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The Education of a Monster

James S. Gidley

You might wonder how an engineer came to be so interested in a piece of English literature from the British Romantic period.[1] I was reading about technology and society, and I repeatedly encountered authors who used Frankenstein as a metaphor for technology in general. A strong current of thought about technology both among intellectuals and in the general public is to view it as a monster out of control, dehumanizing us and destroying the fabric of our society. I thought that I had better get to the bottom of the matter and find out what Frankenstein was all about.

In the process of doing that, I became hooked on the story itself. It is simultaneously a popular novel and a great novel of ideas. I have approached the novel with a good deal of skepticism about whether it was really about technology. My mature conclusion is that it does say something about technology, but that you have to pay attention to much deeper issues in the story before you can decipher what cautionary tale Mary Shelley might actually be telling. I have taken a journey whose point of departure was technology, and I have come back to technology with a much deeper appreciation of what ails us in the early twenty-first century. Yes, although Frankenstein was written almost two hundred years ago, it is startlingly contemporary.

Before digging into the significance of the novel, we must pause to examine what the story actually says. In short, we need to take some time to examine the real story. If you are familiar only with film versions of the story, you will need to do some rethinking, for all the movies that I have seen get some major things wrong—even my favorite, the Mel Brooks version, Young Frankenstein. It will be convenient to think about the true story by examining three myths about the novel.

Myth No. 1: The Creature Was Made by Stitching Together Parts of Dead Bodies

This myth was started by an inattentive early reviewer, and it has stuck ever since. It has been deeply embedded in popular consciousness by the classic, 1931 movie version of Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff. But there are many evidences in the text of the novel that Mary Shelley did not think of her “hideous progeny” in this way. Of course, she had to be quite vague about the technology involved, but the evidence is strong nonetheless. I only have time to make two points: (1) Victor Frankenstein explicitly disavows the ability to raise the dead. If he could not raise the dead, how could he raise parts of dead bodies? (2) He says that he purposely made the body quite large—about eight feet tall—to make the work on the fine structures of the creature’s anatomy easier. Where would he find assorted human body parts to make up a body eight feet tall?

You may be wondering why this is important. It is important because there is no possibility of resurrection or redemption in Frankenstein. It is a story of creation, fall, and damnation. As a story of creation, it has much more in common with recent science fiction stories about robots than might appear on the surface.

Myth No. 2: Victor Frankenstein Was Overjoyed with His Scientific and Technological Triumph in Bringing a Sentient Being to Life

This myth is embedded in our consciousness again by the Boris Karloff movie version, in which a triumphant Frankenstein, in the presence of a roomful of witnesses, cries out exultingly: “It’s alive!” From this scene we get one of our stereotypical images of the mad scientist, exulting over a hideous triumph while the witnesses and the audience are chilled to the bone. But in the real story, Victor Frankenstein creates the monster entirely alone; he never has an assistant, and there is no witness to the moment of creation except himself. In the real story, Victor Frankenstein is himself horrified by his creature, and immediately abandons it. When it pursues him into his room, he dashes terrified into the streets, and the creature wanders off into the forest.

This abandonment of the creature is of central significance to the whole story. It was the central vision of the story from the first moment that Mary Shelley conceived of it, according to her account in the preface to the 1831 edition:

I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the workings of some powerful engine, show signs of life ... His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken.[2]

There are various important consequences of this vision of the horrified creator. One of the most important, in my view, is that Mary Shelley’s story of creation matches deism perfectly: the creator finishes his masterwork and then abandons it to its own devices.

Myth No. 3: The Myth of the Inarticulate, Stumbling Hulk

Again the 1931 film version has trumped the novel itself in popular consciousness. The creature played by Boris Karloff never says a word—until the 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, and even then, he speaks largely in monosyllables and short declarative sentences of broken English. The creature of the novel, however, is, if anything, more articulate than his creator! How he gets to be so is one of the tales I have to tell. For Frankenstein, among other things, is a novel about education. Which leads us to my title theme: “The Education of a Monster.”

The Education of a Monster

In fact, there are three tales of education in Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein narrates the story of his childhood and young manhood, and in so doing, he tells us about his own education and that of Henry Clerval, his boyhood best friend. The creature himself narrates the story of his own education to a stupefied Frankenstein, who has not seen his own creature for almost two years since that fateful night in which he ran from him in terror.

The tales of education are not merely circumstantial detail in Frankenstein. Both of Mary Shelley’s illustrious parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, had written about education, and Mary was quite familiar with their writings. Frankenstein is a fictional laboratory of education.

