Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

February 21, 2018

51GET68hBaL._AC_US218_41oH4CCckML._AC_US218_It’s 200 years this year since Mary Shelley‘s ground-breaking novel Frankenstein was first published. I have memories of teaching it at GCSE, in an interesting coursework task that involved students having to compare a pre and post-1914 text, so I paired Shelley’s novel up with Daniel KeyesFlowers for Algernon and had students explore the question of scientists’ responsibilities, as well as how the narratives were presented and developed.

I have always thought Frankenstein counted as science fiction: the writer explores an idea that does not exist in our world but that perhaps might one day; scientists were already experimenting then with the effects of electric currents on limbs and muscles. Shelley creates the scientist’s excitement at achieving something never done before – the creation of life in the laboratory. She was treading on sensitive and controversial ground, just as Darwin was to do a couple of generations later, meddling in God’s territory, as it was then thought to be. But the centre of her novel is not what the scientist does and achieves, but what he overlooks…

Victor Frankenstein forgets – or doesn’t even begin to think about – the fact that when he creates new life he creates a human being that will have wants and needs, hopes and desires just like any other, and when that creature is limited in what he can do and have by his physical repulsiveness to others, he resents this bitterly and reacts against it in unexpected ways…

Shelley realises, early on in the days of scientific progress, that a scientist does not work in a vacuum, that scientists change the potential of our world, and that responsibilities are attached to such changes. Scientists today are very much apt to be ignorant of just this; scientists prostitute themselves in the service of governments and multinational corporations without regard to the consequences of what they do. There is the excitement of pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge and capability, which I can understand and sympathise with, but knowledge is not value-neutral. And there is the rather pathetic response often proffered: well, if I didn’t do it, someone else would…

And so there are scientists who earn their daily bread by developing undetectable anti-personnel mines in bright colours that attract children to pick them up, scientists that work on ways of making highly profitable edible goods that bear no resemblance to food and we know it and are positively bad for people’s health… I could go on.

And yet, Shelley forces her hero to interact with his creation: the two cannot be separated, as the creature pursues its creator, demanding that he take responsibility for what he has made, who he has made, and Victor Frankenstein is brought to face the complexity of what his creature has asked him to do, its repercussions, his full responsibility. We know how it ends: I often wish some of today’s scientists and engineers might share the consequences of their work..

Frankenstein is a novel, and for me it has its flaws: the pace and the written style is hectic and exhausting to read, with the emotional pitch sustained at a very high level for too long. It is, however, very cleverly structured, with layers of narrative nested within each other like the layers of an onion, as the reader is distanced from characters and events. And it has that superb and haunting ending, so brilliantly filmed in the original screen version in the 1930s, of creator and creature inseparable in the Arctic wastes…

Mary Shelley’s foray into what we now call science fiction did not end with Frankenstein: for me, The Last Man is much better, a novel which looks two centuries into the future to late twenty-first century republican Britain, laid waste by a disease which wipes out all of the human race except one man.

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