In Frankenstein (originally published January 1818), Mary Shelley questions what makes one human, ultimately questioning the meaning of life. When Dr. Victor Frankenstein imbues his cadaverous monster with life, he has become a God-like creator, and his monster, a gigantic being with the ability to feel all emotions and use all of his senses, is his Adam.
Like Adam, Frankenstein’s creation must learn right and wrong. He also desires a mate so he will not be lonely. Unlike Adam, the creation has no creator guiding him: Frankenstein, and all other humans who see the creation, consider him a monster, simply because he is ugly. I don’t blame them: he was eight-feet tall and was created from cadavers, butcher’s meat, and scavenged body parts. The monster wasn’t exactly someone you’d want to sit across from at dinner.
Frankenstein was nothing like I imagined. Both Frankenstein and his monster were complex characters with multiple facets to them. I believed it would be a superficial horror story, with a monster tormenting the world.1 Rather, Frankenstein is a complex novel that introduces questions of humanity, acceptance, and scientific inquiry. Nearly two hundred years after it’s original publication, it is still highly relevant.
Mary Shelly introduced her novel with an epigram from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”
– Paradise Lost, X, 743-45
This epigram seems to be a perfect frame for the questions she raises in her novel. Unlike the movies (which I have not seen but I’ve now heard a lot about), Frankenstein’s monster is an intelligent, sensitive being. Like a child, he had to learn how to use his senses (sight, hearing, taste, feeling). Like a child, he had to learn how to speak (he observed a peasant family through a hole for more than a year). But when we finally meet him in the novel2, he is already an incredibly eloquent being, able even to quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost (a book he found and learned to read again by observing the peasant family).
Yet, although the monster is a somewhat sympathetic character, he also is a monster, and this book does have elements of horror. The story follows a frame so common in classic novels: a certain sailor, Robert Walton, is writing a letter to his sister that contains the narration of a stranger (Victor Frankenstein), who at one point narrates the monster’s own words. This allows us, as the reader to see unfolding events from different perspectives, but it also builds the tension as Frankenstein’s words foreshadow the horrors he’s already seen and that we will yet see. For a good portion of his narration and therefore the book as a whole, the monster is out of sight. I felt the growing tension as I wondered just what made the monster so awful and as I pondered what would happen when he did appear.
The frame builds the suspense until we meet the monster, who, as I mentioned, is a somewhat sensitive, emotional character. But that is not to say that Frankenstein’s “Adam” is good. No. Rather, the monster is also a foil of Adam: he is a murderer. When he finds he doesn’t get what he wants, he kills the people before him.
There was some discussion in our book group last night about the inherent good and evil in the monster. Most believed he is a monster because of this character flaw, that is, his tendency to kill people and turn violent. Personally, I felt a little bad for this being that suddenly came into creation. As Adam says in the Paradise Lost quote used in the epigram, the monster didn’t choose to be given sensibilities, emotions, and the ability to feel lonely. Further, he was dropped in to the world and abandoned by the frightened Frankenstein (his creator, remember) before he even knew how to adjust his eyes to recognize the world around him. He was never taught. Being a religious person myself, I believe humans are guided by a “light” or a “spirit” of God (this is also called conscience) and that we receive spiritual guidance as we seek it. Our Creator is interested in what we do, and He provides ways in which to learn right from wrong, as well as means to right the mistakes we make. As creator, Frankenstein did none of those things.
Could humans, then, be just as “monstrous” as Frankenstein’s creation? I believe so. Consider the horrific leaders of the world and you can see man’s ability to choose gone bad. I found Shelley’s novel to be so interesting mostly because I found myself wondering throughout who was to blame. The ugly monster created and left to live in the world without any guidance? Or the scientist who played “God” and bestowed life without the ability to nurture and teach as a God must in order to guide rational beings in the world?
On the other hand, maybe Shelley’s commentary is on the ridiculousness of God.3 Maybe she suggests that God doesn’t care about us in similar ways. We learn right from wrong from our parents, who nurture us from infancy. Maybe she thinks, then, that God is running away from us, shocked by the ugliness of our acts and unwilling to look beyond our failings.
At any rate, Frankenstein4 is astounding complex in it’s literary value and social commentary. In this post I’ve barely touched on the depth I found in the deceptively short book. No worries, I’ll surely revisit it again at some point. There is much to discover!
- Dare I compare Frankenstein to Dracula? “Silly” and “superficial” was my impression of the vampire story, although I’ll admit I’ve only read it once now. ↩
- We meet him first through Frankenstein’s narration of meeting him for the first time. ↩
- Was she atheist? ↩
- I want to add that the novel is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus” to be named after the Titan who first created man in Greek mythology. This should have clued us in to the fact that Frankenstein is the creator and not the monster, but then, we’d have to be more well read to pick up on these things. ↩