The consequences of God-playing by Brian Bess
The circumstances that led to the composition of ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’ are almost as intriguing and thoroughly discussed as the novel itself. Written by an eighteen-year old female, herself the product of two noteworthy authors, married to a major young poet and friend to one of the most popular and significant poets of the era, the composition seems as improbable as the tale itself and has been incorporated into numerous cinematic depictions of the tale.
Mary Shelley’s own life and circumstances, giving birth and losing children in quick succession over the time period leading up to and including the writing of ‘Frankenstein’ definitely provided emotional fodder for the power of the novel. However, the novel is a result of the successful channeling of Mary’s emotional state into a powerful parable of creator and created, parent and child, nurturing and neglect that reverberates beyond the surface tale.
The novel uses a framing device, much like many nineteenth century novels, in which the reader starts with a plausible scenario and is gradually drawn into a more incredible and extraordinary tale nestled within the outer shell. An explorer, Robert Walton, is sailing northward to reach the North Pole. He writes of his journey in letters to his sister that may or may not reach her, which she may read after his demise. His ship is trapped in a bank of ice. He sees a giant figure in a sledge driven by dogs heading further north over the ice. Shortly afterward, he sees another figure, barely alive, leading another sledge driven by dogs. His crew brings him onto the ship, where he is warmed up and nursed back to consciousness. The man, Victor Frankenstein, is befriended by Walton and begins to tell an incredible story that provides an explanation of who the giant figure is that they’d seen earlier and why Frankenstein is pursuing him.
So we embark on the story of a young man, curious and ambitious, who attempts to solve the mystery of the creation of life and successfully creates a human. Unlike film adaptations of the novel, the original provides few details of how the monster was created. There are no grave robbings or stolen cadavers, at least none that are mentioned. Frankenstein stitches together a superman, enormous and strong, who is also hideous and grotesque. He does not exist and then suddenly he does and we are dropped with Frankenstein into these horrific circumstances.
Immediately upon viewing his creation, Frankenstein is appalled and immediately abdicates his responsibility to his “child”. His horror clouds any thought of nurturing or even detached scientific curiosity. Abandoned, the newborn creature seeks the love, understanding or even meaning to who he is and why he is here that anyone can give him.
Meanwhile, Frankenstein puts the creature out of sight and out of mind and tries to resume his life. The weight of what he has done lies heavy on his heart and he now carries a burden that he cannot share with anyone and still be regarded as sane.
‘Frankenstein’ is a gothic melodrama. As such, the eighteen-year old author exerts no effort in fleshing out characters. Frankenstein’s father, brothers, cousin/fiancée Elizabeth, and best friend Henry Clerval are all virtuous and his life with them is idyllic but clouded with the knowledge of this crime against nature that he has unleashed on the world. Characters speak with otherworldly eloquence that characterized much of the fiction of the era; and yet the core of this melodrama is profoundly resonant on many levels as allegory and parable that still speaks to 21st century audiences 200 years after its original publication.
We suffer with Frankenstein as he carries his burden and then we are thrust face to face with his creature, who has killed Frankenstein’s young brother and implicated an innocent girl in the murder, resulting in her capital punishment. This is undoubtedly a horrific act but, along with Frankenstein, we are forced to listen to the creature tell his own story.
The creature sees humans laughing and enjoying life and wants to share in that happiness, yet wherever he goes no one sees behind his appearance and all universally shun him. He fends for himself in the forest, eating nuts and berries, and comes across a cottage occupied by a French exile, Mr. De Lacey, who is blind, and his adult son and daughter, Felix and Agatha, and Felix’s Arabian fiancée Safie. He spies on them through the window, listens to them, learns to speak and read French as Felix teaches Safie his language. The creature had left with one of Victor’s jackets, containing his journal detailing the four months leading up to the creation of the monster. He also finds books, such as ‘Paradise Lost’ and Plutarch’s ‘Lives’, and learns something of human history and geography as well as a bit about his creator and where Victor’s home, Geneva, is in relation to where the creature is now. Unsurprisingly, the creature identifies with Satan in ‘Paradise Lost’:
“Cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid from its very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested.”
He ventures communication with the one person he thinks may not judge him, the blind De Lacey. All goes well until Felix, Agatha, and Safie return and Felix drives him away.
The creature understands that Victor, like the rest of humanity he has encountered, rejects him. He makes a reasonable request—for Frankenstein to create a female companion for the monster, at which time both of them will leave to go to the Americas and never be seen by Frankenstein or anyone else in this country. If he fails to agree to this offer, the creature assures him that none of his family or friends will be safe. “I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.” Frankenstein understands and accepts his creature’s reasoning and reluctantly agrees to this horrific endeavor.
Frankenstein now lives with another burden he cannot share with anyone. He goes to Scotland and sets up a laboratory in which to make the companion. Once he steps back to look at what he has done, he thinks of many reasons why this task may result in even greater horrors. The creature may honor his vows but the companion will not be bound by them. The companion might be as repulsed by the creature as everyone else, leaving the creature more intensely alone and rejected than before. Frankenstein cannot take the risk. He destroys his work in sight of his creature.
As promised, a succession of deaths follows, after which Frankenstein pursues his creature to wherever he may go, vowing to destroy or be destroyed by him.
As I stated earlier, this is a melodrama, not a realistic novel. We can suspend our disbelief that the creature could learn to think, read, and speak with eloquence in a period of one year from his birth. Shelley’s novel transcends its limitations by making a universal philosophical statement through the mouthpieces of its creator and creation. When man’s abilities reach the height of emulating God to the extent that he successfully creates life what are his ethical and moral obligations? What can a being created in such a way be expected to think and how can he conduct a worthwhile existence in the absence of any shred of love or concern?
The creature’s helpless rage against his injustice predates Bronte’s Heathcliff and Melville’s Ahab, with greater cause than either of them. I know of no more solitary or abandoned character in literature than Frankenstein’s creature. He is so neglected that his creator didn’t even care to name him. In our post-cinematic culture, we have bestowed a name on him, but it isn’t even one unique to him but rather appropriated from his creator.
The irony of the novel is that it even overshadowed the existence of its creator. It was initially published without authorial attribution, with a forward by her husband, Percy Shelley, leading many at the time to speculate that he was the author. No one suspected that a teenaged girl could write such a tale. In those days without sufficient copyright protection, Shelley’s tale was staged without her permission and without paying her any royalties.
The thematic core of ‘Frankenstein’ and the philosophical conflict between Frankenstein and his creation is what makes it both a seminal work of science fiction, spawning numerous mad scientist scenarios, as well as a universal parable of creator/creation. It has become the distorted Adam without Eve myth, reverberating through the centuries that have followed its publication.
Booth Library is pleased to introduce its first podcast production, an unabridged reading of the 1818 edition of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. This podcast is brought to you through the generosity of local celebrity readers and produced by David Bell of the library's Reference Services Department. Technical assistance was provided by the Center for Academic Technology Support and Booth Library's Media Services Department.