Review of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus

What was it about?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins with a series of letters between a man named R. Walton and his sister, Margaret, in which the former describes his desire to explore the North Pole. This young explorer is hungry for knowledge. He may not be an intellectual, but he has a “love for the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all [his] projects, which hurries [him] out of the common pathways of men.”

His ship sets out from St. Petersburg, Russia and is well on its way, when Captain Walton spots on the ice a man who is clearly on the brink of death. The man is quickly brought on deck where the sailors try to save his life. But the man has a pressing question. Had the captain seen a large creature on a dog sled? The man was in pursuit of this creature, and Walton notices that he is more distressed by its escape than by his present condition. Walton tells his friend about the expedition and his insatiable desire to master the elements. But instead of being impressed, the man howls that Walton is no better than himself – greedy, selfish, and mad. The captain is surprised that his friend doesn’t share his excitement for the expedition.

After a few letters, suddenly, the nature of the letters changes, and instead of describing his personal journey to the North Pole, Walton sends his sister a detailed account of the mysterious man’s life. This man is Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss scientist who, not unlike Walton, had an insatiable desire for knowledge. At the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, Frankenstein studied chemistry and aimed to impress his professors. He also had a dream to create a living, breathing human being. For two years, Frankenstein isolated himself from his family and friends and cared for nothing but the success of his dream project. One night, Frankenstein finally managed to create intelligent life. But this creature was nothing like the one the scientist had dreamed of creating. The creature Victor created was a monster who followed his creator all over the Earth, leaving death and horror in its wake.

What did I think of it?

What comes to mind when you hear of Frankenstein’s monster? Do you think of a grunting brute, arms straight out, with a walk like a zombie’s? This may be the monster in film adaptations, but this is not the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley’s monster reads classical works, listens to music, and appreciates the beauty of the natural world. Except for his appearance, Victor’s creation is not much different from a human person. It is because of his resemblance to man that the monster is such a relatable and pitiful creature. The monster desires love, but he is a hideous figure. No one, not even his creator, gives him the love he craves. Love is a basic human need that the creature, through no fault of his own, is not allowed to experience. The monster is a victim of his circumstances. There is so much responsibility that comes with being a creator, and Victor finds, to his horror, that he cannot accept the responsibility. However reasonable the request may sound, Victor cannot convince himself to do the monster’s will. Although the cover of my edition has a picture of the fiend, Victor’s creature does its damage backstage, so to speak. It only appears a handful of times in the story, but from the shadows, it destroys so many lives.

Although the plot was predictable with a slow, drawn out ending, the questions explored in Frankenstein are more relevant than ever.  So many scientists want to understand life. There have been many attempts to create primitive life in vitro. All attempts have failed thus far, but there is a constant hunger for knowledge and the mastery of life in the scientific community – a hunger that may well be unhealthy and disastrous. The central theme in Frankenstein is the responsibility of a creator toward his/her creation. Victor never considered the consequences of creating such a unique being. He was so wrapped up in the objective world that he lost sight of the things that really matter – love, friendship, and family. I am convinced that there is a great need for bioethics in the medical and scientific world.

Favorite Quote

[M. Waldman, a professor at the University of Ingolstadt, ends his lecture on modern chemistry]: “‘The ancient teachers of this science,’ said he, ‘promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know the metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”