In 1816, Mary and Percy Shelley travelled to the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, to spend the summer with several writer-colleagues – Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, and John Polidori. On a whim, the friends decided to have contest to see who among them could devise the best ghost story. Drawing on one of her dreams, as well as her knowledge of medical experimentation, Mary Shelley wrote about a scientist who created life and was horrified by it. And thus Frankenstein was born.
This renowned gothic tale, for which Shelley is most famous, follows young Victor Frankenstein, a student of natural philosophy, who learns how to impart life to a body built from the relics of the dead. Resolved to test his newfound knowledge, Frankenstein conducts an experiment and is successful. However, instead of finding joy in his accomplishment, the he feels only revulsion when he sees the creature he has made.
I had worked 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… Oh! no mortal can support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as Dante could not have conceived. (pp. 39-40)
Published in 1818, Frankenstein is both a classic monster story and a seminal work of modern science fiction. It is even regarded as a “horror” novel, but I think “gothic” is a more fitting description – especially considering the book’s emphasis on the grotesque and mysterious, rather than the overtly horrific. One could argue that the themes of the story are far more unsettling than the story itself.
Shelley’s prose is not particularly remarkable – at least, in my humble opinion – but it suits the story well. And what it might lack in elegance, it readily makes up for in forcefulness. The writing is packed with bleak, hypnagogic imagery, and considering the nature of the story, it’s most appropriate.
It’s worth noting that Frankenstein’s monster is not a gray-green giant with lifeless eyes, a small vocabulary, and bolts in his head. According to Shelley’s description, he is large and strong and hideous, but he’s also athletic and remarkably intelligent. It is his character, in fact, which provides some of the most eloquent dialogue of the entire story.
Frankenstein concerns itself with several weighty themes and ideas, two of which particularly bear mentioning.
The first and most recognizable theme points to the dangers of man trying to play God – a warning which is even more applicable today than it was 200 years ago. Frankenstein basks in the glory of his newfound knowledge with little thought to its perils. Later in life, he laments,
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. (p. 35)
The second theme is less often acknowledged, but equally important: “What is the nature of man?” It is in answering this question that the novel more fully reflects the pagan worldview of its author.
When Frankenstein’s monster is first given life, he is a pure being, untainted and guileless. He cannot conceive why it is necessary for men to have laws and governments, because he cannot conceive why men should do evil. But the monster’s purity is only temporary. Although he does nothing wrong, men loathe and reject him. At one point in the story, he saves the life of a young woman. What does he get in return? Gunfire.
Outraged by this ingratitude, he exclaims,
This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as a recompense I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound which shatter the flesh and bone. The feelings of kindness and gentleness which I had entertained but a few moments before gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth. Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind. (p. 116)
Violently detested by society, the monster responds in kind. “I am malicious because I am miserable,” he argues, in excuse for his crimes. “Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?”
Thus the blame is shifted. The monster’s basically good nature has been twisted by a bad environment and turned to evil. He is not ultimately responsible for his actions; the world that rejected him is.
Frankenstein’s monster is a work of fiction, but his words reflect the philosophy of Shelley and other humanists: the philosophy that man is essentially a good creature. He just needs the right environmental influences to get in touch with his basic goodness.
Such an idea is, of course, diametrically opposed to Christian doctrine of total depravity. Man is conceived in sin. His emotions, his will, his intellect – all is corrupted, and naturally inclined to wickedness. Does this mean he is as desperately and utterly depraved as he possibly could be? Not at all. But it does mean that he is incapable of saving himself. Short of divine intervention, he is doomed – entirely and utterly doomed.
Thanks be to God He didn’t leave us that way.
Is Frankenstein still worth reading, then? Yes. There are benefits to be gained from acquainting oneself with classics such as this. But don’t just swallow everything that is handed to you. Examine it. Consider what you’re being told. And above all, see how it fares in the light of Scripture.