Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818)


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Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818)
By now everyone has an image of Frankenstein (usually identified with the Boris Karloff 1931 monster) and has seen probably one or more Frankenstein movies. We are interested here in the literary Frankenstein, the book, published in 1818 and its author, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. We are particularly interested in what the book can teach us about scientific aspirations and human nature.

We learn from the title page that it is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus." Victor Frankenstein was the scientist, not the creature. And surely a central theme of Frankenstein is the aspiration of modern scientists (typically male) to act as creator, and then what happens when their misbegotten creation gets out of control.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was the daughter of famous intellectuals and literary radicals. Her mother was the pioneer feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Her father was William Godwin, an ex-minister, turned atheist and socialist, author of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and many other works. Tragedy surrounded her birth. Mary's mother died of an infection soon after childbirth. She was raised by her father and his second wife.

At the age of 17 Mary fell in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (age 19 and a married man). The couple eloped to Europe where they traveled down the Rhine River. Their trip would have taken them past the actual Castle Frankenstein, in Darmstadt. Here they could have heard a German legend about Johann Konrad Dippel 1673-1734, German theologian and alchemist, whose interest in alchemy led him to search for the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone. It is said that he was interested in creating artificial life. He was also alleged to have practiced grave-robbing. Dippel was obsessed that he was on the verge of a scientific breakthrough and would conquer death itself. Dippel's Oil, a concoction of bones, blood, and other bodily fluids distilled in iron tubes and other alchemical equipment, was intended as the elixir of life. He offered his formulas to the king in exchange for Castle Frankenstein. It is said that Dippel signed his name "Frankenstein" after his place of residence.So there is some basis in fact for the Frankenstein story.

In 1815 Mary's first child was born prematurely and died within a few days. Mary wrote in her journal, "Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived."

In 1816 (the year without a summer) Mary and Percy spent a "wet ungenial" summer near Lake Geneva in Lord Byron's villa, and challenged each other to write ghost stories. They had also been discussing all the recent theories of science and of social philosophy. She was aware of chemical and electrical theories of the day. Here she recalled having the “waking nightmare” of a corpse, a hideous phantasm of a man, standing beside the bedside of its reanimator “looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.” This was the beginning of the Frankenstein story, which was completed two years later, in 1818.

The Major Characters
Robert Walton—an explorer attempting to sail to the North Pole

Margaret Saville—Walton's sister to whom he writes letters.

Victor Frankenstein—A young scientist who creates a living creature

Elizabeth—Victor's adopted sister who becomes Victor's bride

Clerval—Victor's closest friend

M. Waldeman—A kindly professor who introduces Victor to secrets of science

The Creature—Victor's misshapen, frustrated, lonely, and angry creation

M. De Lacy and family—The family from whom the creature learns about society

William—Victor's youngest brother

Justine—an orphan, adopted by the Frankensteins, accused of murdering William

The Plot

Victor Frankenstein narrates the complete novel to Robert Walton, a polar explorer, who then tells it in letters to his sister, Margaret Saville. Positioned in the outer sphere of the numerous nested narratives that comprise the novel, Margaret Walton Saville stands in the position of the author. Her initials, MWS, are identical with those of the actual author, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. "What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?" Victor Frankenstein, found almost dead on the ice, relates his horrible story to Walton. Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus is the story of a creature created by Victor Frankenstein from materials found in graveyards and slaughterhouses. Frankenstein, a young medical student, leaves the comfort of his home in Geneva to attend school in quest of an unholy goal. Qualities of Victor (36-37): "thirst for knowledge . . . the world was a secret I desired to divine. . . a loner. . . sometimes violent temper. . . It was the secrets of heaven and earth I desired to learn. His friend Clerval occupied himself with the "moral relations of things."

Victor, who is 23! working alone, discovers "the cause of generation and life" (51) by means of chemicals and electricity and uses his knowledge of anatomy to stitch together an 8-foot man-like Creature (crude?) from parts found in the dissecting room (human) and the slaughter-house (animal).

When the Creature is animated (56) "I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs." "Breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of being I had created, I rushed out of the room. . ." Victor is oppressed by a fever, became nervous, shunned his fellow creatures. He dreams of death. The Creature ("my enemy") examines Victor, who flees in panic. Victor contracts a nervous fever.

