In August of 1945, after the bombing of Hiroshima, radio announcer H. V. Kaltenborn said, “For all we know, we have created a Frankenstein! We must assume that with the passage of only a little time, an improved form of the new weapon we used today can be turned against us.” It has been nearly two hundred years since Frankenstein was birthed into existence during the cold, stormy summer of 1816 by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein was a revolutionary novel. Not only did it create a sympathetic, beautiful character out of a monster, but it created a villain out of an educated member of the nobility. The book broke class barriers and protested treatment of the hated “other,” whomever that “other” might be. Since that time, the story has never been out of print and has been regularly reinterpreted and referenced in popular culture over and over again.
Many people have heard the story of how Frankenstein came to be. Percy Shelley took his wife, Mary, and baby William to Lake Geneva in order to meet with Lord Byron. It was July, but the year of 1816 was known as the year without a summer. Scientists today have a variety of theories, that the weather was due to a volcanic eruption in Indonesia or part of the the Little Ice Age or was caused by historically low solar activity or some combination of these factors. Regardless of the cause, the cold, dreary, stormy weather found the trio stuck indoors. Their boredom soon led to a game of telling scary stories. It was Mary’s story of a scientist destroyed by his greatest triumph that would have a lasting impact upon western culture.
Upon reading Frankenstein for the first time, some are surprised to find that Frankenstein of the book’s title is not the monster, but the scientist, Victor Frankenstein. We discover the creature never receives a name. He is simply called “the creature.” This accomplishes two things — it is designed to dehumanize the creature, but at the same time it makes the creature a sympathetic character. But we meet neither the monster nor his creator, at first. We first meet a ship captain in treacherous seas.
Robert Walton is a young ship captain who is navigating the waters of the North Pole while looking for passage between the Pacific and Atlantic. The letters he writes his sister reveal his intelligence, the spirit of adventure and discovery that border on obsession, and his loneliness. His crew discovers a man on the ice — starved, exhausted, near death. The captain finds the man well-spoken and genteel. The captain’s nature and situation help him to sympathize with and relate to the man. However, as our young captain describes the intensity of his passion to complete his quest, the rescued man becomes disturbed, begging the captain not to drink from the same cup of madness that had brought about the current circumstances. The captain listens as the man slowly unfolds his story: The story of Frankenstein.
Victor describes his carefree, idyllic childhood which was spent in the company of Elizabeth Lavenza (his cousin or adopted sister, depending upon the edition) and his friend, Henry Clerval. Victor studies philosophy, science, alchemy and the occult, but when a visiting scientist explains electricity to Victor after he witnesses lightning strike a tree, Victor realizes that the alchemists were mistaken in their ideas and latches on to this new and exciting field. This part of Victor’s life seems ideal.
Any loss experienced by the family is compensated for and any difficulty overcome by love and charity. At the same time, with each bit of trauma, Victor proclaims each an omen of his current misery. Even his mother’s death shortly before he leaves for university is described in this manner. Victor’s fatalism has a two-fold effect. First, it builds the tension in the narrative, but eliminates a piece of the suspense because we already know that Victor eventually ends up stuck on the ice of the North Pole. All of the talk of omens and signs indicates that Victor accepts his situation as his fate rather than a self-fulfilled prophecy that Victor could have avoided, if he had made different choices, much like Romeo’s proclamation, “I am fortune’s fool!”
When Victor arrives at the university he meets with a professor of “natural philosophy” who tells Victor that his studies of alchemy have been wasted. Victor decides to study science after attending a lecture on chemistry. Victor quickly becomes obsessed with reanimation, the harnessing of the power of life and death. He neglects every other aspect of his life, focusing on this singular pursuit. His vision is one of wonder and beauty. Following the example of the alchemists he had studied (and whose examples have already been discredited in the novel) Victor works alone in his reclusive apartments.
It is important to note these aspects of his work: He is going against the scientific beliefs of the time, going against scientific discipline, going against the close advice of his professor, and he is reverting to an earlier time rather than working within the framework of the modern science of his time. His studies lack scientific rigor, discipline, oversight and ethics. These are some of the things that will ultimately lead to his downfall.
He begins to patch together a corpse to re-animate. All together, his study of reanimation takes two years. His studies culminate in zapping the creature with lightning, bringing the spark of life back into the decaying corpse. But, as the creature comes to life, Victor finds it repulsive and, after awakening to find the creature looming over his bed, terrifying. Strangely, Victor attempts to simply ignore the living nightmare of his creation, avoiding his apartment. This continues the theme already begun: He is avoiding his responsibilities in favor of acting with the emotion of the moment. Rather than alerting authorities or getting help from the scientific community, he attempts to avoid the issue entirely.
Soon, Victor chances upon Henry who has newly arrived to study at the university. Victor takes him to the apartment, apprehensive that the creature may still be skulking there, but relieved when it is not. Victor falls into a long illness, implying that guilt or remorse may be at work within him. Henry slowly but surely nurses Victor, presenting him with a letter from Elizabeth upon his restoration to health. These attempts at ignoring the problem and hoping it will simply go away hint at the dire consequences that we know will lead to Victor being trapped on a ship in the ice near death.
