Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus

by Mary Shelley (1818)

Mary Shelley, at the age of 21, published what is arguably the first science fiction novel; a fantasy story with a scientific rather than supernatural explanation. Shelley had apparently heard of recent experiments to “reanimate” corpses by making them jerk around with electric shocks, and dreamed of a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” a human form made from parts of stolen corpses and brought to life by an undisclosed scientific method.

So Shelley created Victor Frankenstein, the original mad scientist. Having discovered the secret of life, he embarks on his creation with manic enthusiasm, neglecting his health and loved ones, without considering the moral repercussions of creating a living human out of corpses. It is only when the creature comes to life that he sees it as a hideous abomination. Terrified, Frankenstein chooses to ignore the monster in the hopes it will go away. The monster escapes out of a window to fend for itself in a German forest.

Contrary to depictions in popular culture, the monster is not green, not grinning, not grunting, and is not called Frankenstein. He is yellow, miserable, and eloquent, and he is called Adam.

Despite being the archetypal horror story, Frankenstein is much more sad than scary. Shelley sympathetically gives Frankenstein’s monster a voice, so he can tell his creator the story of his miserable time in the outside world. The book’s main theme is people’s fear and hatred of the unknown. The monster starts as a benevolent, childlike creature, wanting affection and explanation for the world in which he has found himself. Instead he is hated on sight; people throw stones thrown at him, he makes children scream and women faint.

Being ignorant of physical danger, it seems that nature is against the monster. Delighted by the warmth of a fire he finds in the woods, the he puts his hand in it and suffers a burn. He slowly realises his own wretchedness in the eyes of humans, finally declaring “I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.”

After being shot, the monster spends weeks in the cold woods waiting for his shoulder to heal. His bafflement turns to anger at the creator who abandoned him. When the monster tracks down Dr Frankenstein, he is no longer gentle and innocent, but abused and violent. He demands a female companion and a safe place to live apart from humans, and threatens terrible revenge on Frankenstein if he will not appease him.

Published nearly two hundred years ago, Frankenstein deals with many of the same suspicions that still plague modern science. People of the time harboured the same instinctive horror as many do now at the thought of creating human life or sentient minds artificially, of messing with dead bodies, reanimation of the dead and genetic engineering. But foremost, Frankenstein is a story of the misery caused by human prejudice against those who are different.
This article first appeared in Issue 14, 2013.
Posted 6:05pm Sunday 7th July 2013 by Lucy Hunter.