Frankenstein at 200 and Our Creations: A Cautionary Tale: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Ordained Servant: December 2018

A Place among the Stars

Also in this issue

Harold Leonard Dorman: Spokesman for Almighty God

A Place among the Stars

Beza on the Trinity, Part 1

The Theology of Frankenstein: Deism vs. Biblical Theism

A New Multi-Volume Pastoral Theology: A Review Article

I Shall Not Die, But Live by Douglas Taylor

Unlikely Savior

Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley, annotated for scientists, engineers, and creators of all kinds, edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017, xxxv + 277 pages, $20.00, paper.

It may seem a strange thing to review a book about Mary Shelley’s famous horror story, or perhaps the first science fiction novel, in a journal for church officers; but, if we are to minister in a world of extraordinary technological inventions, we must be aware of the dangers, the unintended consequences, of our creations. The difference between friend and fiend is slight in print, but dramatic in reality.

The title, Frankenstein, usually makes us think of the monster, but the monster is never named by Mary Shelley, thus the annotators and essayists in this present volume refer to the monster as “the creature.” Thus, the focus is on scientist Victor Frankenstein. Shelley’s cautionary tale is a profound exploration of human nature and of the nature of the scientific enterprise. The potential hubris of those involved in the sciences is a theme of enormous importance to our contemporary situation. As James Gidley points out in his article in this issue, “The Theology of Frankenstein: Deism and Biblical Theism,” a theology of creation is everywhere assumed in Shelley’s work. The same is true of Shelley’s assumptions about human nature. The subtitle of Shelley’s book is revealing: “the Modern Prometheus.”

In the Western classical tradition, Prometheus became a figure who represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. In particular, he was regarded in the Romantic era as embodying the lone genius whose efforts to improve human existence could also result in tragedy.[1]

I toyed with including this review under the rubric, Servant Classics, because Frankenstein is a rich literary work that transcends the genres of horror story or science fiction. Although Mary Shelley in her 1831 introduction to a new edition of Frankenstein calls her tale a “ghost story” (191), written in response to the challenge of neighbor Lord Byron to write a ghost story during a period of gloomy Swiss weather, she notes that the story was written of philosophical conversations with two notable nineteenth-century men of letters, Lord Byron and her husband, Percy Shelley.

The horror and drama in the story stand in stark contrast to the sensationalism of modern horror stories and the special effects of modern horror movies. Instead, Frankenstein presents us with a thoughtful series of reflections on the nature of the ethical responsibilities of scientists, especially when experimenting with human life (xiii).

The book, published on January 1, 1818, reminds us that serious critical analysis of the effects of the Industrial Revolution were present, especially with participants in the Romantic movement, early in the nineteenth century. Several decades later Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) also used fiction as a vehicle to stimulate thoughtful criticism of the abilities of scientists to manipulate humanity and culture. Several years ago The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society published a profound series of articles, along with eight of Hawthorne’s stories, in a series entitled “Hawthorne: Science, Progress, and Human Nature” (2009–2012). Like Shelley, Hawthorne wrote stories exploring the moral meaning of modern science. Together they were exercising their moral imaginations to question the goals of science and explore the effects of seeking to alter the unalterable, or the givenness of creation, especially humankind.

Concentrating on the most obvious theme of the unintended consequences of our inventions, I underestimated the value of Shelley’s exploration of the human in the creature’s intelligent, moral, and aesthetic sensibilities. While the assumptions of the Romantic movement are largely Deistic, there are still strong strands of a biblical anthropology throughout this literary tale. It is this dimension of the work to which I will now turn.

Often unappreciated is the high literary quality of Frankenstein. The first volume begins with the mention of Homer’s Iliad, Shakespeare’s Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Milton’s Paradise Lost (1). There are beautiful descriptions of natural scenery, and towns and cities, a staple of Romantic literature and art. Large sections read like a travelogue. Mary Shelley, of course, was married to Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, so it is not surprising that she quotes William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (132). She describes Victor’s arrival in Oxford after mentioning some historical facts:

The spirit of elder days found a dwelling here, and we delighted to trace its footsteps. If these feelings had not found an imaginary gratification, the appearance of the city had yet in itself sufficient beauty to obtain our admiration. The colleges are ancient and picturesque; the streets are almost magnificent; and the lovely Isis, which flows beside it through meadows of exquisite verdure, is spread forth into a placid expanse of waters, which reflects its majestic assemblage of towers, and spires, and domes, embosomed among ancient trees. (135)

It is of these Romantic sensibilities that the creature struggles with his own identity, but by secretly observing human beings and reading literature he enjoys the perception of natural beauty, human kindness and gentleness, reason, justice; and is pained by injustice and ultimately by being rejected by the humans around him, especially his creator, Victor Frankenstein. There is a supreme irony in the comparison of Frankenstein with his creature. The creature is more humane, at least at the beginning, than Frankenstein, who turns out to be a monster.

Victor Frankenstein has all of the benefits of high European culture. And yet, despite appearances, he behaves like a monster. Hints of this can be seen in the beginning of the story.

