Facing the Darkness III: Monstrous Ontology, Part I

Frontispiece to Frankenstein, Theodore von Holst, 1831.
Frankenstein, Gothic,
Frontispiece to Frankenstein, Theodore von Holst, 1831.

The previous two pieces in this series have attempted to use the figure of the monster to draw out some of the flaws and contradictions in Enlightenment understandings of the self. The monster can be a powerful didactic tool in imaginative theology, allowing for exploration of questions deeply tied to our understanding not just of the “other” we encounter, but of ourselves.

When first encountering the figure of Frankenstein’s monster, what repels the initial observer is the grotesque appearance it assumes. However, what truly unsettles is not the monster’s appearance, but the fact that this is a monster that can talk back. In Shelley’s novel we see evil, we see monstrosity, but what we see is also a radical other that can actively engage us. To read the novel is to be forced into a kind of ontological introspection. The identification and empathy of the reader is deeply unsettling, for if this monstrous figure can communicate, does that not raise the question of just what kind of being it is trying to communicate with?

Perhaps a more worrying question: just what is it that makes a monster? Can we truly count ourselves sufficiently separate?

It’s from these questions that theological ontology must rescue us, and it is in them that Shelley’s critique of Enlightenment philosophical subjectivity collides with an Augustinian understanding of evil as privation.

In short, what makes the monster a monster is not what he possesses, but rather that which is absent from his very being. The things which are constitutive of humanity are things conspicuously lacking in Frankenstein’s monster. Created not in the imago dei, but rather in the image of an individual human subject, the monster lacks identity, name, and, perhaps most crucially, community with beings similar to itself. Whilst this monster may talk, even reason, it exists outside of the ontological fullness of Being that combines the God-created individual subject with the ongoing and dynamic community of others under the ongoing rule of the Almighty.

Where Adam was forced away from his creator by the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Frankenstein’s monster was forsaken by its creator before such a fall could take place. As creator, Frankenstein refuses to deal with the consequences of his actions, leaving his creation ontologically (as well as physically) monstrous. The monster’s subjectivity in the form of his journal serves only to highlight its glaring lack of genuine being. The commonality of speech shared by the monster and ourselves forces the reader to acknowledge just how little separates the monstrous from the ordinary. The Aristotelian idea of man as the speaking, rational animal is shown in Frankenstein to be insufficient to safeguard the idea of human nature, despite placing the self at the centre of the intellectual system through which the world is viewed.

The monster is a negative – the reverse image that highlights the darkness and contradictions inherent to ourselves which theories of Being attempt to explain away. Without our rationality, speech, and intellectual hegemony, what is left to ensure our continued existence outside of the ranks of the monstrous? It is from this question that investigation into our own ontology must proceed.

Jon Greenaway is a PhD Candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University where he is working on Gothic theology.


  • Jon Greenaway is a PhD student at the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Before commencing his PhD he gained his BA in English studies and a Masters degree in ‘The Gothic Imagination’ from Stirling University. He has published papers on a range of topics including Trauma in the 19th century novel and the works of Jacques Derrida in relation to modern American TV. His research interests include critical theory, the Gothic, monster theory and the intersection between systematic theology and wider culture.

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