Tag Archives: Mary Shelley

Frankenfear

While re-reading Frankenstein the uncomfortable thought kept recurring that our tendency to save lives leads to undiscovered fears. I’m not suggesting that we should just let people die, but even from my own experience of doctors, the sense of personal agency has become somewhat eroded. You go to the doctor and s/he tells you, “You should have this done.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out what this box that’s attached to my TV should be called, so how am I qualified to assess a professional opinion about my health? We mend bodies with plastic and metals and chemicals. Some modifications, like fillings and glasses, seem no brainers. But what about plastic tubes and computers to regulate body functions? They’re all good, but have we thought this through, I can hear Mary Shelley asking.

Religion, which is now also eroding, was a traditional way of coping with the fact of our own mortality. Everyone dies. From the beginning of the world, with the possible exception of Elijah—and even he had to come back—everyone has died. Religion traditionally said that it wasn’t the last word. The body wears out, and in a materialist world there’s nothing that can be left. Technology can prolong life, but some may not want it to be prolonged beyond a certain point. I’m not being morbid; I just don’t like arguing with what can’t be changed. Religion, it’s easy to forget, is about finding peace. Some people misunderstand that, for sure, but that doesn’t change the facts.

Did Prometheus overstep his bounds? Mary Shelley seemed to think so. In her recollections the story was intended to scare, not to predict. Victor Frankenstein creates the monster simply because he can. He does it alone, without thinking through the consequences even with a convenient Igor. Religion has often been cast as that annoying, moralizing sibling to science. (Philosophy could well join the ranks too, as some prefer it to religious thinking.) Without that sibling, however, how can we make informed decisions? Science, by its very definition, can’t tell us what should be done. The only values it knows are quantifiers. We live in a piecemeal world where some parts have been removed while others have been added. We don’t know if this is right or wrong since religion is one of the pieces excised without being replaced. Prometheus, ironically, translates to “forethought.” The problem with Frankenstein is precisely that Prometheus is missing.

Frankenstein and Co.

Authors, I expect, don’t anticipate that their work will be annotated. Since I deal with annotated Bibles on a daily basis, I often ponder that the anonymous writers—we know of few biblical writers with any degree of certainty—had no idea that they were writing the Bible. Nor did they realize that some day many people would make their livelihood from interpreting that book. Among the interpreters are annotators. When my wife gave me Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Christmas I was at first puzzled. I have a copy of Frankenstein already. In fact, I read it again just last year. Then I realized it was an annotated edition: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. Edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, the book contains the original text and an introduction, as well as the said annotations. Like a typical study Bible, it also contains essays. The editors joke that it’s kind of like a Frankenstein monster itself.

The “value added” material isn’t all about science. In fact, quite a lot of it has to do with human relationships, and particularly women’s rights. Mary Shelley was an early feminist and her novel shows what goes wrong when men try to reproduce without women. Another recurring theme that, amazingly, had never dawned on me while reading Frankenstein was the Adam and Eve story. Victor Frankenstein, like God, creates a man. Then he creates a woman. Well, almost. Afraid what might happen should his creature find a companion too companionable, he destroys the second creature before she’s finished. The biblical parallels are nevertheless there.

Originally subtitled The Modern Prometheus, the novel was based on pre-Christian myth as much as on Holy Writ. Nevertheless, the Bible suffused British culture in the nineteenth century just as it has continued to overwhelm American culture to the present day. We ignore it at our peril. Morality in science is a major focus of the essays in this volume, but I wondered how many scientists might be enticed to read a piece of feminist fiction in order to learn some ethics. The largest ethical conundrum we face in the United States is that so few people read for personal growth. Spending time with a book is a sacred activity for those committed to the principles of literacy. Frankenstein isn’t a prefect novel; the pacing is pretty slow even for a gothic masterpiece. There are loose ends left hanging. The protagonist is often insufferable. Still, as the editors and annotators have demonstrated, there’s much to learn from this old story. All it takes is the willingness to read and deeply reflect. And perhaps read the annotations.

Revisiting Frankenstein

There’s nothing like going back to the classics. Many people don’t realize that one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It has never been out of print. As a novel it has its issues, but the tale strikes something deeply responsive in readers. And the story may not be what you think. You see, the movies have made Frankenstein’s monster into something Shelley never intended. Indeed, today’s Frankenstein monster is pieced together from various monster images, just like the mad doctor’s original creation.

After a lapse of many decades, I decided to read Frankenstein again. It must’ve been in my tweenage years that I’d last done so. I recall putting the book down thinking how sad it was. Something happens, however, when you return to a book after a span of many years. This time I was looking for the mad doctor and hoping to determine if the monster deserved that title at all. The story won’t let any easy answers come. Victor Frankenstein is a young, impulsive man carried away by an idea. He doesn’t contemplate the consequences of what he’s doing. It’s like buying a dog without considering that you’ve just realigned your priorities for several years. Not noticing that his growing creation is hideous to the eyes until it’s too late, he simply abandons the creature without a word. (The parallels with an absentee father should be obvious.)

