A Race of Devils: Race-Making, Frankenstein, and The Modern Prometheus

Published date01 February 2022
Date01 February 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2022, Vol. 50(1) 86 –113
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720988686
A Race of Devils: Race-
Making, Frankenstein, and
The Modern Prometheus
P. J. Brendese1
This essay engages Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus as
a salient intervention into modern political theory. I analyze the work as a
cipher for the tensions inhabiting Euro-modernity’s stitched together fictions
of racial determinism and racial dynamism legible in slavery, assimilationist
projects and White fears reverberating throughout. Adapting the mythical
ancient Prometheus as one who steals fire from the gods to create humans
and civilization, Frankenstein dramatizes the risks and monstrous results
of White imperial masculinity as a Euro-colonial Promethean project of
subject formation and race-making. Viewed through the prism of the Modern
Prometheus, modernity in general and liberal humanism in particular are recast
as monster-making projects. The European “discovery” of Indigenous peoples
amplified Promethean aspirations to create subjects through civilizational
processes of religious conversion, the infusion of Enlightenment rationality,
and assimilation into whiteness. Politically, the Promethean capacity to
engineer humans and proto-humans using Native peoples as raw material
allowed progressives to argue against outright extermination in favor of
cultural genocide. Seeking to create a subserviant species, Victor Frankenstein
confronts a revolting insurrection of his own making—a Creature who refuses
slavery, claims mastery over his creator and demands a female companion.
Yet Frankenstein’s fear of creating “a race of devils” betrays a terror of what
Whites know, but refuse to acknowledge, about themselves and racial others.
race, Frankenstein, monstrosity, colonialism, Prometheus, humanism
1Department of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA
Corresponding Author:
P. J. Brendese, Department of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St,
357 Mergenthaler Hall, Baltimore, MD 21218-2625, USA.
Email: pbrende1@jhu.edu
988686PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720988686Political TheoryBrendese
Brendese 87
This essay explores how Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein or The
Modern Prometheus dramatizes the blindness and insights of modern politi-
cal theory and the role race has historically played in shaping and contesting
the boundaries of the human.1 I do so by attending to Euro-modernity as a
race-making, monster-making project contested and pluralized by colonial
encounters with racial others. Never out of print since it was first published
200 years ago and frequently credited as the first work of science fiction, the
novel also engages core, if understudied, tensions of Western political theory
and modernity.2 The daughter of feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft and
anarchist William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s intellectual debts to the political
theories of her parents resound throughout the work, along with a host of
influential figures spanning Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Niccolo
Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes, among others. Still, the most familiar
interpretation of Frankenstein is as an archetypical warning against the
potential that technological innovations could outshine the brilliance of their
Whereas the ancient Prometheus was famously punished for stealing fire
from the gods and sentenced to have his liver recursively eaten away in per-
petuity, The Modern Prometheus Victor Frankenstein is undone by creating
a being that viciously overpowers him.3 Book and film adaptations of
Frankenstein have long featured ambitious inventors whose arrogance invites
the proverbial wrath of the gods and its terrible horrors. The fear of unleashing
a monster whose awesome powers radically exceed those of its creators is
alive within so many political projects as to admit a range of monsters and
interpretive possibilities. Following the etymological roots of the word mon-
ster (monstrum) as “to warn,” “to demonstrate; or to show,” this essay show-
cases how the work traffics in a contagion of colonial anxieties over modern
subject formation as they pertain to race, gender, and liberal humanism.4
Shelley resurrects an ancient terror at human creation shifting away from
women as earthly birth-mothers and toward the alienated, hubristic masculin-
ity embodied by that alchemist-turned-scientist Victor Frankenstein. Beginning
his work with a drive to improve upon humanity and then restore life,
Frankenstein aspires to create “a new species [that] would bless me as creator
and source” (44). Instead, he creates a “hideous progeny” that he regards as
perpetually unredeemable, ultimately refusing to create a female companion
for his creature for fear of unleashing “a race of devils” (171).
Borne of a ghost-story competition with her husband Percy Shelley and
Lord Byron, Mary Shelley attributes her intellectual inspiration for the book
to her own nightmares (xii).5 Yet the Creature did not emerge fully formed
from Shelley’s dreamscape but reflects the era’s racialized fears augured by
colonialism, debates over slavery in general, and the epic slave revolt of the

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