By Leah Dillon, ’24
Classic literature and science fiction are, to the inattentive critic, genres which seldom collide. And why would they? Classic lit is, to many, stuffy and overburdened with words, antiquated and boring to anyone with a social life. Science fiction presents itself as the opposite; it’s the storytelling of the future, full of ideas and potential. But what if those assessments are inaccurate? As hard as it might be to believe, a novel published in 1818 provides a vision of the future that remains cutting edge, still relevant today in its precautionary message. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tells the repeating tale of human error, of our tendency to extend ourselves further than we should, to mess with forces that we seldom understand in pursuit of selfish ambition. While many are familiar with the premise of a doctor and his pursuit of creating life, much of the pop cultural reception of Frankenstein is skewed, dramatized for the sake of marketing. Not once in the novel was the iconic line “It’s alive!” uttered, and few know that Frankenstein was the doctor, the real monster, while his creature was the unwitting victim. Through an exploration of the original source material, we can discover truths about today’s iteration of sci-fi and the nature of entertainment, as well as commentary about the relentless world that we live in.
Mary Shelley grew up at the precipice of a new century, in a household fraught with enlightened ideas and conflict alike. Her mother, Mary Wollenstonecraft, was largely credited with the conception of feminist literature with her writing of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and her father, too, was a radical thinker, giving the young Mary Shelley a hefty legacy to live up to. Though she never met her mother, who died just a few days after Shelley’s birth, it is evident through her writing and personal diary excerpts that her mother’s writing and ideas largely influenced her view of the world. Her mother’s writings inspired her to be fiercely independent, advocating for her own ideas and following her passions (namely, a married man), regardless of any pushback. These vividly independent ideas were conceived amidst a rapidly changing time period; in her lifespan, she viewed civil wars across the ocean and right next door, human rights movements aplenty (such as the one heralded by her mother), and radical change across the world. Countries colonized, and peoples were colonized, and those people rose up in rebellion. Corporations grew, economies boomed, and a working class languished. Individuals grew in power, and continued to grow. While Shelley saw herself as a reformer, far removed from her parents’ radicalism, her ideas still largely challenged the society that she lived in, as well as our society today. The trajectory of her life and the rapidly changing conditions of her world painted the backdrop of Frankenstein’s precautionary tale, which ultimately warns us about the pitfalls of individual ambition gone too far.
Beyond fitting into the framework of her time and challenging the ideas they perpetuated, however, the ideas behind Frankenstein remain cutting edge today.
Prior to Frankenstein’s publication in 1818, science fiction did not formally exist as a genre. While it wasn’t unheard of to use the supernatural to ruminate on the natural circumstances which surround us, often through the lens of ancient Greek gods, fairies and ghosts, the merging of the supernatural with the scientific wasn’t as explored. Frankenstein changes this entirely. The story was largely inspired by the ideas of alchemy, a subject which blurs the scientific and the mythical. Alchemists sought to turn base metals to gold, to make an elixir of immortality and a philosopher’s stone, and most notably, to create new life from scratch. While these ideas are unfounded and ridiculous today, alchemy as a concept surfaced before most scientific processes and before the major sciences that we recognize today; we now view alchemy as the forerunner to chemistry. It was alchemy which drove scientists across the globe, and thus, Frankenstein’s story is framed.
Frankenstein follows the story of a young doctor, Victor Frankenstein, and his feverish pursuit of alchemy, his fascination with the mechanics of life and death. Ultimately, these special interests of his culminate in the creation of a creature, called simply “The Creature” or “The Being” (notably, not Frankenstein, as most movie adaptations would have you believe). The being was sewn together from a sundry mix of detached limbs and decaying body parts, selected from the most beautiful corpses that Frankenstein could find. “His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!” Shelley wrote. But as soon as The Being was reanimated, Frankenstein changed his mind about his beauty, and fled for the hills, hoping to never see the thing again. From here, the narrative unravels, revealing the real crux of the story, the conflict between a parent and his abandoned child, of the scientist and the monster he created. The Creature, who learned love from observing families, wants only for Frankenstein to love him despite his abhorrent appearance. Still, Frankenstein is overcome with disgust, and he rejects his creation once more. What follows are a series of injustices and a cycle of revenge that doesn’t end until both parties are in the grave.