My life had hitherto been remarkably secluded and domestic; and this had given me invincible repugnance to new countenances. I loved my brothers, Elizabeth, and Clerval; these were “old familiar faces”; but I believed myself totally unfitted for the company of strangers. (28)

Then scientific hubris, with its god-like pretensions, takes over and provides a cloak for Frankenstein’s selfishness. “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life . . . What had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world, was now within my grasp” (34). Too late Frankenstein reflects on the lesson he should have learned from his father: “If a study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not fitting the human mind” (40). Upon being revulsed by the sight of the newly animated creature, Frankenstein selfishly abandons him—exactly the opposite of the biblical account of creation.

Victor Frankenstein refuses to take responsibility for the death of his youngest brother William; the death of Justine, who is falsely accused of killing William; then the death of Victor’s best friend, Clerval; and finally Victor’s fiancée, Elizabeth. But guilt haunts him, while he continues to cover up his evil deeds. “I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt” (71). Shelley explores this theme throughout the three volumes.

Frankenstein’s discourse on friendship, frequent in Romantic literature, rings hollow in light of his own monstrous disregard not only for the creature, but also for his dearest friends and family (132–33).

The creature, on the other hand, despite appearances, behaves like a highly civilized human being, until his rejection and isolation turn him into the monster he looks like. As Joey Eschrich observes regarding the “investments of time, wit, and emotional energy” in the correspondence that begins the story: “They contrast with the creature’s life and reveal precisely what he is missing. He has no one with whom to share his experiences and frustrations, so his life becomes unbearable, and he lashes out violently.”[2]

After the first two murders, Frankenstein encounters the creature in the Alps. The creature pleads with him to create a wife so he will have a companion:

I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous. (80)

Then the creature tells Frankenstein his story.[3] It is a truly touching tale. After his creation and abandonment he finds a hut that is adjacent to a cottage, thus allowing him to observe the lives of the inhabitants without himself being seen.

The creature witnesses the struggles of the young couple, the old man, and a beautiful friend who visits the cottage; they are consigned to poverty from great wealth and a high position in society. As he observes their human virtues he concludes: “The gentle manners and beauty of the cottagers greatly endeared them to me” (91). He masters their language and reads their literature, including Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Werter (105). Paradise Lost affects him most deeply, as he feels like Adam, created at first without a companion, yet he relates more to Satan in his bitter rebellion (107). “I longed to discover the motives and feelings of these lovely creatures” (94). But, finally, rejection by the cottagers, whom he had so admired, is the turning point in the creature’s sad tale as he declares war on humanity (113–20).

The importance of human friendship and the perils of its neglect form a central theme in Frankenstein. In our world the irony is that our growing use of mediating technologies undermines our ability to establish and maintain human relationships, thus enchanting us with social networks and robots. Frankenstein warns us against the tendency of those in positions of power to ignore the consequences of their actions.[4] The company’s bottom line or, as in the case of Frankenstein, the fame accruing from scientific breakthroughs, tends to blind leaders to their larger human responsibilities.

This is increasingly leading to a central problem for the elderly. My own state of New Hampshire is developing a “State Plan on Aging” to address this problem. Proverbs 18:1–2 warns us of the folly of isolation: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” For those who end up isolated through no fault of their own, we must exercise compassion. The church is well situated to lend a hand.

On the related topic of human compassion, MIT Sociologist Sherry Turkle’s latest book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age[5] laments the increasing lack of empathy among those who are addicted to their digital devices. The combination of loneliness, caused at least in part by the increase in mediated relationships, that is electronic communication supplanting face to face conversation, and a lack of empathy does not bode well for this and future generations of the elderly.

Of course, the greatest human need is not human friendship, but rather divine friendship. This is absent in Shelley’s work. Shelley’s dependence on the writings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau leads to a dangerous conclusion about the origin of sin. Rousseau believed that society corrupts humans, who are otherwise good in their natural state.[6] This question-begging idea can be seen in the creature’s story.

The annotations by various scientists and writers, which are extensive, and printed as footnotes in small san serif type, are often very helpful in providing context and explanations of the text, however tedious they may be at times.

The seven essays at the end of the volume provide a fascinating window into the thinking of contemporary academics and writers on the topic of bioethics.

Josephine Johnston,[7] in “Traumatic Responsibility: Victor Frankenstein as Creator and Casualty,” explores the nature of human responsibility.

Cory Doctorow,[8] in “I’ve Created a Monster! (And So Can You),” argues that the best science fiction both predicts and influences the future. This is a witty essay offering astute observations such as “Frankenstein [is] . . . a story about technology mastering humans rather than serving them” (210). And this:

A service like Facebook was inevitable, but how Facebook works was not. Facebook is designed like a casino game, where the jackpots are attention from other people (likes and messages) and the playing surface is a vast board whose parts can’t be seen most of the time. You place bets on what kind of personal revelation will ring the cherries, . . . As in all casino games, in the Facebook game there’s one universal rule: the house always wins. (212)

“Changing Conceptions of Human Nature” by Jane Maienschein and Kate Maccord[9] is an uninspiring account of the relationship of Aristotle’s fourfold causation to the scientific enterprise and the definition of the human. They conclude by pleading for a definition that demands viability, or the ability to live independently. The creature is seen as an example of this unsustainable argument. Because the creature cannot live independently, he is less than fully human.

