Defending Dr. Frankenstein

By Madigan, Timothy J. | Free Inquiry, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Defending Dr. Frankenstein


Madigan, Timothy J., Free Inquiry


You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been . . . I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale, one that may direct you if you succeed in your undertaking and console you in case of failure.

Victor Frankenstein

The April 1994 issue of the Christian journal First Things has an interesting article by David R. Carlin, a former member of the Rhode Island Senate, entitled "For Luddite Humanism." In it, he bemoans the recent attempt by two researchers at George Washington University Medical Center to clone human embryos. Such a procedure, he argues, is dehumanizing, and he calls for a moral Ludditism--a rejection of technological tampering with humanness. "Unless that cultural revolution I mentioned earlier comes along, displacing America's regnant secularism, the world will become increasingly safe not only for abortion but for euthanasia, cloning, and numerous other anti-human perversities."(1)

Carlin is criticizing what might be called the "Frankenstein Impulse"--the desire to alter human nature, even to the point of creating life itself. Frankenstein is usually accused of having the character defect of hubris, attempting to be like God. And, like other mythical characters, such as Oepidus, it is hubris that causes his downfall. However, we would do well to reexamine Mary Shelley's classic 1819 novel in light of present-day advances and see what lesson it really holds for us.

Was Mary Shelley denouncing hubris? It is important to keep in mind that the nineteen-year-old author was raised in a freethought household. Her parents and their friends were very much Enlightenment rationalists. Her father, William Godwin, was a noted Utilitarian philosopher and social critic, infamous in his day for his excoriations of churches and clerics, and her mother (who died when she was but a few days old) was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the early feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In addition, her lover during the time of writing Frankenstein (and her future husband) was the poet Percy Shelley, who was expelled from Oxford for co-authoring the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. Mary Shelley, then, was not reared in a pious religious tradition and had no qualms about humans playing God, since for her the role remained untilled by any deity.

It is also known that she took a keen interest in the scientific investigations of her day, especially those that dealt with the origins of life. Peter Haining, editor of The Frankenstein Omnibus, speaks about one of early nineteenth-century England's scientific experimenters, Andrew Crosse, who attempted to vivify inanimate objects using electricity. "Crosse was, though--like Frankenstein--a much misunderstood man, and found it difficult to get people to give a fair hearing to his beliefs about the boundless potential of electricity. However, at one of his lectures in London, on December 28, 1814, among his audience were Percy and Mary Shelley--a fact Mary recorded in her diaries."(2) This was three years before the publication of her novel.

The several film adaptations of this work have given it a "spooky" and horrific quality that are not found in the book itself. In fact, Frankenstein is better described as one of the earliest works of science fiction, rather than a work of horror. It has no supernatural quality. Victor Frankenstein does not live in a castle in Transylvania, aided by a hunchback assistant. Instead, he is a medical student (not even a doctor!) in Germany, and he performs his famed creation in what is essentially his dorm room. A brilliant researcher, Victor is plagued by questions. "Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries. …

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