‘A devout but nearly silent listener’: dialogue, sociability, and Promethean individualism in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)

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My article, ‘”A devout but nearly silent listener”: dialogue, sociability, and Promethean individualism in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)’, has been published in The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, 16 (Autumn 2017) alongside other excellent articles. Here’s a brief synopsis:

Dialogue, as much as the novel, may be the dominant genre of the eighteenth century. This was a period that featured and valued dialogue, sustained through the institutions described by Jürgen Habermas as the public sphere; the genre itself proliferated and permeates and modulates the novel. The novel is defined in part by its generic hybridity and many eighteenth-century novels feature embodied dialogues. The dialogue was revitalised and gained new energies amidst the political controversies and tensions of the late century and the dialogue form appears embedded in many novels, particularly ‘Jacobin’ novels of the late century.

The Romantic period has often been characterised as a shift to the inward and individual, against the communicative rationality and sociability preceding it. However, this article argues that Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, continues that dialogism and concern with the social. Born out of conversation itself—the famous talks at the Villa Diodati, where Shelley was an ambivalent listener—and out of the Jacobin novel, dialogue in this novel appears particularly as an echo of those radical dialogues that demanded universal human rights.

Frankenstein is subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’; Prometheus was a key figure for radical Romantics, representing (as in Percy Shelley’s drama) the rebellion against authority that inspires human progress. Yet Herbert Marcuse identifies an alternative Prometheus present in capitalism, who represents a distorted asocial individualism that, in fact, keeps humanity bound to alienated labour. I show how, in the novel, Mary Shelley explores the tensions between these two avatars of Prometheus. Uneasy tensions between emancipating sociability and bourgeois individualism pervade the novel, mapping onto a gendered dialectic between the public and domestic spheres which is revealed through the dialogue genre which it incorporates.

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