A tale of Greek mythology about the Titan Prometheus was anonymously published on the first day of 1818. Prometheus’s responsibility for creating man has been taken and rewritten in a modern society setting throughout history. In 1831, Mary Shelley, an English writer, claimed that work. The world now refers to it as the start of science fiction: “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus”.
Victor Frankenstein is the scientist within Shelley’s novel who creates a new life form, known to society as a monster. Throughout “Frankenstein,” Shelley goes back and forth between the voice of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster as narrator, revealing through empathy who the real monster is.
“Frankenstein” celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. Professor, critics and readers alike find its message and story relevant today.
“‘Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change’” shows that Mary Shelley understood at a primal level what ‘horror’ is,” said David Plunkert in response over email. Plunkert is the illustrator of the 200th anniversary cover of Frankenstein.
Who is the Monster?
Allison Harnish, Albion anthropology professor, explained the history behind what a monster has come to be known as in society. Harnish teaches a first-year course on monsters, going through the science and stories that trace monsters throughout social changes in history. She referenced John Carpenter, director of the movie, “Halloween” who said there are two primary monsters: The one out there, beyond society, and the one here, within humans in society.
Throughout history, Harnish said, humans often only considered monsters as things or people that were beyond what they deemed their own civilized society. These are the creatures that lurk out in the forest or are the misfits of society, described throughout stories of being deformed and wicked compared to humans.
“Frankenstein’s monster is a hybrid of the living and the dead, an amalgamation of different human beings,” she said. “He’s big, larger than all the other characters in the story. He can rip people apart with his bare hands, and he often retreats into wild spaces out there, in the forest, the Swiss Alps and the Arctic.”
Harnish, however, also said that through Shelley’s voice, the monster is seen as an intelligent, poetic, and creative creation that longs for human connection.
“Frankenstein is a great example of the shift that we see in monster lore, towards an interrogation of ourselves, and a deep look at the monster inside. That is the more important story” Harnish said, “but it is a harder story to tell.”
Shelley invites her readers to look at the monstrosity that lives inside of their own selves through her character Dr. Frankenstein, who shows true monstrous characteristics. Instead of looking out there for the monster, Shelley brings the audience to look at the monster within society, which requires a critique of not just human beings but the realization that society’s institutions are not at all perfect.
“Shelley’s novel is the interrogation of the capacity of humans to do really terrible things,” said Harnish.
“Frankenstein was written at a time when people were deeply anxious about the explosion of science, the scientific method and what that meant for human relationships and human ethics,” said Ashley Miller, Albion English professor. Miller has the interest in Romantic Literature and she is currently teaching “Frankenstein” through her British Literature 1660-1900 course.
Although society has changed over time, the advancement of knowledge and technology with scientific discoveries has never stopped exceling. When discussing “Frankenstein,” two sides are taken: Whether Shelly praises both science and scientists or denounces them.
Miller thinks that in “Frankenstein,” science comes at the cost of monomania. She said, from Shelley’s view, scientists are not something to be praised because when they are, it is at the cost of human sympathy.
“I think [Shelley] is against advancement without a sense of responsibility,” said Plunkert. “We are still making ‘monsters’ as a result of simply not caring enough.”
Biology professor Doug White is an evolution specialist. He said humans enjoy the products of science and knowledge, and yet they are fearful of not having the chance to find their importance. Seen throughout “Frankenstein” is the concept that the monster is searching for his soul and his meaning in life.
“If the computers start falling in love, we are in jeopardy,” said White.
Harnish said monsters are often used as metaphors to understand society. Using monsters as a lens into social anxiety is one way of looking at the presence of monsters today. Monsters are the manifestation of society’s fears and anxiety. For example, zombies can be used to show society’s fear of super viruses and how they could possibly wipe out an entire species.
“Monster lure has the capacity to force people to do really monstrous stuff,” said Harnish. Monsters are real in the sense that, as a society, humans dehumanize those opposing them in order to justify their actions, she said.
Shelly brings about the idea of moral monstrosity, Harnish continued. We can come to empathize more readily with Frankenstein’s monster if only we are able to understand our own monstrosity. Monsters are not born, but created.
“‘If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!’ is a good quote for society to learn to love their monsters,” said Plunkert of a “Frankenstein” passage.
Harnish thinks that society has forgotten a lesson Shelley taught through Frankenstein 200 years ago. The emphasis on science or technology has shifted in time to the emphasis on political and social systems.The fear that is portrayed through today’s novels and movies is not so much the fear of an outside monster, nor the fear of the monster inside, but more the distrust of authority.
“Frankenstein” has no trace of an authoritarian government, and yet something has happened in between Shelley’s time and now to change what society views as monsters.
Who do you think the real monster is in “Frankenstein” and in society? Find an event or reading near you to learn more about Frankenstein! Kellogg Community College’s Emory Morris Library is wrapping up Frankenweek over in Battle Creek this week.