problematical aspects of these grammatical options to feminisms through reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ as stories that address the questions, who acts? does s/he do so intentionally? what can I do? The problems, I contend, are visible in the fatal consequences of these narratives. Both texts present the protagonist through first person narrative but each encapsulates a very different sense of self. In these readings, I take literature by women to provide imaginative resolution to issues that cannot be seen through to the end in real life. And I take the paradigms of grammar as a story which can be read as both parallel to and in conjunction with other stories, both fictional and theoretical. My intent is to problematize: one’s feminist solution is another’s feminist dilemma. My concern can be situated at the point where the acceptance and expression of the loss of the notion of the integrated autonomous self, the one who knows what s/he does, also implies the loss of the notion of responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences for others. I speak as one who believes that particular linguistic formations have power to shape, disguise, formulate, change worlds: my approach emerges from feminist critical discourse analysis.
What Can I Do?
My concern does not lie with old (male) stories about rational autonomous agents but rather with different feminist takes on the dissolution of such coherent fantasies and the ways in which these differences are spoken. In her search for rhetorical spaces, Lorraine Code shows the inadequacy of the dominant concept of objective knowledge and objective knowers not by denying objectivity but by insisting that ‘objectivity requires taking subjectivity into account’ [Code, 1995:44, her emphasis]. Code embodies this principle in her own text both by acknowledging how events in her own life shape her concerns [p. xv] and by bringing I into her text. These personal gestures enact her feminism as one that shows how observation is always affected and infected by the self, thereby opening up new ways of seeing. Her ethical requirement is that ‘responsibility and accountability’ should be visible.
Diane Elam has a different take on this matter of ethical engagement as text. She enacts a ‘turning away from subjective agency’ [Elam, 1994:106], for otherwise the illusion of a rational autonomous agent remains. There is however a significant slippage in her text between politics and ethics ‘without a subject’ and ‘a politics that is not centred on a subject’ [p.106-107]. In my reading there is a great deal of difference between the absence of a subject and the presence of a decentred or uncertain subject. This theoretical slippage is visible in the I that intrudes into her text: even as the ‘absent subject’ is under discussion such formulations as ‘I want to explore’, I do not mean to suggest’, ‘I think’ [p.106-107] abound. This voice is not incompatible with an uncertain subject but it does not sound the absence of a subject. There are moments in the text which do embody that absence: ‘it is in this way that deconstruction and feminism reveal that ethical judgments are actually groundless’ [p.108]. I call these event formulations. For Elam, I formulations may be viewed as metaphoric while event formulations (something happened) more closely reflect actual processes. It all depends on one’s perception of a congruent world.
There are other ways of trying to get beyond that (male) autonomous rational self. bell hooks eloquently enunciates the need and right for women whose voices have been suppressed - black women being doubly silenced - to come to a voice of their own and she invokes black cultural practice of giving testimony as one means to this end . She embraces the idea that feminisms could produce very different notions of subjectivity from patriarchal ones: that is to say that one can intervene with intent, construct oneself as well as be constructed. My grammatical readings of Frankenstein and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ address all of these writing strategies.
The Grammar Of Agency
I read Halliday’s An Introduction to Functional Grammar in adoptive and adaptive feminist ways. My strategy is to take certain aspects of grammar as a starting point from which an interactive process (between text and grammar) can begin to emerge. This strategy seems to defy Halliday’s warning, after Whorf, that ‘it is naive and dangerous to take isolated phenomena and try to relate them to features of a culture [...]. Only the grammatical system as a whole represents the semantic code of a language’ [xxxi], and is undoubtedly adopted because it is a way in to enabling me to have my say. I have a different agenda which means that I will see things from points of view that he might not recognize. For from my perspective he does not take sufficiently on board the fact that grammatical formulations can both disguise and represent ideological ones. In an adaptation of his work , I engage with feminist ideologies and worldviews . I tell these stories in simple and complex ways. In simple terms it is all one story: about an opening door and my move from one side to the other. I decided to open the door. I opened the door. I wanted to walk to the other side. So I did. I posit this as an extreme version of the story of a world within which I choose and control my thoughts and deeds, whereas the door opened I found myself on the other side unsettles this notion. I, although retaining in the grammar a sense of self as subject, do not act on the narrative. I only see the end result. In the door opened Some event placed me on the other side this sense of self recedes still further into the distance. Feminist discourses like Elam’s seek to eliminate that sense of self. The question in my mind is whether this move is in the interests of feminisms.
I want to make a distinction between the terms agent and actor, for I claim that some feminist writers do not give sufficient recognition to this difference, leading to an unnecessary drive to eliminate I from their texts. In doing so, I build on the analysis of Holisky [1987:118-119], and the argument of Van Valin, Jr, and Wilkins [1996:289]. Agent incorporates the notion of human and intentional force behind the act. Actor refers to the human participant who does something, but not necessarily with intention. Unless the context makes it clear that intentionality is a factor, it is habit or pragmatic inference which makes the reader ascribe agency to the action. Such expectations are higher in the environment of I. Indeed I draw on this expectation. However, as Van Valin and Wilkins point out, in formulations such as I opened the door there are not sufficient grounds for reading this as an intentional act: I may have done so inadvertently. Those who find, at this point, that they still read I opened the door as an intentional act must consider just how much habit and pragmatic inference shape their reading practices. In ‘turning away from subjective agency’ by removing I altogether from their discourse, feminists lose the capacity to represent versions of a non-agentive I or of encapsulating an uncertain multiple I (subject and subjected). Structures which write out the human and/or any sense of intentional element carry their own dangers. I will later show Frankenstein, the imaginative presentation of a self who writes himself out, to be an apocalyptic warning across time and place to feminists who write themselves out. His practice of running away or fainting at crucial junctures is paralleled in his grammar: things just happen. In the protagonist of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ I shall find the grammatical embodiment of the kind of self I tell myself I have; knowing and not knowing, innocent and complicit in one and the same moment. In order to prepare the reader to engage with these revelations, I turn now to the grammar of agency.
It is a feature of English, clearly demonstrated by Halliday, that the subject and the actor of a clause need not, though can, be the same thing. In the example I opened the door subject and actor are that same thing, which is I. However, as I have pointed out, it does not follow that intentionality - agency - can be attributed to such a statement, although there is a high expectation that it will be:
‘Your Uncle Craig died last night.’ [...]
The active verb confused me. He died. It sounded like something he willed to do, chose to do [Munro, (1971) 1985:45, her emphasis].
