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Autor: anton 17 December 2010
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Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus
"â€¦that man's desire to understand and control the world around him is conditioned by his inability to understand and control himself." (Shelley vii). History is replete with examples of self-appointed saviors of man who have felt that it was their duty to improve the pathetic day-to-day existence of mankind. These men believe themselves to be heroic, even visionary and that they alone truly know best what will serve the best interest of mankind. Their mission seems so grand and even essential, that ordinary laws and rules, even moral principles no longer apply to them. The consequences or the end result seem irrelevant, and their actions, justified by insisting "it was done to make life better" become an end in and of themselves. Two of the best examples in literature of this phenomenon can be found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and in the several myths of the Ancient Greek's legendary Prometheus.
Although there are plenty of characters throughout history that fit the description of these less than virtuous traits, Mary Shelley's purpose for writing the novel was to try to make sense of what she could not fully understand herself. "This attempt to rationalize the supernatural is vital to Mary Shelley's purpose, which is to show that evil has no autonomous existence of its own, independent of the human life upon which it preys, but that it is of human origin, a distortion of the human nature."(Shelley vii). There are several interpretations of the name Frankenstein. To many in American culture, the name has come to symbolize the creation of life in a laboratory, rather than by God or natural evolution. Frankenstein has also come to be a metaphor for when science goes too far, such as controversial procedures/experiments that push the envelope on human morality and what is scientific innovation for the good of mankind versus playing God. A modern example of a controversial field currently funded with millions of dollars is stem cell research. It can be argued to be either an example of a scientific advancement with the potential to improve the quality of life for countless people, or simply an unethical, immoral attempt to create artificial life in a lab setting. One thing is certain, that stem cell research is here to stay, and its researchers will continue to work on new ways to use this new technology in their own self-interest, most likely for the highest profit, despite the consequences of the outcome.
In order to understand to the fullest extent, the thought process behind the creation of one the best pieces of literature of the Gothic Period, we have to delve into the mind behind the masterpiece. It started in Switzerland in the early 19th Century, when a young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was traveling through the European countryside with two of her closest friends who also happened to be famous writers. While in Switzerland for the summer, the trio stayed at the landmark known as Mont Blanc. Mary referred this place as "the most desolate place in the world."(Means). Already, she had witnessed what she would later describe as a perfect setting to an important scene in a concept she was interested in making a novel about, and upon Mary's return to England that same year, she began to outline the novel. The main focus of the Frankenstein novel was on the concepts of creation/destruction, isolation, deprivation, and fear, which were attributed to Shelleyâ€™s fascination with the emotional impact of terror and the possibilities of science fiction. Although it may be hard to believe, Maryâ€™s novel was passed off several times as a mediocre piece of literature, before it was finally published under an anonymous author in November of 1817. Frankenstein was later reprinted in early 1818 and a formal introduction, in which Mary talked about her support for Godwinian politics was added as well. On the one hand, there were the pessimists who happened to be the conservative readers of the time. The conservatives who read the book were outraged by the far-fetched ideas and concepts brought up by Mary. Many felt that the novel itself was highly unscientific and very troubling to the reader. There are even written accounts by the author herself revealing that she experienced horrific nightmares while in the process of writing the novel in England.
On the other end of the spectrum, the optimistic reviews were full of praise and very little required constructive criticism. Despite the mixed feedback, many readers, young and old alike, enjoyed the novel and proclaimed Frankenstein a huge triumph in literature. Many readers were astounded to later discover that Shelley was only twenty years old when she wrote the work. The public was fascinated by Shelleyâ€™s ability to portray some of the most depressing human and social issues. Several of these concepts dealt with the agony of alienation and of turning into a social outcast. Considering Shelley illustrated the horrible images of murder and revenge so vividly that she gave readers a chance to experience the feelings of the characters in the novel. Mary made connections between human intellect and human emotion and what actions can result. She also pointed out how modern science can result in a terrible outcome when permitted to. Shelleyâ€™s lesson to be learned from reading the novel was that it is cruel to have pre-conceived notions of people that appear strange and ugly on the exterior prior to getting to know them and understand that things are not always as they seem. The fatigue and stress caused by prolonged solitude and loneliness could drive any person, artificial or not, to the point of madness. Mary hinted at the sacred relationship shared by humans with God as well.
The only way to justify Dr. Frankensteinâ€™s exhausting work, in an attempt to create life is that he had to be portrayed as a madman by Hollywood. Although this is not the way Shelley intended, and not true to her novel, in many of the movies based on her book, the doctor is accompanied by a deformed, ugly assistant. The two characters are often shown looming over a dead corpse as if almost in a trance. In the novel, Shelley does not portray the monster as an idiotic, emotionally numb creature like he is shown in the movies. In the original book, she never included a â€œhunchbackedâ€ assistant for the crazed Dr. Victor Frankenstein. (Nardo 5).
Today, Frankenstein is a timeless classic that cannot be summed up by just the novel, entitled Frankenstein, but as Frankensteins in plural, due to the huge amounts of text rewritten, reproduced, refilmed, and redesigned. We cannot forget Hollywood and the impact that Shelleyâ€™s idea had on American Culture when the film version of the story was released in 1931, starring Boris Karloff as the monster. This, however, makes it hard sometimes to differentiate between what is â€œShelleyâ€™s Frankensteinâ€, and what was later added or produced based upon the legendary piece of literature. Many of the additions to the novel can be explained and interpreted in different ways. The multiple Frankensteins do not take away from the original or subtract possibilities for further additions either. Shelley would probably have been pleased to see how her characters and ideas remain constant in relation to those of modern literature.
