Book Review: Frankenstein

frankenstein book photo

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Photo by CalamityJon

This year marks the 200th anniversary of one of my favorite books – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Actually, its full title is Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. And that is a good reminder that this novel is really about Frankenstein the man, not about his creation. Frankenstein is the one who steals from the gods (God?) the ability to create life from that which is lifeless. And, as long as we are clearing up misconceptions, the novel is not about re-animating the dead, as is often popularly shown in the movies, but about the formation of a new being from parts that were not necessarily even human. Early in the narration of his creation, Frankenstein says, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent nations would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (61,62). This last sentence in particular is full of dark foreboding because gratitude is an emotion which his creation never feels.

And that is perhaps the thing which I think is most interesting in the book; not Frankenstein himself, or even the monster, but the implications of what it means for a creator to make a creation. In my mind, this is the central psychological drama of the book, mirroring another work which undergirds the whole of the drama of Shelley’s book – Milton’s Paradise Lost. Shelley’s creative genius, like that of Milton before her, is focused not on the creator, but the creature. Milton’s great rhetorical genius is focused on Satan, and while his Puritan heritage cannot make Satan the hero of the epic poem, he can make him what the medieval heritage would never do – Satan can become a complex mind whose rebellion against God is so complete that he wages war against his creator. Even Luther was more medieval than Milton; Luther reminds us in his great hymn that Satan knows his doom is sure. Milton gives Satan much more ambiguous knowledge of his supposed end, even to the point where he denies that reality. Frankenstein’s monster, unlike Satan, outlives his creator and in many ways is superior not only to his creator, but to the whole race of man. But perhaps this is straying too far too early.

For me, the most interesting part of the story is not the creation of the monster; that is, perhaps understandingly, a relatively empty void in the story since it cannot actually be done. The only hint that Shelley gives us is the concept of galvanism. We only know that Frankenstein discovered what the ancient alchemists only dreamed about – he discovered the key to unlock the movement from non-living to living. The philosopher’s stone was popularized by J.K. Rowling, but it is really a very ancient idea. And it is not merely the creation of life, but of rationality. Frankenstein’s creation would be able to join Descartes in declaring – I think, therefore I know I have existence. Frankenstein, as the modern Prometheus, does not merely bring the ability to create life, but soul and consciousness.

The other background characters from both Milton and the book of Genesis, are Adam and Eve. Shelley is working through the ideas of what it means to live in a post-lapsis world. Why is man the way he is? We simply need to look to his movement from immaculate to fallen creature. And it is not just the world as it is now, but what if we could interview Adam and Eve after they had fallen. Would they be able to recount for us their own psychological movement from saint to sinner? Would Adam be able to know himself as being in some way different from what he was now that he has fallen? Genesis is of course silent, but both Milton and Shelley create intelligent beings who not only know that they have sinned but can remember what they were like before and are intelligent enough to know what has changed. Shelley’s monster knows what it is like to live both in and East of Eden.

These issues occupy most of the book, at least obliquely. However, the most significant is the Monster’s recounting of his own history to his creator; a recasting of the Adamic narrative in the first person from his first dim memory of his first breath to his knowledge of himself as an evil being. This is, in my mind, one of Shelley’s most ingenious passages, and is what makes the novel one of the great pieces of English literature in the 19th Century. It is to this personal narrative that I would like to devote the rest of my time/space.

Beginning in Chapter XI, Shelley imagines the story of the Monster and his first awakening in a way that seems very much like what a child would go through in the first months after her birth. This “child,” however, is fully formed, and 8 feet tall, but his newly created brain still takes time to develop. His first images are dim and cloudy; his sensations are a blur, but still they drive him, much like a newborn does not know that she is hungry, but does know that she is in pain. His first interactions with people awaken in him the fight or flight reflex when he is pelted with rocks. But his reaction is much like you would think of a toddler: he holds up his arms, closes his eyes and runs. The learning of language is much as you would expect; he learns through the process of naming of concrete things and learning to differentiate these concrete realities through the symbols associated with them. Only instead of a parent teaching the fundamental structure of language, he has to learn it in secret, watching a family as they interact with one another. It is through this erstwhile family, whom he “adopts” as his own, that he learns the realities of family life and what it means to both love and be loved. But since he learns only through veil of secret observation, this creates in him a longing for what he cannot have: relationship. He can only ever be the secret member of the family for he has seen himself in the reflection of the water and he knows who and what he is; he is a monster to be shunned by all, even his creator.

paradise lost milton photo

Image taken from page 44 of The Poetical Works of John Milton. Containing Paradise Lost. Paradise Regained. Samson Agonistes, and his Poems on several occasions. Together with explanatory notes on each book of the Paradise Lost [by P. H., i.e. Patrick Hu]. Photo by The British Library