The creature—monster is a bit harsh—wants acceptance. He isn’t a mute brute with bolts in his neck. He’s not a robot. He is Adam kicked out of the garden with no Eve. He doesn’t start out evil. The rejection of his creator forces him to murder in a desire for revenge. Shelley’s world was deeply influenced by the Bible as well as Milton. Religious concepts are constantly under evaluation. The child of radical parents—her mother was one of the first feminists on record—Shelley questions everything here. No doubt in Victor’s mind he’s created a demon. Or has the monster created Frankenstein? Until the very final pages nobody else actually sees his monster, or at least hasn’t seen him and lived to tell about it. What fuels the creature’s fury is rejection. Evil doesn’t just happen in the world of the mad doctor.

Sympathies are divided in Frankenstein. We feel for the monster. His creator never apologizes. Never reflects that he somehow shares (or completely owns) the blame for the sad fate of that which he’s created. Living under a Frankenstein presidency, these unanswered questions hang thickly in the air. Lack of foresight seldom ends well. The monster isn’t always who you assume it to be.

Frankly Frankenstein

As a novel, like its monster, Frankenstein trespasses all kinds of boundaries. Is it science fiction or horror? Is it Gothic or presciently modern? Is it feminist or conventional? One thing about it is certain: it has been immensely influential. Lester D. Friedman and Allison B. Kavey have created for the world a truly wondrous treatment of this meme. Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives is perhaps the most engaging monster book I’ve ever read (and there have been many). One of the main reasons for this is that Friedman and Kavey are keenly aware that binaries don’t necessarily exclude their opposites. Frankenstein is about both science and religion, and it treats both profoundly. Considering that Mary Shelley was only 21 when the novel was published bespeaks a rare genius in blurring boundaries and making those on each side think.

Monstrous Progeny considers multiple issues associated with Frankenstein. Should science be approached alone, or should peer review be involved at every stage? Is religion eschewed by this woman so strongly influenced by atheism, or is it the very crux of the matter? And what about the incredible and continuing afterlife of Shelley’s story? Friedman and Kavey survey not only the novel but several movies associated with, or based on ideas from, the book. Modern science, if we’re to be honest, also owes much to the fictional musings of a 19-year-old girl on a dark and stormy night. The tale of the tale is nearly as fantastic as its progeny. Challenged to write a ghost story, Shelley produced an undying Zeitgeist feature instead. Monstrous Progeny delves deeply into this unexpectedly profound idea, showing how it grips the heart of many contemporary nightmares.

Genres can be deceiving. Shelley wrote her tale as a “ghost story.” It received literary acclaim, becoming one of the best selling books in England in the nineteenth century. Only when Universal found success with Dracula in 1931 and followed it up with Frankenstein the same year did film critics want something to call movies like this. The term “horror film” was invented. There is certainly horror in Frankenstein, but there’s much more to it than that. The relationship between religion and science, and the very real ethical issue of making something because we can, are never far from the reader’s mind. Giving life to the creature only underscores the conflicts and contradictions of life in a world where to be gods risks destroying any possibility of heaven. Monstrous Progeny is a thought-provoking book that will, in its own way, brings our present fears to life.

Summer of Frankenstein

Two centuries can make an enormous difference. Just two-hundred years ago Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was merely one year in the past. North America and parts of Europe were experiencing “the year without a summer.” Perhaps due to that cool and rainy summer, when Mary Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley called on their friend Lord Byron, their thoughts turned to ghosts. According to the legend, together with Byron’s personal physician John Polidori, the friends spent a night writing scary stories. Polidori, although not widely remembered today, invented the vampire that would, in Bram Stoker’s hands, become the aristocratic Dracula, and eventually, with Anne Rice’s influence, Lestat, Louis, and Armand. Mary Godwin, soon to be Shelley, gave birth to perhaps the most successful of new monsters ever created—that of Victor Frankenstein’s construction. Many have claimed the monster’s pedigree to have been that of the golem, but Shelley’s creativity went beyond this forebear into the sympathetic misfit who, like all of us, never asked to be born. The two centuries since that summer have been haunted.

477px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)

Quite apart from the monster tale, Frankenstein is also about building that which we, in our hubris, can’t understand. Progress without forethought, as Epimetheus could never learn, housed immediate and very real dangers. The two centuries since Frankenstein have proven Mary Shelley a prophet. An early supporter of women’s equality, she profited from her novel, but never managed to thrive. Just six years later her famous future husband would die tragically in the Romantic genre of a shipwreck. Even with important friends, Mary found it difficult to capitalize on her success. The monster was real enough.

