Thursday, September 29, 2016

Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley

Mary Shelly is a pioneer and legendary writer. Some argue that she wrote the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein. Her father was a famous writer, as was her husband. However, I think it likely that she is today the most famous of them, and her work is seminal to the great genre that is science fiction. She wrote at a time when women often used pen names to hide their femininity. I think this made her something of a feminist.

A common theme among many science fiction stories is the idea that too much science is a bad thing. While in fiction she may be the first to describe the consequences of too much science, certainly there are many real life examples in history where a scientist has suffered for his science. “... if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the emperor of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.” However, I would lay the blame of this at the feet of religious intolerance rather than the pursuit of science. I think, rather, that science is a vehicle for significant change, and change frightens most people.

Consequence of too much study: “Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree; the fall of a leaf startled me, and I shunned my fellow creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime.”

A part of the narrative includes a description of superficial prejudice, which will come up several times throughout the book. For instance, “No mortal could support the horror of that countenance.”

The mad laughter of the mad scientist, “...he saw a wildness in my eyes for which he could not account, and my loud unrestrained, heartless laughter frightened and astonished him.” I can't help but wonder if Victor Frankenstein was the first mad scientist. What a brilliant invention of character Shelley created! I don't know how those critics could not recognize her genius.

The monster with no name observes a family and becomes a member without their knowledge. Through observation and study in less than a year he has aquired the ability to read, speak, and even write. One of the books which he reads is Milton's Paradise Lost, which is quite an advanced piece of literature.

He eventually seeks them to know him. But they fear him because of his appearance. He runs away and finds Frankenstein's village. He meets and kills the younger brother and frames a close servant (like family... but a kind of slave, too) who is later tried, found guilty, and then executed for his crime.

The monster demands of Victor that he build a female like him that he might love her. On the brinkin of doing so, Victor realizes that creating a female may as likely result in a new terror. Further, and more importantly, they may be able to procreate, creating a race of monsters. This is something he refuses to allow regardless of the consequences that the monster can bring about in his life.

In the beginning of the novel, the monster is only good in his thoughts. It is only through the treatment from others who judge him by his appearance that anger, rage, and the desire to do evil overtake him. Of course, his supernatural strength, intelligence, and iron will, which make him dangerous. Imagine the maturity of a toddler in the body of a creature with super human strength and intelligence. The monster's revenge is completed against his wife on their day of marriage (Victor expected the monster to kill him, not his new wife). His father dies soon after from grief.

Let the cursed and hellish monster drink deep of agony; let him feel the despair that now torments me.” Victor says this at the burial grounds of his beloved. However, it was the monster's wish to share his agony with his creator, to which end he succeeded. Perhaps, though, the monster can never know the pain of losing loved ones since he never knew love.

Victor pursues the monster. The monster could have turned around and killed Victor, I am sure. However, this hunt is more than that: it is a torment for Victor rather than the monster. The monster writes in a note left for Victor, “Come on, my enemy; we have yet to wrestle for our lives, but many hard and miserable hours must you endure until that period shall arrive.”

Had Victor spent time with his creation in kindness, perhaps he would still have had everything. To Victor's credit, as he lays on his death bed aboard the ship, he owns to what he should have done to avoid the tragedies, “In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being... but... my duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention...”

In the finale of the book, Frankenstein's monster mourns his creator's death and seeks forgiveness before leaving.

Ultimately, this is a story about prejudice. Evil came not from his heart, but rather the misfortune of Frankenstein's monster's hideous artifice. What he created outwardly ugly was inwardly beautiful until perverted by the outwardly beautiful, but inwardly superficial prejudice.

The monster could have been a great man due to his super human abilities. However, he was unfortunate in being unable to find anyone.

This book is necessary reading, I think, for anyone interested in science fiction. It is hard to believe I have waited so long to finally get around to it. But, to be fair, the sentimentality of much of it is a little wearying. I read around a bit online to see what others thought of this book.

Wikipedia quotes Brian Aldiss who wrote, “(Frankenstein) should be considered the first true science fiction story because, in contrast to previous stories with fantastical elements resembling those of later science fiction, the central character 'makes a deliberate decision' and 'turns to modern experiments in the laboratory' to achieve fantastic results.'”

Regardless of her amazing achievements in this seminal work of literature, the British critic wrote, “The writer of it is , we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.” Few authoresses, to use the word of the critic, at that time, would dare to use their own names. Often, they chose male pen names in order to find an audience which did not judge based on the gender of the writer. For this reason, I think that Shelley is also worthy of outstanding merit for being a feminist well ahead of her time. She was the daughter and wife of two very famous writers of her time. However, while those of us deep into literary study or reading may recognize their names, Mary Shelley's character, Frankenstein, and the basic outline of that narrative, is globally well known nearly two centuries after she wrote it.

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