Mary Shelley’s creation in her most famous novel may be reveals something more frightening and alarming than what has become an annual Halloween monster — the monster inside man himself who is unleashed by an unabated quest of knowledge.
Dr. Charles Robinson, a University of Delaware professor and renowned expert on the Mary Shelley novel, “Frankenstein,” says the cautionary tale warns man of the “dangerous consequences of the pursuit of knowledge” and the monster is a reflection of Victor Frankenstein’s monstrous self where by seeking to destroy the monster he is really “destroying his heart, his psychological ugliness.”
Robinson warned this can be seen throughout man’s history — man’s desire to split the atom to find power resulted in the atom bomb, his eagerness to have inexpensive fuels results in global warming and his quest to
control genetics resulted in cloning and genetically modified plants and organisms.
Shelley’s novel provides man with the ultimate answer that his quests could result in his own demise and the moral to be taught about ambition can be found in the novel about Frankenstein and his yearning to explore and to perfect human reanimation.
“The very nature of a framed story is didactic, it is instructional,” Robinson said, also referring to Samuel Coleridge uses of a different kind of frame of the third person in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” about the sinfulness of mankind. “Mary Shelley is using the framed tale as a way of instructing her audience and the essence of that tale — we see it in Walton’s life, we see it Victor’s life and we see it in the monster’s life — is the dangerous consequences to the pursuit of knowledge.”
Frankenstein, often thought to be the name of the monster, is actually the name of the main character in her 1818 novel, which was written as part of a contest among friends including her husband, Percy, to write the best horror story.
The story starts with a series of letters that Robert Walton, the captain of ship searching for the North Pole, writes to his sister in England about the progress of his quest. His mission is interrupted by impassable ice and while trapped in the ice he meets up with Victor Frankenstein, who has been traveling by dog-sled looking for his creation — the monster.
While Walton nurses Frankenstein back to health, Frankenstein shares his story from his childhood to the present day including the adoption of his cousin, Elizabeth Lavena, as his sister.
Frankenstein also tells Walton about his friend, Henry Clerval, and their studies at the University of Ingolstadt to study natural philosophy and chemistry. Frankenstein soon becomes consumed by finding the secret to creating life, since his mother died in giving birth to his brother, William, and gathers old body parts to give life to a new creation, to reanimate a human being so man can live forever.
When he finally brings the creation to life, he is appalled by the monstrosity he has created.
The monster escapes and while living in a barn he learns French by listening to a man teach his Turkish wife. He also learns to read, where he stumbles across “Paradise Lost.” The family rejects the monster and he learns even more about the depravity of man.
A few months later, Frankenstein learns his younger brother, William, is murdered. The murder is blamed on a girl adopted by the Frankensteins who is condemned and executed. Frankenstein feels guilty that his monster is responsible for the death of two people he loved.
Frankenstein encounters the monster and the monster tells him he wants him to make him a companion, while Frankenstein first agrees, he then decides against it. The monster vows revenge and kills his friend, Clerval, and later Frankenstein’s wife, Elizabeth, on their wedding night.
Frankenstein vows to devote the rest of his life in finding the monster and killing the creature. He tracks the monster north across the ice.
After meeting Walton, Frankenstein becomes ill and dies. Walton then runs into the monster weeping and tells Walton of his immense solitude, suffering, hatred and remorse. With the death of his creator, the monster departs to die.
“Mary Shelley makes her point about the dangers of the pursuit of knowledge very explicit by alluding to the three basic Western myths about these dangerous consequences for the pursuit of knowledge,” he said. “She does this directly by the monster reading ‘Paradise Lost’ alluding to Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge and sining against God and resulting in their exile from paradise.”
Robinson said the subtitle of the novel Frankenstein is “The Modern Prometheus,” and the novel is filled with Promethium fire. Prometheus stole fire from Zeus, with the fire representing knowledge, and gave it to man, who prior to that gift of knowledge was an animal. Prometheus is punished by usurping the knowledge that God has.
The last myth is that globular man, or circular man, seeking the knowledge of the gods by scaling Mount Olympus to see what the gods were doing, Robinson said, and the gods were so angered that they split man down the middle.
Shelley provides a wonderful quote in the novel to explain this, Robinson said by having Frankenstein say, “We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves — such a friend ought to be — do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures.”
Robinson explained Frankenstein is essentially saying that people are half of a person and people have another half in the world who makes them whole.
“All of these three basic myths are used to draw our attention to the fact that Victor is usurping the power of God over life and death,” Robinson said. “Mary Shelley is clearly criticizing Victor Frankenstein for a pursuit of knowledge without its full awareness of its consequences.
“This is why the novel resonates so much now because we pursued the nuclear bomb without an awareness of its consequences, we have global warming without an awareness of its consequences, we clone animals without an awareness of the consequences — in each of these and other cases, man might unleash a monster on this world,” Robinson said. “That is the ultimate moral message of the novel.”
Robinson also addressed the literary interpretation that Frankenstein deals with the idea of a doppelganger.
“The monster is most often seen as a doppelganger, as a reflection of Frankenstein’s own monstrous self — his head is destroying his heart,” Robinson said. “As he goes out to kill the monster, he is really committing suicide, so I read this as a doppelganger novel.
“The moment Frankenstein creates the monster, he hates his work, he has been away from the hearth and home of Elizabeth and Clerval, both of whom represent love,” the professor who has taught Frankenstein for 48 years said. “He does not write home, he is psychologically disfigured and because we know man is made in the image of his Creator, the monster is made is in the image of his creator (Frankenstein) so the psychologically disfigured Victor is imaged in the physically disfigured monster.”
Robinson explained the moment Frankenstein created the monster he has committed psychological suicide by killing the better part of himself which is his heart and his affection for man.
“The rest of the novel is nothing more than a literalization or an externalization that has happened psychically mainly of Victor in the form of the monster, his evil self, kills Elizabeth and Clerval,” Robinson said. “This is nothing more than a Jekyll and Hyde-type novel.”
Other experts read the novel and see the monster as a symbol of the Industrial Revolution. This leads to interpretation and the analysis of nuclear age and the problems man has balancing science selfish purposes has and will lead to humanity’s destruction.
Robinson said Shelley alluded to the fact that the monster represented the writing of the novel with Frankenstein putting together bones and blood vessels is not unlike Shelley putting together sentences to construct a novel.
Another reason the novel is popular is because Hollywood took hold of the story.
Thomas Edison made the first movie in 1910, but movies directed by James Whale in 1931 and 1935 starring Boris Karloff made the novel even more famous.
He said they did not follow the novel and they added characters, but Frankenstein isolates himself from community and commits a sacrilage by violating dead bodies and by playing God.
Robinson said there are nearly 200 movies about Frankenstein and he recently did a filmography.
He said Kenneth Branagh had a version in 1994 and this year there is the movie, “Frankenweenie.”
He also pointed to Frankenberry cereal as an example regarding the popularity of the novel and concept.
Robinson also said the popularity can be seen in the media, including this week where the effects of a tropical storm hitting land is known as “Franken-storm.”