director of tutoring
by Nat Crawford
While some students stay up late pondering how to get into one of the nation’s top science programs, others lie awake worrying about what the kids will invent. The discipline has brought us both penicillin and anthrax bombs, Dolly the sheep and—perhaps—Caesar the ape. In the past, people feared those who studied the mysterious forces of the unseen world, and their fear inspired legends of people like Dr. Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for awe-inspiring yet temporary power. Now, of course, by harnessing those unseen forces, from electricity to genomes, we push our world into new innovations, new discoveries—or, as the poet Robinson Jeffers puts it, “mortal examinations of darkness, soundings of depth.”
In the 20th century, as science began to sound these deeps, people developed an appetite for the literary genre of science fiction. In its simplest form, science fiction simply transplants the ancient, medieval, or modern world into some interstellar location, substituting lasers for bullets and starships for boats. But the deeper works explore deeper questions: What would happen if human beings attempted to construct life rather than conceive it? What sort of person would aim to one-up nature with his own creation? Those are the questions that the English writer Mary Shelley posed and answered in her first novel, Frankenstein.
Shelley began writing Frankenstein at the age of 18, in the middle of a trip through Europe with her future husband, the poet Percy Shelley. She describes being inspired by a weird vision of an overzealous researcher, the sight of a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” It is the classic image of the mad scientist, of the renegade medical student, even, perhaps, of the overreaching engineer. She published the book three years later to popular, if not professional, acclaim. In this case, time has borne out the positive opinion of early readers, and we smile to see Sir Walter Scott call the book “horrible and disgusting.” Yes, this story describes graveyards, rotting flesh, and mutilated human beings; however, these gory bits are the mere backdrop to a powerful drama of ambition, passion, and revenge.
(By the way, it’s only in the movies that the big shambling heap of flesh and stitches is called “Frankenstein”; in the original novel, the name “Frankenstein” refers to the scientist, his creation being called simply “the monster.” The story also starts with a character named Walton writing letters to his sister, but don’t mind them; the scientist shows up shortly to tell his tale.)
Shelley subtitled the book “The Modern Prometheus” to allude to the Greek mythological figure credited with teaching humanity the use of fire. According to the myth, humans lived in a cold, dark world until Prometheus stole fire from heaven and gave it to them. The angry gods, however, punished the thief by chaining him to a rock and sending an eagle each day to tear out and eat his liver, which itself regenerated each time. Prometheus—whose name means “foresight”—thus became a symbol for creativity, daring, and suffering.
Victor Frankenstein, Shelley’s “modern Prometheus,” is a sadly twisted version of the mythic hero. He dares to explore beyond the boundaries of human knowledge in the hopes of bringing people a great benefit. However, instead of generosity, he shows selfishness; instead of foresight, shortsightedness; instead of courage, cowardice. After dreaming grandiosely of creating a new race that will worship him as its creator, he seeks out the parts for his new creation in the decaying flesh of a graveyard. Once he brings the creature to life, he awakens from “the beauty of the dream” and experiences “breathless horror and disgust.” Racing away, the creator abandons his new creation, the first in a long sequence of tragic miscalculations and acts of self-deception.
In addition to a study of ambition, Frankenstein is also a critique of injustice. As the child of the radical writers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Mary Shelley grew up hearing that oppressive environments corrupt human beings, preventing them from showing their natural goodness. In Frankenstein, these ideas appear in the monster’s vindictive response to his mistreatment. Early in his life, he feels compassion for people despite their fear of him. Shelley makes it clear that, given a kind reception, the monster might have been kind and gentle himself. Yet, as his ugly features turn more people against him, he becomes more violent, destroying homes and then people to satiate his anger at his “cursed creator.” He commits his final and most devastating act of revenge only after seeing his last hope of happiness destroyed by Victor’s own hands. Like a later writer, Shelley might be saying, “Crush humanity out of shape … and it will twist itself into … tortured forms.”
How could this story of error and self-deception, revenge and retribution end? One of the clichés of modern science fiction is that the scientist is destroyed by his own creation. Frankenstein, though, is more creative than the genre that it spawned. Like all great novels, Shelley’s work is driven by character; it is the inner workings of Frankenstein and his passionate and sorrowful yet violent creation that drive the plot. Read the novel yourself to see how Shelley brings it to a conclusion.
In telling his story, Frankenstein suggests a moral for it:
Learn from me … how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.
As scientists begin using gene-splicing and cloning to bring otherworldly benefits to the human race, they would do well, from time to time, to remind themselves of the fate of Shelley’s “modern Prometheus.”
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