'Frankenstein' Reflects the Hopes and Fears of Every Scientific Era

The novel is usually considered a cautionary tale for science, but its cultural legacy is much more complicated.

An illustration of Frankenstein's creation  (Wikimedia Commons)

The bicentennial of Frankenstein started early. While Mary Shelley’s momentous novel was published anonymously in 1818, the commemorations began last year to mark the dark and stormy night on Lake Geneva when she (then still Mary Godwin, having eloped with her married lover Percy Shelley) conceived what she called her “hideous progeny.”

In May, MIT Press will publish a new edition of the original text, “annotated for scientists, engineers, and creators of all kinds.” As well as the explanatory and expository notes throughout the book, there are accompanying essays by historians and other writers that discuss Frankenstein’s relevance and implications for science and invention today.

It’s a smart idea, but treating Frankenstein as a meditation on the responsibilities of the scientist, and the dangers of ignoring them, is bound to give only a partial view of Shelley’s novel. It’s not just a book about science. Moreover, focusing on Shelley’s text doesn’t explore the scope of the Frankenstein myth itself, including its message for scientists.

This is one of those stories everyone knows even without having read the original: Man makes monster; monster runs amok; monster kills man. It may come as a surprise to discover that the creator, not the creature, is called Frankenstein, and that the original creature was not the shambling, grunting, green-faced lunk played by Boris Karloff in the 1931 movie but an articulate soul who meditates on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Such misconceptions might do little justice to Shelley, but as the critic Chris Baldick has written, “That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings with follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth.”

In any case, the essays in the MIT edition have surprisingly little to say about the reproductive and biomedical technologies of our age, such as assisted conception, tissue engineering, stem-cell research, cloning, genetic manipulation, and “synthetic human entities with embryo-like features”—the remarkable potential “organisms” with a Frankensteinian name.

That feels like a missed opportunity. Frankenstein is still frequently the first point of reference for media reports of such cutting-edge developments, just as it was when human IVF became a viable technique in the early 1970s. The “Franken” label is now a lazy journalistic cliché for a technology you should distrust, or at least regard as “weird”: Frankenfoods, Frankenbugs. The “wisdom of repugnance,” the phrase coined by the U.S. bioethicist Leon Kass and which informed the decision of the George W. Bush administration to pose drastic restrictions on federally funded stem-cell research in 2001, harked back directly to Mary Shelley’s novel.

Let’s be in no doubt: Frankenstein is one of the most extraordinary achievements in English literature. It’s not flawlessly written, the construction is sometimes awkward—yet it is a profound and unsettling vision, deeply informed about the science and philosophy of its day. That it was written not by an established and experienced author but by a teenager at a very difficult period in her life feels almost miraculous. It’s in fact those troubled circumstances and those flaws that have helped the book to persist, to keep on stimulating debate, and to continue attracting adaptations and variations—some good, many bad, some plain execrable.

It’s too often suggested—some of the commentaries in the MIT edition repeat the idea—that Frankenstein is a warning about a hubristic, overreaching science that unleashes forces it cannot control. “Victor’s error is failing to think harder about the potential repercussions of his work,” writes the bioethicist Josephine Johnston. To Mary Shelley’s biographer Anne Mellor, the novel “portrays the penalties of violating Nature.” This makes it sound as though the attempt to create an “artificial person” from scavenged body parts was always going to end badly: that it was a crazy, doomed project from the start.

But Mary Shelley takes some pains to show that the real problem is not what Victor Frankenstein made, but how he reacted to it. “Now that I had finished,” he says, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” He rejects the “hideous wretch” he has created, but nothing about that seems inevitable. What would have happened if Victor had instead lived up to his responsibilities by choosing to nurture his creature?

One might answer that the result would have been a pretty dull and short novel. But I’m not so sure. Imagine the story of Victor struggling to have the creature accepted by a society that shunned it as vile and unnatural. We would then be reading a book about social prejudice and our preconceptions of nature—indeed, about the kind of prospect one can easily imagine for a human born by cloning today (if such as thing were scientifically possible and ethically permissible). The moral and philosophical landscape it might have explored would be no less rich.

That Victor did not do this—that he spurned his creation the moment he had made it, merely because he judged it ugly—means that, to my mind, the conclusion we should reach is the one that the speculative-fiction author Elizabeth Bear articulates in the new volume. It is for Victor’s “failure of empathy and his moral cowardice,” Bear says—for his overweening egotism and narcissism—that we should think ill of him, and not because of what he discovered or created.

Mary Shelley, however, gives her readers mixed messages. What she shows us is a man behaving badly, but what she seems to tell us is that he is tragic and sympathetic. All of her characters think so well of “poor, dear Victor” that we’re given pause. Even Robert Walton, the ship’s captain who finds Victor pursuing his creature in the Arctic and whose letters describing that encounter begin and end the book, sees in him a noble, pitiable figure, “amiable and attractive” despite his wrecked and emaciated state. Frankenstein’s only critic is his creature.