Expectations can change. There is no simple correspondence between either the grammatical category of subject and agency, or the psychological category of subject and agency. Grammatical subject and actor need not be the same thing: the door was opened by me. Now the door is the subject, but it is not the actor: that is still me. Feminists in the act of ‘turning away from subjective agency’ (which act seems to assume intentionality for all I statements) can, in the story of grammar, separate these two aspects (subject and agency) by the simple expedient of speaking in the passive voice. This move simultaneously effects a switch in emphasis from what I did to what happened to the door. In this formulation, the sense of self is fading. It is equally the case that I may hold onto subject position but not be the actor let alone the agent. The self as ‘doer of the deed’, to borrow Judith Butler’s ironic term [1990: 142], can disappear in stages. Where I found myself on the other side still holds a faint echo of self activity I was found on the other side has none. There is no inevitable grammatical correspondence between I and actor, and even less so between I and agent.
In the world view of Halliday’s text, human consciousness is presented theoretically as an unproblematic source of action. I do something marks his vision of a congruent world. He aims simply to show how, in grammatical terms, the human actor (agentive or not) can be written out. The capacity for representing something other than I as the active element lies in the following: the attribution of consciousness to inanimate objects [p.108]; the form which elides internal/ external agency [p.145]; and the use of grammatical metaphor, by which something ‘has been dressed up to look as if it were a participant [...] the fifth day saw them at the summit’ [p.322]. My interest lies with the last two strategies because of their potential to confuse and disguise. However, I will resist Halliday’s claim that one can distinguish between congruent and metaphorical realizations. As Theo van Leeuwen prefers to put it, each formulation is ‘endowed with its own specific sociomatic import’ .
Halliday asks of the door opened formulation a question which will prove crucial to my readings of text: ‘is the process brought about from within or from outside?’ [p.145]. His focus has shifted from conventional transitive/intransitive analysis, which he characterizes as one of extension, to an interpretation that is concerned with causation: ‘Some participant is engaged in a process; is the process brought about by that participant, or by some other entity?’ [p.145]. In Halliday’s analysis [pp.144-157], in the pair the door opened and I opened the door the door is the ‘one participant that is the key figure in the process [...] without which there would be no process at all’ [p.146]. He calls this ‘obligatory’ participant the Medium. For my purposes this Medium/Process analysis is interesting for the way in which it shows how external agency can be written out so that the act appears as ‘self-caused’. Halliday makes this point [p.145], and goes on to distinguish between the door opened and the door was opened where only the latter allows for the question by whom? [p.151]. It may appeal to those feminists who seek to write out ‘subjective agency’ that the latter will always leave this question unanswered and the former leave it unasked, but perhaps not to the feminist who feels that she has just found space to act on/in the world. I intend to suggest through my grammatical and narrative readings of Frankenstein and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ that Halliday’s question as to whether the process is ‘brought about by that participant, or by some other entity’ matters to feminist speakers. I do not intend to show that one way of speaking/writing is more feminist than another but rather how each way means more or other than the producer might intend. Nor do I hang onto the notion of an integrated fully autonomous self. Texts which ‘specify’ in the manner of personal testimony (I say) can overcome this patriarchal illusion by producing multiple, contradictory voices, as indeed hooks does.
What Does Language Do?
I wish to engage with Halliday’s claims for what language does from within the context of wondering about how much control and responsibility feminisms might attribute (grammatically as well as philosophically) to the human self. In this spirit I call the following introductory statement from Michael Halliday into question: `Language has evolved to satisfy human needs; and the way it is organized is functional with respect to these needs - it is not arbitrary'. [xiii] Later, Halliday points out that there are structures in English in which ‘it would be difficult [...] to identify an Actor’. He gives as an example: ‘Psychology [...] has had mixed origins in every country where it has developed’ [p.105]. I read this as a way of writing out the human factor, the psychologists, and this is also how I read his statement quoted above. Elam might not dispute this language does formulation as an accurate representation of how things are, albeit for different reasons, but it would be less acceptable to those who believe that there is an interactive process, that even as I am created and shaped by language, once I recognize this I can enter into these creative and shaping processes. For, I wonder whether language does ‘satisfy’ feminist needs. Halliday's statement is impregnated with stasis and with certainty rather than with movement and doubt. It just ‘is’. His ‘has evolved’ construction intrigues in the light of my interests about how meaning is produced. It conveys a completed process. Something of the forward movement that I look for would remain in the selection of the present tense, evolves/is evolving. This verb has intriguing semantic and grammatical properties of which Halliday is aware. The OED gives as its meaning, when used intransitively as here, ‘developed gradually by a natural process’. This meaning does not meet my needs, but perhaps it is not quite so straightforward in any case. This last claim rests on Halliday’s recognition that ‘with more abstract processes, we often find active and passive forms side by side with very little difference between them’ [pp.104-105]. He gives as one of his examples: ‘a new approach is evolving/ is being evolved’ [p.105]. But he acknowledges that ‘there still is some difference’ and in my search for meanings this difference is crucial: ‘if the passive form is used, we can probe for an explicit Actor - we can ask who by?, whereas with the active form we cannot’. Halliday, in his language statement, has used the active form, so that those feminists who still want to be able to ask by whom? cannot. If Halliday had given such space by using the passive, a Marxist or Foucauldian reply might reveal that powerful institutions, carriers of ideology, constituted of people who sustain such power, patriarchs, are prime candidates for the answer.
This reading doubles the meanings that evolve, used intransitively, can carry in that there would now be a developmental element that is not natural, that is man-made but that could become feminist. This is the reading of language that I want to imagine. Halliday’s language statement does not satisfy my needs: what might the meaning of ‘to’ in ‘to satisfy’ be? Does he intend it to signal consequence or intent, where in the latter it stands in for in order to? I cannot know. It will always carry both possibilities. Who determines ‘human needs’? Is it possible that language is quite so separate from ‘human needs’? The following series of rewritings enact in deliberately and increasingly dramatic stages the ways in which I want to go beyond the limitations that I read into his statement:
Language evolves to satisfy human needs
Language evolves to satisfy some human needs
Language is being evolved to satisfy some human needs
Some humans (and I might risk saying that historically these have been men) develop language in order to satisfy their particular needs (though this as I tell later can never be the full story)
Feminists (amongst others) have an interest in engaging imaginatively with processes and possibilities of change in language.
Where I have used Halliday’s language statement as a way in to showing how meanings work, I turn now to wondering how feminists might show their meanings. I think there is some space within the language we already have to insert the sense of other value systems even as there is a need to look to extend the frontiers. I do not claim that patriarchy controls/has controlled all production of language. A Bakhtinian analysis of competing and divergent discourses soon puts this claim to rest, and Halliday has written about what he calls anti-languages, though significantly, in terms of my interests, these retain the grammatical structures of the dominant discourse [1978:164-182]. Nor do I exclude the fact that there are always also uncontrollable consequences to any action, however planned. This realization is after all one of the stories that is Frankenstein. Rather I want to suggest that feminists can and must enter into the linguistic web. I endorse Drucilla Cornell’s call to feminists to imagine and to create ways of speaking that are not outside of our language, but that are beyond that which we currently perceive as being possible: she speaks of ‘transformative’ rewritings [1991: 2]. And I take up Diane Elam’s call to ‘the politics of the undecidable’ as a positive move alongside her ethical admonition that, even if that future cannot be known, there is an obligation to engage with the possibilities . Language is an interactive process: we are constructed and constructors, always both. It is from this position that I read and write.
