Thoughts on “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often thought to be a cautionary tale about taking science too far. Yet, there are practically no details of how the monster was created like I might expect to find in a modern work of science fiction. We see Frankenstein collecting body parts (described pretty much just that vaguely), and his emotional reactions to that task. What Frankenstein creates and how he creates it aren’t the main shock value of the story at all. No dead bodies are stuffed with bolts and manually cranked up on a platform by a hunchbacked assistant during a lightning storm. Instead, the cautionary tale seems to have a much more human, rather than technical, implication.

While H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Crichton, and more recent authors and movie producers tend to emphasize a theme of “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should,” that lesson never made sense to me when applied to real science or other things in life. Particularly when I live in a culture that praises concepts like “you can do anything you put your mind to,” “knowledge is power,” and “the sky’s the limit.”

In Shelley’s novel, knowledge is a vice. Or, rather, knowing enough to mess around with something but failing to plan or take responsibility for the unexpected consequences is a vice. It seems that Frankenstein’s utter lack of understanding as to what exactly he had created and how he might deal justly with his creation are what made the story so tragic. If he had known more, if he had explored further and come to understand more fully his creation from the beginning instead of letting it wander away and hoping it would go extinct, it might never have become a monster at all. Nor appeared as one to its creator, whatever “deformities” it possessed. Frankenstein turned away from his thirst for knowledge and understanding too soon. Or, perhaps, he had already turned away from a true and honest pursuit of understanding in favor of his own glory or “ambition” long before his creation came to be.

That probably isn’t what Shelley meant. She lived closer to a time when it was thought some things were not meant to be explored or explained by human minds, though this usually held supernatural connotations as well. And that brings me to the broader and rather powerful lesson that I believe Frankenstein actually presents. It’s about taking anything too far. Frankenstein’s ambition or self-glorification in trying to bring back the dead wasn’t so much “playing God” in the sense of trying to unlock the mysteries of Creation, or explore something interesting that no one has explored before, or gaining mortal power over death. It was, rather, a sort of self-idolatry.

Frankenstein’s thirst for knowledge was not his fatal flaw, then, I would argue. The fatal mistake was elevating his ambitions above and at the expense of things that really, primally mattered: his integrity, his health, his joy, his family, and all loving relationships with other human beings. The monster’s appearance in this story is nebulously described in value-based terms: “hideous,” “uncouth,” “miserable wretch,” etc. That creature is therefore a symbol of human negligence. The consequence, without any sort of intervening Christ figure in the story to restore Frankenstein and all who would be afflicted forever by this one mistake the man could not recompense on his own, whatever his efforts to do so, is that this particular monster born of self-glorification would rob that man of all he held dear. It would leave him miserable, alone, and psychologically damned like unto the monster itself. (Frankenstein’s monster did compare himself to Satan numerous times, so this seems a fitting metaphor).

I loved the milieu descriptions, the characters; and the fact that the character Frankenstein came from a warm, loving, functional family rather than a broken home life (another part of what made the story tragic). Some of the descriptions, particularly of people’s life stories, have that old-fashioned pacing that I find a bit cumbersome (I’m not cut out to enjoy Classics, apparently). But the relationship tension is riveting. The mounting twists of horror are heart-wrenching. Super depressing book, but it’s definitely worthwhile.

I recommend the audio version narrated by Dan Stevens, which you can find here on Audible: