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Commentary on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

“Frankenstein” is much more than the title of a nearly 200 year old book or one of many 20th century horror movies and other misadaptations of Mary Shelley’s classic tale. Rather, “Frankenstein” is an icon for the fundamental conflict that exists between science and religion. Those on the religious side of the debate argue (not necessarily in a conscious way) that the universe can be divided into two separate domains — one “of man,” and the other “of God. ” They argue further that any attempt by man to cross into God’s domain — with the use of unnatural technology — will be repelled with dire consequences.

I use the term “man” here to represent humankind and not just the male gender. Although this usage is now frowned upon, I use it here ‘for effect’ in paraphrasing the thoughts of others who speak in such terms. } The earliest well-known parable to express this point of view is the Biblical “Tower of Babel,” which describes an attempt by man to use advanced technology to climb into God’s domain of heaven itself. God crushed this effort by making each man speak a different language, which prevented people from communicating with each other. As this parable indicates, the conflict is as old as civilization itself.

But Mary Shelley’s novel had, and still has, such a resonance because it was written at a time when European society was being transformed by the Industrial Revolution. Religion is based on received “truths” that are thought to be handed down directly from God. When novel scientific concepts or technological capabilities challenge the “truths” associated with a particular religion, they challenge the foundation of the religion itself; they challenge the leaders who have preached the “truths”; and they challenge the entire world view of those who are true believers.

The religious response to scientific concepts, which exist simply as ideas, is to deny their veracity and to punish their perpatrators. Galileo claimed that the earth was not at the center of the universe. The Catholic Church forced him to recant and spend the rest of his life imprisoned, so that he could no longer spread the word of Satan. The religious response to a frightening new technological capability must be different because the existence of a product or outcome of a technology cannot be denied. Instead, the notion of God’s domain is put forward.

According to this notion, there is forbidden (scientific) knowledge that man should not attempt to obtain or use; knowledge that exists solely for the purpose of allowing God to run the world. Any attempt by man to cross the line into God’s domain — to “play God” — is immoral and will be severely punished. This is the usual reading of Mary Shelley’s novel. In the public mind, Frankenstein represents what WILL go wrong if “man” (meaning the community of scientists) goes “too far. ” At this point it is important to point out that the Frankenstein theme resonates even with many who do not consider themselves to be particularly religious.

Indeed, one of the strengths of “Frankenstein” as a morality tale is that the presence of a Godlike entity is never made explicit in word or deed. The complete and utter destruction of everything that Victor Frankenstein holds dear seems to flow as a direct consequence of his own actions rather than being directed from above. Indeed, Mary Shelley did not believe in the Judeo-Christian view of God. Instead, the spiritual themes presented in Frankenstein derive from a pantheistic view of God embodied within, rather than above, the natural universe.

According to this point of view, Frankenstein’s fate is a purely logical outcome of his actions. Mary Shelley came out of an intellectual environment where family and friends questioned traditional religious notions of life and were fascinated by the possibility that scientists might be able to figure out what life was all about and discover “the nature of man. ” This philosophical openness explains how Frankenstein can actually be read in several different ways. Although the original book is, indeed, meant to be a morality tale, it is one that is much more complex than commonly understood.

The first reading is the traditional one of man crossing the line into God’s domain and being punished for his transgressions. A second, complementary reading of the Frankenstein theme revolves specifically around human life and the human soul. It states that only God can create each human soul. If a man tries to become a creator, he will he fail at his task for the creation will always be subhuman, missing a soul. This version of the Frankenstein theme has been recycled over and over again in modern stories and films too numerous to count.

Films we will see in this course that incorporate this theme in various ways include Blade Runner, the Stepford Wives, and Boys from Brazil. (Other films with this theme shown in previous years include Embryo, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. ) Indeed, the Frankenstein theme actually derives (like most powerful philosophical concepts) from the Greeks in the legend of Prometheus, which is why the full title of Mary Shelley’s book is “Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. ” The original Frankenstein story (in the novel and film adaptation you will see) is much more complex.

When given the chance, Frankenstein’s “monster” actually displays many of the emotions that we might consider to be evidence of a soul — kindness to strangers, a desire to be loved, feelings of hurt and pain when he is rejected by mankind. Furthermore, he has a human-like intellect with the ability to learn how to think, read, and use logic. Perhaps the primary reason for doubting that he has a soul is that he appears to kill people without remorse. But the film’s rendering of a raging mob of people who are just as cruel in exactly the same way is true to Shelley’s writing.

So who is the real monster? A completely different way of looking at the story is as an allegory with Victor Frankenstein representing God, and his creation representing humankind. In the text of the book, the creature tells Victor, “Do your duty towards me and I will do mine towards you. . . I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural Lord and king if thou wilt also perform they part . ” Again, in the story from the book, it is made more clear that Victor actually abandons his creation, and it is this abandonment that incurs the creature’s wrath.

In this reading, Shelley suggests (as some intellectuals believed in her time) that God created humans only to abandon them, and this action (or inaction) is responsible for our cruelty towards our fellow citizens. Another entirely different, modern interpretation is also based on allegory with Frankenstein and his creature representing good and bad aspects of the same character, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or, more recently, in “The Nutty Professor. ” This is a very Freudian interpretation in which Victor uses his creature-self to kill all those he is jealous of.

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