What Can I Do?
Halliday gives as the ‘typical, UNMARKED form in an English declarative’ (his use of capitals indicating that this is a grammatical term) the form which conflates subject, agent and theme ‘into a single element’ [p.36]. That is to say I opened the door where ‘I’ functions as the ‘single element’ is, in Halliday's analysis, ‘the form we tend to use if there is no context leading up to it, and no positive reason for choosing anything else’ [p.36, see also pp.45 and 74] . Although he uses UNMARKED as a grammatical notation, the implication is that this use of ‘I’ can be equated with a neutral way of communicating, outside of ‘context’ and ‘reason’. Through the specific perspective of event feminism (something happened), far from being neutral, this I formulation reflects a marked ideology, one particular vision of the way things work, and a way that inhibits feminist thought: it is a patriarchal illusion that I act in/on the world, one that is sustained through its grammar. However, this is to accept the world that assumes that I opened the door necessarily signals intent behind the act. To say I did something means neither that I necessarily intended to do it. It may not even mean that I did do it. I shall illustrate this, to my mind, crucial point by telling a story which anticipates my readings of Frankenstein.
If you read I opened the door as intentional act , how then do you read I killed him? This may be the story of an accident, something that happened rather than something that I meant to do. The distinction between accidental and intentional is not straightforward. In the story ‘I murdered her’, semantically murder conveys a level of intentionality (reflected in the law) that killed need not entail . However, this murder story is not one that I have made up: the words are Frankenstein’s [p.159]. I propose that the level of Frankenstein’s responsibility might be more accurately invoked by something like I am responsible for the creature who murdered her. However, these murderous moments in Frankenstein’s speech - and there are many - have led to readings which take his claim literally. These readings suggest an overly simplistic correspondence between grammatical form and meaning. Their perpetrators set out to show that Frankenstein is a forerunner of a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde text. They point to Frankenstein’s fainting fits and they demonstrate that only he or his creation is ever active at any one point in time. They seek to prove that Frankenstein would have had time to travel back home to murder his brother and get back to Ingolstadt without anyone noticing his absence . In Shelley’s evocation of the sameness of Frankenstein and his creation as one of the central motifs of this text, carried through semantics and grammar, I hear the complex sounds of a ‘justified sinner’. I shall return to these sounds. For now I wish to insist that grammar does not offer a straightforward correspondence between subject and agent (for perhaps I killed him inadvertently), or between subject and actor (the man was killed by me), and indeed the subject who claims agency (‘I murdered her’) may not possess it. This last point is made with poignant force by Carla Kaplan [1995:288] in her discussion of Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The enslaved girl’s declaration that ‘I knew what I did, and I did it with deliberate calculation’ [Jacobs, (1861) 1988:83] as she submits to another man’s sexual claim rather than that of her owner has to be read with care within its very particular context .
Can I Be Feminist?
Let me draw together the beginnings of an ideology of the use of I statements, in the full recognition that feminisms take up ideological positions. What the writer must keep in mind is that she may intend one position but her reader might assume another.
1) I statements specifically enact the patriarchal voice of control, of mastery over self, other, and environment. Feminists and other oppressed speakers may feel then that they should avoid this construction in favour of others.
2) I statements more generally reflect the dominant western world view which has at its centre the notion of a unified autonomous rational agent: I act with intent. A focus on such a self can be seen as both desirable and undesirable, depending on one’s position in that society and one’s ideological perspective. If it is desirable to you it follows that you will embrace a style characterized by I do something. Some feminists will want this power to speak. If it is undesirable, for instance to deconstruction, such constructions may be avoided in favour of the something happened type.
3) I statements can be claimed for feminisms, not only as a coming-to-voice for oneself as evidenced in the history of giving testimony, or the ‘personal is political’ rallying call, but also with the declared aim of producing other kinds of subjectivities. This is the position which bell hooks brings vividly to life. Hers is the attempt to create a feminist I, that is opposed to the patriarchal I that dominates - and that will be read as such.
I statements are neither neutral nor fixed. There is flexibility. One’s perception of the status of I statements, whether writer or reader, will depend on one’s ‘presuppositions and knowledge of the world’ [Quirk et al, 1985:930]. These are not immutable. Halliday's claim that I statements are ‘the form we tend to use if there is no context leading up to it, and no positive reason for choosing anything else’ will be heard as a loaded statement by many feminists, one that carries the implication that such ‘form’ is just one of those timeless truths masquerading as neutral rather than as the representation of a particular worldview (who are ‘we’? what constitutes a ‘context’? what about negative reasons?). The feminist who resists I statements as ideologically informed metaphors will follow this through to the recognition that the act of ‘choosing anything’ is also an ideological and imaginary construct. However, not-I statements also carry ideological weight.
Can Not-I Be Feminist?
The feminist who recognizes the coherent autonomous self as nothing but a patriarchal imposition and limitation, a fantasy at its peak in the signifier I, will endorse those grammatical options which enable her to speak other ways. The door (has) opened: it is an event without agent, without actor. To rewrite this event feminism through Halliday, it is effected within the ‘context’ of the alliance of feminism and deconstruction, and for ‘positive reason[s]’ it produces discourse which does not mimic ‘subjective agency’.
However, Elam’s positive way of reading of events is not the only way. Form is meanings. In my reading of Frankenstein such structures also function within patriarchal discourse to avoid responsibility for one’s actions and the larger narrative of Shelley’s text shows this practice to hold no positive value for women. Much as I recognize and relish paradox as a feminist tool, I find it troubling that not-I statements have the potential to be intended/experienced as both oppressive and liberating.
Putting Feminism Into Halliday
The feminist stylistician, Deirdre Burton, in applying Halliday’s theory to text, identifies sexism as both the problem and the source of the solution, and as the paradigm for all oppressive practice: `I believe that, of these three major and massive injustices [classism, racism and sexism], sexism is the most deep-rooted (psychologically), the most pervasive, the most difficult to perceive, the most resistant to change - yet available as a locus for important and essential radical impetus to the reorganisation of all the unequal and oppressive power-structures in our society'[1982:187]. I build on Burton’s paradigmatic approach, although I try to be aware of the specificity of, for instance, bell hooks’ position which takes account of both race and gender. Language, for Burton, is the primary conductor of ideology. Like Lorraine Code, she brings her own self into the equation using the language of testimony: ‘I believe ...’. In her close analysis of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar - who does what to whom? - she proclaims that ‘stylistic analysis is not just a question of discussing "effects" in language and text, but a powerful method for understanding the ways in which all sorts of "realities" are constructed through language’ [p.202, her emphasis]. I would add a need to imagine ‘the ways in which all sorts of [other] "realities" [might be] constructed through language’.
