Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as Science Fiction and Allegory
Literature is a medium that absorbs the most significant concerns and the brightest hopes that society has at any historical stage. In this context Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein is a reflection of ideas and fears that the beginning Industrial Revolution brought about. Combining the concepts of supernatural and science fiction, the novel explores the theme of human progress and degradation as a result of newly brought opportunities and discoveries. The author warns about the danger of using science as an instrument against nature, which results in the ruin of several characters’ lives.
Throughout centuries, the novel has been interpreted in several ways as it has different dimensions to be considered. First of all, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creature can be interpreted as mythology and as a reference to the Bible. By contrasting the ways a being is created, the author focuses on the difference between moral and immoral aspects of science. Victor Frankenstein is a new type of scientist, a modern alchemist, whose thinking corresponds to the uprising trends of Shelly’s epoch. This character is a total sum of features which reflects the bargains and the faults of a new ideology, brought about by technological breakthrough of the early nineteenth century. Victor is not only an educated person, his scholarly studies are superior to anything else in his life. Originally, he is inspired by a noble idea of enlightenment and knowledge, which are the core values of the epoch. However, this keen interest borders on vanity and obsession. It is mentioned in the novel that Victor spends too much time on his research; he devotes all his time to it ignoring other spheres, including communication with nature. It is Victor’s break with nature and loss of awareness that humanity belongs to it that causes a tragedy.
When speaking about the philosophical background of the novel, it is worth saying that the author was influenced both by ideas of Enlightenment and Romanticism. Hence, there is some clash between scientific rationality and pragmatism and romantic perception of nature as the main spiritual realm. Given the fact that Mary Shelly was only nineteen years old when she finished writing the novel, it would be natural to suggest that she herself might have been confused about which approach was more righteous. It seems in the end that she is a proponent of nature’s prominence over science but this is not exactly so. By picturing the failure of a scientist she does not reject science or technological progress, she just implies that they should work in alignment with nature. Anyway, it would be fair to say that the author is mostly a proponent of Romantic vision, but her character is clearly a supporter of the Enlightenment approach, which stated that Nature can be understood, analyzed and conquered:
Investigations of the principles of regularities or uniformities of Nature, rather than Nature’s hidden and ultimate causes, became standard for academic natural philosophers of the Age of Reason, with reason itself being redefined as Natural Law…Any further attempts to probe the causes “behind” the law were then assigned to an ancient metaphysics (such as that of natural magic) and thus to forbidden territory (Smith 40).
Mary Shelly: a pioneer of science fiction?
Hence, Shelly questions the validity of the rational approach; to her, Nature is still a mystery which cannot be disguised by a human.
It is possible to treat Mary Shelly as a pioneer of science fiction; her story and her philosophy clearly influenced next generations of writers. However, it is worth saying that her science fiction is not completely “scientific”; it rather merges technology and the supernatural. Thus, when Shelly describes the process of creation, she tries to set up a technological context, but it is obvious that she is not able to describe it in detail as a scientific experiment. The fact that Victor creates a future monster using parts of dead bodies looks quite ambiguous. On the one hand, it is an attempt to pose Frankenstein’s activities as having scholarly nature. On the other hand, it appears that the process looks more like an alchemy or even black magic. The very idea that Victor uses corpses makes the concept look opposite to the Biblical one describing God’s creation of the man. The setting used by the author is a purely gothic one, so the whole episode looks ominous. The experiment takes place at night, with thunder and lightning accompanying the whole process. The author demonstrates that Victor treats his creature only as a product of experiment, thus suggesting that science devoid of spirit should be deemed immoral by all means. It appears impossible to breathe life and light into the creature while overlooking the natural order of things. Thus, man is imperfect and cannot become equal to God as creator.
One of the major issues raised in the novel is responsibility of science. As an evidence of newly brought technological progress, Shelly was foreseeing the clash of knowledge and spirit. Frankenstein has passion for what he does, but he is not able to bear responsibility. This suggests an idea that science is still immature; that it rather looks like a game of a child who is amused by a new toy but is not able to think about the consequence. Being an ironic replica of the biblical creation story , it implies that any creature is always a copy of its creator. Thus, God creates a human as a reflection of His Own, so it is obvious that a monster is a copy of Frankenstein. By refusing to accept the creature, Victor closes his eyes to his own monstrosity. In other words, he is not ready to accept his dark side, and so ignores it.
In this context, a story of Frankenstein and a monster can be an allegory of the rational and the irrational as parts of a human soul. Thus, this novel can be interpreted as a story of split personality, which is a common theme for literature of Romanticism. By seeing a creature as Victor’s double, it is possible to consider their differences and similarities. While Frankenstein is initially a purely rational person, a man of science, the creature is rather a child of nature. Rejected by society, the monster seeks retreat in nature, which is his only resort. The author demonstrates what can happen if a person is not willing to accept all parts of his personality and tries to oust any of them.
Another way to treat Frankenstein is mythology, but in this context it is close to science fiction. “Frankenstein … is a secular myth, with no metaphysical machinery, no gods, the creation is from mortal bodies with the assistance of electricity, not spirit; and the deaths are not pursued beyond the grave” (Levine 4). So, this kind of mythology is based on science, because the author tries to use scientific inventions as the main media of the story. In fact, the monster is the only supernatural element of the novel, because his creation is surrounded by mystery despite the use of human corpses and electricity.
At the same time, the behavior of the monster has nothing beyond rational reality. He kills people but he has no supernatural powers. In fact, he is a supernatural creature which lives and acts in a purely rational world and does not have any touch of magic. This absence of magical features makes the tragedy of the monster even deeper, because he is not perceived as a wizard but just as an alien or outcast. Indeed, the tragedy of the monster is that he is very human in all ways but his own race does not accept him. The author demonstrates how loneliness and despair lead to gradual loss of humanity, thus blaming society for creating monsters. Cruelty and indifference are thus shown to be moral ground for monstrosity, so in this sense the novel is a story about the environment shaping an individual.
In conclusion, it is worth saying that the novel Frankenstein is one of the pioneers in science fiction genre. The epoch of industrial revolution contributed to this genre emergence as a reflection of society’s concerns and expectations. However, one cannot claim that the novel is a pure example of science fiction because it has elements of the supernatural and gothic, and is also influenced by the aesthetics and ethics of Romanticism. Science looks ambiguous in the novel; it is a forbidden fruit of knowledge that can bring both blessing and curse. Knowledge is power, indeed, but humans may appear to be not strong enough to deal with that power properly. In fact, the issue of responsibility is a crucial message in the novel and remains up to date for further generations.