A Science of Limitation
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is a novel laden with comparisons and allusions to religion, folklore, and philosophy. Frankenstein’s creation of a monster showcases a man doing what only deities had done before: giving life to something dead. This obviously raises questions about morality, responsibility, and many other philosophical issues. Because the creation of life is generally considered a deific act, we cannot help but wonder what the novel says about humans creating other life. Through writings by Dion, John Locke, John Wesley, and others, we can ascertain the prevalent philosophies of the time. These would have in turn influenced the novel. However, the novel does more than simply regurgitate the perspectives offered by contemporaries. Rather, it adopts them into the plotline of the creator and created, in a synthesis of ideas which presents its own assertions about creation. Exploring the context around the novel leads us to wonder why the monster appears to possess inherently evil traits, just like mankind in Christianity, but also possesses innocence and curiosity sometimes, such as during his observation of a family living in the woods. The answer is ultimately a case for the limitations of science carried out by mankind. Because Frankenstein focuses so much on the dynamics of creation stories and the nature of human life at its beginnings in people, it is most probable that Victor Frankenstein himself plays God in his work. Similar to the Christian traditions of the time, Frankenstein as God creates a being after the image of himself. However, unlike the Christian creation story, the creator himself is a flawed being, thereby producing a repulsive creation. We see, at the moment the monster comes to life, that the scientist looks upon him with disgust, describing him as “shriveled”—a “catastrophe” (Shelley 36). This is a stark parallel to the Christian God’s assessment of His created people: “and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31 ESV).
Another major influence on Frankenstein was likely the work of John Locke, who famously advocated for the tabula rasa, or blank slate. Essentially, this view of psychology and human nature stated that people directly after birth are blank slates, without any innate behavioral characteristics. Everything about a person’s behavior comes from their experiences and interactions with their environment. This applies to moral principles, as well, as John Locke states in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. “No innate practical principles…they lie not open as natural characters engraven on the mind…” (Locke 51). Frankenstein interacts with this concept as well, as we see through the monster’s curiosity about his world, his questions for his creator, and his attempts to learn what is right and wrong throughout the plot.
Because Frankenstein bears the influences of Christianity’s creator-nature attribute inheritance alongside John Locke’s tabula rasa theory, the work is some sort of evaluation of the two, and commentary on the real workings of human nature from a post-creation standpoint. Throughout Frankenstein, we see the monster not as a complete villain, but a curious being invested in learning about the people around him and trying, at times, to be a force for good in the world of the humans (Shelley 77). At the same time, however, we see the monster endowed with inherently repulsive traits, such as his unnatural lips, sunken, milky eyes, and a behavior so easily turned to malevolence and revenge (Shelley 140). It follows therefore that the novel asserts that sentient created beings inherit an aspect of absolute good or evil from their creators, but circumstances and environment have the power to shape that product over time.
From this standpoint, the novel can go on to make further assertions about the nature of humanity through the nature of the monster and its relationship to its creator. The poet Dion, a contemporary of Shelley, published a poem on “The Progress of Life” in 1812. Firstly, this poem solidifies the parallel between the scientist and God, stating that “…science, gift of Heav’n, which lifts man up, and purifies his nature, makes him almost a God, and teaches him to wing his thoughts along the upmost verge of vast creation…” (Dion). Because of this, the monster’s early existence represents the initial state of man in the universe.
Another contemporary of Shelley’s, one of the most prominent figures in the intellectual community at the time, was John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church. In A Review of Wesley’s Notions Respecting the Primeval State of Man and the Universe, Joseph Barker summarizes Wesley’s stance that “the world in its primeval state, before the first transgression…was good. The whole surface of it was beautiful to a high degree” (Barker 2). Enamored with his monster during the creation process, Frankenstein too believed it to be perfect, beautifully proportioned, and a form of a man, perfected. When we consider this in light of the two creators and their original states as stated by the church at that time, we can see the dialogue between the novel and the greater picture of creation. According to the nineteenth-century church, the God of the Bible defines absolute perfection, while his post-transgression people have been defiled by sin, without any merit aside from the grace of Christ. In his state of total depravity then, Frankenstein can only create a creature equally depraved or more so than himself.
