The Romantic Age has been defined and understood as existing in stark opposition with the Enlightenment pursuits of seeking to rationalize and define scientifically all elements of nature. Writing in the midst of this cultural fascination with human emotion and experience of natural sensations and artistic ingenuity so great as to prompt horror, wonder, and awe, Mary Shelley confronts the reader with a morbidly fascinating fiction.
Frankenstein is chilling because the subject matter at hand covers such things as human nature, concupiscence, the veiled hope for salvation outside of horrible misjudgment, and the shattering realities of lost innocence and human pride.
A zealous explorer driven by a seemingly insatiable (albeit very human) desire for knowledge and discovery is relayed a horrific account by a once-prominent and talented doctor who pushed the limits of scientific advancement too far. Creating artificial life outside of the womb and without the blessing of God, Victor Frankenstein’s achievement is a living heap of fleshy components that formed a composite, nameless monster.
The young Frankenstein’s earliest ardent attempts at acquiring knowledge of nature and the world were investigated in, “gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to [him]” (Frankenstein, 18). Tossing off the outdated scientific alchemical masters, the promising scientist had everything to gain in the way of knowledge and personal contribution to the medical sciences. Only when his desire to understand life by necessarily studying the corruption of the human body turned eerily towards artificial creation and animation of a distinctive life form did Frankenstein identify with horror.
Just as in the work Paradise Lost, read by Shelley and her created monster both, Frankenstein moralizes that while pursuits of knowledge are necessary, not all knowledge is good; perhaps suggesting that certain discoveries beyond human understanding will only yield horrific outcomes. Shelley builds upon the works of great literary thinkers who preceded her, and all the while counters the perspectives of her father and husband. Her father, a preacher turned atheist, and her husband who likewise wrote treatises on the “necessity of atheism” believed in the perfectibility and progress of humanity independent of faith; Shelley emphasized the importance of human limitation and divine law.
While initially prejudiced by the base circumstances in which the monster was created, not out of love but in, “employment loathsome in itself, but which had taken an irresistible hold” the reader is expected to later empathize with the being conditioned unto vice.
Echoing some of her radical feminist mother’s sentiments in regards to the importance of women in society, Shelley’s monster was not created through the natural intended process of birth from the womb of a woman, but rather artificially in some “spark”. This monster, not born but animated by a mortal creator was not even afforded a name, although he later references himself as an Adam, of sorts. The monster is the damned progeny of a human but is of a macabre race with no connection to society, abandoned from “birth”, and forced to make his way in isolation (Frankenstein, 33).
The Bible accounts the creator as saying, “It is not good for man to be alone”. While the monster lives in forced isolation, at least he “discovers himself” and reacts to the world with wonder and awe. Even as he steals from the first hut he encounters, and “greedily devoured the remnants of the shepherd’s breakfast, which consisted of bread, cheese, milk and wine” it is written that he does not care for the taste of wine. This is perhaps an illusion to the initial virtue of this “noble savage”, as wine often suggests frenzied emotions and passions unrestrained by reason (Frankenstein,73).
This monster, with no real connection to the institutions of society, is essentially rational—after being afforded certain knowledge of the spiritual, emotional, and civic realities contained in the books found in an abandoned satchel in the forest. He muses to himself that, “To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honor that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation” (Frankenstein,84). Despite his beautifully cultivated temperance, the monster becomes truly evil and falls into vice, upon abandonment and lack of compassion.
It cannot really be argued that the monster was guilty of murder and chaos but still possessed free will and therefore the responsibility to moral law for he is not human, and therefore not bound by human constraints (although he must still be analyzed by the reader in terms of human morality). The more prominent concerns seem to be the natural order, social influence, and (perhaps more subtly the absence of the female in Frankenstein’s superhuman).
Paralleled with the fall of Lucifer, yet still described often in terms of nobility, Shelley possibly hoped to present his true duality. The “monster” could have been good, as humanity can be good. The creature daemonized and ultimately turned into a hideous creature full of murderous rage at being spurned by his creator could have been capable of great things. Instead, Frankenstein’s insatiable quest for glory and knowledge beyond the confines of natural order created evil. The Satan archetype is embodied in Frankenstein, most of all (although the monster also bears certain similarities). It is his unholy pride that caused all subsequent destruction of “man beautiful and alluring, after his own image” (Frankenstein, 93).
The monster’s appeal to emotion in his cries that, “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” does not excuse the grievous sins committed by his hands; Good intentions with evil ends cannot justify corruptive acts.
The unique presentation of the novel in the form of letters and the relayed testimony of the scientist, while at times a bit passive, emphasizes nicely the moral component and the admonition given by the scientist to the reader: To quest for knowledge that is beyond human capacity to understand and harness will bring nothing but evil and the destruction of that which is beautiful. The unparalleled beauty Shelley creates in the soliloquies of the monster force empathy, and rightfully so.
A man can—and very well has—become the monster (though human) in Shelley’s eyes. Certain moral, religious, and social laws strive to keep unrestrained passions and desires in check. Shelley destroyed her monster; what of modern man and his demons?
Mary Shelley. Frankenstein. New York, 1831 pp. 166