I’ll begin with the education of Henry Clerval, Victor Frankenstein’s boyhood friend. Henry is fascinated as a child with romantic literature: knights in shining armor and so forth. His education was humanistic. When he finally joins Victor at the University of Ingolstadt, just after Victor has created the monster, Victor suffers a mental and physical breakdown, and Henry nurses him back to health. Victor’s recovery is completed by joining Henry in the study of oriental languages and literature. The message is that humanistic study is life-giving.

But that is not the whole story! In the end, Henry is murdered by the monster without ever knowing what it is—Victor never tells him his dark secret. That is to say, Henry’s humanistic education leaves him defenseless against the destructive forces let loose in society by Frankenstein’s scientific education.

As a child, Victor had joined Henry in his literary education, but he had not been so enamored of it as Henry was. A crucial event early in the novel is when Victor discovers a book written by Cornelius Agrippa, a renaissance alchemist and magician. The writings of Agrippa have become occult classics. Victor goes on to other occult writers, and he attempts to perform the magical science that he reads of. Yet he is unsuccessful, becomes disgusted with his favorite authors, and turns his back on science until he goes to the University of Ingolstadt.

There, he encounters science professors who debunk the so-called science of Cornelius Agrippa, adding a theoretical refutation of Victor’s favorite authors to the disillusionment that he has already experienced. Victor then goes on to excel in the best of the modern science of his day, principally chemistry and physiology. Mary Shelley goes out of her way to emphasize that Victor’s success at creating a living, rational being is not the result of magic or supernatural effects; he uses no incantations and calls on no divine, angelic, or demonic powers. His is a triumph of the best science of Shelley’s day.

Critics have argued over whether Shelley sees superstitious, medieval alchemy or objective, modern science as the culprit that lets loose the monster. In my view, this is a false dichotomy: it is not either/or, it is both/and. In bringing Frankenstein into the world of natural science by way of medieval alchemy and superstition, Shelley is connecting the sorcerer with the scientist. In large measure we owe to Shelley the figure of the mad scientist. The mad scientist is the lineal descendant of the sorcerer.

By extension, Shelley is connecting the whole body of modern science with sorcery. This is the deep paradigm underlying the use of the Frankenstein metaphor by anti-technology writers. Anti-technology writers do not fear the failures of technology but its successes. In an earlier age, Europeans feared supernatural powers—the demonic forces at the disposal of the sorcerer. Since our culture, generally, no longer fears the supernatural, a new fear is substituted: fear of the powers of science.

The effect of Mary Shelley’s portrayal of Frankenstein is to create an atmosphere of what I call the natural supernatural: the production of stupendous feats, ordinarily associated with supernatural powers, by purely natural means. This is deeply connected to the Enlightenment worldview, in which the supernatural is discredited. Where then can a vision of horror arise? Only from within the natural world itself. Therefore, our de-supernaturalized world itself becomes both the source and the arena of supernatural effects, mirroring the Enlightenment’s collapsing of the supernatural into the natural realm.

Frankenstein is not the hapless bumbler that some of the critics would make him out to be. He is all too powerful and successful. His creation threatens humanity just as it threatens humanism. If a man can create a living, sentient, rational creature, then the humanities are in principle subsumed into the natural sciences.

Now we must hasten on to consider the education of the creature himself. After Frankenstein abandons him, the creature wanders into the forest, where he begins to learn by direct sensory experience. He learns about light, darkness, cold, heat, hunger, pain, and so forth. He learns to use fire; he does not become irrationally afraid of it. He passes this whole first period of his existence with little or no contact with human beings, but his early encounters with humans prove to be disastrous. He is uniformly feared and hated for his hideous appearance.

Having been violently rejected by humans, the creature seeks a hiding place. He finds refuge in a hovel adjoining a rustic cottage. There he is able to conceal himself, and he finds that he can observe the cottagers through a small crack in the wall. He begins to learn language by observation. His language acquisition is greatly accelerated by the arrival at the cottage of an Arabian woman, Safie, whom the cottagers proceed to teach French. The eavesdropping monster learns more quickly than the Arabian.

Which leads us to the creature’s book-learning. His higher education consists in the knowledge of just five books, carefully selected by Mary Shelley. First, he overhears the cottagers reading a book to Safie to help her to learn French. It is The Ruins of Empires by Constantin Volney. Published in 1793, The Ruins is essentially a defense of the French Revolution and a trenchant attack on all forms of monarchy and organized religion, which Volney views as intimate allies.

