Volume > Issue > Frankenstein. By Mary Shelley

Frankenstein. By Mary Shelley


By Michael S. Rose | July-August 2019
Michael S. Rose is Associate Editor of the NOR.

Victor Frankenstein witnesses two events early in life that will lead to his tragic demise. At age 15 he beholds the destruction of an enormous oak in his back yard as a lightning strike obliterates the tree before his very eyes, leaving nothing but a blasted stump. Like his historical contemporary Benjamin Franklin, Victor marvels at the power of electricity, wondering how he might harness this incredible force of nature. A few years later, as Victor is about to depart for medical studies at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, his mother dies of scarlet fever after selflessly nursing her adopted daughter Elizabeth back to health. The aggregate of these two seemingly disparate events is an obsession that will consume — literally — the rest of his life and just about everyone he loves.

Victor, as the protagonist in Mary Shelley’s seminal Gothic novel, has few redeeming traits. Even apart from his unhealthy desire to harness the powers of nature for his own purposes, Victor is rash, imprudent, morally blind, subject to violent passions, and, above all, has little respect for the human person. “The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine,” Victor confesses after all is said and done. His Faustian thirst for knowledge leads him on a tragic quest to learn the “hidden laws of nature” and unlock “the secrets of heaven.” Victor boasts that he will “pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”

That quest leads him at first to absorb the fancies of alchemists and astrologists like Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa, whose gnosticism beguiles Victor. Unfortunately, his own intellectual impetuosity blinds him to the important fact that these Renaissance philosophers trafficked in the black arts. Cornelius Agrippa, for example, claimed that the study of magic was the best means to know God and nature. Consequently, Victor himself dabbles in the occult, attempting to raise “ghosts or devils.” It isn’t surprising then that Victor, once he becomes a student of physiology, fancies himself a modern Prometheus bent on animating lifeless matter in an effort, he says, to “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption,” presumably so he can zap his mother back to life. In fact, in his efforts to understand the so-called mystery of life and secrets of heaven, he haunts the graveyards and charnel houses of Ingolstadt, digging up fresh bodies for scientific purposes: “I disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame.” What exactly Victor did to the corpses he doesn’t say, but he gives enough detail for us to imagine the rest.

Mary Shelley, just 19 when she penned the first draft of Frankenstein, was writing before the scientific revolution of the later 19th century, with its body-snatching industry that supplied medical schools with freshly dead specimens for their surgical theatres in the stated interest of advancing science and medicine. Her account of Victor’s grave-robbing is certainly prescient, especially her foresight of scientists’ prideful motives and proportionalist justifications.

It’s tempting to focus on Victor’s obvious character flaws, his defects in logic, and his penchant for playing God, or, for that matter, on the horrifying nature of the monster he creates. What is arguably more enduring, and unfortunately lost in the Hollywood-perpetuated mythology that has accreted around the 1831 novel, is Shelley’s trenchant exploration of a perennial question: What does it mean to be human? The genius of Shelley’s work lies here, as the creature masterfully relates in his own words his auto-didactic education deep in the lonely wilds of a German forest after being rejected by his creator and left for years to his own devices. It is here, after being attacked with stones by local villagers, that Victor’s creature takes refuge in a lean-to of a former pig sty at the home of the De Laceys, a once-wealthy French family banished from their homeland for helping a wrongfully accused Muslim merchant escape a Parisian prison.

The living arrangement is an odd but necessary one. The De Laceys have no idea that this gigantic creature, described by Victor as “a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived,” is living in the kennel-like hovel adjacent to their modest cottage. From this humble dwelling place carpeted with straw, the creature is able to listen to and observe the family through an imperceptible chink in the wood of their shared wall. Creepy, yes. But this chink serves as a convenient device through which Shelley cleverly allows us to witness the creature’s education. It is from this vantage point that he not only learns to read, speak French, and understand history, but he witnesses human community, family life, and familial love — and his heart is moved with sympathy as he discovers that people are not naturally hostile but full of a wide range of emotions, from sadness to joy. “When they were unhappy,” he says of the cottagers, “I felt depressed. When they rejoiced, I sympathized in their joys.”

The creature also keenly feels the truth that humans need community in order to, well, be fully human. What he is himself, the creature is not yet sure, but his theory is that he is of a new race of man, of which he is the lone Adam. “My person was hideous and my stature gigantic,” he reflects, when relating his recent history to Victor when they finally meet face to face. “What did this mean?” he asks. “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them.”

