Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: a cautionary tale

James Franklin
Chicago, Illinois, United States

Mary Shelley

2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. This remarkable work of fiction has inspired a wealth of popular currency in the form of numerous cinematic productions which have grossly distorted the public understanding of the work and obscured its literary and philosophic underpinning. It is well worth returning to the published text to understand the message that this complex work offers our era of unprecedented advances in the biologic sciences and our understanding of humanity.

One example is the 2018 report of the Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, who used the gene-editing technique of CRISPR to alter the DNA of two embryos which he then implanted in the womb of a woman who gave birth to twin girls.1 The procedure was performed without recognized academic or bioethical oversight and was widely condemned. A similar series of events has led to the possibility of mitochondrial replacement therapy by exchanging the cytoplasm of ova destined for in vitro fertilization. During the 1990s these techniques evolved from the exchange of cytoplasm of ova and has resulted in perhaps a dozen children born with a mixture of mitochondrial DNA that will be passed on to their progeny.2

The genesis of Mary Shelley’s novel begins during the summer of 1816 when stormy weather confined a group of Romantic era expatriate English poets residing on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland. The party included: Percy Bysshe Shelley, his mistress whom he would ultimately marry, the eighteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Lord Byron and his mistress Claire Claremont, Mary Shelley’s half-sister, and Byron’s physician J.W Polidori. Having amused themselves by the reading of ghost stories, Lord Byron proposed that they all try their hand at producing a “ghost story.” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818, was unequivocally the most notable work to emerge from this innocent contest.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The novel is constructed in a series of nested epistolary tales. First there is Captain Robert Walton, who writes his sister in England from Archangel of his dangerous quest to find the mythical Hyperborea, a mythical land beyond the most northerly mountains in the Arctic where there exists an Edenic world. The second narrative is that of Victor Frankenstein, whose life story he tells to Walton after he is rescued in the Arctic sea by Walton and his crew. Frankenstein, born in Geneva, tells how, having discovered the principle of life while a student at the University of Ingolstadt, he created a living creature from parts of cadavers. The third narrative is that of the creature who confronts Frankenstein in a remote alpine wilderness and relates the story of his awareness of his hideous appearance, his remarkable education, his rejection by mankind, and how he turns to violence.3 The creature demands that Frankenstein make him a female companion, an option Frankenstein ultimately rejects fearing that he will engender a new race bent on the destruction of mankind. In Captain Walton’s final narrative, he learns from both the creature and from Frankenstein’s story the futility of pursuing his unreasonable quest without the support of community and turns his ship south in keeping with the demands of his crew.

The novel is remarkable in its broad literary and philosophic underpinning. Its subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, refers to the Titan who is credited with creating man out clay and defying the gods by stealing fire and giving it to man. The epigraph is from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me? —  

This epigraph is highlighted in the dialogue between the creature and Victor Frankenstein that takes place in the rugged mountain wilderness of the Alps. One can envision a confrontation between a modern scientist and the flawed result of an ill-advised experiment. A similar warning may be read in the passages when Victor Frankenstein reflects that if he honors his commitment to create a female companion for the creature, he may create a new race that could destroy mankind.

Mary Shelley could not have conceived of the advances we have witnessed in reproductive science when she first composed her novel. She did make alterations in the 1831 text, adding passages in which Frankenstein expresses religious remorse for making a creature.4

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein invites reinterpretation; there are elements of the Faust Legend, the work is viewed as proto-science fiction, as a religious parable, but of all it may be perceived as a cautionary tale in our modern era of science.

 

References

  1. China Halts the Work of Scientist Who Says He Edited Babies Genes, Sui-Lee Wee, The New York Times November 29, 2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/29/science/gene-editing-babies-china.html).
  2. Genetically Modified People Are Walking Among Us, Carl Zimmer, The New York Times, December 1, 2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/01/sunday-review/crispr-china-babies-gene-editing.html).
  3. It is a common misconception that the creature is named “Frankenstein.” In the novel, Mary Shelly refers to Frankenstein’s creation as “creature,” “my enemy,” or “fiend.”
  4. Frankenstein and Radical Science, Marilyn Butler, from Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, edited by J. Paul Hunter, A Norton Critical Edition, 1996, p.302.

 


 

JAMES L. FRANKLIN is a gastroenterologist and associate professor emeritus at Rush University Medical Center. He also serves on the editorial board of Hektoen International and as the president of Hektoen’s Society of Medical History & Humanities.

 

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 11, Issue 4 – Fall 2019
Winter 2019  |  Sections  |  Books & Reviews