Mary Shelley: Frankenstein
The Memorable Monster
In 1818, The British Critic, a British literary magazine, assessed Mary Shelley’s new novel, Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus. The reviewer wrote:
“We need scarcely say, that these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral; the horror which abounds in them is too grotesque and bizarre ever to approach near the sublime, and when we did not hurry over the pages in disgust, we sometimes paused to laugh outright; and yet we suspect, that the diseased and wandering imagination, which has stepped out of all legitimate bounds, to frame these disjointed combinations and unnatural adventures, might be disciplined into something better. We heartily wish it were so, for there are occasional symptoms of no common powers of mind, struggling through a mass of absurdity, which well nigh overwhelms them; but it is a sort of absurdity that approaches so often the confines of what is wicked and immoral, that we dare hardly trust ourselves to bestow even this qualified praise. The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”
Dismiss the novel? How silly this person would feel now. Today, with our hindsight, it is easy to see why this assessment is so ridiculous. Indeed, the image of the lonely wretch and the misdirected Victor Frankenstein are two of literature’s most lasting images. But, upon reading this commentary and realizing how wrong it was, I asked myself one question, “why”? Why is it that the wretch and its creator have remained so indelibly imprinted on our imaginations?
“We need scarcely say, that these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral…”
Frankenstein was nothing if it wasn’t moral. The novel poses numerous philosophical questions. Should man have the power to create? Do we have the right to destroy that which we create? How is evil created? Do we create our own evils? Is society’s blind pursuit of science a strength or a weakness? Does this pursuit bring us closer to our virtues and ideals or drag us away from them? These are the questions at the core of Frankenstein.
And, in fact, these are questions which have become very important in the last two centuries. With the rise of industry and technology, we no longer look to God for answers to questions which seem unanswerable, we look to our own science. But can this science be trusted in the way we trust our God? If our own science can answer these questions, how does God play a role? Are we our own God?
Victor Frankenstein may have thought so for an instant. He is a character who embodies many of the struggles which characterized a new age– an age where questions we previously thought would always remain a mystery were suddenly very much within our understanding, where powers we never thought we could possess are now very much under our control.
“when we did not hurry over the pages in disgust, we sometimes paused to laugh outright”
Perhaps the most important part of the monster is the how absolutely human it really is. It is at first hopeful, curious, and sympathetic, gradually mistreated, jaded, and disgusted, and finally angry, vengeful, and lonely. The wretch is not a monster which insights fear in us at all times. We are scared of its implications, but not necessarily itself. In fact, we often feel sorry for the wretch. The wretch is not intended to be gore for the sake of gore. It is violent at times, but the fact that we can sympathize, and even find humor in the description of the wretch is what makes it all the more lasting. The over-dramatic description may be very much a product of Shelley’s time, but the ridiculous detail gives us loads of material to compare to ourselves, making it timeless. The idea of funny and evil at the same time is appealing and human.
“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should”
Being a woman very likely influenced Shelley while writing the novel, although not in the manner suggested. The theme of parenting is important in the book and Shelley’s “gentleness” is indeed apparent (and certainly not forgotten, as our bumbling reviewer suggests). Like Adam in Paradise Lost, the wretch is created with good intentions but unlike Adam, he is left with no companion and is thrown out on his own without ever committing any wrong.
In this theme, we have two very important points. The first is that Frankenstein runs from his obligation to “parent” the wretch. The second is that the wretch learns hate, revenge and anger only after he is abandoned by his creator. Who then is responsible for the actions of the wretch? Does the wretch deserve love despite its faults?
As a young woman facing pregnancy and motherhood, Shelley undoubtedly sought to answer questions like these. These were issues close to her heart.
These are also questions which persist today. We know that people who commit crimes were very often exposed to those crimes when they were children. Child abusers for instance, are almost always victims of abuse themselves. Can strong parenting help prevent violence?
“and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment”
Frankenstein is an story that will last for centuries. It is an ageless parable. Perhaps the reason why it has lasted so long and will continue to do so is that it is truly unanswerable. It asks questions which demand a broad understanding of human nature– questions which have fascinated us from the beginning and will always do so. It shows the vague almost imperceptible line between good and evil, benevolence and malevolence, victim and criminal. In addition, it prompts us to consider our own existence and our influence over the existence of others. The monster and its creator are effective images because they are both monsters that we, society, created ourselves– out of our desire to improve and out of our inability to predict.