Tag Archives: humanism

Book Review: Frankenstein

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.

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Ray Bradbury has a capacity for storytelling that I’ve seldom seen matched by any other writer. The sheer power he wields as a word-artist never ceases to amaze me. Could I choose but one fiction author to grace my bookshelves, he would be a top contender. That’s high praise, but it’s well-deserved. And if you’ve never read a Bradbury book, you don’t know what your missing.

Two of Bradbury’s books have made it into my reviews thus far. Now I’ll add a third.

Something Wicked This Way Comes has a grim and somewhat menacing title, which is completely appropriate considering the nature of the story…

Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade – both age 13 – are fast friends. But their friendship is tested when a strange and sinister traveling carnival arrives in their quiet Midwestern town one October, flaunting the seductive promise of dreams fulfilled and youth regained.

Heading this carnival is “Mr. Dark”, a sinister being with a multiplicity of tattoos all over his body – one tattoo for each soul ensnared. Countering this malevolent presence is that of Will’s father, Charles Halloway, a quiet but courageous man who must be wary of his own secret desire to be young again.

Something Wicked is a compelling tale of good and evil, of friendship, fear, and ultimately, hope. The characters, as typical of a Bradbury story, are unique and well-drawn; by the end of the story, I felt I knew each one personally.

“Mr. Dark” is one of the creepiest, most tangible villains I’ve encountered in literature, and his minions (particularly the Dust Witch) made my flesh crawl. At the very beginning of the book, Bradbury quotes Proverbs 4:16-17, “For they sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fall. For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence.” Believe me, the description fits. Perfectly.

Then there’s the prose, captivating prose, also typical of Bradbury. It captures, and takes advantage of, every facet of the story. Consider the following description:

At dawn, a juggernaut of thunder wheeled over the stony heavens in a spark-throwing tumult. Rain fell softly on town cupolas, chuckled from rainspouts, and spoke in strange subterranean tongues beneath the windows where Jim and Will knew fitful dreams, slipping out of one, trying another for size, but finding all cut from the same dark, mouldered cloth.

Magnificent, no?

Another aspect I greatly appreciated about Bradbury’s story was its brilliant depiction of man’s willingness to part with his soul in exchange for earthly pleasures – pleasures that ultimately ensnare, no matter how desirable they appear from a distance. A man may pursue these pleasures, but he will only pursue them “till a dart strike through his liver; as a bird hasteth to the snare, and knoweth not that it is for his life” (Proverbs 22:23).

However, before you walk away thinking that I give this book my unqualified recommendation, I must say there is one aspect of this book that I did not appreciate and, in fact, greatly disagree with. You see, in Bradbury’s story God is not the savior of man; man is the savior of man. God is not the answer to evil; man has the power to overcome evil by himself.

Such man-based salvation is, from a biblical perspective, laughable. Those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb know the truth: “Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Psalm 53:3).

Bearing this in mind, I do think this is a book that can and should be read by discerning Christians. Apart from the humanism, there is a wealth of other thought-provoking material that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.