The Onion’s Book of Known Knowledge says of Frankenstein: “You are probably looking for Frankenstein’s monster, you idiot.” While this is always a “fun fact” for that know-it-all friend we all have (certainly that’s not us, right) to trot out in an effort to make everyone around them feel inferior for not having actually read the book, I think there is something deeper going on here than just confusing the monster for its maker. The fact that even after having read the book – and I’m only discussing the original 1818 version, not the later revised edition – I still want to call the monster Frankenstein speaks to what I think Shelley was really going for at the heart of this novel.
A common misconception about this novel is the idea that she was writing about science gone amok. True, her revised edition 1831 edition contains far more musings that touch on this point, but her original intention, her original creation was about something far more interesting: relationships. When we first open the book we a reading the letters of Walton, a captain of an Arctic Research vessel who laments that he does not have a friend in which he can share ideas with and help him be a better man. Walton is smart enough to know that even at our best, we are always better when a friend can challenge us, bounce ideas off of us, and flat-out remind us when we’re being foolish. And so enters Victor Frankenstein and by the end of the novel when Walton’s crew seems near the verge of mutiny, Walton decides against pressing the adventure on and bravely turns the ship around. Walton, unlike Victor literally changes course rather than pursuing a course that could kill his crew and himself.
And this is what I believe is at the core of what Shelley wanted to explore: isolation breeds inhumanity. Think about how when Victor creates the monster he does so all alone and at the expense of all his relations. Later, when he first submits to create the monster a mate, he does so on an isolated island while his vacation partner and best friend, Clerval, is left behind. Or from the monster’s point of view, he is at his most humane when he is surrounded by the family he spends a year observing in secret. The monster gains insight into the best traits of humanity, but once he is shunned, he reverts into an actual monster that places no value on human life.
Shelley is not so much interested in “the dangers of science”, she’s interested in the dangers of isolation from humanity. She is telling a story about how we are at our best when we have companionship, when we have people around us who challenge and love us but when we turn from humanity, for whatever reason, we lose our humanity because our humanity is defined by the people around us.
Shelley spends a lot of ink in the novel describing how beautiful the landscapes are and how when Victor experiences nature with his friends and family he’s at his best, or at least not nearly as depressed, yet when he confronts the monster and then later chases after him the scenery is a blank ice sheet, a wasted void of nothing and devoid of all life and humanity. Victor keeps turning away from companionship and instead chases after his inner obsession. And by inner obsession I mean that the idea of the monster started out as just an idea that he was able to actually manifest physically – his inner thought literally were made manifest and were given their own agency. The monster is an avatar of his obsession to plumb the absolute depths of his intellectual abilities by isolating himself from all distractions until he was successful.
And perhaps this is why upon seeing the monster come to life he immediately turned away from it because what had been a beautiful idea in his mind (and he had thought he was creating something beautiful) he saw just how ugly the inside of his own mind was, just how ugly that absolute obsession turned out to be. The monster was a product of Victor’s sick, isolated mind and, like Gogol’s Nose, the two had to reunited, only here it wound up being tragic.
And so when we think of the monster as an unnatural abomination, what we are really reacting to is that the monster represents the inhumanity of isolation from humanity. It represents the dangers of shunning humanity while we pursue our obsessions. The monster does not, however represent the dangers of pursing forbidden knowledge since what Victor was initially attempting to do was not at all against nature. Victor wanted to cure death, Victor wanted to understand how life worked which are not unreasonable goals. Victor was applying good scientific principles to his pursuit by taking what he knew and actually applying it via real demonstration.
This is how science has always worked and the fact that what Victor created turned out horribly isn’t an indictment of science, it’s an indictment of pursuing something to such an isolated extreme that the result is perverted because the process didn’t take place as part of a community. Scientists work together when exploring the secrets of nature and the universe, they bounce ideas off of each other, they learn from scientists who came before them, and they allow independent scientists to verify (or falsify) their findings. The process does not happen in isolation and the results are always tempered with collaboration.
Victor’s failing was to think he could do this all on his own, that creating a human could be done without the help of other humans. When humans have children (biologically) it takes at least two people to create a child, and even in cases where someone can’t have children then there are doctors and adoption specialists and surrogates who make up the community of parenting. Victor failed to take into account the neighborhood of man, a line Shelley uses again and again in the novel, and when he tried to create a human being like himself, all he did was create a manifestation of his ugly obsession.