It was a dark and stormy night and a group of authors sat around a table discussing ghost stories. Among them was the notorious poet Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, whose novel Frankenstein would become a literary classic. It began that night, inspired by a moral discussion and a nightmare. This novel is often misrepresented, turned into a tragic love story, a horror tale, and a morality piece, but what resonates in the heart of the original is a simple lesson about the dangers of playing God. The story revolves around an ambitious young doctor, Victor Frankenstein, who abandons his home and family to study abroad and there undertakes a dangerous experiment. Salvaging body parts from local mortuaries and medical building dumping grounds, Victor constructs his own “creation” out of severed limbs and discerns a means of instilling life in it through an electrical storm. But once the Creature awakens, Victor is overwrought with the horror of what he has done and casts it aside.
Betrayed and abandoned by his own creator, the Creature embarks on a journey of revenge that reveals the hideousness of his empty soul. Victor first attempts to flee from and then to capture the Creature as devastation and death follows in its wake. In the end, on his deathbed, it is the Creature who comes to him—a sin that has followed him across time.
Summarizing the novel as a horror story would not do it justice, for its perils and fears are more intellectual than physical. The questions it raises resonated with Victorian audiences and have no less impact now as it demands us to explore the concepts of science and morality. It can be seen both as a vivid warning against scientific advancement and an allegory. The latter aspects are subtle but nevertheless present. Victor intends to be a great physician but gives in to pride and ambition. His obsession creates something that haunts him and destroys his relationships, ultimately eradicating everything good in his life and closing in on him as he dies. The proverbial sin that never leaves his side and lingers in the shadows, prepared to reveal his crimes to world, the Creature is both his ultimate humiliation and his greatest triumph.
In a daring and controversial attempt to play God and “create,” Victor discovers he can counterfeit life but cannot reproduce goodness. The Creature is born without a soul and therefore is like a child, wholly innocent of anything but the evil and hatred taught to him by a prejudiced and unforgiving world. He might have learned compassion and kindness had he not been abandoned by a creator who could not bear the sight of him, but instead he is left to an evil and eventually corruptive existence born of hatred and solitude.
Victor is enthralled with science so much that he abuses it in his eagerness to explore all its possibilities, not realizing until it is too late that simply because some things are possible does not mean he should undertake them.
During the time the novel was written, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Scientific advancement was opening vast possibilities and accompanying these newfound pursuits was a wavering faith in supernatural things. Spiritualism and atheism were both becoming popular and so in some regards, Frankenstein might also be a thoughtful consideration of the deist approach to religion: God created Man and then abandoned him to his own devises. Without divine guidance and intervention, Man became perverse and evil, corrupted by the world and full of self-loathing, which eventually leads Man to its downfall. But at the same time, it stresses the value and importance of being responsible caretakers of knowledge. Victor’s incredible understanding of science is not evil until he abuses it—and the result torments him for the rest of his life. He begins as a joyous and excited student and ends as a bitter, vengeful old man.
Victor’s determination at first to return to normality after his experiments—to marry and have children and never reveal the truth—is not unlike our desire to conceal our faults, previous wrongs, and sins from the people around us. But Victor has not dealt with the Creature and so it returns to obliterate his happiness. The woman he loves, wholly innocent of his crimes, pays for it with her life, for his Sin has enveloped all of them. Yet somehow, miraculously, the audience never wholly despises the Creature because in many regards it is a victim of circumstance. It did not ask to be stitched together or brought to life. It never wanted to be alone and certainly did not intend to harm anyone—at first. But without guidance, it founders in darkness.
Is the Creature more evil than the creator, or is the creator more evil than the creature?
It is a question that haunts us even after the final page is turned and both are at last laid to rest. ♦
Originally published in the Costume Chronicles.