Seemingly, John Locke’s tabula rasa and the philosophy of the church cannot combine harmoniously with each other. If Shelley’s work were purely from Locke’s standpoint, the monster would be at most visually repulsive, and without any inclination to do anything violent or malevolent. On the other hand, from the church’s perspective, the monster should have awoken with an instant desire for self-gratification, with nothing but evil intents. The monster would not have lived beside the family for a spell, chopping wood and learning to read. The synthesis of these two points of view in Shelley’s novel seeks to establish an accurate view of creation.
Establishing a view of creation is rather pointless without a more relevant application to real-world philosophy, however. What does the monster’s initial creation ultimately say about our world? Let us return to Dion’s poem about life. His assertion that science almost makes man a God draws a comparison between science and God. As the novel establishes a perspective of God and creation, it also compares science to creation. Frankenstein makes the bigger assertion through this parallel, stating that science is limited by human nature. Science, a type of creation—perhaps that of knowledge—can only become as perfect as the people who practice it. Just like the monster, scientific findings can be incredible but will always be flawed, like the researchers who find them. Evaluating Frankenstein in relation to the writings and thoughts contemporary to its author reveals a striking commentary on the limitations of science as carried out by humans. Through a masterful use of parallels and comparisons, the novel asserts that while science can accomplish monumental tasks, the findings are only as perfect as the men who find them—and the men, while almost gods in their studies—are restrained by their depravity according to Christian beliefs. On a less absolute standpoint however, scientists remain free to develop their art and moral values according to their environments, as represented through John Locke’s influence. While Frankenstein is a fantastic novel for pleasure reading, it is also addresses the heavy parts of life. The monster’s creation serves as a stark warning to scientists who would try to play God.
Barker, Joseph. A Review of Wesley’s Notions Respecting the Primeval State of Man and the Universe. 1800. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/60202937.
Dion. “The Progress of Life.” The Belfast Monthly Magazine, vol. 9, no. 49, 1812, pp. 130–131. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30074159.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding. 1689. Google Books, https://books.google.com/books/about/An_Essay_Concerning_Human_Understanding.html?id=J0sdAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q=blank%20slate&f=false.
Fear of Childbirth in Frankenstein
In Frankenstein, the stated purpose of Victor Frankenstein is to end death by reanimating living flesh in a way that would mean that no one ever have to die again, or at very least stay that way. Yet, throughout the book, the fear of childbirth becomes a major undercurrent in the book. In this book, I will explore the ways that Frankenstein uses childbirth as the underlying horror of the characters.
The Birth of the Creature
Victor Frankenstein could possibly be one of the most nervous characters in fiction. Even in horror fiction, which is full of characters who are running away from ghosts and trying not to get eaten by vampires, Victor is particularly nervous well before he sees his creation coming alive for the first time.
Yet, in the creation of the creature, Victor is perfectly calm up until the moment of birth. He is stealing body parts and putting them together. Yet once the monster is alive, Victor is horrified. “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips” (53).
One has to ask why Victor is suddenly afraid of the sewed up corpse just because it opens its eyes. Victor had months to become accustomed to the monster. Yet somehow the act of giving it life has unsettled him. This is similar to the post-partum depression experienced by mothers who cannot deal with the time after birth and resent their children. It is also underscores the fact that newborn babies at least are ugly. After a few months, they get personalities and they look cute, but right out of the womb they are screaming poop monsters.
Victor Frankenstein is so frightened of his creation that he runs away and then spends the next two years in a nervous fever. There is considerable chaos surrounding Mary Shelly at the inception of the book – somewhat romanticized in her essay to the 1834 – which included several individuals who were suffering from the same anxiety. For example, Byron’s “wife, Annabella, had fled with her newborn child from the marital home and returned to her parents in order to begin separation proceedings from Byron, whom she thought mad” (Wilson 41). Mary Shelly was also fleeing with Percy Shelly from her angry father. “It was on her mother’s grave that Shelley seduced her when she was 16” (Britton 3).