With Burton’s feminist commitment extended into imaginative realms, built into a questioning acceptance of Halliday's grammatical analysis, and positioned within an unstable feminist perspective, I turn now towards literary text. I do not limit myself by period or genre. The grammatical features under discussion have not changed in form over the period I cover and this allows for an ahistorical conversation between the texts at the level of representation.
How Do Things Happen?
I anticipate that many readers of Frankenstein will expect, in the episode leading to the creature's animation (the third chapter), a predominance of the simple declarative style marked by Frankenstein as unproblematically the grammatical subject and agent (I did something on purpose), in short a grammatical embodiment of the intentional creator. In ideological terms, I would read this contextually as the visible patriarchal I. This form does occur, with normal patterns of ellipsis: ‘I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame’ [p.38]. In Halliday’s analysis, this reads as straightforward representation of a congruent world where there is no ‘context or positive reason’ for using anything else. My counterclaim is that, in the context of Frankenstein, I read the ‘positive’ or negative reason for speaking this way as producing the sound of the visible patriarchal I who controls events and objects around him. And it is because I see Frankenstein as the male embodiment of the desire to exert control that I anticipate that the agentive I will dominate his discourse. However, my expectations are not fulfilled once I read with attention. Most of the I plus active verb constructions are mental rather than material processes. They tell of Frankenstein’s ‘state of mind’ [p.34]: ‘I thought’, ‘I hoped’, ‘I asked’, ‘I considered’, ‘I knew’ [pp.34-39]. Or they occur with much more abstract activities often without a designated goal: ‘As I applied so closely, it may be easily conceived that I improved rapidly’ [p.34]. This pattern is fully in keeping with Frankenstein's repeated reference to his own immense mental capacities: ‘My imagination was vivid, yet my powers of analysis and application were intense’ [p.181], and his self-absorption. It conveys the sense of the self that knows its own mind, and it is this knowing purposeful aspect of the self, I think, that Elam wishes to dismantle, grammatically as well as theoretically, rather than all and any of the sense that I act.
But why does this controlling knowing I not construct the creature? It is my contention that the author has created an idiolect for Frankenstein which reveals his disposition from the outset to try to play it both ways: that is to retain credit for an immense achievement but simultaneously to shift blame elsewhere. It encapsulates the movement from his initial concessionary ‘I am now convinced that he [my father] was justified in conceiving that I should not be altogether free from blame’ [p.39] to the conclusive ‘during these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable’ [p.186]. ‘During these last days’ all Frankenstein has been doing is telling his story. His problem is who or what to blame whilst leaving his tremendous achievement, ‘I created a rational creature’ [p.186], uncontaminated for public recognition. This double vision produces a more complex and less visible version of the patriarchal story: I control the way that I tell the story of my control. This story of control has multiple frameworks. Frankenstein, itself, is full of them and then there are the outer layers: Shelley, her prologues and her husband; publishers’ demands and expectations. I will interrogate Frankenstein's discourse through applying his own scientific method of gathering, dismantling, examining ‘the minuteness of the parts’ [p.37]. This practice will reveal the manipulative processes at work. Frankenstein is in this reading the embodiment and realization of the nightmarish consequences of patriarchal ideology in a character who speaks that world. And if the reader cannot share my belief that Frankenstein is to be read as controlling his discourse, I simply need to effect a reformulation: instead of this discourse revealing that the patriarchal figure knowingly avoids responsibility in an act of power, it reveals that the patriarchal figure who thinks he is in control is not. The costs to women and society are the same.
Frankenstein’s suppression of blame contrasts with the approach of the protagonist of ‘The Bloody Chamber’. Carter’s protagonist has all too visible an external source, the monstrous Marquis, on which to place the blame, yet always implicates her self in her own downfall: ‘I knew I had behaved exactly according to his desires’ , and ‘I only did what he knew I would’ [p.37]. She is the speaker and grammatical subject of this discourse, but within it she is no more than the ostensible actor for it is ‘the puppet-master’ [p.39] who pulls the strings. Earlier I read Elam’s project as writing out the knowing and intentional self. I assumed that these two aspects belong together. Carter rips them apart and presents a truly terrifying articulation of the woman who knows that she has no agency. However, this woman survives to tell her tale of how the feminist force from another world, her mother, breaks this old power dyad and allows both for the emergence of a new co-operative triad, and also of herself as a newly empowered speaker who controls how she tells us of her earlier hideous manifestation as conscious puppet. I read this horror story with a happy ending as Carter’s exploration of the very issue that intrigues me: how (feminist) notions of subjectivity might be embodied at the level of grammar as well as narrative.
In my readings of Frankenstein and ‘The Bloody Chamber’, ‘the question at issue is: is the process brought about from within, or from outside?’. I might rewrite this in the light of my particular concerns as: to what extent is process represented as engendered by an autonomous agent and what ideology might lie behind such representations? Remember, there is no simple correspondence between I statements and the representation of an autonomous agent either in the active or the passive voice: I killed him; I found myself on the other side; I was found on the other side. No more is there a simple correspondence between event formulations and the absence of any notion of human agency. In ‘The Bloody Chamber’ I read the story of contrive as a constant oscillation between the two extreme perspectives which might be characterized as I act knowingly and something just happened.
This ‘contrived’ moment occurs at the crux of the story: it will lead the protagonist to discover the bloody chamber. It is presented against a background which establishes that the narrator co-operates with her oppressor:
Then he sharply ordered: "Kneel!"
I knelt before him [p.36].
Already, the notion of the agentive I is under threat since ‘I knelt’ is a response to a command rather than an action initiated by her self. This might be depicted in ideological terms as the contrast in the text between the classic image of the patriarchal self who calls and the female other who can only respond. In the crucially ambiguous moment to come however, ‘I’ appears to be the agent of the action:
Fell, indeed; and with the clatter of a dropped canteen of cutlery, for, as I turned the slick Yale lock, I contrived, somehow, to open up the key ring itself, so that all the keys tumbled loose on the floor [p.26].
Contrive contains two oppositional meanings. There are not many such paradoxical processes (cleave is another, and manage has some of the qualities of contrive ), but feminist speakers might like to think about designing some more if their intent is to speak both ways. One meaning of contrive is positive in both sense and outcome: it carries intentionality and achievement: I contrived to make the party a success. This is ‘to plan with skill’ (OED). The other meaning is negative (though of course my portrayals of positive and negative depend on my ‘presuppositions’ about the world) in both sense and outcome: it is involuntary. The OED gives as its example I contrived to make matters worse. In ‘The Bloody Chamber’ all such meanings and combinations are both always possible and present. In the intentional reading, the ‘somehow’ would mean against the odds whereas in the involuntary one it would mean I don’t know how. Did she mean to do it or not, and, did it have a beneficial outcome or not? This doubleness, ‘luck or ill fortune’ [p.26], carried within the language forms, is integral to ‘The Bloody Chamber’ at both narrative and structural levels. It is the doubleness of internal and external compulsion and it is the doubleness of language itself; friend or enemy, addition or loss, perhaps always both.