A key passage in The Ruins reads like the story of the creature itself, in summary form, from Chapter 6 “The Primitive State of Man”:

Formed naked in body and in mind, man at first found himself thrown as it were by chance, on a rough and savage land: an orphan, abandoned by the unknown power which had produced him.[3]

Volney’s theology is simply deism: he is describing the god who creates and then abandons his creation, exactly as Victor Frankenstein does. The monster gains from Volney a grounding in the Enlightenment worldview.

At this point in the story, the creature finds a satchel in the forest, containing three books: The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe, Plutarch’s Lives, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Each of these books advances the creature’s understanding.

The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, is generally regarded as the beginning of the Romantic movement in European literature. The plot is a simple story of unrequited love leading to the suicide of the title character. But it is told with such skill and emotional power that it had to be banned in several countries to stem the growing tide of suicides among young men who identified with the title character. Werther teaches the creature of the power of emotions. Even more importantly, reading Werther stimulates the creature to ask such questions as “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?”[4] Significantly, neither Henry Clerval nor Victor Frankenstein had ever asked such questions. They knew—or thought they knew—only too well who and what they were.

Plutarch’s Lives, published in the second century AD, is a manual of ancient pagan virtue. Plutarch arranges his biographical sketches in pairs, each containing one Greek statesman and one Roman, followed by a comparison of the two. Plutarch teaches the creature what virtue is—pagan virtue, that is, not Christian.

Next, the monster learns from Milton’s Paradise Lost what it would mean to have a personal relationship with his creator. The story teaches him how his creator has wronged him. His unknown creator has provided him with no revelation regarding his origin, purpose, or destiny. Even more importantly, the creature realizes that he is one of a kind. As such, he is denied all communion with human beings or any other rational creatures. In his own words, “Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was.”[5]

Finally, the creature reads Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory notebook, which he had discovered in a pocket of the coat that he had taken with him when he wandered out of Frankenstein’s laboratory. In the notebook, he learns both his creator’s name and native city and the story of his own origin. This at last gives the answer to his questions. He finds that he is not the exalted companion of God and angels that Adam was, but merely an assemblage of matter. This is the intellectual center of the novel. The creature is purely physical; any intelligence or emotion that he exhibits is purely the result of physical causes.

This conception was in fact the genesis of the whole story. Mary Shelley describes the way that her theme developed in her mind in this way:

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and [Percy] Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.[6]

If so, then it is natural to expect that in due time, we would learn the secret of our own physical makeup and be able to manufacture ourselves. Here we have the whole point of the story. And the whole horror of it as well.

What is the point of all this?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein continues to resonate in the contemporary world because its horror is rooted in the presuppositions that are widely held in the modern West. In so far as our educational systems are rooted in those same presuppositions, then they must be productive of the same sort of horror. What is the anatomy of that educational horror?

The Destruction of the Humanities

As I have noted before, if human beings are merely assemblages of matter, then the humanities are subsumed under the natural sciences. The humanities have no distinct subject matter, for everything human is ultimately explainable by the interactions of chance and necessity with matter-energy. For example, the whole literary output of a Shakespeare is merely the product of his physiology and environment, which are in turn the result of biochemical reactions, which are in turn the result of the physical interactions of elementary particles. Everything, ultimately, is physics.

Within this worldview, the humanities are defenseless. They must perish, as Henry Clerval did, at the hands of the monster. The reality underlying the symbolism is that the knowledge-product of all-subsuming natural science destroys humanistic knowledge. There are certainly evidences of this in the academy: humanities instruction is under siege and—to change the metaphor—seemingly rudderless. Meanwhile, the natural sciences cruise along, robust and potent.

The Deification/Demonization of Natural Science

Frankenstein achieves god-like powers with his science. Prior to the Romantic period, no author would have referred to herself as “creative.”[7] Mary Shelley was part of the movement that desacralized the word “create.” An anonymous reviewer of the first edition of the novel highlights the historical transition in these words:

We are accustomed, happily, to look upon the creation of a living and intelligent being as a work that is fitted only to inspire a religious emotion ... the expression “Creator,” applied to a mere human being, gives us the same sort of shock with the phrase, “the Man Almighty,” and others of the same kind in Mr. Southey’s “Curse of Kehama.”[8]

As I have said already, the horror of Frankenstein is not failed science but successful science. What if it is really true? What if science is really capable of manufacturing a person? You get the theme of all the robot stories of science fiction, including The Terminator, The Matrix, and I, Robot. Wedded to evolutionary thinking, the horror of the robot is that it will be the superior species that has better survivability than homo sapiens. The robots will win, and humanity will become extinct. Thus science assumes god-like powers of destruction as well as creation.

