What Frankenstein teaches us about the dangers of playing God

Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, is an 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

Set in the late 18th century, it follows the creation of life by scientist Victor Frankenstein and the horrific events caused by the abandonment of his creation.

It is a Gothic novel because it combines supernatural elements with horror, death, and an exploration of the darker aspects of the psyche.

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

The Story of Celebrities

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

What Frankenstein teaches us about the dangers of playing God

Shelley was born in 1797. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the landmark A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), was, according to the introduction to that book, “the first great feminist.”

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

When she was 16, Shelley dated the radical poet Percy Shelley, whose Ozymandias (1818) is still regularly quoted (“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”).

Mary Shelley.

Their relationship seems to embody the romantic era itself. It was crossed with outside love interests, illegitimate children, suicides, debt, wonder, and wandering. And that finally ended in 1822 when Percy Shelley drowned, his small boat lost in a storm off the Italian coast.

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

In 1816 the Shelleys visited Switzerland, where they stayed on the shores of Lake Geneva, where they were Byron’s neighbors. As Mary Shelley puts it, they had all read ghost stories, including Coleridge’s Christabel (Coleridge had visited her father at the family home when Shelley was young), when Byron suggested they each write a ghost story. Thus, 18-year-old Shelley Frankenstein began to write.

The myth of the monster

The popular imagination has taken Frankenstein and set to work with it. The monster “Frankenstein”, originally “Frankenstein’s monster”, is as integral to Western culture as the characters and tropes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

But while there is reasonable continuity between Carroll’s Alice and subsequent reinterpretations, much has changed and been lost in the translation of Shelley’s novel into the many versions rooted in the popular imagination.

There have been many adaptations, from Edward Scissorhands to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (see here for a top 20 list of Frankenstein movies). But despite the variety, it’s hard not to see the ‘monster’ as a zombie-like unrelenting threat, as we see in the[trailerofthe1931movieoralogedhazeasseenintheincarnationofHermanMunster[trailertothe1931movieoraluminumfoilfoolasseenintheHermanMunsterincarnation[trailervandefilmuit1931ofeenloggedwaaszoalstezienisindeincarnatievanHermanMunster[trailertothe1931movieoralumberingfoolasseenintheHermanMunsterincarnation

Further, when we add the “Franken” prefix, it is usually with contempt; consider “Frankenfoods,” which refers to genetically modified foods, or “frankenhouses,” which describe modern architectural monstrosities or poor renovations.

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

Some important elements in the plot

The story of Victor Frankenstein is nested in the tale of scientist-explorer Robert Walton. For both men, the search for knowledge is mixed with fanatical ambition.

The novel begins toward the end of the story, with Walton attempting to sail to the North Pole and rescue Frankenstein from the sea ice. Frankenstein is led north by his creation to a final confrontation.

The central moment in the novel is when Frankenstein brings his creation to life but is immediately rejected by it:

I had worked hard for almost two years to bring life into an inanimate body. For this, I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had longed for it with a fervor far beyond moderation, but now that I was done, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.

Victor Frankenstein, like others in the novel, is shocked by the appearance of his creation. He flees the creature, and it disappears. After a two-year hiatus, the beast starts killing people near Frankenstein. And when Frankenstein breaks his promise to create a female mate for his creature, it kills his best 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 novel’s real interest lies not in the murders or the chase but in the creature’s stories of what drove him to murder.

After the creature kills Frankenstein’s little brother, William, Frankenstein seeks solace in the Alps—in the sublime nature. There the beast encounters Frankenstein and tells his story eloquently and poignantly.

We learn that the creature has been living secretly for a year in an outhouse next to a cabin inhabited by the recently impoverished De Lacey family.

When he became aware of himself, the creature reflected, “To be a great and virtuous man seemed the highest honor that can befall a sensitive being”. But he was brutally evicted from them when he finally tried to reveal himself to the family to get their company. The creature was filled with anger. He says: “I could have overwhelmed myself with their screams and misery”. More human than human.

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

“O Frankenstein! Generous and devoted creature! What good is it that I now ask you to forgive me? I, who destroyed you beyond repair by destroying all that you loved.”

The creature then makes several grand and tragic statements to Walton. “My heart was formed to be susceptible to love and sympathy; and when it was torn by misery into vice and hatred, it has not withstood the violence of change, without torture such as you cannot even imagine.’

And shortly after the murder of Frankenstein’s wife, the creature says, “I knew I was preparing a deadly torture for myself; but I was the slave, not the master, of an impulse which I loathed, yet could not disobey.”

These comments encourage us to think about some of the most weighty questions we can ask about the human condition:

What drives people to commit heinous acts? Are human hearts, like the creature’s, fashioned for “love and sympathy,” and when such things are withheld or taken from us, do we try to heal the wound by hurting others? And if so, what is the psychological mechanism by which this happens?

We cannot help but think that the creature remains innocent – that he is the slave, not the master. But what about the rest of us? And what is the relationship between free will and heinous acts?

The rule of law generally blames individuals for their crimes – perhaps this is necessary for a society to function. Yet I suspect that the rule of law is missing something essential. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, pondered such questions thousands of years ago. He asked:

What reasons do we have for being angry with someone? We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’… but what do these words mean? They just mean that people are confused about what is good and bad.

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

Unintended Consequences

Victor Frankenstein creates life only to give it up. An unsympathetic interpretation of Christianity might see something similar in God’s relationship with humanity. Yet the novel does not readily support 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 rather I am the fallen angel, who does not drive you from joy for any crime.” These and other remarks complicate any simplistic interpretation.

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

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

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

There is such a thing as right taste in science, distinguishing the wild extravagances of unbridled curiosity from prudent judgments of good credibility. From the Prometheus of time, Mr. Franklin, who wanted to disarm the thunder, to the man who wants to put out the fire in Vulcan’s workshop, all these efforts result in the humiliating reminder that man can never be more than man.

Victor Frankenstein, who suffered from an unbridled curiosity, says something similar:

A man in perfection should always keep a calm and peaceful mind… If the study you pursue tends to weaken your affections and destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can mix, it is that study is certainly illegitimate; that is, it does not befit the human mind.

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

In short, be careful what knowledge you pursue and how you pursue it. Beware of playing God.

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

Since Shelley’s time, we have created countless things that we fear or loathe, such as the atomic bomb, cigarettes, ather drugs, chemicals such as DDT, aetc And as our genetics and artificial intelligence powers grow, we might be able to create something that abhors us.

It all reminds me of the relatively recent comment by sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson (2009): “The real problem of 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.

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