“The Nameless Mode of Naming the Unnameable”: (Un)coding the Non-human in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

For centuries, philosophers have grappled with the ontological issue of what it means to be human. In her seminal novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley examines and challenges this very question. Shelley’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, endeavors to artificially create life, however, at the very moment of animation, he vehemently rejects his creation. Instead of being elated by his success, he is immediately repulsed by the “demoniacal corpse.” His rejection of the creature at that moment, which is continued throughout the remainder of the novel, functions as the catalyst for the creature’s subsequent violent and murderous actions.

Frontispiece of the 1831 edition of “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” (British Library)

Much like both the creature’s fragmented body and the novel’s corresponding narrative bricolage, my project consists of multiple parts. The first part will focus on Shelley’s textual descriptions of the creature in the 1818 edition of the novel. I will examine how her decision to leave this character unnamed, instead referring to him throughout the text by various sub-human descriptors such as “dæmon,” “animal,” and “fiend,” reinforces the binary division between human and nonhuman.

The second part of my project will focus on how Shelley’s literary treatment of the creature evolved between the 1818 edition and the later 1831 published text. While I recognize that this type of a comparison could potentially expand to a much larger project, I plan to narrowly focus my examination on Shelley’s descriptions of the creature by conducting a variant analysis of the two texts using Juxta Commons. For my witnesses, I will use the existing online texts of the 1818 and 1831 editions edited by Stuart Curran.

Image of sample variant analysis on Juxta Commons

The third and final part of my project will conclude by further exploring the binary distinction that Shelley created between human and non-human, but will be situated in the larger realm of digital humanities. Specifically, I plan to examine the challenge that “naming the unnameable” creates when attempting to code the character of Frankenstein’s monster in a current digitization project.

While the scholarly body of work on Frankenstein is expansive, both in terms of the depth and breadth of previous academic explorations, based on the research that I have done thus far, I have not found any similar projects with my specific focus (though I hope that as I continue to work on this project, I will find some other examples on which to base or model my work). The two primary questions that I plan to explore in my final project are:  What issues arise by the naming, or not naming, of the creature, both in terms of computer programming and in literary analysis? What does that tell us about how we as readers and as scholars make the distinction between human and the ‘other’?



“Articulating the Abstract: Theories of the Unnameable.” The Unnameable Monster in Literature and Film, by Maria Beville. Routledge, 2013, pp. 51–69.

Burnard, Lou. What is the Text Encoding Initiative? How to Add Intelligent Markup to Digital Resources. Marseille: Open Edition Press, 2014. Web. <http://books.openedition.org/oep/426>.

Carroll, Noel. “The Nature of Horror.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 46, no. 1, 1987, pp. 51–59.

Cummings, James. “The Text Encoding Initiative and the Study of Literature.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, edited by Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008, www.digitalhumanities.org/companionDLS/.

Duyfhuizen, Bernard. “Periphrastic Naming in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 27, no. 4, 1 Dec. 1995, pp. 477–492.

Hockey, Susan M. Electronic Texts in the Humanities: Principles and Practice. Oxford University Press, 2001.

“Frankenstein and the Unnameable.” Gothic Fiction/Gothic Form, by George E. Haggerty. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989, pp. 37–63.

“A Gentle Introduction to XML – The TEI Guidelines.” P5: Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange, TEI Consortium, 31 Jan. 2018, www.tei-c.org/release/doc/tei-p5-doc/en/html/SG.html.

McGann, Jerome. “Marking Texts of Many Dimensions.” Edited by Susan Schreibman et al., A Companion to Digital Humanities. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, www.digitalhumanities.org/companion.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by Stuart Curran, Romantic Circles, University of Maryland, 1 May 2009, www.rc.umd.edu/editions/frankenstein.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. Ed. D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf, 3rd ed., Broadview Editions, 2012. Print.

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4 thoughts on ““The Nameless Mode of Naming the Unnameable”: (Un)coding the Non-human in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

  1. In reference to the third aspect of your project, it seemed slightly unclear – are you looking at the potential difficulties involved with using a digital tool to analyze an unnamed character? Also, I would suggest possibly leaving out the second part since, as you mentioned, it could end up becoming too large of a topic on its own (unless you are concerned that there aren’t enough sources related to your specific focus as you say in your final paragraph). Overall though, I like that you are taking a popular theme from Frankenstein (with a large body of literature) and adding a digital element to it as a way of approaching the subject from a different angle.

  2. This is a strong proposal with a clear sense of purpose and scope, I do think that the third part is a bit undefined as of yet, and incorporating your research here—and specifics from the project—will help with that. The sources you’ve found seem closely related to your project; perhaps more scholarship on naming and/or the novel itself, as well as considerations of the differences in editions? Do not forget to reference your research in text, as well as quotations and paraphrases.

    1. Thanks — that is actually what I am working on right now (i.e. the significance of the creature being unnamed). I do have a list of questions for our conference on Wednesday and am hoping to get a bit of guidance, particularly on the third part. That is the part that I feel least confident about…

  3. Amy, I really liked that you committed to this project. Will you be looking at the entire text or just portions of it that are notable? Adding on to what Dr. Howe and Alec noted about the third aspect, I think that it could be more clear of what you mean by “situated in the larger realm of digital humanities.” I know this comment may not add onto your project, but I wonder why Shelley has Victor reference him in different ways each time and how that could add on specifically to that nonhuman aspect. I figure that when you try to use ctrl+f to find all the terms for the creature, you end up having to do multiple searches rather than one. What does that do to the interpretation digitally?

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