This could be seen as a rather exquisite piece of authorial artifice, an early example of the unreliable narrator. It seems more likely to me that Shelley herself wasn’t clear what to make of Victor. In her revised edition of 1831, she emphasized the Faustian aspect of the tale, writing in her introduction that she wanted to show how “supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” In other words, it was preordained that the creature would be hideous, and inevitable that its creator would recoil “horror-stricken.” That wasn’t then a character failing of Victor’s.

This idea invites the interpretation that Mellor offers in the new edition: “Nature prevents Victor from constructing a normal human being: His unnatural method of reproduction spawns an unnatural being, a freak.”

She sees this as a feminist interpretation (Nature being, in her view, feminine and inviolable), I feel that to the extent that Shelley’s book supports a feminist reading, it is not this, and to the extent that one might draw this interpretation, it is not a feminist one. To condemn Victor for violating “Mother Nature” with his “unnatural being” seems plain disturbing in the 21st century. Certainly it bears out the complaint of the British biologist J. B. S. Haldane in 1924:

There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion.

By accepting that Victor’s work is inherently perverted and bound to end hideously, Mellor’s accusation leaves us wondering what exactly is meant by “unnatural.” Which real-life interventions are guaranteed to produce a freak? Might that be so with IVF, as its early detractors insisted? Is it the case for so-called “three-parent babies” made by mitochondrial transplantation, a misleading term apparently invented for the very purpose of insisting on its unnaturalness? Would the first human clone be the next “unnatural freak,” if ever that technology becomes possible and desirable?

“Unnatural” is not a neutral description but a morally laden term, and dangerous for that reason: Its use threatens to prejudice or shut down discussion before it begins.

There’s something of this rush to judgment also in the commentary of Charles Robinson, the Frankenstein scholar who introduces the new annotated text. Speaking about the evils released from Pandora’s box by Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus in Greek myth—Shelley subtitled her novel “The Modern Prometheus”—Robinson says that such terrible consequences of careless tampering are reflected in “the pesticide DDT, the atom bomb, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl,” and the British government’s allowing a stem-cell scientist to perform genome editing “despite objections that ethical issues were being ignored.”

But each of these modern developments in fact involved a complex and case-specific chain of events, and incurs a delicate balance of pros and cons. Some, such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident, had rather little to do with the intrinsic ethics of the underlying technology, but were a consequence of particular political and bureaucratic decisions. To imply that they unambiguously show a lack of foresight (Epimetheus’s name means “afterthought”) or indeed of responsibility on the part of the scientists whose work made them possible would be to cheapen the discourse and to evade the real issues.

The decision on genome editing, meanwhile—presumably this refers to the granting of a license by the U.K. Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority for gene-editing of very early stage, non-viable embryos—supports medical research that might, among other things, help to reduce rates of miscarriage. Such work will never be free of ethical objections raised by those opposed to all research on human embryos. Without a doubt, Frankenstein asks challenging questions about research like this that touches on interventions in human life. But to suggest that it warns us to abjure such work doesn’t do Mary Shelley justice.

What, then, does the story of Victor Frankenstein’s doomed and misguided quest have to tell us about modern science in general, and technological intervention in life in particular? I think that, to find an answer, we needn’t try too hard to discern Shelley’s own intentions. Her text arose not out of a conscious desire to tell a moral tale—not, at any rate, one about science—but literally out of a nightmare. In her preface to the 1831 edition she described how the “ghastly image” of a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together” came to her as she tried to sleep after listening to conversations between Byron and Percy Shelley deep into the night, concerning the “principle of life.”

That retrospective account surely included some embellishment, but it seems fair to accept Shelley’s assertion that “my imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me.” The impact and enduring fascination of her novel depend on the author not having worked too hard to impose a meaning on the “ghastly image” she dreamed, to resolve the conflicts that it evoked in her, or to maintain a consistent attitude as she reworked her book.

So we can draw Luddite conclusions if that’s what we look for, just as we can read into the text Shelley’s fears about childbirth, her frustration and anger at her father’s rejection, political worries about the destructive potential of the inchoate mob, or an examination of male terror of female sexual and procreative independence.

But it surely matters at least as much now not just what Frankenstein is about but what the Frankenstein myth is about—what as a culture we have made of this wonderful, undisciplined book, whether that is Hollywood’s insistence that the artificial being be a stiff-limbed quasi-robotic mute or more contemporary efforts to tell a story that is sympathetic to the creature’s point of view. Frankenstein, after all, was never intended as an instruction manual to the bioethicist or the engineer. It is better seen as a catalyst, even an agent provocateur, that lures us into disclosing what we truly hope and fear.

The ambiguity of the book is an essential feature of myth, and all modern myths come from a similar fertile lack of authorial control. That isn’t a failing. Everyone loves a well-crafted story, but those crafted partly by the unconscious and delivered to us misshapen and unfinished hold a particular potential to be reanimated, time after time, to fit and to dramatize the anxieties of the age. Like Victor, we make Frankenstein in our own image.