Alfred Nordmann’s[10] essay, “Undisturbed Reality: Victor Frankenstein’s Technoscientific Dream of Reason,” asserts that the science of Frankenstein is not modern science, but warns of the danger of using true science to ignore reality by creating monsters and animating material with artificial intelligence and electronics, what he calls technoscience. This essay requires pondering.

Sarah Wishnevsky’s[11] essay, “Frankenstein Reframed; Or The Trouble with Prometheus,” argues that “Victor’s crime is not pursuing science but in failing to consider the well-being of others and the consequences of his actions.” Shelley’s “veneer of Christianity” nonetheless portrays the need for compassion, an essential ingredient in Christian religious ethics, rooted in the passion of Christ (232).

Anne K. Mellor’s[12] essay, “Frankenstein, Gender, and Mother Nature,” is a feminist analysis of Victor Frankenstein. This has value because Mary Shelley’s mother Mary Wolstonecraft was a strong and groundbreaking advocate for women’s rights. Thus, Victor is portrayed as seeking to “control and even eliminate female sexuality.” This ends up “not only as horrifying and finally unattainable but also as self-destructive” (243). She concludes her essay with an appreciation for the givenness of nature, albeit not in language that Christians could entirely endorse: “The novel implicitly endorses . . . a science that seeks to understand rather than to change the workings of Mother Nature” (244).

Finally, “The Bitter Aftertaste of Technical Sweetness” by Heather E. Douglas[13] explores the ethics of creating the atomic bomb. Despite the brilliance of the title, the essay leaves many unanswered questions.

A very useful set of discussion questions (263–73) is given for each of the chapters in the three volumes of Frankenstein and for each of the seven essays.

The Romantic Deism assumed in Shelley’s fiction offers a poignant caution, but sadly offers no substantial solution to the incipient problems of modernity. Because of her mother’s early death, death was an irreparable evil for Mary Shelley. As a child she spent hours reading beside her mother’s grave. So, Frankenstein’s effort to create life is driven by his hatred of the evil of death.[14] But there is no resurrection. The creature experiences an inner life that cannot be accounted for by the mere animation of material human parts. Only a biblical account of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation will offer the foundation for solutions. I am reminded of Francisco Goya’s etching, “The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters,” in which the artist depicts a nightmare of his being attacked by bats and owls. This is an apt image of the dream of the Enlightenment. The guidance of God’s special revelation in the Bible is jettisoned for the reason of fallen man, becoming a nightmare.


[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Prometheus,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Prometheus&oldid=870735499 (accessed November 28, 2018).

[2] 9–10n9, citing Eschrich, editor and program manager for the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.

[3] Vol. 2, ch. 3, 83–120.

[4] 16n13, citing Mary Margaret Fonow, professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University.

[5] Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin, 2015).

[6] 98n22, citing Ron Broglio, professor of literature and culture at Arizona State University.

[7] Johnston is an expert on the ethical, legal, and policy implications of biomedical technologies, particularly as used in human reproduction, psychiatry, genetics, and neuroscience.

[8] Doctorow is a Canadian-British blogger, journalist, and science fiction author who serves as co-editor of the blog Boing Boing.

[9] Jane Maienschein is a Regent’s professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, specializing in the history and philosophy of biology and the way biology, bioethics, and bio-policy play out in society. Kate Maccord is program administrator and McDonnell Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. The goal of the McDonnell Initiative is to bring historians and philosophers of science into collaboration with life scientists in order to transform the research of both fields.

[10] Nordmann is professor of philosophy and history of science and technoscience at Darmstadt Technical University and visiting professor at the University of South Carolina.

[11] Wishnevsky is an American author who works primarily in speculative fiction genres, writing under the name Elizabeth Bear.

[12] Mellor is a distinguished professor of English literature and women's studies at UCLA; she specializes in Romantic literature, British cultural history, feminist theory, philosophy, art history, and gender studies.

[13] Douglas is a philosopher of science best known for her work on the role of values in science, science policy, the importance of science for policymaking, and the history of philosophy of science. Douglas is associate professor in the department of philosophy at Michigan State University.

[14] 26n25, citing Joel Gereboff, professor in the religious studies department of Arizona State University.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, December 2018.

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Ordained Servant: December 2018

A Place among the Stars

Also in this issue

Harold Leonard Dorman: Spokesman for Almighty God

A Place among the Stars

Beza on the Trinity, Part 1

The Theology of Frankenstein: Deism vs. Biblical Theism

A New Multi-Volume Pastoral Theology: A Review Article

I Shall Not Die, But Live by Douglas Taylor

Unlikely Savior

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