The responsibilities of scientific discovery are a heavy burden. Just because we can do something, does that mean we should?
I think most readers are already familiar with the basic story of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein – Dr. Frankenstein gives life to a being he created, abandons that creation and then sometime later learns the being has committed a series of crimes. When Frankenstein and his creation meet up again we hear about the creature’s attempt at self-actualization and his subsequent rejection by society. He asks Dr. Frankenstein to create another being, a female, so he won’t be alone. Frankenstein ultimately refuses, thus setting in motion a deadly struggle between creator and created.
Dr. Frankenstein is a wonderful example of a scientist blinded by ambition and hampered by an incomplete grasp of what his research might occasion. He drives himself forward in the creation of this new being on the sole premise that “he can”, never once asking whether “he should.” This discrepancy alone fuels most of the book’s commentary on the risks of unchecked scientific discovery.
I found it fascinating that Dr. Frankenstein’s immediate reaction upon seeing life surge forth from the being he fashioned was disgust. Awe, I could understand, and fear, too, at the sheer magnitude of his accomplishment, but not disgust. This seems so counter-intuitive to human nature. We tend to be blinded to our own creations and forgive them their inadequacies. That he wasn’t more curious to understand what he’d actually done was such a surprise. He doesn’t even try to communicate with the creature, he simply abandons it. This act was so singularly irresponsible (from a humane standpoint but also from a scientific perspective) I lost all sympathy for Dr. Frankenstein at that point. I’m curious whether Shelley’s contemporary readers would have had the same reaction or would they have also instinctively hated the being in the way the doctor did.
The most powerful part of the novel for me was the story of the being, more precisely, what he went through after Frankenstein deserted him. Shelley asks some interesting questions about biological vs. social determinism. We’re led to believe he was “born” good and that his treatment at the hands of society brought him to commit horrible acts. This is a bit complicated by the fact that Frankenstein assembled him from parts of corpses so there is maybe an element of the occult to be considered; he wasn’t a blank slate so to speak although Shelley does a good job of presenting his intellectual development as such.
Also, this part of the story reminded me a lot of Wilde’s Dorian Gray in the sense that Shelley plays with the idea that society expects evil deeds from ugliness and goodness from beauty. It could be argued that the most evil (or at least the first evil) act committed in the novel is when Dr. Frankenstein abandons a helpless creature to his own fate. And yet Dr. Frankenstein is lauded for his goodness and sublime character for the entire book.
Shelley does a lot with Romantic ideals in the story – all that intense emotion and horror, the desolate landscapes and awe-inspiring nature. Man pitted against both society and himself. I’d love to do a close reading of the novel to try and determine which character Shelley pegged for her Romantic hero – Dr. Frankenstein or his creation. Or maybe they represent two sides of the same coin.
Knowing that Shelley wrote this novel when she was eighteen makes me want to look into her work further and see if she considered the same issues again later from a more mature perspective. I don’t mean to say I felt the novel was immature in any way, I just think that would be really interesting. I mentioned before that my husband and I read this book in tandem and it has provided some really good dinnertime discussion. I enjoyed how much the questions it raises are still relevant to modern issues. The writing style can be a bit over-the-top and each of the three narrators all pretty much use the same voice and vocabulary but its definitely a book I’m thrilled to have finally read.