The ‘contrived’ episode in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is in itself a rewriting (another kind of doublespeak) of what has gone before: ‘But I wanted to know still more; and, as I closed the office door and locked it, the means to discover more fell in my way’ [p.26].
At first glance, this initial rendition seems to present internal and external agency clearly and separately. ‘I wanted’, ‘I closed’, ‘and locked’ are all declarative structure, subject and agent unproblematically combined. By ‘the means to discover more’ clause however the question opens up: is it self-engendered action or occurrence (c/f the keys fell) or has the human agent been suppressed? Reading backwards only compounds the double option. For, how do you read ‘as I closed the office door and locked it’? One possibility is that it simply conveys a time-scale but it could also be read with ‘as’ having the meaning of because. In the first reading, the narrator is not directly implicated in the fall; in the second, she is.
And is this fall ‘luck or ill fortune’? Within the narrative structure of Carter’s tale it proves to be both, as the event leads both to her downfall and her resurrection. In Carter’s two writings of this crucial moment, the constant feature is the parenthetical ‘as I’ clause. Each allows for both a complicit and an innocent reading. The generality of the first description (‘as I closed the office door and locked it’) becomes much more specific in its rewriting (‘as I turned the slick Yale lock’). In cinematic terms (and Carter is a visual writer, both of radio play and film scripts) the camera is honing in and the reader is entitled to anticipate clarification, this time to be shown what really happened and how. On yet another level, the movement seems to be towards explanation for, whereas the first version is held together by the coordinators ‘but’ and ‘and’, giving events equal status and omitting explicit causal links, in the second, the use of the linking ‘for’ and ‘so that’ produce not only a sense of consequence but of planned consequence: For I opened the door so that I could bang it shut. If Carter had written and all the keys tumbled loose on the floor this would have represented something closer to a naturally occurring sequence of events. The movement from but I opened the door and banged it shut to the so that version is a movement towards an increase in the status of intentionality. But, if the reader thinks that a process of clarification is taking place here, it is only then to find it trapped forever within the doubleness of ‘contrived’. The clarification is an illusion.
This irrevocably ‘contrived’ doubleness of responsibility in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ can be read as a linguistic representation of the internal and external pressures that a woman faces in her confrontation with patriarchal power. She does and she does not. This woman is always both victim and survivor: ‘No paint nor powder, no matter how thick or white, can mask that red mark on my forehead’ [p.41]. The past cannot be written out. It is forever an integral part of her, signified in ‘that red mark’. But even as this is stated, there is a grammatical drive to externalize the fact (c/f I cannot mask this red mark ...). In Halliday’s analysis this is grammatical metaphor. From feminist perspective it might simply be the way things are. But, as we learn to read and write such strategies then language no longer has the same totalizing power. This need for fluency in all discourses is another of the stories of ‘The Bloody Chamber’. The protagonist speaks the language of fairy-tale, science, schoolgirl, sensuality, and pornography. She formulates both simple and complex constructions. She is afraid of none of them. Ultimately, she and her companions move beyond reach. Modes of discourse, particularly those historically and negatively assigned to women, cease to have power: ‘We know we are the source of many whisperings and much gossip but the three of us know the truth of it and mere chatter can never harm us’ [p.40]. However, this success coexists always with ‘that red mark’. Here at the metalevel of both structure and narrative is success and failure: ‘luck’ and ‘ill fortune’: she both controls and does not control. The opposites are always present and part of the same thing.
Frankenstein also controls and does not control his own discourse. He controls both through his evasive tactics and through his practice of changing the words of others. Though Walton tells the story, Frankenstein ‘himself corrected and augmented [Walton’s notes] in many places’ [p.180]: ‘ "Since you have preserved my narration," said he, "I would not that a mutilated one should go down to posterity"’ [p.180]. Critics no longer want to talk about characters as meaningful entities: some writers no longer want to produce characters at all . In view of this I must make my own position clear: Shelley evokes the character that is Frankenstein, but she does so in such a way as to produce a discourse that is idiomatic to him. Frankenstein speaks knowingly. But the author controls this voice. She also, in creating a triple narrative framework, reveals patterns of unsuccessful male creativity and shows destructive links among her narrators that they never see for themselves. Yet, the author both controls and does not control her own text. Quite apart from external factors, the text (any text) continues to generate new meanings within new historical contexts. This uncontrollable production of unforeseeable consequences, reborn as Chaos Theory is one of Shelley’s themes. There is no point at which this text is under control, its meaning is defined for all time. My readings, like others, are an act of deferral in that they seek to converse rather than dictate, and in that I do not have control over how these readings will in turn be read. I do however take responsibility for my readings and show how they come into being.
The justification for my readings of Frankenstein depends both on revealing patterns of discourse and in showing at times the crucial exception. I claim that Frankenstein’s discourse is characterized by the creation of ambiguity as to the responsible agent. This pattern would not have such impact if there were not another style within the same text standing in contrast. Ultimately, this belongs to the nameless creature who, finally, accepts responsibility for himself. He, like the protagonist of ‘The Bloody Chamber’, has all too evident sources of grievance, but, having detailed to Walton the ways in which he was ‘spurned’ and ‘sinned against’ concludes: "But it is true that I am a wretch. I have murdered the lovely and the helpless; I have strangled the innocent as they slept, and grasped to death his throat who never injured me or any other living thing" [p.190].
This is the simple declarative structure. Grammatical subject and agent are one, acting, I risk saying here, with intention towards specific goals. Within all the transpositions of Frankenstein and the creature there stands this central contrast. The creature, both structurally and narratively, ultimately takes unequivocal responsibility for his actions: Frankenstein evades them till the end. In this context, it is logical that their endings should also be in stark contrast. Frankenstein hangs onto life even as it is gradually removed from him: ‘About half an hour afterwards he attempted again to speak, but was unable; he pressed my hand feebly, and his eyes closed forever, while the irradiation of a gentle smile passed away from his lips’ [p.187].
Control fades out both semantically, through ‘attempted’ and ‘feebly’, and structurally, as the coherent self, ‘he’, is reduced to parts of himself, and further diminished to a mere echo of an action from one such part. In the ultimate crossover, it is Frankenstein who, at the moment of his ‘untimely extinction’ [p.187], disintegrates back into his component parts and beyond, and the creature who takes control of his ending, who times his extinction and remains whole and active in his vision of it. For he tells Walton: "I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames" [p.191]. This moment of death will be the pinnacle of his life. In sharp contrast, Frankenstein creates his own disintegration even as he creates life.
