The story of the scientist who ‘plays God’ and creates a monster is so popular that it requires no introduction. Who requires introduction is Mary Shelley, the author of this horrible, scary Gothic novel. She was the daughter of the anarchist political author William Godwin and the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Her mother died a few days after her birth. This, added to the death of her premature born daughter, created strong parallels between birth and destruction for Shelley; Frankenstein’s relationship with its own creation could be examined under that light. Shelley eloped with the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the age of 16 and they later got married to him. Evidently, she was always surrounded by liberal minds and a strong literary circle.
Reginald Easton’s miniature of Mary Shelley
A Famous Holiday
In 1816, the couple spent a summer in Geneva with Clair Clairmont (Mary Shelley’s step-sister), John William Polidori and Lord Byron. It was a dark and bleak season: they spent much of their time indoors reading Gothic German ghost stories. A writing contest soon followed. Inspired by Shelley and Lord Byron’s conversations about galvanism and Erasmus Darwin’s ideas about reviving the dead, Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein. Only other completed story was Polidori’s The Vampyre which became a major influence for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
A Romantic novel?
There are infinite ways of interpreting Frankenstein. One of the more obvious of these interpretations is that it is a Romantic novel. The story is mainly set in the beautiful mountains and lakes of Switzerland, Shelley’s notion of the sublime and beauty corresponds to her husband’s and also Lord Byron’s views who were two of the key figures of the Romantic era. Romanticism was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the aristocratic social and political reforms of the Enlightenment, and the scientific rationalisation of nature: all what we came to know as modernity. The movement emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe. Reading Frankenstein is indeed an emotional experience: it is scary and horrible as well as evoking sympathy and pity to Frankenstein and the monster he creates (potentially, also the one he becomes).
The subtitle of the book, “The Modern Prometheus”, offers another interpretation to the novel. In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus had a reputation as being something of a clever trickster and he famously gave the human race the gift of fire and the skill of metalwork, an action for which he was punished by Zeus, who ensured every day that an eagle ate the liver of the Titan as he was helplessly chained to a rock (1). Fire symbolises knowledge, and the story is originally intended to be a cautionary tale about keeping sacred knowledge hidden and safe, especially from those who are likely to corrupt it (we all know what we went on to do with fire). However, to the Romantics Prometheus was a hero who sacrificed himself for the sake of humanity. Therefore, there should be no limits to obtain knowledge, no matter what the consequences might be. Hence Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein “starts life with benevolent intentions” and wants to “make himself useful to his fellow beings”. According to him, his aim is honourable and noble. At least before he starts to dream of his creation’s gratitude.
Science & Progress, at what cost?
Frankenstein is widely accepted as the first science fiction novel ever written. It is widely influenced by the scientific advances of its time. Luigi Galvani (1737-98), the Italian physiologist and experimenter whose experiments with frogs led him to believe that an “animal electricity” resided in the nerves and muscles of animals. Observing that the convulsions of a frog placed in a circuit containing a piece of metal were accompanied by motions in its nerve juices, he assumed the convulsions to be the work of a subtle but vital electrical fluid “animating” the animal’s enclosed nerves and muscle fibres. His notion that this fluid was analogous to ordinary electricity inspired Mary Shelley’s idea that “perhaps a corpse would be reanimated”.
Giovanni Aldini and galvanism experiments on a human. Dr. Aldini and his predesessor, Dr. Galvani.
The poem, The Temple of Nature, by the physician-poet Erasmus Darwin also inspired Shelley; it was thought that life could indeed be imitated by “natural philosophy” or science. Understanding the scientific context of the book allows us to imagine how horrifying it must have been to read it in the early 19th century: many thought the story could easily be realised in near future. Hence the reason why Frankenstein is still so relevant: every year there is yet another adaptation of it in cinemas. The questions it directs us are of immense importance: exactly how far should science go, risking the creation of such monsters (or any other kind of damage to humanity)? What determines morality in science if not religion?
A cultivated monster
The books the monster reads are chosen very wisely by Shelley. One of them is The Sorrows of Young Werther by the German poet/philosopher/novelist Goethe. The novel was such a hit among the European youth of late 18th century that it changed the way of expressing exaggerated emotions. Many young men started to imitate the “sensible” Werther in many ways, from his clothes to his tragic suicide. The monster’s reaction to the story is rather remarkable as it elucidates how much he resembles the human readers of the book. He “inclines towards the opinions of the hero” whose “extinction” makes him “weep”.
Religion in Frankenstein
The monster also reads Milton’s Paradise Lost, the fall of Adam and Eve from heaven. The monster reads it “as a true history” with “deeper emotions”. He at first identifies with Adam as both were not linked to any other being in creation. But this is where the similarity ends, the monster comes to the realisation that he is the Satan; “wretched, helpless and alone”. The “bitter gall of envy” rises within him as he sees the bliss of those around him. He is a “wretched outcast” whose only fault is the malformation of his body. “God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.” At that point there is nothing monstrous about the monster. Indeed, even the fact that he has no name proves that everything people hold against him is prejudice based on his appearance. Even his creator turns his back on him. As a response, he becomes the monster he is accused of being by killing all those Frankenstein loves. “The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.”
So, who is the monster?
“I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” Thus the monster appeals to its creator for a female, so that he may have a companion to share his misery. Frankenstein agrees and starts his work. However, the idea of “a race of devils” persuades him to tear his creation apart, as the monster watches him from outside. The latter then kills Frankenstein’s wife on their wedding night. They then make one another miserable in pursuit of “vengeance”, chasing each other to the deadly cold and wilderness of Antarctica. How can one determine who the real monster is when the two become so similar in their actions? The nameless monster wronged Frankenstein by destroying his family, but it was the atrocity of humans that transformed him into that monster by forsaking him every bit of friendliness. Even Frankenstein’s foremost reaction when seeing him was to curse him for his ghastly ugliness and to run away from his own creation. Who is the monster, then?