Upon publication, Frankenstein was an immediate hit. From its unique framing device of being narrated through letters, to the brand-new genre of science fiction, to the unique ideas about ambition and natural human limits, Frankenstein was a breath of fresh air to the publishing industry, a far-cry from its contemporaries. Above all else, it challenged nearly all of the predominant political ideas of the time it was published. Victor Frankenstein’s downfall at the hands of human ambition greatly contrasted with the popular notions of expansion and growth; the idea that nature and the world at large are ours to take, that the strong should overtake the weak, that we should continue to take, to grow, to expand. The idea that we’ve surpassed mother nature in the act of gaining sentience, as if we aren’t a part of the animal kingdom ourselves, destined to die and feed the soil. Frankenstein asserts the opposite; it says that nature has a wisdom that humans weren’t meant to try to replicate. It says that we have a place to honor in the cycle of life, and everyone suffers if we don’t. It says that we, human beings, are limited, and that is okay. Victor Frankenstein is a lesson in himself, the cautionary tale of the novel. We aren’t meant to emulate Frankenstein; and yet, disturbingly, that seems to be the current trajectory of the human race, and it doesn’t seem to be changing.
Pop culture has failed to adapt this book in a way that does the story and its messages justice, eschewing the more psychological fear of one’s own progeny and the evil in human nature for the much-shallower monster-horror present in most film adaptations. Frankenstein loses its soul to the modern media lens. And why wouldn’t it? A message about the limits of humanity’s ability to achieve, and the danger of the pursuit of greatness, is the exact opposite of marketable. It’s important to understand that so much of what we consume is dictated by our other consumption. Businesses and corporations who want to sell us our lives, entertainment included, for their own exponential growth, don’t benefit from a story telling us the danger of that level of ambition. Thus, the reconfiguration of Frankenstein’s story commences. The monster is called Frankenstein, not the doctor. Iconic and easily quotable lines like “It’s alive!” are interjected. The beautiful features sewn together to make something less beautiful are thrown away and Frankenstein becomes a symbol, a mask you can buy for Halloween. Thus is the engineering of Sci-Fi. No longer can we see the fears of our own nature. Instead, we observe the next biggest monster, fitted with more spikes and teeth and scales, or the next bit of cutting edge-technology, first imagined onscreen, then perhaps produced in our world. The message of Frankenstein becomes eroded and unreadable, when it is as relevant as it ever has been.
We see the consequences of Frankenstein play out every single day. Greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, pumped there from the newest, fastest car they can make. Conglomerate corporations buying out their competitors, until every last dollar of yours is spent on only them (looking at you, Disney.) The cancer cells of one woman, Henrietta Lacks, taken from her without her knowledge or consent and being experimented on, and becoming a multi-billion dollar business for doctors and researchers, all the while her family doesn’t see a dime of that fortune. Now, more than ever, we humans step out of place and mess with things bigger than our understanding, making consequences bigger than our understanding. For what? Progress that hurts us more in the long run? An earth so advanced that it becomes unlivable? The decline of humans and mother nature alike? This isn’t progress. Such extreme ambitions, the want for such severe control, is not progress. Progress is learning to work with mother nature, to improve within our human bounds so that members of our own species prosper before we work on the next big advancement, or the next big buck. Progress is the understanding that one person or group of people should never be that powerful, as power corrupts. Mary Shelley knew this, and she warned us. Now, we are just beginning to live out its consequences.
Classic literature is called classic because, despite its age, it tells us universal truths about the human condition. Frankenstein is among these timeless truths; it’s our job to listen. Though classic literature might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, it’s certainly not antiquated, and remains valuable through the lessons it shares, the ideas it pioneers. The work of the past tells us the truths of our future, without the added lens of marketability. If only more people were willing to look to the past to understand our future, then maybe we would be better equipped to escape Frankenstein’s fate, and our own reality wouldn’t become such a precautionary tale.
featured image: https://www.hcpl.net/blog/2022/06/six-ways-frankensteins-creature-surprised-me