Many scholars who have studied Frankenstein, compare the relationship between Victor Frankenstein to his creation (in a way his son), and how he rejects him. This is believed to be related to Mary's own experience early on in childhood with her father and she was left with a sense of emotional abandonment in her own home after he remarried. When Mary was only seventeen years old, she had a miscarriage that she later recorded having dreams about. This event may have been an influence on the development of the main concept of Frankenstein. If it is just a coincidence, then it is very ironic how her talk of fire bringing the baby to life (electricity and Frankenstein), proves to be very bizarre and scary in itself. When her infant was born, the doctors tried to resuscitate the baby by using fire, which was not successful. Also in her personal diary entries, scholars discovered her purpose for writing the novel began as a friendly competition between her, her husband(Percy B. Shelley), and Lord Byron, to prove who could create the scariest ghost story. In a matter of days, she had devised the main characters and essentially the entire novel . Another source of inspiration to Mary, was the renowned English Chemist Sir Humphrey Davy, who experimented with galvanism. Galvanism is the application of electrical currents to animal tissues. Davy showed how amputated body parts of animals twitch and react almost as if they did when they were part of the living animals again. Some scientists, at the time, shared the belief that electricity was a key part of live tissue! Unrelated to the scientific world, Shelley also developed many of the ideas in her novel using the Greek Myths of Prometheus. Hence the novel's subtitle, "The Modern Prometheus."
The long- lasting impact of these two stories can be seen today in a parallel to modern scientific research. Dr. Frankenstein and Prometheus can both be viewed as pioneers, dedicated to scientific exploration and the great feat of creation. After all, isn't it honorable and noble to seek technology of any sort that will improve the lives of mankind? This raises questions for modern science, such as: What if the creation of artificial human beings turns out to be tragic or even destructive? People would then have to deal with the consequences of failure, and then what would they do? Is it ok to simply destroy a real live human being?
When the monster comes to the cold truth that it's creator wishes never to see him again, the creature hunts him down. Frankenstein swears revenge on Victor Frankenstein, and the doctor must watch helplessly as those closest to him are savagely murdered. Once again, the question of whether or not a scientist can predict the outcome of any experiment with total certainty is clearly answered by this example of scientific failure. Victor Frankenstein's warning applies to modern fears of genetic engineering and the horrible effects of nuclear fallout.
A correlation can be drawn between Victor Frankenstein's power as a creator and God as creator. Prometheus as creator is much more accepted by those in the time he was thought up because he was a Titan. A Titan was an early race of the Greek gods, who were of the most powerful later replaced by the gods of the famous Mt. Olympus. The novel opens with letters from Robert Walton, a scientist, who begins a journey to see "a part of the world never before visited, andâ€¦tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man."(Shelley Letter I). This stresses the importance of isolation from others, and shows his devotion to his work which separated him from others. Victor was motivated by his studies of the unknown and the stories of alchemists. Fascinated with the power of lightning, he pursued the secret of life.
In the book, the creature comes to life, immediately searching for its creator. Victor's purpose for creating the monster was his burning desire to benefit the whole human race. "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." (Shelley 39). However, the important warning he imparts "Learn from meâ€¦how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happierâ€¦than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow." (Shelley 39). Ultimately, Frankenstein's success produced terror, rather than amazement. Victor did not accept his responsibility as creator and abandons the creature.
Though the creature is made of human parts, he is not mortal, or in other words, he is not living in the usual matter of things. Where does the creature belong in the natural order of things? As a result, the creature is shunned, forced to hide and hunt for food. It can be deliberated whether or not Victor Frankenstein gave enough thought on the possible outcome of his creation before he gave it life. It could be argued that he should have had an obligation to the creature to a certain degree. But, is it possible to know all of the potential outcomes of scientific experiments never attempted prior?
Experts have different opinions when it comes to Prometheus as a creator. He held no awe for Zeus of the other gods. In mythology, Prometheus is considered to be one of a group of Titans that created the human race. Prometheus, similar to Victor Frankenstein, was educated in mathematics, medicine, and many other useful subjects, which he felt he needed to pass on to mankind. He even defied Zeus, tricked him, and stole divine fire from the torch at Mt. Olympus and gave the gift of fire to the mortals.
Zeus, determined to have revenge, ordered that a woman be created from clay. Life was breathed into her by the four winds, and she was given other gifts as well, such as: beauty, intelligence, etc. This creature was called 'Pandora', which means "all gifts." Prometheus failed to anticipate that Zeus would become enraged again at Prometheus' refusal to accept a gift from Zeus. As the story goes, Pandora opened a box (that she was warned not to by Prometheus), and unleashed all sorts of evil, suffering, sickness, vice, etc. into the world, as well as hope. Without hope, life would have become intolerable.
According to one version of the legend, Prometheus ("fore-thought") set out with his brother, Epimetheus ("after-thought"), on orders from Zeus, to create creatures in order to populate the earth. Prometheus created creatures in the image of the gods from clay. His brother used up all the gifts (fur, wings, etc.) and Prometheus had to watch as his creatures shivered in the cold, and forage for food along with other duties to stay alive. He was sorry for the pitiful souls, ill equipped to survive in the harsh world. For his transgressions, he was punished severely by Zeus with pain and isolation. Ultimately, he was released from his fate after only thirty years (of a thirty-thousand year sentence). His willingness to suffer and sacrifice is done for the good of mankind.
Victor Frankenstein, dubbed in literature as the Modern Prometheus, aspires to attain the knowledge of God, to be the creator of life. His scientific pursuits demonstrate a defiance of God. He felt compelled to create the Frankenstein monster in his own image. A connection can be made here to Christianity, in which Christians are created in the image of God.
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