The plot continues to proceed in a similar manner with Victor shirking his responsibilities, trying to “fix” the problems that compound one upon the other, never admitting his horrific mistakes or seeking help, but patching the problems after the fact as if he were sticking his fingers and toes into a very leaky dyke.
The creature first murders Victor’s youngest brother. Despite the fact that Victor believes the creature committed the murder and even sees the creature at the site of the murder, Victor allows a young woman to be tried, convicted and put to death for the murder. Victor does nothing to stop it. he is afraid to admit his wrong-doings, afraid to admit his shortcomings, afraid to admit the horror that has come to pass at his hand, afraid that he might not be believed. These are poor excuses for allowing the death of an innocent girl and shine a light on the lengths Victor will go to in order to avoid responsibility for his actions.
The Frankensteins go on vacation as a family to escape their grief. The fact that Victor goes with them, never warning them, is an indicator of his denial. Eventually, Victor meets with the creature. When he hears the creature’s side of the story, Victor actually feels so much sympathy for him that Victor actually agrees to create a mate for him. Victor patches together and reanimates a female corpse, despite knowing that the creature’s murderous behavior. Clearly, Victor is not a man who easily learns his lesson the first time.
The family travels back to Geneva, where Victor promises his father that he will marry Elizabeth, but first he must travel to England. He passes through England, going on to a remote island in Scotland where he will build a mate for the creature. When the she-creature is as hideous as the first creature, Victor destroys her. The creature is furious. He swears revenge and promises to be with Victor on his wedding night. Victor believes the creature wants to kill him. But most readers will be able to read the foreshadowing and recognize that the monster plans a revenge that is like the wrong Victor committed upon him, that of killing his mate.
As Victor starts to leave Scotland he begins to receive a taste of what he has visited upon others. He is accused of murdering another person that was killed by his creature. When he finds out that the victim was his friend Clerval, he falls into a delusional state once again. Once again, a member of his family must nurse him back to health. This time, it is Victor’s father who also talks Victor’s way out of the murder charge. Barely escaping with his life and with a vengeful, murdering monster hot on his heels, Victor merely continues on to Geneva in order to celebrate his wedding. He doesn’t admit the truth, even to his own father. These are further examples of Victor having his head in the sand and ignoring his problems rather than facing them or at least admitting them so that he doesn’t bring everyone else down with his quickly sinking ship.
Given the Victor’s present circumstances and the fact that this story is told in the form of flashbacks, modern audiences can intuit what happens next. Victor marries Elizabeth and the creature murders her on their wedding night. In a fit of grief, Victor’s father also dies. Finally, Victor takes decisive action. He vows revenge upon the monster, chasing it to the far ends of the earth. This is where the story comes full circle. After telling his story, Victor begs the captain to reconsider his desire for glory. As Victor sleeps, the crew confronts the captain for a second time, demanding they return to England if and when the ship is freed from the ice. This time, the captain listens, considers and finally agrees. Soon, Victor dies, but as he lay in his coffin, the creature comes aboard. He speaks to the captain, giving him an eloquent explanation of his own miseries. But. we already know what the captain has decided. He is allowing caution to be the better part of valor. He is placing the lives of his men above his own path to glory. He has decided to take the more ethical path.
This, ultimately, is the lesson of Frankenstein. Victor had been engaged in scientific fancy instead of hard science. Science without oversight, ethics, discipline or responsibility is a dangerous business. At the same time, the history of gothic romance indicates the strong sense of sympathy that Mary Shelley and other Romantics would have had toward Victor’s passion and obsession. This will be a distinct difference between how a Romantic age teenager (Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein) and a modern adult will experience the novel. Recently, I heard a young man explaining how Marianne from Sense and Sensibility was the sole character from literature that he felt a strong sense of relation to. This sense of Romance is one that teens and young adults still strongly relate to. It’s important to recognize this within our young adults. Every hurt cuts deeply, every love is the greatest of loves, the sense of wildness found in Bronte’s moors and the obsession of Victor Frankenstein are all imminently relateable. Victor’s obsession is not just with science, but is a duel with death itself. Mary Shelley had recently lost her first baby when she wrote Frankenstein, and one can imagine that this experience influenced her choice of subject. What young person doesn’t dream of living forever or of finding a fountain of youth or permanent reprieve from the pain of the death of loved ones?
Echoes of Frankenstein, often considered the first science fiction story, reverberate though literature, popular culture, politics and even hard science itself. Every debate on scientific ethics from the atom bomb to human cloning carries with it the ghost of Victor Frankenstein. Every scientist carries the weight of his or her ethical burden. Teens and young adults can relate to the single-mindedness of Victor in his quest to defeat death. Those are some of the reasons that Frankenstein continues to be a relevant part of the “great conversation.”