Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818, has come to have a profound effect on literature, on science and on popular culture. Shelley’s story of an over-ambitious scientist who dreams of discovering the secret of creating life and does so, but with disastrous and fatal consequences is, we might say, well-known, but little-read. Zwinkler (24) writes with wry amusement about an informal survey he conducted among his own sophomores: most of them knew the novel from hearsay and thought that ‘Frankenstein’ was the name of the monster! The students’ visual image of the monster was based on Boris Karloff’s depiction of him in the film version made in 1931 – a film which made major changes to the plot as well as completely misrepresenting the creature. In the face of such ignorance, it is little wonder that the true message of Shelley’s novel has been ignored: people think they know Frankenstein, but they do not read it. Even an anonymous book review of Jon Turney’s Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture in the New England Journal of Medicine writes: “didn’t Frankenstein use a dramatic bolt of electricity to give his creature life?” (1). Any serious student of the novel or careful reader will know that the answer to the book reviewer’s question is that he does not use “a dramatic bolt of electricity” and that Shelley is very vague about the moment and the means by which Victor brings his creature to life. The bolt of electricity image comes from film versions of the novel: it is not in the novel. In one sense, Frankenstein had virtually no effect on science at all, but, as this paper will demonstrate, it had a profound effect on popular perceptions and fears of science – perceptions based, not on a careful reading of the novel, but on the depiction of Frankenstein’s creation in popular culture and the media’s misuse of Frankenstein. This paper will examine the effect of the novel on popular perceptions of science and of scientists. However, as will be argued, the popular perception is based on a complete, almost wilful, and certainly selective reading of Mary Shelley’s text.
As the twentieth century proceeded and the possibilities of cloning and genetic engineering became a reality, the public hysteria increased, fuelled by a media who still misunderstood Frankenstein. In 1975 American biologists agreed to limit work with recombinant DNA – fearful of creating dangerous new species. According to Turney, this agreement proved that “biology was attaining the powers akin to those envisaged by Mary Shelley” (127). The New York Times (quoted by Turney 128) was less sanguine: “In biological laboratories, modern Dr. Frankensteins have found a way to create brand-new forms of life”. The mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts announced that it was his duty to “protect his constituents from Frankenstein monsters crawling out of the sewers” (Turney 132), while The Washington Star asked, “Is Harvard the proper place for Frankenstein tinkering?” (ibid.) Media coverage became even more frenzied after Dolly the Sheep was cloned. Turney argues that Frankenstein “offered a rhetorical resource to both sides in the debate, but the overall effect was to weaken the opponents’ case and strengthen the hand of the embryo researchers” (216) – a comment that suggests that Turney has either not read Frankenstein or not read it very carefully. In the late 1990s the British popular press, facing the possibility of genetically modified foods, ran alarmist headlines using the word ‘Frankenfoods’ – they were confident that their readers would understand. Baillie and Casey remark that “titles of popular articles on agricultural biotechnology appeal to the same metaphors – Frankenstein, playing God – as similar essays about the human genome” (87).
There is a general consensus among writers on science that Frankenstein has had a malign influence on public perceptions of science. Turney asserts at the start of Frankenstein’s Footsteps that “The Frankenstein script has become one of the most important in our culture’s discussion of science and technology. To activate it, all you need is the word Frankenstein (6) and that Shelley “produced a story which expresses many of the deepest fears and desires about modernity, especially about violations of the body” (8). Atkinson, Glasner and Lock refer to “Mary Shelley’s vision of science run out of control” (192). McLeish asserts “the monster and its creator reflect a public view of science and scientists” (18). Webster claims that the novel its persistence as an alarm bell, to be sounded vigorously whenever science is perceived to be ‘going too far’” (110), while Jordanova claims that there is still a “widespread tendency to see Frankenstein as a prophetic work, and to present twentieth-century science as the direct legacy that confirms its prophetic status” (74). So the message is clear, it seems: you object to stem cell research? Human cloning? Mary Shelley is the one to blame! A dangerous woman, that Mary Shelley!
