One of the main takeaway points from Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s lecture on Tambora is centered on the treatment of refugees. During the summer of 1816, famine, disease, and poverty struck Europe, and while Mary Shelley and her contemporaries wrote books to fill their time due to what was seemingly just “bad weather,” those in lower socioeconomic classes who were dependent on the weather for food and livelihood suffered greatly. Wood called this a “social-ecological breakdown,” in which Shelley’s Frankenstein monster lived because she perceived the environmental refugees as “beasts.”
I was struck by this description, especially due to its implications for the current refugee crisis in Europe. Recently, I read a New York Times article that discussed the ways in which Syrian refugees are treated by Greek citizens who want to keep Syrian children out of schools. One Greek parent against allowing refugees in schools said the refugee children “come from another continent with completely different disease and health conditions,” and that they “have a different outlook” on religious and cultural values. Concerns about health status, values, and keeping the schools “Greek” were echoed throughout the article.
This grievance sounds eerily similar to the “monster” narrative portrayed by Shelley. For Shelley and others watching the refugee crisis unfold in 1816, their claims that refugees had a “beast”-like nature occurred as people from lower socioeconomic classes became desperate for resources but found no source of economic relief or refuge. But what is important to note is that this dehumanizing relegation as “beast” was created by systems of oppression and influenced by people with social power. I say this not only to imply that people (like Shelley) promoted a narrative that dehumanized groups of people of lower socioeconomic positions, but also in the sense that Shelley and her contemporaries’ attitudes towards these people were influenced by a long history of power hierarchies rooted in socioeconomic class.
As many are quick to note, there is a difference between Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, and if we are to continue to use the “monster” narrative to describe human beings experiencing poverty (a narrative that should be critiqued), we must also understand that Frankenstein is not only those who are in positions of power, but also the system of power, itself, that creates and reproduces the xenophobic notion of the “monster” in the first place. We have to understand that it is not just the fault of the people who make negative statements about refugees who are perpetuating the refugees’ socioeconomic position, but also the fault of larger systems of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and classism that create these social positions and hierarchies of power, in the first place. If we wish to change the status quo and subvert the dehumanizing status of “monster,” we must use these tools and knowledge of hierarchical power to understand the Frankenstein that created this crisis.