It is not that Frankenstein never speaks of himself in the creation scene: ‘I often asked myself’ [p.35]; ‘[I] determined thenceforth to apply myself’ [p.35]; ‘I prepared myself’ [p.37]; ‘I had dedicated myself’ [p.38]; ‘I promised myself’ [p.39]. He speaks to and of himself in moments of great intensity. In only one of the above, ‘I had dedicated myself’, is ‘myself’ an essential complement. Elsewhere it could be omitted, as it is in ‘as I applied so closely’ [p.34]. It occurs with verbs of mental rather than material processes. On that occasion when ‘myself’ is obligatory, this statement could be reformulated to leave it out: I was dedicated. I read this practice as indicative of Frankenstein’s overarching self-absorption: it is literally self-reflexive. He knows the other way of speaking too: ‘I was engaged’ [p.34, twice]; ‘I [...] was solely wrapt up in’ [p.35]; ‘I was encouraged’ [p.37]; ‘My attention was fixed’ [p.35].
This construction begins to have creeping overtones of an ambiguous internal/external compulsion. It begins to allow for the question: by whom or what? It is functioning at one level as a pseudo-passive. This effect occurs when the verb to be, which does not have a separate passive form, is used in conjunction with a past participle. The ambiguity arises out of whether the latter is acting as an adjective which would equate with an internal state, as in I was busy where busy simply says something about me, or as the predicator completing the verb group, which then equates to process, with the possibility of outside interference. Thus there are always two readings available: ‘I was encouraged’ as an internal state of mind, and as a process produced by some suppressed external agency. There are instances where this question of by whom or what can seem to be carried through and resolved: ‘but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success’ [p.37]. However, on reflection this turns out to be a cyclical process, moving around Frankenstein’s own perceptions. There is no identifiable external perspective available. These instances are in themselves of limited ambiguity, but they set the scene whereby similar but much more doubled structures can slip in as part of Frankenstein’s idiolect: ‘Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses’ [p.35]. There is now a much more crucial sense in which the question of internal or external compulsion arises. The verbal constructions here allow for follow through of both kinds of compulsion:
I was led by the man’s demand to open the door (external)
I was led by my desire to open the door (internal)
I was led by necessity to open the door (whose necessity?).
The absence of specified agency in Frankenstein’s speech leaves the reader with multiple perceptions of what he might be meaning to say. The movement from ‘led’ to ‘forced’ is a semantic intensification of this pressure whatever is understood to be its source. The unambiguous forms of I led/forced myself are rejected in favour of a mode which always contains irresolvable tension much as that ‘contrived’ in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the effect though here being to blur Frankenstein’s level of responsibility rather than to acknowledge that there has been some. In this issue of claiming and accepting responsibility, and exploring the grammatical strategies available, feminists need to take great care. Frankenstein, in my view, is being shown to enact the patriarchal voice of control which seeks to choose at which points he will claim responsibility, but not blame.
Carter’s protagonist knows this ‘forced’ construction too: ‘But that perfume of spiced leather always betrayed him; after my first shock, I was forced always to mimic surprise, so that he would not be disappointed’ [p.9] precedes ‘I forced myself to be seductive’ [p.35]. In the first ‘forced’, the context makes it clear that this is the external pressure of social expectation, of giving the right response. Its narrative value lies in the way that it semantically pre-enacts subsequent events. ‘Betrayed’, ‘shock’ and ‘forced’ are the discourse of brutal encounter rather than seduction, in which this event recurs. But in this story the two are irrevocably intertwined. On the second ‘forced’ occasion, ‘I forced myself’, the move is, both structurally and contextually, explicitly into internal compulsion. This is a retelling of the earlier scene but at stake now is personal survival rather than social etiquette. This ‘forced’ thus carries the full strength of its meaning that there is no other option. The context of ‘forced’ in Frankenstein, however, never allows for this level of understanding to be reached. The source of pressure, internal or external, can never be determined there. This is not to say that such ambiguity is not also present in the discourse of ‘The Bloody Chamber’s protagonist for she tells of ‘that illimitable darkness whose source I had been compelled to seek in his absence’ [p.34]. Inviting the unanswered question, ‘compelled’ by whom or what?, this formulation occurs in a concentration of forms which blur the initiating factor. Are the actions self-engendered, or brought about by the Marquis, or indeed by ‘luck or ill fortune’? In this tale, these aspects are forever inextricably linked.
There is similar ambiguous potential in modal constructions of the I must variety. This mode can convey personal conviction or external insistence: I must pay my taxes. Too often analyses insist on one meaning or the other where it seems to me that the context leaves both always as possible interpretations. I can see that one’s singular reading may arise out of one’s ‘presuppositions’ and habits of making determinate epistemological claims. I however relish double readings. My approach allows for this entangled simultaneous vision of self and not-self, rather than a commitment to either side. How do you read ‘I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body’ [Frankenstein,p. 35]? Or, ‘the telephone rang a shrill imperative [...] I knew I must answer it’ [‘The Bloody Chamber’, p.38]? Internal or external compulsion? or always something of both? In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, ‘I knew’ often precedes this ambiguous structure, and it is this which, in my reading, again points to the protagonist’s desire to implicate herself in the unfolding drama in contrast to Frankenstein’s desire to extricate himself from blame. However, I knew can also carry a double status of internal (intuition) and external (research) knowledge, particularly when it is, as here, not followed through by because. I know this double status to be true because each time I read this I wonder why she has to answer the phone. Just as the protagonist may have been ‘compelled to seek’ the source in the Marquis’ absence, the reader may be compelled to seek the source of her actions, but any conviction that such source is determinable is brought about by the reader’s ‘presuppositions’ imposed on the text.
In Frankenstein’s duplicitous discourse, a further means of muddying the waters of responsibility is the explicit passive form. Something is done to him: ‘I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm’ [p.35]. I wonder by whom or by what. The process (of animation) is followed through: there is an answer to the question. However, it is more apparent than real. It seems that source is revealed to be ‘an almost supernatural enthusiasm’, but this noun phrase pushes in opposite directions. ‘An’ is the impersonal choice which avoids the clarification that ‘my’ would have brought. ‘Enthusiasm’ on the other hand, points to his own internal resources. Between this opposition, ‘supernatural’, had it stood alone, would have pointed unambiguously outwards. However, it does not stand alone. Its modification by ‘almost’ redoubles the inherent inner/outer structure of agency. Semantically, if only ‘almost’ then it is not ‘supernatural’, but the very presence of this ‘supernatural’ word introduces that idea into the reader’s mind. S/he cannot determine whether or not this ‘enthusiasm’ emanates from within Frankenstein. This structure, now gaining the status of strategy, turns back in on itself. Subject and predicate are separated out only to collapse into the same thing: ‘a convulsive motion agitated its limbs’ [p.40]. This process refers to the creature coming to life. This double writing does not produce two angles of perception as in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ but rather creates the illusion of two separate participants which are in fact the same. The nominalization of the verbal process into ‘a convulsive motion’ appears to create an agent-process-goal distribution. The effect is to make the creature seem to be the source of its own animation. Is this (grammatical) metaphor or simply the way it happened? Frankenstein’s preceding desire ‘that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing’ [p.40], with its air of potentiality rather than certainty, takes on a new resonance.