What is most fascinating is how Shelley’s Frankenstein came to be misread, misinterpreted and maligned in this way with no reference to what she wrote and the overall significance of the novel, and the values she seeks to communicate.
Let us start with bolt of lightning. On the night the creature is given life, Victor Frankenstein writes of infusing “a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet” (Shelley 38). Many readers have taken the word “spark” to imply that he uses electricity; many have seen it as a metaphor: it is certainly not a bolt of lightning. The creation of the creature, in the context of the novel as a whole, is a relatively minor incident – Shelley does not devote many words to its description and it is over and done with quickly. She does, however, devote the rest of the novel to the terrible and vile consequences of Victor’s act of creation which leads to the deaths of William, Justine, Clerval, Elizabeth, Victor’s father, and, at the end of the novel, both Frankenstein and his creation. Furthermore, there is not one moment after the act of creation (the playing God that has captured the popular imagination) when Victor does not feel terrible agonies of self-reproach and self-loathing, expressed in the most extreme language. After his creation of the creature, it is fair to say that Victor never again in the novel experiences a single unalloyed moment of happiness. Shelley’s novel makes completely clear that ‘playing God’ has appalling consequences. Frankenstein is extremely critical of over-ambitious scientists who meddle with the normal patterns of nature. So it is slightly ironic, to put it mildly, that Frankenstein has had such a profound effect on the public perceptions of science and scientists. Frankenstein is a warning par excellence of letting science go too far.
The creature has also been wilfully and totally misrepresented in popular culture, especially in film where he is usually inarticulate and capable of primitive grunts. However, in the novel he is presented as calm, logical, and capable of rational argument and intelligent conversation. Victor calls the creature loathsome names, but their first meeting in Chapter 9 refutes even Victor’s insulting epithets. Victor greets his ‘son’ with these words:
“Devil! do you dare to approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather stay, that I may trample you to dust! And, oh, that I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims who you have so diabolically murdered!” (Shelley 77)
Victor demonstrates his unreliability as a narrator here. At this point in the novel there have been two murders: William’s – which the creature is responsible for – and Justine’s judicial execution by the Swiss legal system. It could be argued that Victor is most responsible for Justine’s death: he knows she is innocent but says nothing in court to save her because he fears the truth of what he has done will damage his reputation. The creature’s response to Victor’s outburst is calm, conciliatory and articulate:
“I expected this reaction. All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life?” (Shelley 77)
“How dare you sport thus with life?” This is a key quotation given the popular perception the novel has been responsible for, and makes it clear that the novel condemns those who would “sport thus with life”. Frankenstein, it could be argued, is a novel about bad parenting rather than science.
Apart from being an attack on irresponsible scientists, Shelley uses Frankenstein to stress the importance of nurture. Abandoned by his ‘father’ or his creator on the very first morning of his existence, the creature certainly begins life as the inarticulate, grunting monster familiar from popular culture. However, his stay at the De Lacey cottage provides him, albeit vicariously, with language, culture and education. In the novel, it could be argued, Victor’s sin is not ‘playing God’, but running away from his responsibilities – not the act of creation itself (which popular culture is obsessed by) but what happens afterwards. In serious literary criticism there is a strong tendency to sympathize much more with the creature than with Victor Frankenstein. A near-contemporary of Shelley’s wrote in a book review of 1824:
For my own part, I must confess that my interest in the book is entirely on the side of the monster. His eloquence and persuasion, of which Frankenstein complains, are so because they are truth. The justice is indisputably on his side, and his sufferings are, to me, touching to the last degree. (199)
It is true that the creature kills William after his educational sojourn at the De Lacey’s: in other words, he knows that murder is immoral, but his behaviour stems from Victor’s total abandonment on the first morning of his existence. It is also worth pointing out that the creature’s disgusting physical appearance is Victor’s responsibility – after all he chose to make him look like that. James describes the creature’s dilemma: he is “separated from society by its monstrosity, and yearning for a humanity it can never attain” (88). And his monstrosity is Victor’s sole fault.
