ONE of the most important things to consider in relation to Mary Shelley’s (1797-1851) prophetic novel, Frankenstein, is the period in which it was written. The first half of the nineteenth century was marked by creeping industrialism which, coupled with a large range of developments in the field of science and engineering, contributed a great deal to how men and women of the time began to view both themselves and their rapidly changing environment.
Frankenstein was written in 1816, at a time when the more educated segments of English society found themselves inspired by the imported principles – if not the methods – of the French Revolution that had taken place across the Channel just twenty-seven years earlier. The erosion of Christianity had been steadily increasing since the economically-driven Protestant Reformation of the early sixteenth century, and people were beginning to imagine that Western civilisation was capable of anything. Man appeared to be on the verge of evolving from the divinely ‘created’ into the ‘creator’ of an exciting new world.
This attitude can be found throughout Shelley’s novel and the text is prophetic in the sense that it accurately pinpoints the darker side of human nature that later prompted the rise of animal vivisection, in-vitro fertilization, abortion-on-demand and bodily transmogrification. Shelley’s work, therefore, was more than a century ahead of the generation of twentieth-century dystopian novels that arrived in the shape of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953).
Turning now to the relationship between the mad scientist and his patchwork creation, the immense tragedy of the Baron’s abortive attempt to impart new life to the dead is expressed in the mournful words of the monster himself:
“I ought to be thy Adam, but I’m rather the fallen Angel, who thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”
When Frankenstein embarked upon his fanatical scientific quest to create life, he had already been heavily influenced by a certain Professor Waldman and it was he who “decided my future destiny.”
Throwing himself wholeheartedly into his work, Frankenstein begins to view his laborious efforts in the way that a priest might view a religious vocation. Frankenstein saw his task as something sacred, divine and transcendent:
“A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”
These unholy actions were the result of a lust for knowledge and power that epitomised the disastrous Faustianism of Shelley’s own age. Frankenstein became a prisoner to his own creation, but although he retained an overwhelming desire to succeed he soon began to feel repulsed by the creature that he had cobbled together in his secret laboratory.
When the Baron’s task was complete, he felt a huge sense of guilt and it is no accident that Shelley’s novel is recounted like a confession. Instead of arising as a direct result of his act of transgression, however, this guilt was founded upon the fact that his creation was so ugly and imperfect.
“I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”
Beauty, as we know, is only skin deep, and it was not simply that Frankenstein’s creation was intrinsically evil in itself, it had more to do with the inevitability of its rejection and ostracisation from mainstream society. In the creature’s own words:
“Everywhere I see bliss, from which I am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous.”
In certain respects, the monster is merely the third party in the struggle between Frankenstein and his own conscience. Having upset the balance of natural order and created that which he was later to denounce as a “devil,” “vile insect,” “daemon” and “abhorred monster” – among other things – the deranged man of science used his creation as a scapegoat for his own culpability.
This contrasts rather markedly with Frankenstein’s portrayal of his beloved:
“The saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home. Her sympathy was ours; her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her celestial eyes, were ever there to bless and animate us. She was the living spirit to soften and attract […]”
Frankenstein clearly felt guilt, not simply for his own actions, but towards the unfortunate plight to which he had subjected his monster. During the moving dialogue that takes place at the summit of Montanvert, the creature urges Frankenstein to show some compassion:
“The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defence before they are condemned.”
Whilst, initially, the Baron refuses to listen to the despairing creature, he eventually accepts that he must bear a degree of responsibility towards it:
“I weighed the various arguments that he had used, and determined at least to listen to his tale. I was partly urged by curiosity, and compassion confirmed my resolution […] For the first time, also, I felt what the duties of the creator to his creature were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness.”
This seems rather similar to a dog-owner who, after neglecting his or her duties towards the animal itself, is then compelled to face up to one’s responsibilities after the hound has fallen foul of the local neighbourhood. Animals, on the other hand, are independent creatures and possess certain inherent characteristics that may or may not determine their brutish behaviour. Baron Frankenstein had even more of a duty towards his own creation in that he was directly responsible for its composition and the fact that he had released it upon an unsuspecting world. The monster had been formed as a result of his own self-glorification and he neglected both family and friends in his pursuit of scientific recognition.
Herein lies the crux of Shelley’s novel. Her book contains a moral, in that Frankenstein is punished for his own selfish behaviour and is forced to see those closest to him murdered by the beast. This is the great paradox of the relationship between man and monster; Frankenstein dearly loves his family and friends and yet becomes responsible for their deaths. This leads him to resent the very recipient of his own life-giving activities and, ironically, turns him into a harbinger of death.
Shelley’s work goes far deeper than most other morality tales, and she carefully imbued the story with the kind of mythological ethics that was so common to the Romantic period in general. The fact that her novel is subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus,’ after the Greek tale of the character who brings fire down from heaven and seals his own fate, is certainly no accident.
The story may also be compared to Milton’s Paradise Lost, which obviously inspired the line about the prospective Adam being nothing more than a fallen angel. Indeed, when the monster recounts his sad tale to Frankenstein in the isolated mountain hut, he even makes reference to Milton’s words. The creature continues thus:
“Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but this state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”
On the other hand, the deep incompatibility that surrounds the unworkable relationship between Frankenstein and the monster is precisely why Shelley’s novel and Milton’s own Christian epic broadly resemble one another. They are, however, also dissimilar in that whilst Adam – God’s creation – abused the love of his Creator, Frankenstein’s monster had never known love in the first place:
“[…] no Eve soothed my sorrows, nor shared my thoughts; I was alone. I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me; and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him.”
To conclude, the passage in which the monster highlights his similarity to a “fallen angel” – rather than the First Man – is possibility the most vivid and revealing section of the novel. At the close of Shelley’s work, when Frankenstein dies in his cabin and the monster arrives to gloat, engaging in conversation with Captain Walton, it becomes apparent that Frankenstein himself was indeed responsible for his own creation and, thus, the “fallen angel” finally turns into a “malignant devil”.