Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being" Mary Shelley versus Jehovah

Mary Shelley's short novel Frankenstein is less about monsters than it is about gods. Shelley gave her novel the subtitle "A Modern Prometheus," and certainly young Victor Frankenstein creates a man and steals fire (the spark of life) to bring his man into being. Certainly, also, Frankenstein is punished for his hubris, although the means of his punishment is his own creation rather than an agent of the gods. And that's where things get interesting and confused.

Frankenstein claims to be a reworking of the Prometheus myth, but it's closer in spirit and in content to Paradise Lost, or perhaps the Book of Job and the Book of Genesis. The story is not of a man who betrays the gods and is therefore punished. The story is of a god who betrays his creation. Frankenstein (that is to say, Mary Shelley) indirectly questions what obligations God has to Adam (and the rest of us descendants of Adam). I will illustrate this with excerpts from Chapter 10, where Frankenstein speaks to his monster for the first time. The narrator of these passages is Frankenstein.

"Devil," I exclaimed, "do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust! And, oh! That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!"

Note if you will the tone of chastisement Frankenstein uses with his monster. This is very like the Old Testament Jehovah. Note also, however, the impotence of the rage and the emptiness of the threats. Frankenstein is a small sickly man, while the monster is a giant who could easily crush his maker.

"I expected this reception," said the daemon. "All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends."

There is also a thread of the theme of youthful mistakes coming back to haunt us later that runs through the narrative. Possibly Shelley is thinking of a bastard child who confronts his father, the child being a hated thing, dehumanized in the eyes of the father. Frankenstein's building of the monster is more or less something he does in college, a brief obsession while he's studying chemistry and natural philosophy. It's all about the idea, the the science behind it all, for Frankenstein. He never stops to consider that he's actually creating a living being who will continue past the conclusion of his experiment. But the monster is living that continued life, and demands his due. "Do your duty towards me." The monster says more:

"I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

Happiness, then. Does God owe us happiness, since He created us? Shelley would imply, maybe, that God owes us something, but is indifferent to our suffering. If Frankenstein is any kind of allegory, then I think we are meant to side with the monster against our indifferent God, who makes us and then looses us into the world naked and in pain. God could alleviate our suffering and give us dignity, but He does not. Mary Shelley is an angry author, an angry 19 year-old woman.

Frankenstein, the maker of life, has no idea how to respond to his creation.

"You have left me no power to consider whether I am just to you or not. Begone! Relieve me from the sight of your detested form."

"Thus I relieve thee, my creator," he said, and placed his hated hands before my eyes.

It is a certainty that I am as usual late to the party, and that all of this has been observed many times before, and put much better by many previous writers. But this is what I got. It's a pretty good book, is what I'm telling you.


  1. It is one of the most idea-rich books of its century, isn't it? I wrote a piece once upon a time that questioned and minimized the actual idea content of science fiction. I was excepting Frankenstein!

  2. Frankenstein certainly seems to have an unusually large capacity for absorbing different interpretations. Every time I think I've heard what surely must be the last of them, someone seems to come up with something startling.

  3. Yeah, it's wonderfully dense and resists attempts at reduction. No wonder people keep talking about it, digging away at it. There are all sorts of weird ideas about the isolation of the individual and the isolation of God, and strange things about nature and man's place in it. I have no idea how I've managed to avoid reading this book for so long.

  4. One of my favorite books of all time. I think I've read it about six times now. :)

  5. I can absolutely see that in your own writing.