9/14/09 - frankenstein

In today's excerpt - Dr. Frankenstein's creation, called simply the Creature in Mary Shelley's groundbreaking 1818 novel Frankenstein. In the early 1800's at the dawn of science as a profession some scientists had begun to believe that electricity itself was the life force that animated the spirit in humans. From this idea, Mary Shelley crafted the world's first science fiction novel. In contrast to the mindless grunts of present day 'Frankensteins', the original Creature was the most articulate character in Shelley's novel—and yearned for love:

"Many scientific men of the day [were] entranced by the potentialities of the voltaic battery, and its possible connections with 'animal magnetism' and human animation. Electricity in a sense became a metaphor for life itself. ... The most singular literary response to [these ideas] called Vitalism ... was Mary Shelley's cult novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1818). In this story ... a sort of human life is physically created, or rather reconstructed. But the soul or spirit is irretrievably damaged. ...

"As her novel developed, Mary Shelley began to ask in what sense Frankenstein's new 'Creature' would be human. Would it have language, would it have a moral conscience, would it have human feelings and sympathies would it have a soul? (It should not be forgotten that Mary was pregnant with her own baby in 1817.) ...

"[Dr.] Frankenstein's Creature has been constructed as a fully developed man, from adult body parts, but his mind is that of a totally undeveloped infant. He has no memory, no language, no conscience. He starts life as virtually a wild animal, an orangutan or an ape. ...

"Almost his first conscious act of recognition when he has escaped the laboratory into the wood at night is his sighting of the moon an object that fills him with wonder although he has no name for it. [The Creature himself then narrates:] 'I started up and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees. I gazed with a kind of wonder. It moved slowly but it enlightened my path ... It was still cold ... No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and hunger and thirst and darkness; innumerable sounds rung in my ears and on all sides various scents saluted me. ... My mind received every day additional ideas.'

"From this moment the Creature evolves rapidly through all the primitive stages of man. Mary's account is almost anthropological reminiscent of [Sir Joseph] Banks's account of the Tahitians. First he learns to use fire, to cook, to read. Then he studies European history and civilization, through the works of Plutarch, Milton and Goethe. Secretly listening to the cottagers in the woods, he learns conceptual ideas such as warfare, slavery, tyranny. His conscience is aroused, and his sense of justice. But above all he discovers the need for companionship, sympathy and affection. And this is the one thing he cannot find, because he is so monstrously ugly: 'The cold stars shone in their mockery, and the bare trees waved their branches above me, the sweet voice of a bird burst forth amidst the universal stillness. All, save I were at rest ... I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me, and finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.'

"On the bleak Mer de Glace glacier in the French Alps, the Creature appeals to his creator [Dr.] Frankenstein for sympathy, and for love. 'I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator would not call it murder, if you could precipitate me into one of those ice-rifts ... Oh! My creator, make me happy! Let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit! Let me see that I excite the sympathy of one existing thing. Do not deny me my request!'

"This terrible corrosive and destructive solitude becomes the central theme of the second part of Mary Shelley's novel. Goaded by his misery, the Creature kills and destroys. Yet he also tries to take stock of his own violent actions and contradictory emotions. He concludes that his one hope of happiness lies in sexual companionship. The scene on the Mer de Glace in which he begs Frankenstein to create a wife for him is central to his search for human identity and happiness. The clear implication is that a fully human 'soul' can only be created through friendship and love."


Richard Holmes


The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science


First Vintage Books


Copyright 2008 by Richard Holmes


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