William, his little brother is dead, and Justine, his adopted sister stands accused. Victor knows it is the Creature, whom he sees in a storm. Justine is hanged, but Victor remains silent (85). William and Justine are direct and indirect victims of Victor's "unhallowed arts." Victor has a breakdown, contemplates suicide, wants to "avenge"! the deaths of William and Justine. He confronts the Creature on a glacier (North-Pole like scenery)

The Creature tells its story to Victor—how it came into the world alone, misunderstood, confused. Victor says "Cursed (although I curse myself) be the hands that formed you!" (98). The Creature learned from sensations, experience, found fire, experienced both pain and warmth from it. Lived like an animal in a state of nature (Rosseau's noble savage?). But he was misshapen, children shrieked, women fainted, and men attacked him. He found rude shelter in a shed near the cottage of a blind man, De Lacey, and learned to use crude tools. He learns human speech, music, sees love by watching the family through a hole in the wall. Creature helps the family by cutting wood at night. Comes to consider them his "friends." (109). Learns history, and also learns that he has no lineage. Self-realization: "Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth which all men fled and whom all men disowned?" (117). Realizes he is a social outcast and a miserable, unhappy wretch. Wonders where he came from (adolescent angst). A deformed Adam, alone with no Eve. Makes contact with De Lacey but is beaten off by the son. Creature snaps and becomes like a wild beast. Burns the cottage. Later on he saves a little girl from drowning, but is shot. "Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind." (137).

The Creature demands that Victor make him a companion of the same species with all the defects. Victor consents and leaves again for Scotland where Clerval joins him. He creates the female, then tore it to pieces as the Creature looked on. Creature vows, "I shall be with you on your wedding-night." (163) Victor goes out in the lake to dump the body parts of the female, returns to find that his friend Clerval was killed by the Creature.

Victor resolves to fight the creature, but wimps out in the end. Elizabeth, his bride, is killed. Victor freezes up and swoons. His father dies a few days later of shock and grief. Victor goes mad and resolves, "I dared not die, and leave my adversary in being." Yet he fails at this too. Victor pursues the Creature (or is he drawn?) ever northward to the North Pole. Here, almost dead, he is found by Walton, whom he asks to continue his quest and satisfy his vengeance! (201). Victor will not tell Walton how he made the creature. Falls into pitiful self-justification, but as a creator, he could not make his creation happy (209). Victor dies, and the Creature appears. Sort of a death of God scene. Creature says, "Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?" Creature vows now to destroy himself on a funeral pyre and springs from the ship and is "lost in darkness and distance" (215). The Creature's death is never verified, leaving the door open for conjecture, alternative endings, and sequels!

The Prometheus Subtitle
Who was Prometheus? In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the wisest Titan, a benefactor to humanity, whom he created, or rather shaped out of clay. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses (which Shelley read), it was the elements, combined with "particles of heavenly fire,"

Which wise Prometheus temper'd into paste,

And, mix't with living streams, the godlike image caste. . .

From such rude principles our form began;

And earth was metamorphosed into man.

Prometheus gave humans an upright posture to distinguish them from the animals and to make them more like the gods. When Zeus deprived humans of fire, Prometheus went up to heaven, lighted his torch at the sun, and brought it back to earth. To punish him Zeus had Prometheus chained to a mountain and every day he sent an eagle to peck out his liver which grew back daily. He was finally relieved of his suffering by the Centaur Chiron, who died for him, and by the hero Heracles (Hercules) who slayed the eagle.

Prometheus has come to symbolize human ingenuity and pride, a deceiver who stole fire from the gods, perhaps driven by an obsessive goal to unnatural aspirations. He represents knowledge that allowed humans to control and dominate their environment. In modern terms he represents scientific knowledge of the material world, but not wisdom or true insight. Thus humans may attain the ability to fly, but do not have the wisdom not to use airplanes to drop bombs on cities; or humans may learn how to manufacture all sorts of industrial goods, but they lack the wisdom and foresight not to pollute the environment.

The two most stunning Promethean examples are nuclear power and genetic engineering. Both examples represent public concern and unease when scientists are venturing into what the society in general doesn't understand and has hitherto considered forbidden or closed to human beings.

The Golem
A version of the Frankenstein story appears in the ancient Jewish story of the Golem. The Jews of a small city were threatened by pogroms and so they begged the rabbi to do something, and the rabbi used his esoteric knowledge -- knowledge that nobody else had, knowledge that he had through special studying and so forth, analogous to the scientist -- to animate a clay figure to protect the citizens. So far this is a perfectly noble, perfectly good, perfectly decent motive, even as genetic engineers have excellent motives. The story goes on to relate that the Golem, once created, runs amok and out of control and starts doing harm indiscriminately. That's a model for the sort of fears that people have of very powerful science and technology that they don't understand, whether it's genetic engineering or nuclear power. And the hold of that sort of story and the hold of that sort of fear is much stronger than any of the reassurances that experts have been able to give to society in general.
Sources of Inspiration
René Descartes, L'Homme (1644), La Metrie, Man a Machine (1748), John Milton, Paradise Lost, in which Adam (not unlike the Creature) reproaches God for his handiwork:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me Man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me. . .?

Mary Shelley uses the above quote as the epigraph on the title page of her book. She had read Milton in 1815 and 1816 and knew that he had once stayed in Byron's villa.

