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What Frankenstein teaches us about the dangers of playing God

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FrankensteinWhere, The Modern Prometheusis an 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

Set in the late 18th century, it follows scientist Victor Frankenstein’s creation of life and the terrible events precipitated by his abandonment of his creation.

It’s a gothic novel in that it combines supernatural elements with horror, death, and an exploration of the darker sides of the psyche.

It also provides a complex critique of Christianity. Most importantly, as one of the first works of science fiction, it explores the dangers of humans pursuing new technologies and becoming godlike.

The history of celebrities

Shelley’s Frankenstein is at the heart of what might be the greatest celebrity story of all time.

Shelley was born in 1797. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the monument A demand for women’s rights (1792), was, according to the introduction to this book, “the first great feminist”.

Shelley’s father was William Godwin, a political philosopher and founder of “philosophical anarchism” – he was anti-government when the great democracies of France and the United States were emerging.

At the age of 16, Shelley married the radical poet Percy Shelley, whose Ozymandias (1818) is still regularly quoted (“Look at my works, you mighty ones, and despair!”).

Mary Shelley.

Their relationship seems to epitomize the romantic era itself. She was plagued with outside love interests, illegitimate children, suicides, debts, wanderings and wanderings. And it finally ended prematurely in 1822 when Percy Shelley drowned, his little boat lost in a storm off the coast of Italy.

The Shelleys also had a close association with the poet Lord Byron, and it is this association that brings us to Frankenstein.

In 1816 the Shelleys visited Switzerland, staying on the shores of Lake Geneva, where they were Byron’s neighbors. As Mary Shelley recounts, they had all read ghost stories, including Coleridge’s Christabel (Coleridge had visited his father at the family home when Shelley was young), when Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story. So 18-year-old Shelley started writing Frankenstein.

The myth of the monster

The popular imagination took Frankenstein and ran with him. The “Frankenstein” monster, originally “Frankenstein’s monster”, is an integral part of Western culture along with the characters and tropes of Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

But while a reasonable continuity remains between Carroll’s Alice and her later reimaginings, much has been changed and lost in the translation of Shelley’s novel into the many versions that are entrenched in the popular imagination.

There have been many varied adaptations, from Edward Scissorhands at The Rocky Horror Picture Show (see here for a list of the top 20 Frankenstein movies). But despite the variety, it’s hard not to see the “monster” as a relentless zombie-like threat, as seen in the [trailer to the 1931 movie, or a lumbering fool, as seen in the Herman Munster incarnation.

Further, when we add the prefix “franken” it’s usually with disdain; consider “frankenfoods”, which refers to genetically modified foods, or “frankenhouses”, which describes contemporary architectural monstrosities or bad renovations.

However, in Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s creation is far from being two-dimensional or contemptible. To use the motto of the Tyrell corporation, which, in the 1982 movie Blade Runner, creates synthetic life, the creature strikes us as being “more human than human”. Indeed, despite their dissimilarities, the replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner reproduces Frankenstein’s creature’s intense humanity.

Some key plot points

The story of Victor Frankenstein is intertwined with the story of scientist-explorer Robert Walton. For the two men, the quest for knowledge is mixed with fanatical ambition.

The novel begins near the end of the story, with Walton attempting to sail to the North Pole, rescuing Frankenstein from the ice floe. Frankenstein is driven north by his creation to a final showdown.

The central moment of the novel is when Frankenstein brings his creation to life, only to be immediately repelled:

I had worked hard for nearly two years, with the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For that, I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation, but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream faded, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.

Victor Frankenstein, like others in the novel, is appalled by the appearance of his creation. He runs away from the creature and it disappears. After a two-year hiatus, the creature begins murdering people close to Frankenstein. And when Frankenstein reneges on his promise to create a female partner for his creature, he murders his closest friend and then, on Frankenstein’s wedding night, his wife.

more human than human

Frontispiece by Theodore Von Holst from the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

The real interest of the novel lies not in the murders or the chase, but in the creature’s tales of what drove him to murder.

After the creature murders Frankenstein’s little brother, William, Frankenstein seeks solace in the Alps – in sublime nature. There, the creature stumbles upon Frankenstein and tells its story eloquently and poignantly.

We learn that the creature has spent a year secretly living in an outhouse adjoining a hut occupied by the recently impoverished De Lacey family.