‘Animation’ is crucial to this episode. Semantic cohesion links creator to creation. I suggest that Shelley controls the text to produce this effect. Frankenstein tells us that he could not have proceeded ‘unless I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm’ [p.35]. Then: ‘I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter’ [p.36]. With minor variation, these words are repeated three times [pp.36-37] at this crucial juncture. Frankenstein must first be animated before he in his turn can bestow animation (and then represent it as self-engendered). It is the same process of coming-to-life but who or what is the source? Who ‘reserved’ Frankenstein ‘alone [...] to discover so astonishing a secret’ [p.36]? It is ‘the birth of that passion’ [p.23], and note that externalizing and distancing deictic ‘that’, in Frankenstein which leads to the birth in turn of the creature. It is at times as if he is the chosen agent of a higher power just as I suggest that he is the chosen agent of Shelley to reveal the perfidy of patriarchal discourse. If so, then ‘when I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands’ [p.37], he merely carries out, as Carter’s protagonist may do, his predestined role.
Prior to this birth scene, ‘an incident happened that protracted my stay’ [p.35]. Grammatical metaphor creates a new inanimate subject, ‘an incident’, which seems to be the cause which affects Frankenstein, (the possessor of) the goal. This ‘incident’ turns out to be nothing less than when ‘I succeeded in discovering the cause and generation of life’ [p.36]. It is of Frankenstein’s own making (seeking glory) though he has tried to present it first of all as coming from somewhere else (dispersing blame). Compare this with his presentation of the creature’s own making that I discuss above. Creative acts have no secure foundation inside this text any more than they do outside of it. For ‘an incident’ is also not of Frankenstein’s own making. At the actual moment of its occurrence, it is presented as revelation: ‘until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me’ [p.36]. This is the discourse of the bible. Frankenstein is both linked back to another power, which might be his creator, as well as forward to his creation. The chain extends, but the source/cause is never determinable. Frankenstein both knows and does not know.
Frankenstein almost stops ‘his secret toil [...] but then a resistless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me forward’ [p.38]. He cannot openly declare responsibility for continuing: he creates another spurious agent. Halliday’s congruent version might read I urged myself forward or I went forward. As it stands, does the ‘impulse’ come from within or without? Is Frankenstein ‘resistless’ to a higher power or his own desires? The reader is denied certain knowledge. Earlier, speaking in relation to himself, Frankenstein tells us about ‘the unnatural stimulus ceasing to operate’ [p.36]. The language of ‘frantic impulse’ and ‘unnatural stimulus’, as with ‘animation’ earlier, relates forward to what Frankenstein is doing to the creature as well as backwards to what is being done to him. Frankenstein may not be the director but just playing his part in a potentially endless chain of patriarchal fantasy.
I proposed earlier that Shelley creates an idiolect for Frankenstein. It is this specific voice which invokes the possibility of a pre-existent external power through persistent grammatical and lexical patterning. Shelley goes beyond this individual pattern of speaking to invoke a chain reaction through semantic links which transcend any one narrator. This authorial process of prefiguration of the shared aspects of creator and creation takes another, powerful, form at the point at which the parts of the latter are being assembled into a whole. Frankenstein’s own body, as it will at the moment of death, breaks down into parts so that for a moment he and the creature symbolically intersect as components (fragmented selves) rather than a totality. One is in the process of coming together precisely as the other is coming apart in the moment of (dis)assemblage. There is no coherent self that is Frankenstein, but, instead, in rapid and concentrated succession, in both that time and this time of recollection, the metonymic ‘my cheek had grown pale’ [p.37], ‘my person had become emaciated’, ‘my limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance’ [p.38], and, in the culmination of the moment of ‘dissecting’, ‘my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment’ [p.38]. This, too, might be a kind of double writing: the same action in both directions at the same time. That is to say that one of ‘the details of my employment’ would be the insertion of the creature’s eyeballs into their sockets even as ‘my eyeballs were starting from their sockets’. In that moment Frankenstein and his creation are visually indistinguishable. Walton, who provides the outer framework, reveals both the powerful identification between himself and Frankenstein in their shared ‘ardour’ for scientific ‘pursuit’ [pp.8-9, 34-35], and between Frankenstein and his creation. Of the former he reports ‘then, like a volcano bursting forth, his face would suddenly change to an expression of the wildest rage, as he shrieked out imprecations on his persecutor’ , and of the latter, ‘and every feature and gesture seemed instigated by the wildest rage of some uncontrollable passion’ [p.188], but he never acknowledges what the semantics insist upon - the sameness. Indeed, he constantly avers the difference between ‘this admirable being’ [p.181] and the ‘monster’ [p.180].
It is the particular structure of multiple and embedded narrators in Frankenstein which enables Shelley to achieve these startling effects. In his introduction to Frankenstein [1992: xii-xiii], Paddy Lyons discusses the absence of a controlling narrative voice that can be identified as authorial, which absence has been perceived by feminist critics in both a positive and negative light. It can be conceived that a feminist who favours personal testimony would find this less acceptable than a not-I feminist, if it were true. Hearing an authorial voice is problematic in the light of the ‘intentional fallacy’ and the ‘death of the author’, and I would always resist simplistic identification between author and narrative. I read Angela Carter as using her stories to try out theoretical ideas in practice, explorative, mocking, not necessarily endorsing, all at the same time. It is not possible to make a simple equation between textual idea and authorial belief, but it is possible, in my view, to draw out authorial intrigue in a text through looking at patterns of linguistic construction which transcend any one perspective, although they do not transcend the text to represent the author. It concerns me when a reader rejects an aspect of a text, such as the multiple framework strategy of Frankenstein, because it does not fit in with what s/he wants to find there: that is not ethical reading. The attentive reader will listen to all that is said . The layered narrative structure (the form) of Frankenstein produces meanings. Rather than concern with how it stifles an authoritative voice, through producing a distancing effect between author and narrative, I see how this structure reveals the overarching sense of the chain reaction from one male voice seeking power to another and of their own blindness to this process: how it shows up repeatedly the silent women whose stories can only be told by men. And I hear this as the real anxiety of Frankenstein. Repetitive semantic features, and repetitive sequences within and across speakers reveal that it is this pattern of male behaviour which is ultimately more destructive than one awful isolated act. There is no overt didacticism on the part of the author. The multiple links are there but the reader must make her own connections, reading against the narrator as well as with him.