In popular perceptions of the story, Victor Frankenstein is portrayed as the ‘mad scientist’ desperate to push forward the bounds of human knowledge. Shelley presents Frankenstein as a man with abnormal and dangerous qualities, but not as a mad scientist. Victor is hopelessly solipsistic and irresponsible: he abandons the creature – surely the clearest example of an absent father in the whole of fiction? He refuses to save Justine’s life, and he also refuses to admit any responsibility, however indirect, for the actions which his abandoned son commits. Victor is delusional, unreliable and also has a strange attitude towards sex. He is engaged to Elizabeth and could easily create life by marrying her and fathering a huge brood of children. He delays his wedding to Elizabeth – using his terrible act of creating the creature as an excuse. However, throughout the novel he shows a distinctly lukewarm attitude to Elizabeth: while at Ingolstadt he does not write her a single letter; we never see them exchange the mildest of endearments; in the entire novel he embraces her on only two occasions – when she is dead and earlier in a dream, in which she turns into his mother’s dead body. By contrast, the creature’s desire for a wife, children and a happy domestic life seem positively normal and wholesome, compared to Victor’s avoidance of Elizabeth. Indeed, Victor agrees to make a female creature and goes so far as to assemble the necessary body parts, but he goes back on his promise and hurls the body parts into the sea – thus effectively ‘murdering’ the creature’s future wife.
The creature’s desire for a normal domestic life – a desire he seems to have got from observing the domestic idyll of the De Lacey’s and especially Safie’s happy reunion with Felix – is never reflected in popular versions of the text and is ignored by those media who use the creature as a catch-all warning against genetic engineering, for example. But in the context of the novel, the creature, in this one sense, is much more normal and balanced than Victor Frankenstein. As Jordanova notes “0ne of the monstrosities of the book is, of course, Frankenstein’s psyche” (73). In this sense, and, as Zwinkler argues throughout, Frankenstein is a novel about the importance of family life. For Zwinkler there is one positive good about the novel’s ending: Robert Walton decides to abandon his fanciful ambition and to return home to his family – his sister and her children. Family, not science, is what the novel is really concerned about. Although the Frankenstein family are deeply dysfunctional, the De Lacey family are an exemplary family. Shelley even puts them at the exact center of her novel. Frankenstein consists of twenty-four chapters: at the start of Chapter 13, Safie (showing much more initiative than Elizabeth who never leaves Geneva except to be murdered on her honeymoon) arrives at the De Lacey cottage (having travelled from Italy on horseback accompanied by a single servant and having disobeyed her father’s orders) to be reunited with the man she loves: this is witnessed by the creature and seems to influence his desire for a female companion. Furthermore, Shelley ends Chapter 12 with an idyllic description of the natural world and the onset of spring.
The actual ending of Frankenstein is bleak and full of bitter recriminations between Victor and the creature. Victor dies and the creature departs intending to end his own life. However, Zwinkler argues (71 -77) that Shelley’s framed narrative is designed to give the creature his own eloquent voice, but also to prompt the reader to look at the center of the novel – which is a celebration of the natural world and of normal human love.
It is clear that Frankenstein has had a profound effect on public perceptions of science and scientists. However, that perception is based either on a misreading of the novel or mere hearsay. Such perceptions ignore or are simply not aware of the real content and message of Shelley’s novel. There is hardly any science in the novel anyway – Shelley is very vague on how Victor creates life. Frankenstein is a warning on the abuse of science by ambitious men who want to play God. In itself, Victor’s act of creation is not presented by Shelley as bad per se: it is Victor’s lack of nurture towards his creation that results in the chain of murders. However, it has far much more to say about the importance of nurture, paternal responsibility, and the centrality to human existence of family life and human love.
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