As he grew more self-aware, the creature reflected that “to be a great and virtuous man seemed the greatest honor that could befall a sentient being.” But when he finally tried to reveal himself to the family to gain their company, he was brutally kicked out of them. The creature was full of rage. He says, “I could have… gorged on their cries and their misery”. More human than human.

After Victor Frankenstein dies aboard Walton’s ship, Walton has one last encounter with the creature, as it hovers over Frankenstein’s body. To the corpse, the creature says:

“O Frankenstein! Be generous and dedicated! Why am I asking you to forgive me now? I who destroyed you irreparably by destroying everything you loved.

The creature goes on to make several grand and tragic statements to Walton. “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible to love and sympathy; and, torn by misery from vice and hatred, she could not bear the violence of change, without such torture as you cannot even imagine.

And shortly after, of the murder of Frankenstein’s wife, the creature said, “I knew I was preparing mortal torture; but I was the slave, not the master, of an impulse that I hated but could not disobey.

These remarks encourage us to reflect on some of the most important questions we can ask about the human condition:

What drives humans to commit horrible acts? Are human hearts, like those of creatures, fashioned for “love and sympathy,” and when such things are denied or taken away from us, do we attempt to heal the wound by hurting others? And if so, what is the psychological mechanism that causes this to happen?

And what is the relationship between free will and horrible acts? One cannot help thinking that the creature remains innocent – ​​that it is the slave, not the master. But then what about the rest of us?

The rule of law generally blames individuals for their crimes – and perhaps this is necessary for the functioning of a society. Yet I suspect the rule of law is missing something vital. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, pondered these questions millennia ago. He asked:

What reasons do we have to be angry with someone? We use labels like “thief” and “thief”…but what do these words mean? They just mean that people are confused as to what is right and what is wrong.

frankenstein
Boris Karloff and Colin Clive in Frankenstein. Photo: Universal Pictures

Unintended consequences

Victor Frankenstein creates life only to abandon it. An unsympathetic interpretation of Christianity might see something similar in God’s relationship with mankind. Yet the novel itself does not easily bear this reading; like much great art, its strength lies in its ambivalence and complexity.

At one point, the creature says to Frankenstein, “Remember that I am your creature; I should be your Adam, but I’m more like the fallen angel, whom you hunt with harmless joy. These and other remarks complicate any simplistic interpretation.

In fact, the ambivalence of the novel’s religious criticism supports its primary concern: the problem of technology enabling humans to become divine. The subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus. In Greek myth, Prometheus steals fire – a technology – from the gods and gives it to mankind, for which he is punished.


In this myth and many other stories, technology and knowledge are double-edged. Adam and Eve eat the apple of knowledge in the Garden of Eden and are expelled from paradise. In 2001: A Space Odysseyhumanity is born when the first tool is used – a tool that increases humanity’s capacity to be violent.

The novel’s subtitle refers to Kant’s 1755 essay, The Modern Prometheus. In this, Kant observes that:

There is good taste in the natural sciences, which know how to distinguish the wild extravagances of unbridled curiosity from the cautious judgments of reasonable credibility. From the recent Prometheus Mr Franklin, who wanted to disarm the thunder, to the man who wants to put out the fire in the workshop of Vulcanus, all these attempts result in the humiliating reminder that Man can never be other thing a man. .

Victor Frankenstein, who suffered from unbridled curiosity, said something similar:

A human being in perfection must always maintain a calm and peaceful mind… If the study to which you apply yourself tends to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures which no alloy can meddle with, then that The study is certainly illegal, that is, it is not suitable for the human mind.

And also: “Learn from me…how dangerous is the acquisition of knowledge and how much happier is the man who believes that his native city is the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature permits.”

Bottom line: Be careful what knowledge you pursue and how you pursue it. Beware of playing God.

Alas, history reveals the quixotic nature of Shelley’s and Kant’s warnings. There always seems to be a scientist somewhere whose dubious ambitions are given free rein. And beyond that, there is always the problem of the unintended consequences of our discoveries.

Since the days of Shelley, we have created many things that we either fear or hate, such as the atomic bomb, cigarettes and other drugs, chemicals like DDT, etc. And as our powers in the realms of genetics and artificial intelligence grow, we can still create something that hates us.

All of this reminds me of sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson’s relatively recent (2009) remark that “the real problem for humanity is this: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and divine technology.”

Jamie Q Roberts, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.