Imagine your interrailing trip over summer. Now, imagine if on your interrailing trip, you conceived one of English literature’s most famous and well-beloved horror fictions, infused with flecks of Romantic genius, which takes the reader through the wandering worlds of Gothic Europe and the wandering worlds of a young man’s brain. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which had been written and published before she turned 21, is arguably the first novel of science-fiction and has inspired many a Halloween costume for decades. Through the eyes of Victor Frankenstein, Shelley conjures up a world in which our shared human emotions undergo scrutinous analysis, framed by a debate surrounding natural morality and responsibility.
Shelley creates for us two characters, the eponymous Victor Frankenstein and his nameless monster. Both characters are less binary than they initially seem, and both offer a real insight it what it means to be human in 18th Century Europe as well as the modern day. Contrary to your basic horror story, where the morally virtuous human heroically tackles the evil monster, Shelley blurs the lines of good and evil – both characters displaying moments of righteousness and depravity. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn claimed that ‘the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’, and the characters in Frankenstein display this inconsistency – our ability to swing between the two extremes of morality – perfectly. Victor cherishes his family and friends and studies diligently to achieve academic prowess yet becomes so engrossed in scientific endeavour, that he fails to foresee the consequences of his actions, or effectively deal with the terror he unleashes. The monster, in a similar way, can be read as virtuous, in how he saves a woman from drowning and, like Victor, works tirelessly to educate himself, but in hazes of rage and jealousy brutally cuts short innocent lives. Perhaps the two figures are simply two sides of the same spinning coin.
Or, in Jungian terms, the monster could be Victor’s shadow side; the hidden darkness within him that he has failed come to terms with through his years of prosperity and success. The darkness that only manifests itself when he pushes the boundaries of nature out of the hubris brewing up inside him, that he has left unaccounted for. The novel is much less ‘meet your maker’ and more ‘meet your nature.’
It is fitting that the second title for Frankenstein, is The Modern Prometheus, alluding to the ancient Greek legend of a Titan who tested the boundaries of order and stole fire from the Gods. As a punishment for his failure, he was forced to endure the agony of an eagle pecking at his liver daily, chained to the side of a mountain. Grim. Frankenstein’s failure is his testing the boundaries of nature, being tempted by the prospect of mastering mortality, biting into the Edenic fruit and playing God – his liver-pecking is the cyclical suffering the monster then inflicts upon him.
So, where does the average person fit into this model? The average person has neither the means nor the intelligence (nor the wish) to construct a living, towering, sentient being in a laboratory, that creeps always one step behind, breathing down your back. That’s a fantastical notion. However, as Solzhenitsyn said, we all have the capacity for good and evil, we all make decisions that, for better or worse, influence the world around us and we all have the responsibility to anticipate the consequences of these decisions. Frankenstein runs away from his responsibility – we must not. We are at a crucial moment in human history, where human responsibility is paramount. We must contend with climate breakdown; the rise of artificial intelligence and the petty politics being performed across the world. We need to be aware of the significant impact we individually can have upon the world now more than ever and act with the future in mind.
Shelley’s work is a masterpiece, and even more so considering she was writing at a time when men dominated the scientific world. When viewed through this lens, the story reveals to us so much about the human condition, and how to unsuccessfully manage it. We all play the parallel roles of Victor and his monster in every moment of our lives, so in order to avoid becoming a ‘post-modern Prometheus’ ourselves, I suggest we take time to step back and meditate, regularly, and dance with our dreaded shadows, before they inevitably dance with us.