Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
Frankenstein is one of those stories that everyone knows, even if you haven’t read it. Except once you do read it, you realize that the version in the popular imagination has little to do with Mary Shelley’s actual creation. There, you will find no mad scientists robbing graves for body parts; no lightning striking a ruined castle to the sound of cackling laughter; no grinning henchmen or spark-emitting machines. Shelley’s vision is much subtler and more psychologically astute than that. Though there are dramatic external events, of course, what’s really interesting is what is going on inside Frankenstein and his monstrous “child,” the ways in which they mirror one another, and their tragic inability to connect.
To get into this story that everybody knows (but doesn’t), you have to first wade through all the narrative layers in which Shelley has wrapped it. An explorer trying to reach the North Pole — which at the time was thought to be a sort of Earthly Paradise, warm and fertile if one could just get through the ice — writes letters to his sister, in which he describes how he has picked up a dying man, found in pursuit of a strange figure who eludes him and races off across the ice. This is Victor Frankenstein, who proceeds to explain how he created and then resolved to destroy this being (who, in another layer, also gets to tell some of his own story).
It’s a cumbersome and roundabout way of getting at a tale that could seemingly be told in a more straightforward way, but it also reflects one of the main themes: the loneliness and isolation that keep us from one another, the way we are “wrapped up” in our own ideas and ambitions. To break through this icy covering would require a leap of imagination and empathy that Frankenstein, groundbreaking scientist though he is, is tragically never able to make.
Once he has brought his creature to life (in a way that, in contrast to the dramatized versions, is left vague and unexplained), he takes one look at it and is unutterably repelled. He simply wants to ignore it, to pretend it doesn’t exist. Until he nears the end of his journey, he doesn’t speak about it, doesn’t even want to think about it. Out of sight, out of mind, he thinks — a very human, yet very ineffective response to an overwhelming situation.
He does not tell anyone what he has done, even once he becomes convinced that the creature has begun to murder his friends and relations. Isn’t this because, frozen by his own egotism, he is unable to take responsibility and own what he has done, what he is? He says he fears that people will think him mad, but he is worse than that. When the “monster” kills and destroys, he is only doing outwardly what his creator is doing inwardly. This brilliant thinker with stunted emotions is unable to live up morally to what he has achieved intellectually.
His nameless creation, meanwhile, states that he simply wants to be loved, to find connection in a world that repels him at every turn. His rage and vengefulness is a reflection of how he has been treated, an externalized representation of Frankenstein’s own inability to love and to create true, living connections. Even when Frankenstein decides to marry, it’s to an adopted sister whom he has known from childhood, who does not threaten him with unfamiliar ideas or perceptions. He speaks of her in terms of ownership, as one who belongs to him by right. To him, she is a thing, not a person, just like the being he has created and then run away from in terror.
And so, it’s inevitable that the Frankenstein-monster should destroy this marriage. No human being who has never confronted the demons within himself, who has never humbly confessed his weaknesses and woken to the independent reality of the other person, can enter into the true marriage of opposites.
In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein dies without ever coming to this recognition, but the explorer who has embraced him as a friend — and his surrogate, the reader — may have a chance to go further. As he turns his ship back from the ice to save his crew, there is a hope that he (and we) might have learned something about relationships, about love, about realms that purely cold, heartless research will never attain — but which we must pursue in the service of a truly human future.