It is the Monster’s discovery of Paradise Lost in an old abandoned suitcase which provides the central comparison of the book. Like Adam, the Monster understands himself as a unique being among all other beings. The first of his kind, he sees no one in all the world (admittedly a very limited view of the world) who is like him. And this is the problem; Adam was created beautiful, so he could be loved. Adam lived in a world which was created for him to provide for him that which is necessary for life. Adam, upon God’s acknowledgement of his status as unique, has a fit companion created which is like him. The Monster, however, must lament to his creator, “…but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors [the family he secretly observes], the bitter gall of my envy rose within me” (170). As he contemplates his likeness to Adam and Satan, he discovers papers which reveal the name and circumstances of his creator. He responds with a Job-like lament, “Hateful day when I received life! Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred” (171).

This then becomes the central tension of the book. Does Frankenstein, as his creator, not owe his creation some measure of fulfillment of his being? Should he not give something to his creation to help him become more than this wretched being? What if instead of running away, Frankenstein had stayed to help nurture his creation? If man is truly a social being, as says Aristotle, would a being made in man’s image not also need society? And thus, the monster, deprived of all social interaction, hounded and feared simply for his size and visage, seeks revenge on his creator for his being unable to fulfill the longings of his heart. He meets with his creator and asks of him a companion – an Eve – like himself, hideous, and together they will seek the happiness which is available to them. But, in a god-like fashion, Frankenstein finally begins to envision a world which is populated with the beings which he has created; beings which are superior in strength, intellect, and are – at least in Frankenstein’s mind – only vicious. He believes, though we are left wondering why he thinks this, that he has created a being which is incapable of virtue. On the other side, the monster insists that vice is only open to him because society leaves him no choice. “If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion; the love of another will destroy the cause of my crimes… My vices are the children of forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal” (195). Imagine Adam having to convince God that he would be better with an Eve.

In an effort not to reveal too much of the story, I will only add that when Frankenstein ultimately refuses, the monster seeks to fulfill his promise. But this is the point – mankind, like Frankenstein, is seeking to control his world in the beginning of the 19th Century, and this becomes the motif of the next 150 years. Man makes his life better, but this comes with a cost. Can man create something which might destroy him? In the 20th Century, the answer became yes with the advent of massive nuclear arsenals. Human beings had become our own Frankenstian monsters. If there is a moral to this tale it is that simply because man can, does not mean that he should.

In many ways, Frankenstein is the precursor to the great 20th Century science fictions in which mankind must live in the world he has created. Frankenstein made a monster; one which was superior in many ways to his creator. But the monster, as a rational being, was uncontrollable and moved from virtue to vice. And like God, Frankenstein was left with a creation which needs redemption, but man could not unopen Pandora’s box. In contrast to the limited abilities of Frankenstein, God could become one of his creatures to remake that which was marred and open the way to grace. Frankenstein’s monster instead of receiving grace, only receives hatred and vengeance. We, unlike the monster, have received grace; the Word was made flesh, and through Him, we have been recreated. No longer cast out, the door has been opened and we are invited in to hearth of the family of God. Frankenstein ends with the death of the creator; our creators dies, but that is not the end, it is the beginning of the unlovely being remade.


Editor’s Note: For additional exploration of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus, give prayerful consideration not only to Andy Walsh‘s Science Corner: Lightning in a Novel, but also to Andy’s next science post (10/31/2018). Thank-you Michael and Andy! Great to have you both part of the team during the 200th anniversary year of Frankenstein. To God be the glory! ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network

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mikstell@gmail.com'

Michael J. Stell, MATS

I am a PhD student in theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. I am studying the theology of John Williamson Nevin, who taught in the seminary of the German Reformed Church in America in the mid-nineteenth century. He was also the president of Franklin and Marshall College and a friend to James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States. I am currently a teaching fellow at CUA, teaching undergraduate theology and Church History classes. My goal is to teach at a college or university after completing my degree program. I am also the current vice-president of the graduate student association at CUA. Before life as a grad student (if that were an acronym it would be BLaaGS) I was a teacher and principal in secondary education at various Christian schools in the Northeast. My family and I currently live in Hagerstown, MD.

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    Finna Yeet commented on October 26, 2018 Reply

    Beautiful review 10/10. I would give this an 11/10 but the mOnsTeR wAS mAde bEAutIFul – Simple Man
    Michael J. Stell truly has a way with words to make you really feel the emotion and grasp the deeper meanings within the book I recommend him to all the people in my book club -Saucy Hipster

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