The technology is at our doorstep, or so the scientists and technologists think. Let me cite two examples. Rodney Brooks, head of a robotics laboratory at MIT, writes

The body, this mass of biomolecules, is a machine that acts according to a set of specifiable rules ... The body consists of components that interact according to well-defined (though not all known to us humans) rules that ultimately derive from physics and chemistry. The body is a machine ... Every person I meet is ... a machine—a big bag of skin full of biomolecules interacting according to describable and knowable rules.[9]

Therefore, he argues, his robots must eventually be accorded equal rights with humans.

In Japan, robot-making has become big business. In the 2005 issue of ASEE Prism, the journal of the American Society for Engineering Education, there is a news article about the latest robots on the Japanese market. We read of “Robots Who Can Schmooze”:

The antidote to becoming the world’s fastest graying society? In Japan, the solution is obvious. Recruit intelligent machines to help care for, entertain, and comfort the elderly ... One of the latest incarnations is a chatty 18-inch model, named ifbot, that has attracted strong advance orders despite a hefty price tag of nearly $6,000. Programmed to comprehend and assemble millions of phrases, this bot is geared to serve as a companion and senility-prevention device for the elderly. A menu of 15 programs enables it to discuss the news, quiz its owner, and even prompt a round of karaoke.[10]

The Fight to the Death between the Sciences and the Humanities

The well-known antagonism between the sciences and the humanities in the academy is not a petty turf war. It is a Darwinian struggle for survival. Shelley is telling us that the sciences must win, but that it will be a Pyrrhic victory—science will win us only despair and death, as Victor Frankenstein did in the end.

The Inescapable Religious Foundation of Education

Only the monster encountered the question “Who am I?” in his education. The answer is both the meaning of his education and the key to the novel. Today, as in Mary Shelley’s day, great hopes were placed upon education as a cure for all human ills. Only educate people correctly, they were told, and we are told, and the evils of society will be greatly ameliorated, if not eradicated.

Frankenstein is a horror tale for the educators. What if it’s all wrong? What if education merely confirms the student in hopelessness and meaninglessness? What if the answer to the question “Who am I?” is “You are not a who, but a what; not an I, but an it”? The right question is “What is it?” and the right answer is, “It is an assemblage of matter-energy governed by chance and natural law.”

What is the way out? I can only be suggestive. I find it helpful to think in terms of the relationship between word and matter. In the modern scientific paradigm, matter precedes word. That is, matter-energy has existed for billions of years, human speech only for the last few tens or hundreds of thousands of years. In other words, the universe is fundamentally material and impersonal. Words and persons ultimately derive their existence and their meaning from matter. It is my conviction that this leaves words and persons without real meaning.

On the other hand, the Bible presents us with an account of creation in which words precede matter-energy. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The verbal conception of light exists prior to the incarnation of light as matter-energy. And behind the words of creation stands him who is the Word. Now we have a created universe that is imbued with word through and through. Words imply speakers and hearers—in short, persons. The words proceed from three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The universe is personal. In such a universe, both words and matter have meaning. I trust that that is the universe in which we actually live.

Endnotes

[1] The paper was originally a presentation at a Geneva College Faculty Luncheon on April 7, 2005.

[2] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 9.

[3] Constantin F. Volney, The Ruins, or, Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires: and The Law of Nature (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1991), 22.

[4] Shelley, Frankenstein, 131.

[5] Ibid., 133.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] This observation was made by Dr. Ann Paton, professor emerita of English at Geneva College, at an event shortly before the occasion on which this paper was originally given.

[8] Anon., Review in the Edinburgh Magazine, March 1818, reprinted in Hunter, J. Paul, ed., Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, A Norton Critical Edition (London: W. W. Norton, 1996), 195.

[9] Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002), 173–174.

[10] Lucy Craft, “Technology: Robots Who Can Schmooze,” ASEE Prism 14, no. 7 (March 2005): 15.

James Gidley, a ruling elder at Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, Pennsylvania, is a professor at Geneva College, where he is chairman of the Engineering Department. He is also a member of the Christian Education Committee and the Subcommittee on Ministerial Training. Ordained Servant Online, June-July 2012.

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