academic Books Classics fantasy fiction Gothic horror literature Science Fiction

The warning in “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

Halloween is one of my favourite times of the year, and for a special treat this holiday I’m taking a closer look at the messages weaved through one of the absolute classic Halloween stories – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Frankenstein, which has become one of the most well-known 19th century Gothic novels of all time, is an incredible story of revenge, prejudice and loss of innocence. It’s as powerful as it is intelligent, and Shelley was way ahead of her time. She issues a very important warning in this book, which is just as important now as it was when she wrote the book in 1817.

Mary Shelley’s chilling Gothic tale was conceived when she was only eighteen, living with her lover Percy Shelley on Lake Geneva. The story of Victor Frankenstein who, obsessed with creating life itself, plunders graveyards for the material to fashion a new being, but whose botched creature sets out to destroy his maker, would become the world’s most famous work of horror fiction, and remains a devastating exploration of the limits of human creativity.

Like all classics, like with J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye for example, I think the only way to fully be able to appreciate Shelley’s Frankenstein and the only way to really consider it a classic, is to actually look at it, and its place, in the era in which it was released. It’s important to keep in mind the context of the story as well as the story itself.

Obviously I wasn’t brought up in the 1810’s, and I (along with everyone else who didn’t) take a lot of today’s technological convinces for granted that wasn’t available back then.

But that never stopped Shelley’s imagination in terms of how she thought science and technology would develop over the centuries.

The story Frankenstein contains a very important warning for today’s society through the messages that Shelley weaves through her tale.

There are two key messages in this book. The first, and most obvious one, is that people are not God and we should not try to “play God”.

Our actions have consequences and there are things that out of our realm. We can’t, for example, bring someone back from the dead. We can’t make someone live forever. These are things that if we had the power to do would cause chaos for human life.

The subtitle, or alternate title, for Shelley’s story is The Modern Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. As a result, he suffered punishment eternally. Shelley mirrors this story, where Dr. Victor Frankenstein pursued a place of forbidden knowledge in arrogance, and breached the boundaries between human and divine principles.

Today, we associate the story of Prometheus with overstepping our limits, crossing into forbidden territory, and violating the sacred – Victor Frankenstein’s sin was to play god, to attempt to create life out of non-life.

In the story, things quickly get out of control and the monster goes on a murderous rage, killing everyone the Doctor cares about and even dies himself. When humans “play God” there are so many things outwith their control, and their actions can have severe consequences.

This warning is just as important today as it was back then. Today there so many things that that medical science allows us to do that would previously have been thought possible only through divine intervention. We can now use artificial reproduction to help people have children, for example.

Shelley’s warning is not to let science and technology go too far.

The other message is more subliminal as she tells us that “monsters” are not born as monsters. Victor Frankenstein’s creature became monstrous because of the way the Doctor treated him. In giving that creature a voice, Shelley makes understand that there is a disparity between his appearance and his thoughts. Although he looks hideous and like a monster, he is in fact the complete opposite.

The Doctor, abhorred by the hideousness of his creature, cruelly abandons him. He leaves him without care, and without any education to become a moral being. So his murderous rampage doesn’t stem from a violent impulse nor is it the result not of having been invented in the first place, but rather it stems from his profound neglect.

Again, this is another warning as she unknowingly mirrors today’s popular culture. She could have been making a statement on how humans should not mistreat one another for judgement of their appearance, and even their race.

Shelley’s Frankenstein is a powerful book, with a storyline that will have readers feeling desperate, yet hopeful at the same time. But I urge people – the next time you think about Frankenstein’s monster, try and open your eyes to the message being displayed between the lines.

People of this generation will hopefully adhere to the warnings of the story, and not make the same mistakes as the Doctor. This is what Shelley is warning us about.

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