We’ve become accustomed to making things we can’t control. When’s the last time you were able to fix a car broken down by the road, apart from the occasional flat tire? Can you really stop your job from becoming completely different from what you signed up to do? What about when that bully wanders from the playground into the political field? Once you’ve figured out how to split an atom, you never forget. It may have been Napoleon still recently in the news, or the fact that 1816 failed to warm up like it was expected after the solstice. Perhaps it was the fact that Mary Godwin was a liberated woman in a world still utterly determined by men. We can’t know her intimate and ultimate reasons for creating a monster, but we do know that once the monster is unleashed we can never bind it again.

Fighting with Monsters

GothicThe Lady and Her Monsters reminded me of Gothic. A friend of mine in seminary showed me this “shocking” movie by Ken Russell just after it was released on VHS (I always was fond of ancient history). To my young eyes this was a challenging film, but it rated higher in moodiness than scariness. Roseanne Montillo’s book brought the movie to mind because, it turns out, several of the incidents in the movie were based on fact. Perhaps I need to take a step back because Gothic never made it big, and many may not realize that the movie is about the legendary night Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley) came up with the idea for Frankenstein. In an early nineteenth-century walk of fame, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, Lord Byron, and John Polidori decided to write scary stories, as a kind of contest. Only two ever made it to print, Polidori’s The Vampyre, which inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula many decades later, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The movie, with Ken Russell’s famous flamboyance, traced an unlikely story of the friends conjuring a ghost and then banishing it once again before the stormy night is over.

Ken Russell had the reputation for being obsessed with the church and sexuality. These interests are certainly well represented in Gothic, where Percy Shelley, famously an atheist and believer in the supernatural, struggles to make sense of it all. Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, is presented as a Catholic who admits, when each has to confess his or her deepest fears, that God terrifies him. The friends (perhaps in an unwitting prelude to a television series by that name) explore sexuality and the supernatural through the long night. Waking nightmares meet them at every turn. They even have a skull of “the black monk,” a character attested in all sincerity, at one time, at the most gothic seminary in the Wisconsin woods.

“He who fights with monsters,” Friedrich Nietzsche opined, “might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” That which we worship is that which we fear. Certainly the Christianity of the Middle Ages had as much of Hell as of Heaven in it. Bursting out into the light of rationalism, it seems, did not banish the darkness after all. We still have many questions left unanswered, and many intelligent people have begun to question whether any one paradigm fits all of the evidence. I suspect not. Human experience goes in multiple directions at once. We have ladies, we have monsters, we have scientists, we have God. And on rainy nights we have movies that make us see that we have combined them all into a tale often repeated but never fully understood.

Making a Monster

I was maybe six or seven when Frankenstein’s monster charged us. My mother, brothers, and I were part of a small crowd at Niagara Falls, where we had gone to visit relatives, when we found ourselves in the monster’s path. We were among of a knot of tourists, and plate glass separated us from the great roaring beast, posted to draw visitors to one of the many plastic tourist attractions around the famous falls. Each time the monster charged, we all screamed, knowing full well he could never break through that glass. As a member of the Monster Boomer generation (although on the tail end of the boomer part), the monster that disturbed me the most has always been Frankenstein’s monster. I’m not sure whether that was natural squeamishness, or if it was that as children my brothers and I tried to divide things up evenly and I ended up with the vampire while one of my brothers claimed possession of “Frankenstein.” Certainly when I grew old enough to read the book, it only added to my discomfort. The concept of Frankenstein’s monster was old enough to have lost its scary edge, but the story was very sad. The monster was not evil, but lonely.

HitchcockFrank

Sarah Tyler Hitchcock’s Frankenstein: A Cultural History revealed a new angle on the monster. A thoroughly fascinating anthropological approach to one of the more modern constellations in the night-time sky of fear, what became immediately obvious in this book is just how religious a monster Frankenstein’s creature is. Many of us think of “playing God” as a recent phenomenon. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Shelley)’s Frankenstein was published in 1818 with just that concept in mind. Mary Shelley, barely twenty when the book was published, had tapped into one of the most vital of religious topics—what it means to make life. Hitchcock’s treatment of the subject covers the conception of the monster, the book and its history, the plays and movies based on the story, and Frankenstein’s monster’s reception into popular culture. At every step of the way, religious issues are raised. Mary, in her birth of an immaculate creature, gave the world theological conundrums through which we’re still sorting nearly two centuries later.

Often on this blog I maintain that monsters and religion are cut from the same cloth. Hitchcock provides a compendium of supporting evidence in her compelling book. Even down to the contemporary debates of scientists over genetic engineering and cloning, the story of Frankenstein and the overstepping of ethical boundaries comes up again and again in scientific literature. I couldn’t help but to think how this reflects the current acrimony between the materialists and the dualists among the intelligentsia: is the forging ahead with manipulation of life simply an experiment we must undertake or is it really an ethical (read “spiritual”) issue after all? Mary Shelley was not so strident as her erstwhile husband Percy was regarding the necessity of atheism. Her monster seemed to be raising that question in terms profoundly theological for a girl not yet of seminary age. Sarah Tyler Hitchcock has done us a great favor by producing a history that stitches religion, culture, and science together into a beast that we still haven’t learned to control.