Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Frankenstein and the Reprobate's Conscience

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Frankenstein and the Reprobate's Conscience

Article excerpt

   "O Conscience! into what abyss of fears
   And horrors hast thou driven me; out of which
   I find no way, from deep to deeper plunged!"

(John Milton, Paradise Lost, 10.842-44)

The status of Frankenstein as one of the most popular horror stories of the modern era has little to do with the kinds of horrors to which Milton's Adam is alluding. The horrors of conscience derive from an age preceding that in which the novel was written and relatively little interest has been shown in the pre-history of a work whose powerful prognostic resonances have commanded so much attention. When in his Preface to Grace Abounding Bunyan exhorts his children to "remember your terrors of conscience, and fear of death and hell,"(1) he evokes the anxieties of a moral culture that is remote from most twentieth-century readers. Frankenstein's imaginings, "busy in scenes of evil and despair,"(2) more readily evoke the external threat posed by the monster than such horrors as this:

   Thought calleth to Fear; Fear whistleth to Horrour; Horrour beckoneth to
   Despair, and saith, Come and help to torment this sinner. One saith, that
   she cometh from this sin, and another saith, that she cometh from that sin:
   so he goeth through a thousand deaths, and cannot die. Irons are laid upon
   his body like a prisoner. All his lights are put out at once; he hath no
   soul fit to be comforted.(3)

In spite of the Gothic images they once generated from the pulpits of England, the inner struggles of the Puritan consciousness have come to seem esoteric compared with the horrors raised out there in the world by a scientist recklessly driving to change the course of nature. Frankenstein sets the imagination working amidst the fearful prospects conjured up by scientific experiment. Mary Shelley's own prefigurative imaginings were inspired by galvanic experiments in post-mortem reanimation. In March 1997, when the Edinburgh team who created Dolly, the cloned sheep, announced the success of their experiment, a front page tabloid headline speculated Could We Now Raise the Dead?,(4) and Ian Wilmut as head of the research team was obliged to make the reassuring statement that they were "not Frankenstein-type people."(5) The public debate on cloning continues to be littered with references to Frankenstein. Since its first publication, Mary Shelley's story has been taken variously to illustrate the issues surrounding the Anatomy Act of 1832, the invention of the robot, the invention of the atomic bomb, the potentialities of the cyborg, and genetic engineering.(6) The novel has been an important focus for feminist critiques of science and has been read as a damning indictment of the heady ambitions of masculine Romanticism. Evelyn Fox Keller writes that "a number of increasingly sophisticated literary analyses in the last few years" have demonstrated that the plot of Frankenstein is "considerably more complex than we had earlier thought; the major point, however, remains quite simple. Frankenstein is a story first and foremost about the consequences of male ambitions to co-opt the procreative function."(7) The comment implies that "the major point" is something approximating an established fact. Recent feminist analyses of the novel, in spite of their sophistication, leave unquestioned a long standing popular assumption that it is essentially a narrative written against the presumptuous spirit of a Modern Prometheus and that, as Marie Mulvey Roberts puts it, the monster is "the hideous progeny of the darkness of science."(8)

What Isaac Asimov termed "the Frankenstein complex"(9)-the overreacher's conviction that his creation will turn on him and exact retribution for his contravention of natural law-is always fashionable, in the sense that it can be fashioned and refashioned to suit changing cultural anxieties. Whether or not Frankenstein was written as a cautionary tale, this is undoubtedly the status it has acquired in popular culture, scientific debate and feminist critique. …

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