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franeksteinThe womb and the tomb—one of the most striking mirror images that our lives have to offer. Babies are buried alive in their warm mothers’ girth. Bodies are dead and buried in their cold mother earth. For one, there is the darkness of genesis and growth, for the other, the darkness of death and decay. The former are born to live for a span; the latter will be reborn to live for an eternity.

This pregnant parallel has been given immortal imagery in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The mythic Prometheus is famous for creating men. The modern Prometheus is infamous for creating monsters. Both are tormented as a result of their creations, punished for the prideful usurping of a creative power that ultimately renders their creation deficient. The mythic Prometheus suffers for defying the supernatural, the modern Prometheus for defying the natural.

On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?  

William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger,” instigates a dark literary trend of creature questioning and creator cursing, whose questions and curses are echoed by Milton’s Adam, and again by Shelley’s demon. For all of its modern connotations, however, Frankenstein represents an old story of creature rebellion. These rebellions had their birth with Lucifer’s “Non serviam,” and continue to rage with every fit of fallen nature and every man-made object that enslaves man. Victor Frankenstein is both rebel and victim of rebellion, as he turns his back on the order of things, forging into territory reserved for gods, only to be beset by the monstrous offspring of his sin. And as a monster, the creature is very much made in the image and likeness of his creator.

The story of Frankenstein is the quintessential mad scientist story, given immortal voice by Colin Clive in the 1931 film with his unforgettable, “It’s alive!” The story is, without doubt, alive—infused with life by the prevalent failure to recognize and respect the world’s sacrosanct and secret powers. Frankenstein and his monster stand as truly horrifying cultural icons of an enlightened era devoted more to science than to art. It has been said that the opposite of art is science. Art has everything to do with emotion, inspiration, and sacred mysteries. Science has nothing to do with any of these things, dealing instead with comprehension, investigation, and material calculations. As art can perfect nature, so science can pervert nature.

In their relation to each other, Frankenstein is to the monster a reverse mirror image of humanity’s relation to the supernatural. As a perfect Maker created man, so an imperfect maker created a monster. While man is the child of divine love, the monster is the child of human pride. The natural course for man is to serve his Creator. The unnatural course for the monster is to be master over his creator, standing in stark contrast against the Psalms, wherein is shown the right relation between creator and creature. “Thy steadfast love, O Lord, endures for ever. Do not forsake the work of thy hands.” In the mouth of Frankenstein’s fiend, this becomes, “Thy steadfast hatred, O slave, endures till death. You have forsaken the work of thy hands.” The Psalmist sings, “For thou didst form my inward parts…I praise thee for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works!” The Antipsalmist screams, “For thou didst form my inward parts…I curse thee for thou art foolish and wicked. Wicked are thy works!”

Frankenstein assumed too much power in an act of cadaverous creation, while failing to assume the compassion and responsibility that creation demands. Frankenstein is an imperfect creator and the implications of this run very deep, giving traitorous birth to a traitorous child that eventually destroys his true family. The tale is a tragedy rooted in the essential role of perfection in the act of creation. There was nothing procreative about the monster Frankenstein pieced together in his lonely laboratory. His was an act independent of the divine and therefore engendered nothing but slavery. Without love, without the immortal touch, the product will always be monstrous and miserable, breeding a bloodline of hatred and death. So it is in this rime of the modern mariner.

The psychological and spiritual refrains that soar like a Romantic symphony throughout this novel are a far cry from the grunting, plodding behemoth Hollywood has watered down for general consumption. Though Frankenstein is a tale of terror, the original philosophical themes that actually make it terrifying have been forgotten. Insipid terror has largely replaced intellectual terror, and thus has Mary Shelley’s avant-garde masterpiece been reduced to a banal monster piece.

This acknowledgement begins Joseph Pearce’s introduction to Ignatius Critical Editions’ Frankenstein. Edited by Mr. Pearce, this volume proceeds by the light of traditions that influenced the creation of this influential book. Mr. Pearce deftly provides the biographical landscape that defines the ideas and inclinations that Mrs. Shelley grappled with through her “strange and terrific story.” Especially fascinating are the poetic attitudes that warred within this woman surrounded by poets, and which found unique expression in her work. The volume is well annotated, but not heavy-handed, unobtrusively providing context, reference, definition, or thematic guidance.

The essays that accompany the text are particularly engaging and enjoyable. Jo Bath of The Open University (England), takes readers on a wild ride through the bizarre historical corners of electrical experimentation. Strange hopes were framed in the horrors of corpse animation, giving rise to a Promethean ambition to harness the principle of life. Philip Nielsen skillfully outlines the classical elements of tragedy, contrasting Victor Frankenstein and his monster to Pygmalion and Galatea. In a style both light and illuminating, Christendom College’s Thomas W. Stanford III next puts Frankenstein on the stand to judge whether he or his handiwork is more monstrous, and explores the novel’s critiques of rationalistic ambition and romantic isolation. Finally, Aaron Urbanczyk then at Southern Catholic College (which closed its doors in 2011) writes of the particular power Shelley harnesses through her epistolary narrative that uncannily involves the reader qua reader in the unfolding blood-chilling drama of man and monster.

What is essential to the characters in this drama is far more profound than what may be initially expected of a story that has been dragged over the burnt-out coals of our culture. The difference between men and monsters is nothing more than the difference between happiness and misery. If it were not for the infinite goodness and compassion of our Creator, mankind would be nothing more than a race of monsters whose universal cry would storm heaven with the words of Frankenstein’s monster: “I was alone. I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator, but where was mine? He had abandoned me, and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him.”

Books related to the topic of this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Crisis Magazine.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Ah, Frankenstein. Shelley’s book is, for me, almost as enjoyable as Goethe’s Faust – and very much for the same reasons. For in both cases, the depths of moral anguish and moral struggle experienced by the protagonists are proportional to the sensitivity of their moral conscience. That is to say, Frankenstein, like Faust, is not a clinical man. At least certainly not in our eyes, looked at from our times. No matter the depth of their disasterous sin, there is personal drama in their sojourns on account of the inescapable, romantic sense of morality omnipresent in their world – a world where, even if God was already arguably dead, was still a place where this notion stirred great emotions in contradistinction to the apathy of our own.

  2. I am probably the only one around here who thinks that the 1930’s movie is superior to the book. I know, not comparing apples to apples. They are two different. But in my mind, the pathos of the movie monster and his slow awakening to his humanity is far more agonizing than the intellectual monster in Shelley. (And this is without mentioning the brilliant The Bride – though the weird Shelley/Byron scene at the beginning I could do without….).

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