During the creative episode, Frankenstein creates sources of agency at the same time that he creates the creature, but ambiguity infuses both of these processes. At the opposite point in the text, the point at which Frankenstein determines to deconstruct his monster, these creative tactics intensify. After he has finally taken his tale to a Genevan magistrate, having justified his course of action at each stage, and not achieved the desired outcome, he tells of how he ‘retired to meditate on some other mode of action’ [p.172]. Frankenstein controls this meditation. The immediate consequence (after a chapter boundary) is a statement which is both an explicit rendition which seems to resolve the ambiguity of agency, but yet also another embodiment of that ambiguity: ‘My present situation was one in which all voluntary thought was swallowed up and lost’ [p.173]. Within my perception of a knowing Frankenstein, this is a controlled presentation by him of, paradoxically, a Frankenstein who has lost his coherent self in both grammatical and narrative terms. Once more, grammatical subjects and spurious agents (‘my present situation’, ‘all voluntary thought’) have been created through nominalization. This is a feature of written rather than spoken discourse and, although Frankenstein originally renders speech to Walton, it is Walton’s written record of this that he amends. If I propose as a congruent version I could no longer think for myself then the externalizing and depersonalizing character of Frankenstein’s formulation emerges. Even the crucial ‘voluntary thought’ is cast into the passive, affected rather than affector, enacting a further step away from Frankenstein as controlling agent, one further intensified by the lack of follow-through: there is no answer to the question, ‘swallowed up and lost’ by what or by whom? Agency itself is ‘swallowed up and lost’ in yet another construction which returns unto itself, creating an inviolate grammatical circle.
Frankenstein’s loss of ‘voluntary thought’ is followed, in a concentrated outpouring of his discourse strategies, by the personification of emotional states and intentions, which appear to be independent, taking over, acting upon him: ‘I was hurried away by fury; revenge alone endowed me with strength and composure; it modelled my feelings, and allowed me to be calculating and calm, at periods when otherwise delirium or death would have been my portion’ [p.173]. Frankenstein, the speaker and essential participant, has reduced himself to the object of forces which are presented as external to his being. Forces is the right word. They have a power over him brought out in the series of verbal processes: they ‘endowed’, ‘modelled’ and ‘allowed’. In the ensuing period, Frankenstein’s declarative physical actions - ‘I darted’, ‘I pursued’ and ‘I followed’ [pp.174-75] - appear to be directed by his now identified and seemingly concretized puppet masters, the ‘spirits of the dead’ and the ‘wandering ministers of vengeance’ [p.174]. But Frankenstein is explicitly the author of their existence. They are ‘the spirits that I had invoked to aid me’ [p.175]. From another world or from his own imagination? This ambiguity persists. There is a concentration of episodes of transposition, between dream time and waking time [p.175], and of the chain reactions that permeate this text. Now, food is left by the spirits [p.175] and by the creature [p.176] for Frankenstein, as Frankenstein leaves food for others [p.175]. His ‘path towards the destruction of the dæmon’ is ‘more as a task enjoined by heaven, as the mechanical impulse of some power of which I was unconscious, than as the ardent desire of my soul’ [p.176]. There is a powerful grammatical parallel here between ‘as a task enjoined by heaven’ and the parenthetical ‘as the mechanical impulse of some power of which I was unconscious’. They seem to be two versions of the same thing, the second being more specific through the progression from the indefinite ‘a’ to the defining ‘the’. It is like the movement from a game played on a pitch to the football game. This is a connection which Frankenstein has hinted at before, ‘the mechanical impulse’ explicitly (lexically) linking it back to that other ‘frantic impulse’ which gave birth to his ‘ardent desire’ which in turn gives birth to his monster. It extends the chain effects which permeate this deadly text. Ironically, it is ‘when I am dead’ [p.179] that Frankenstein envisages reclaiming the independent and controlling course of action which he has increasingly come to absent from his own life. In that imaginary moment beyond life, as Walton, at his bidding, finishes Frankenstein’s task of destruction, he declares ‘I will hover near, and direct the steel aright’ [p.179]. But there is to my mind no hope here that this belated reintegration represents an act of recuperation from any feminist perspective. I see in death no solution to the patriarchal trap.
What Am I Saying?
I claim that Frankenstein controls his dissembling discourse: there is an I behind the representation of not-I. I see this strategy in a negative light, a means by which patriarchal power disguises its power operations. I also make the claim that feminists do and should design their speech. Yet it troubles me that feminists who endorse not-I events design a form of writing which has features identical to Frankenstein’s speech; passive verbs not followed through, abstractions and aspects of things accorded the role of effector. They might read Frankenstein in a different light; perhaps as showing that even the discourse of the most creative of beings reveals his lack of control over events. For, if Frankenstein controls the dissemination of a potentially uncontrolling self, so does Shelley control Frankenstein’s control of the uncontrolling. There is an unstoppable interactive chain of responsibility that the reader/writer enters into. There is always both control and not-control. Each of us needs to imagine how our own writing practice might be heard.
Texts (of all kinds) can raise and meditate on significant theoretical issues through the grammar that they employ: feminists can engage in this process as both readers and writers. Frankenstein and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ show the complexity of the grammar of agency in action. It cannot be simply said that I statements constitute a clear vision of agency (I did it on purpose) anymore than not-I statements constitute its absence. Both kinds of statements can produce ambiguity. Feminists of different persuasions will find value (and loss) in different realizations: all are problematic. In my analysis of agency, I have ‘mutilated’ the various texts under discussion in the manner of Frankenstein, reducing them to parts which I then reassemble to make different kinds of connections which I hope are not too monstrous for the reader to face. To make different kinds of connections is, in an extension of Deirdre Burton’s term, to begin to see other ‘ways of constructing reality’: ‘It’s the uncertainty that makes me try’ [Cather, (1915)1982:464].
1 Michèle Roberts [1993:9]. [Back]
2 Halliday’s formulation of functional grammar is used to highlight ideological factors at work in texts: see Kress  for instance. I take a step further back to suggest that there are ideological factors at work in Halliday’s formulation. [Back]
3 Theo van Leeuwen [1996:33]. Van Leeuwen develops a system of categorizing ‘the representation of social actors’ through a discussion of racist discourse in newspaper articles. [Back]
4 Katie Wales makes the same distinction: ‘since agentive and affective roles are most characteristic of subjects and objects, it is natural for the active to be regarded as the unMARKED or neutral voice, as opposed to the PASSIVE’ [1989:8]. [Back]
5 Van Valin and Wilkins discuss this distinction [1996:309-311]. [Back]
6 One critic who suggests that no ‘objective monster’ exists in the text is Mary K. Patterson Thornburg . [Back]
7 Indeed this text, constructed in first person narrative as the story of a woman’s search for control of her own life, would bear careful analysis with regard to what I can do. [Back]
8 As has drop in ‘she dropped the baby’. Compromise and assumption of guilt/innocence also contain very different meanings. [Back]
9 See Brooke-Rose [1991:168-180]. [Back]
10 This exhortation in no way rules out Judith Fetterley’s call for ‘the resisting reader’. Resist but do not reject what is there. [Back]
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