Luigi Galvani's work on electricity applied to the nervous system. Humprey Davey as a heroic spokesperson for the limitless future of science, Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding — is the mind a tabula rasa on which knowledge and personality are implanted? Rise of capitalist, class-conscious England, in which laborers were alienated from the fruits of their labors.

The Mad Scientist Image
Basically, the mad scientist image is rooted in stereotypes of ancient wizards, magicians, sorcerers, alchemists, and shamans who have some secret power over nature and who stand apart from society in their solitary quest for knowledge. Dr. Faust (16th C.) claimed to be able to control demons, Franz Mesmer (18th C.) physician and hypnotist who claimed "magnetic" cures.

In the twentieth century, nuclear physics offered real alchemy, revealing the secret energy of matter, and offering its masters possible control of the world, and threatening doomsday in a very real sense. Scientists brought us new terrors, from poison gas to aeriel bombing of cities. Mysterious rays were being discovered that could transform matter, or perhaps transform humans. Humans were considered too morally weak to control the Pandora's box of horrors modern science was unleashing. Just think of Hitler with V-2s and nuclear bombs! Scientists, like those isolated at Los Alamos, were seen as the new high priests and wizards of unthinkable destruction. Death rays and radioactive fallout were seen as new ways to die. Scientists—quiet, queer, single-minded, and powerful—worked outside of normal society (just like Victor Frankenstein). Thier inventions and discoveries run amok could inflict deadly and sudden changes on society.

Of course science fiction films played on the stereotypes.

• Dr Cyclops

• The Incredible Hulk

But real scientists were also seen this way

• Madame Curie, the most famous woman scientist, was depicted with death rays coming out of her fingers.

• More serious (and realistic) was the possibility of nuclear spies and traitors.

• And "rational" scientists like Walter Mattheau, who argued in Fail Safe (1964) for an all-out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.
Modern Perspectives from Biotechnology
(Based on the views of Bernard E. Rollin, bioethicist, professor of philosophy and author of The Frankenstein Syndrome.)

The Frankenstein story is something of an archetypal image for society's response to science and technology that they don't understand and they worry about. There are three aspects to the story that illustrate different aspects of social concern about the science and technology of genetic engineering.

(1) It's just wrong. One is the idea that you find in the old horror movies, occasionally expressed by somebody with a middle European accent that there are certain things human beings were not meant to know, or do, or understand. That is the idea that genetic engineering is intrinsically wrong. Never mind the consequences, never mind the effects, it's just wrong to do those sorts of things.

(2) The rampaging monster. The idea that the genetic engineering is wrong or morally or socially problematic because there's great danger from unleashing those forces -- as in the unleashing of nuclear forces in the atomic bomb.

(3) The adverse effects on the creature. And the third aspect of the Frankenstein story, I think that's relevant to current social concerns, is the pride of the creature. What effect that the engineering for human benefit will have on the animals who are so engineered.

Even though Frankenstein was the name of the scientist virtually everybody in the general population thinks it was the name of the monster. And, therefore, the moral to drawn from that is that if the scientific community does not engage the concerns of the general public about risk, about animal welfare, about environmental dangers, etc. and if anything disastrous happens through genetic engineering, the blame for that will be laid at the feet of the scientists. Scientists will be seen as the monsters. These are some general lessons concerning scientists' use of animals in research, the control of biohazards, and genetic engineering.

Critical Questions for Discussion

•Usually in a novel there is a protagonist (a normal person) with whom you might identify. With whom do you identify in this novel?

•Was Victor a Bad Scientist?

He was motivated by self-glory, not the public good

He worked in isolation, not with colleagues

He rushed the project to completion without safety controls

He was overworked and emotionally unstable

He was ethically unsound and released his experiment to the environment

•Was the Creature a Monster or merely a pitiful Creature?

•Did you feel compassion for Victor or for the Creature?

•Why did Victor remain silent when others were threatened or killed? e.g. Justine

•Compare and contrast Victor and the Creature, e.g.

Victor Creature

accepted by society an outcast

chooses isolation seeks companionship

selfish-egocentric wants to be benevolent, sympathetic

privileged childhood tumultuous early life

inner deformity outer deformity

driven by knowledge/ guilt driven by anger/ revenge

•How does Walton's polar quest help to frame the book? Was Walton's quest similar to Victor's?

•What light does the biography of Mary Shelley shed on this novel?

•What was Mary Shelley's hideous progeny? The Creature or the novel?

•What are some major ways of understanding the Frankenstein story?

Gothic Horror Novel

Science Fiction


Two cultures

Promethean myth

Psychological analysis of society

Marxist—man alienated from his labor

Feminist perspective

•What can we learn from this book? About science? About human nature?


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