Feature: Happy Birthday, Frankenstein!

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2nd June 2016, Varsity, Online Culture Section

It has been two hundred years since an 18-year old girl woke from a lucid dream, and a story that would become the cornerstone of science fiction and Gothic literature was born. Since its conception on the shores of Lake Geneva, Frankenstein has become one of the great modern creations myths: the young brilliant scientist, drunk on ambition and knowledge, who discovers the secrets of animating flesh and brings to life a monstrous creature, which then seeks to destroy him and the lives of those he loves.

Perhaps it is inevitable that the story has come to engender its own creation myth. The tale begins on a dark and stormy night of June 1816, which later became known as ‘The Year without a Summer’. Mary was part of an unprecedented gathering of literary minds, which included her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a recently exiled Lord Byron, who was staying at the Villa Diodati. The days were dismal. Candlelight flickered within the house and violent lightening flashed across the surface of the lake. The group were high on the sublime, sensation, and probably more illicit substances, when the challenge was put out by Byron: “We will each write a ghost story.” After many days, Frankenstein was born, quite suitably, out of a nightmare. Mary, somewhere between dreams and reality, saw the “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out … On the working of some powerful engine, [it shows] signs of life.” She had her story.

Her story has now become so well known that it has come to feel life a modern fable, a cautionary tale of the dangers inherent to scientific endeavour. During her stay at Diodati, Mary was a silent but devout listener to the conversations between Byron and Shelley on the new experiments of the time, the work of Erasmus Darwin and ‘Galvanism’. Mary herself had the intellect to foresee the future of such possibilities. Her father, the philosopher William Godwin, had introduced her to some of the great minds of the time, including her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after Shelley was born. Many critics have argued that we need look no further than the novel’s subtitle – The Modern Prometheus – to understand the meaning of the work: the aspiration of men to master life and death.

But there is something not wholly satisfactory about this explanation. One of the most notable things when you read the book is the absence of the science and technology that supposedly birthed the tale. Even the very ‘creation’ scene, which is inextricably bound with Frankenstein, is a myth in itself: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open” is all that the information we get before Frankenstein leaves the being he gave life to. Despite her exceptional intelligence, it was as much as a mystery to Mary Shelley, as she outlines herself in the 1831 preface to the book, as it is to the readers how she, “then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea.”

Perhaps this idea has partly developed from the myth of Frankenstein itself. The tale of the Villa Diodati and the horror stories of reanimated corpses hold such a power over the imagination that they have overshadowed the life that produced the tale, and, unlike these tales, the life of Mary Shelley was neither neat nor romantic. Although brought up in a radical atmosphere of free-love, Mary was disowned by her father when she eloped with Percy Shelley. Their whole life together then went on to became a saga of bankruptcy, births and deaths, he continuing to practice the ideal of free-love, while she, never a willing participant in this milieu, was forced into understanding an empty hearth. By the time she came to write Frankenstein, she had already endured the birth and death of an infant.

It is not difficult to see a parallel between these figures of Godwin and Shelley, and Mary’s Victor Frankenstein. All three dreamed of progress and thirsted for power, and all three abandoned their offspring. The central point of the novel is not creation of the monster, but Frankenstein’s rejection of him: it is this lack of responsibility – a science without ethics or conscience – that lies at the heart of the novel. The first victims of his creature are inevitably the dependent children and women, and happy families, as Mary had enough first-hand experience of chauvinistic heartlessness to understand that. Frankenstein never gains any real self-knowledge or comes to realise the cost of his curiosity and desire for glory. Shelley’s narrative lays bare that it is the life-creating Victor who is more monstrous and culpable than the unloved creature he abhorred. “I was benevolent and good — misery made me a fiend”, recalls the being, Frankenstein’s Adam.

Later in life, Mary remarked: “For my own private satisfaction all I ask is obscurity… One thing I will add – if I have ever found kindness it has not been from Liberals”. A bitter remark from someone misused for too long, and exposed to the hypocrisy of too many people. Of course, her novel hasn’t faded into obscurity, even if she has. She had the intuition to see that the technologies that seek to civilise us are only as good as the hands they are in, and it is an intuition we could too easily forget.

Image: WikiCommons

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