The De Laceys begin as three: Old Man De Lacey is the paterfamilias. Though blind, he provides stories and music, fatherly love and moral support for his adult son, Felix, who symbolizes the fruits and pains of human labor, and his teenage daughter, Agatha, who is the embodiment of human beauty. Even in the midst of their family warmth, the creature discovers, the cottagers appear at times to be unhappy. This is partly an effect of their newly begotten state of poverty and banishment. But more importantly, the creature later realizes, much of the family’s sadness radiates from Felix’s separation from his fiancée, Safie. When months later she arrives on the scene after a long travel ordeal from Turkey, the creature marvels at the change that takes place within the family: “I saw that her presence diffused gladness through the cottage, dispelling their sorrow as the sun dissipates the morning mists.”

After two years of surreptitiously observing the De Laceys, the creature believes that, if anyone on earth will sympathize with him, it will be the cottagers. The creature waits until the old man is alone in his house to make his appeal, to tell him of his unnatural woes. He knows the old man, without sight, will not recoil in horror and disgust at his ghastly appearance. Although this part of his plan works well, it all goes awry when the others return home to find a monster in their midst. Agatha faints, Safie flees, and Felix chases him away, beating him with a stick. When the creature returns the next day ready to forgive the cottagers, he finds the whole family has moved on, horrified by the prospect of this hideous creature turning up on their doorstep again. The creature’s mood turns quickly to rage: He burns the cottage to the ground and leaves for Geneva in search of his creator, vengeance in his heart.

All this is related by the creature to Victor Frankenstein atop a mountain in the Swiss Alps as prelude to making a single request. What does the creature ask of his creator? He wants Victor to do his duty and create for him a helpmate, a female companion with whom he may share his life: “We may not part,” he threatens Victor, “until you have promised to comply with my requisition. I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects. This being you must create.”

Through his reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost — yes, he found a copy of the book and devoured it — the creature knows the story of Adam and Eve, and he’s witnessed the light, pleasure, and love that Safie brought into Felix’s life. He has seen Felix’s transformation and he demands of Victor his very own Eve, promising that he’ll spirit her away to the wilds of South America to live apart from man in their own Amazonian Garden of Eden.

Though the creature does at times garner the sympathy of the reader up to this point, Victor remains hard of heart and morally blind. Few will feel his pain, considering his pride produced this creature, whom he rejected out of fear and cowardice. This same creature goes on to murder Victor’s little brother out of vengeance and in an overwrought attempt to attract Victor’s attention. So who is responsible for the death of William Frankenstein? This is a question both Victor and his creature consider. It is a question astute readers will consider as well. The case can be made that the prideful scientist who disregards both God and the natural law in order to serve himself is subject to the law of unintended consequences. Blinded by his pride, Victor is unable or unwilling to recognize that the creature he created is monstrous, his origins unethical and immoral by even the weakest standards. He is also unable to recognize the possible consequences of his bizarre scientific experimentation. Even those who have never read the novel know that Victor Frankenstein is a victim of a monster of his own making — and deservedly so. Victor bears grave responsibility not only for what he has done but for everything the creature does as well — including the string of murders he commits in an effort to make Victor feel as desolate as he has long felt.

No doubt Mary Shelley is prescient when it comes to the misuse of science, whether by Victorian-era body snatchers or 21st-century transhumanists who seek to alter the human person through genetic engineering, human cloning, in vitro fertilization, and experimentation with animal/human hybrids. Shelley knew even as a teen that human life is not to be manipulated for our own purposes. Victor Frankenstein realizes this too late, only after the monster of his own making has directly or indirectly killed most of Victor’s family and friends — and, ultimately, Victor himself, who contracts pneumonia while pursuing his creature to the Arctic Circle. He dies while considering the havoc his scientific pride has wreaked on humanity. Pride, after all, is one of the deadliest of sins, and this wasn’t lost on Mary Shelley as she penned the precursor to the Gothic horror genre of the Victorian age that was to follow.

Above all, Shelley’s novel can be read as a validation of the family, marriage, and natural human values in contrast to the overreaching desires of the prideful scientist. The creature struggles to understand who he is, why he was made, and where and with whom he belongs. He considers what it means to be human even as he concludes that he is a singular creature, not created in the image and likeness of God but in the image and likeness of Victor Frankenstein. Too bad that Victor’s moral blindness prevents him from becoming fully human himself. Instead, he flounders in his own pride to the detriment of his own existence. And the creature? He floats away on an ice raft in the Arctic, vowing to seek rest in death.


©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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