Over much of Europe 1816 was known as “The Year Without Summer.” Thanks to the ash cloud that hung over the continent due to the eruption of Mount Tambora the year before, the weather was far too cold and dreary for anyone to justify using the season’s traditional designation. At the villa of Lord Byron on Lake Geneva, Switzerland; Mary Wollenstone Goodwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Clair Clairmont, John William Polidor and their esteemed host were spending just such an inclement evening reading German ghost stories and discussing all manner of subjects from vegetarianism to the possibility of re-animating the dead. The story goes that at one point in the evening Lord Byron suggested that each of them should write their own supernatural tale.
Such a challenge would not have phased the likes of Shelley and Polidor who, like Byron, were already established writers, but for the 18-year-old Mary Goodwin I’m sure it was a bit more daunting. She set down to write a short story in which she considered how frightful it would be for “any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” Shelley, her lover whom she would marry later that year, encouraged her to expand the tale into a full novel. She finished it in November of 1817, and on January 1st, 1818 the world was introduced to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
And in that same story, according to many, the 19-year-old daughter of a political philosopher and his feminist wife also gave birth to the genre of Science Fiction.
By the time I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in my early twenties science fiction was already established as my genre of choice. With my parents encouragement I grew up reading Jules Vern, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, E.E.’Doc’ Smith and a dozen others. In 1969 I sat glued to my TV set watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and thought to myself, “Wow, it’s all coming true.”
Frankenstein was large in my mind as well, but only the Frankenstein of the movies. Boris Karloff brought the monster to life for me; terrifying and terrified, he met a fiery end at the hands of frightened villagers. The monster was reincarnated as the companion of Dracula, the Werewolf, and many others including Abbott and Costello. So it was a great surprise to me when I read the novel that started it all because, as I was soon to discover happened all too often, Hollywood didn’t appear to have read the same book as I did. In Mary’s story there is no Igor, no villagers with pitch forks, no apparatus to capture the power of lightning, and while Castle Frankenstein in Germany may have played a role in inspiring the name of Mary’s protagonist, the castle itself appears nowhere in the story.
Mary’s story is, in fact, an epistolary novel, told in the form of a series of letters between one Captain Robert Walton and his sister Margaret. He recounts the series of events that lead to his exploration of the Arctic in an effort to reach the North Pole. Before he achieves his goal however, his crew spot a giant form, human in appearance but impossibly large, travelling across the pack ice on a dog sled. A day later they rescue Victor Frankenstein, nearly dead from exposure, whose own dog sled has succumbed to the treacherous terrain leaving him pursuing the creature paddling an ice raft. Walton then recounts to his sister the incredible tale that Frankenstein relates during his convalescence on board ship. The story of one man’s attempt to create life from non-life, and the terrible consequences of his success.
And therein lies the core of Mary’s tale. The story was originally published under the title Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It is an apt sub-title. The Prometheus myth comes in two flavours; in Latin Prometheus is the one who creates mankind out of clay and water, while in Greek he is the Titan (half god/half human) who steals fire from the mountain of the gods and gives it to mankind so that they might become greater than what they are. In both versions Prometheus is punished for what he has done.
So it is with Victor. He starts out, innocently enough, as a man bent on learning all that he can about death in order to defeat it. Driven by his grief at the loss of his mother he studies every aspect of the body’s decay and, by applying what he has learned in the field of chemistry and other sciences, discovers a method for animating unliving flesh. As the crowning touch to his research he sets out to make himself a man, which he does, assembling the creature from various sources including both “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house.” The creature is made larger than a normal human because of, as Victor puts it, “the difficulty in replicating the minute parts of the human body.” All of this work is done not in some remote castle in the dark woods of Transylvania, but in his assigned lab at the university in Ingolstadt.
But then something happens the reader does not expect (I told you I wouldn’t avoid spoilers). When he finally does succeed in imparting life to his creation (exactly how Frankenstein does not reveal to Walton), there is no moment of joy, no victorious cry of “It’s alive!” at the top of his lungs. Instead there is only fear and revulsion at the sight of the hideous monster that now stands and breathes before him. He flees, leaving the creature alone in his room as he runs out into the street, overwhelmed by the horror of what he has done.
Here then is where Victor departs not just from the room, but from his role as creator. Unlike the God he aspires to equal, Victor takes no responsibility for his creation. He does not build a garden for the naked creature to live in nor embrace his creation as a loving father would. He doesn’t even hang around long enough to give him a name! Instead, like Adam in the garden after the tree incident he seeks to hide himself from his sin.
Victor goes home because the guilt he feels at his actions causes him to succumb to a substantial illness. Meanwhile the creature flees the city as well and living in the woods, subsists on berries and other vegetation (Mary was a vegetarian), and observing mankind from a distance he eventually decides to seek out his creator. When he does, we are surprised to learn that the creature has mastered not only the ability to speak but to read, and makes quite an eloquent argument to his creator of his need for acceptance, family, and for love.
Victor at first is moved by the creature’s intelligence, deep pain of loneliness but still refuses to take responsibility for the life he has created, refusing to fulfill the creature’s desire for a mate, an Eve to his Adam if you will. Because of Victor’s continued rejection the creature seeks revenge and begins a killing spree that leaves Frankenstein without friends or family denying his creator any hope of experiencing the love he refuses to bestow upon the life he brought into the world.
Exactly how the story ends I will leave for you to discover should you decide to read it.
I can hear some of you saying, “Okay Dennis, but what about the spiritual side? What about the questions you asked in the previous post?”
Well, it appears that rather than being anti-God, amoral, or mired in the triumph of science over faith, science fiction has its genesis in the story of a man who infringed on God’s domain and suffered for doing so. For all his vaunted declarations of the supremacy of knowledge and the wonders of chemistry, Victor Frankenstein could not meet the responsibility of creating life. He himself recognized his creature as an abomination and realized the only thing he could do to make things right was destroy it, pursuing it to the ends of the earth, literally, in an effort to correct his mistake.
Shelley’s story reminds me of the Tower of Babel. In Genesis 11 we are told that God separated the people by language because they had gotten too arrogant in their faith in their own abilities. He feared for what they might try to do next; and this just for building a skyscraper! In Frankenstein Shelley fears that mankind’s pursuit of knowledge is headed in a far more dangerous direction and through her tale seeks to issue a warning.
The Frankenstein Argument is still a valid one today; and one that I subscribe to, both as a Christian and as a fan of technology. Humanity has not yet succeeded in animating unliving flesh in the manner of young Victor, but through the use of various biotechnologies we are trying to improve on God’s design. The motivation is the same as Victor’s, end human suffering and make us more resilient to disease and injury, but the consequences of success could be equally tragic.
There are plenty of other themes that could be discussed in relation to this story. Loneliness and the need for companionship is a big one. Dysfunctional families, deadbeat dads, judging people by their appearances; it’s a lengthy list and if you’d like to explore some of these issues, as they relate to Frankenstein, I’d be happy to do so in the comments.
But for now, I would have to say – yes gentle reader, Mary Shelley has contributed to my world view. But contrary to the contentions of the critics, she has actually reenforced my Biblical perspective. Shelley lived a hundred years before Joyce Kilmer, but it would seem she agreed that “only God can make a tree” or a man.
Till next Time… Shalom.
• Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be read online at Project Gutenberg.
• For a movie version that holds to the original story (for the most part) see this excellent production by director Kenneth Branagh
 Quoted from Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.