“A Vagabond and a Slave”: Frankenstein as (African-American) Slave Narrative

Author:Grant Matthew Jenkins Time:2019-07-10 Click:

Although several studies have examined the influence of the context of slavery on Romanticism as well as Romanticism’s influence on the discourse of abolition, few have considered the ways in which narratives by former slaves who lived in the Americas have conditioned the production of Romanticism. Written soon after the abolition of the slave trade in England, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in particular has been read as a major part of Romanticism’s anti-slavery stance.  It has even been seen by some as contributing to the language and tropes necessary for the development of abolitionist discourse and the slave narrative throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.  But the tradition of the slave narrative, particularly autobiographies written by former slaves who were born in Africa but lived in America, precedes the novel and, to some extent, Romanticism. My study proffers the position that without African American slave narratives such as Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself, Shelley’s novel would not have been possible. By looking closely at the formal, generic, and ideological elements of both narratives, I conclude that Shelley does indeed draw intertextually upon the slave narrative tradition in constructing her own story.  Furthermore, Equiano’s narrative’s political challenge to an entire economic and social order enables Shelley’s own social critique, which emerges as much more complex and ambiguous than previously thought.

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