Friday, September 21, 2018

Monsters, Death, and Authenticity: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Like most classic novels, there are depths to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and its ideas that a humble review like this can't hope to plumb.  From its complicated framing structure to its deep themes about human nature, science, and religion, it's no wonder this book continues to fascinate readers 200 years after its initial publication.

I first read Frankenstein in high school.  Like most people mainly familiar with the cinematic representations such as Boris Karloff's lumbering, unspeaking monster and his many imitators, I was astonished to discover that the monster of the novel is eloquent and loquacious (at one point he speaks for several chapters without interruption and adds a few more layers of narratives just for good measure).

I was also struck by how sympathetic I felt toward the monster.  Sure, Boris Karloff gives us hints of something deeper in his 1931 performance, but the monster of the novel tells us in excruciating detail all the ways humanity has harmed him, his creator most of all.  (I should tip my hat to Robert DeNiro, who plays the most faithful cinematic version of the monster in Kenneth Branaugh's film).  I am myself larger than most humans and have a tendency to make people a bit uncomfortable (before they get to know that I'm totally harmless, anyway), so I always felt a kinship with the monster, aside from all the murder, of course.

Fast forward many years: I decided to cover Frankenstein in my class on philosophy and horror, partly to commemorate its 200th anniversary but partly because I've always felt that this novel has a lot of philosophical depth, which shouldn't be surprising considering that both of Shelley's parents were philosophers.  She also, if you ask me, wrote the first true science fiction novel.  I continue to be astounded that Shelley started writing this at 18 and published it at 20.

For the class we concentrated on the existential themes of the novel, starting with an article by Jennifer McMahon called "The Existential Frankenstein" in an anthology called The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film.  Existentialists like Martin Heidegger discuss people's tendency to inauthentically deny death.  Of course, everybody intellectually assents to the fact that we are all mortal, but how often have you ever really contemplated the fact that you and everybody you know will someday die, not as a mere theoretical probability but as a cold certainty?

Victor Frankenstein, however, doesn't so much deny the fact of death as he seeks to overcome it.  This is an attitude sometimes called "defiant Prometheanism" (conveniently named for Prometheus who is named in the novel's subtitle: "the Modern Prometheus").  Just as Prometheus defied the titans to give fire to humanity, so does Victor defy the natural order of death to give life to the creature.  And then his first reaction is to run away and ignore his creation!  What a deadbeat dad!  No wonder the creature goes and becomes a monster.

Pretty much every tragedy of the novel after that (and the bodies do start to pile up) is directly or indirectly Victor's fault.  Is it the mere fact of defying death that creates the tragedies?  Or could a more responsible, loving Victor create a more well-adjusted creature (as actually happens in Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein)?  What about the monster?  Is he authentic in his acceptance of death?  What is it to be an authentic monster?

And most importantly of all: are we all better off if we learn to accept the fact of death as part of the human condition, to see that authentically acknowledging death is the key to a good life before we are all, like the creature, lost in darkness and distance?

That Shelley encourages us to ponder these questions is, I suspect, a large part of why her novel continues to fascinate people today and why it has had such an immense cultural impact.  Happy 200th birthday, Frankenstein!

See my review on Goodreads.

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