Social Implications of Childbirth
Until the late 19th century, childbirth was a death sentence for many women. Infant mortality was high and women could die of everything from bleeding to sepsis to infection from doctors who did not wash their hands in between handling dead bodies and attending to the birth. It was only with improved hygiene and medical knowledge that childbirth stopped being something that was likely to kill women and children.
Mary Shelley’s mother died 11 days after her birth and she was traveling with Lord Byron’s mistress who was pregnant with his child. Mary Shelley would give birth to an infant shortly after the writing of the book, who would also die shortly thereafter. Furthermore, Lord Byron’s bitter ex-wife was running away with his child in order to keep her away from his influence.
Another aspect of childbirth that comes through in society and life is the masculine view of childbirth. As mentioned above, Lord Byron’s wife made sure to keep her daughter away from him. While women can die and are expected to fall instantly in love with their children, men are encouraged to make children without taking care of them. A man can run away from his family and even in a social order where men are expected to stay, there is a patriarchal tradition where the father figure is a distant individual who spends all of his time working.
Thus Victor Frankenstein as a man who give birth to a fully grown individual can suffer from both an anxiety that mirrors post-partum depression and a feeling of being trapped within his own actions. “Victor Frankenstein doesn’t value life in the absolute. Instead, he places a higher worth on his reputation. He wants to join the new class of learned men that has replaced the landed gentry as the upper society in Europe.” (Lunsford 174). The class ambitions of Victor belie his nervous disposition, but it is quite telling that after the death of his brother and his servant he goes mountain climbing with his friend Henry. Victor is so individualistic that he cannot conceive of a family and his son’s move to confront him on the mountain is an appeal to meet Victor where he is at instead of expecting Victor to come to him. Infertility
The concluding chapters of Frankenstein are characterized by the end of the Frankenstein line in two very dramatic ways. In the first way, Victor is induced to create a mate for his creation, a woman this time. This is the one that would keep the creature company and make his loneliness in the world less lonely. Victor is ready to do it until he sees the creature and has a nervous breakdown. Victor destroys the monster’s intended bride under the belief that the bride could have children and he could be creating an army of monsters like his creature.
At this point, the motivation for Victor’s destruction seems cruel. A less sympathetic writer could have pushed the narrative into a consideration of the creature’s actions. The creature did murder several people by this point. Yet, his story indicts Victor and Victor’s lack of maternal and paternal feeling. Even though Victor’s fear of his creation is somewhat justified at this point, his action comes down to destroying his creature’s future and thus hope for grandchildren in this line.
In turn, the creature kills Victor’s wife on her wedding night. Victor’s response to the creature’s threat that he will see him on his wedding night is to run away from Elizabeth. A Freudian interpretation could suggest that Victor knew what the creature was talking about and left Elizabeth defenseless in order to allow his creature to kill her.
Thus, the novel ends with two men chasing each other through the arctic weather with Victor taken to pursuing his creation to end him. At this point there is enough revenge to go around, but more importantly Victor has placed a value on destroying the abandoned child that he has neglected throughout the book. In this way, the entire Frankenstein family can be destroyed with the last two members of Victor and his creation dead in the barren wasteland.
The topic of childbirth is a frightening topic for many people and for a 19th century daughter of a feminist who died shortly after she was born, it would have been an even more terrible possibility. In the novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley depicts a man who managed to give birth to a creature without labor pains or fear of infection (which is rather ironic considering that the morgue was the source of many of the post-partum killer infections). Yet, Victor Frankenstein suffers the same fears that a new mother would experience and he responds by abandoning his son. The narrative of neglect and revenge creates a space where neither creator or creation will ever have children.
Britton, Ronald. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: What Made the Monster Monstrous?” Journal of Analytical Psychology. 60(1). 2015.
Lunsford, Lars. “The Devaluing of Life in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” The Explicator. 68(3). 2010.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: Complete and Unabridged Classic Edition. Mnemosyne Books. (March 11, 2016).
Wilson, Frances. “How Frankenstein Became a Monster: Two Hundred Years of a Prolific and Horrible Creation.” New Statesman. (September 9-15, 2016)