This article examines the spaces still life in Frankenstein, arguing that Mary Shelley draws on this rich visual tradition from its humblest manifestations in the painting of food to its most conceptual in its explorations of light, human perception, and death. Following Norman Bryson's directive of “looking at the overlooked,” this essay explores the creature's relationship to food, self-maintenance, and creatural existence with a special focus on what Joanna Woodall calls the “spaces of still life,” including the kitchen, the artist's studio, and the camera obscura. The essay attempts to answer the seemingly mundane questions of why the monster talks about food at moments of high drama or why the novel is littered with so many “disembodied eyes,” to borrow Jay Clayton's phrase. In part, I argue the creature's development is a kind of art appreciation class where he learns to make distinctions of taste in reading various environments and scenes. The essay interprets Victor Frankenstein's artistic and scientific endeavors as a form of history painting that cannot rid itself of the “debased” genre of still life, namely, rhyparography (the painting of waste and filth). Indeed, all art practice in Frankenstein becomes tied to death and remains—whether it is the anatomical drawing recoded as vanitas or the creature's literal tableaux vivants turned nature morte. In this way, Shelley's philosophical novel on the values of domestic work and affection gets expressed precisely through the genre of still life.
Still Life in Frankenstein
alexandra neel is assistant professor in the Humanities Program at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. She is at work on a book project called “Winter's Tales” that examines the exchanges between illustrated travel accounts and literary works on British polar expeditions.
Alexandra Neel; Still Life in Frankenstein. Novel 1 November 2015; 48 (3): 421–445. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-3150365
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