Benjamin has a Bachelors in philosophy and a Master's in humanities.
The Original Science Fiction
What do the movies The Matrix, Terminator, or Ex Machina, and TV shows like The Walking Dead and Battlestar Galactica have in common? Well, all these shows are inspired by a story written by a young 19-year old writer in 1816 named Mary Shelley.
Her book Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is often considered the mother of science fiction. In it, Shelley poses questions about whether the places science can go are places it should. Since its publication in 1818, Frankenstein has attracted many analyses about its author, its time, and its message.
Shelley as Mother
Literary critics, philosophers, and historians have all looked at Shelley's Frankenstein through many different lenses, but most analyses focus on how the book can help us understand Shelley herself, the historical and political world she lived in, and the message she sent about the pursuit of science and the enlightenment.
In reading Frankenstein with an eye towards the author, we learn that Shelley's inspiration came to her soon after losing her first child to a premature birth and shortly after the birth of her second child. Shelley wrote in her journal following her first child's death that she had recurring dreams that her child had come to life again.
Understanding her mindset as a young woman in a world where children and mothers often died young, analysts look at Frankenstein as a story about the anxiety of a new mother towards her child.
Frankenstein is also read in light of the social and historical changes of the time Shelley lived in. In 1816 when Shelley dreamed of Frankenstein, Europe had just defeated Napoleon and exiled him. The ideas of the French Revolution and the writings of Rousseau on liberating human nature still resonated in Europe, and Shelley's writing about creating a new man is read as a criticism of the social engineering agendas of revolutionaries, i.e. the idea that people can be retrained to be different.
Victor Frankenstein's inspiration for his creature is driven in Chapter 4 by his dismay that mankind dies and decays, the same sort of dismay is expressed by Rousseau in his dismay that man is born free, but is then chained by civilization. Frankenstein can be read then as a critique of the revolutionary passions of the time that sought to upset and recreate the established order. Shelley may be suggesting that the creature that is created by such passions will not bring the future they intend.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is most frequently read and interpreted as a Gothic horror on the dangers of the unbridled optimism of science. Gothic horror is a subset of romanticism as a genre that thrives on the excitement and terror of the mystery of nature and the supernatural.
Frankenstein fits into this genre as it explores the dangers of unbridled hubris (or tragic pride) by Frankenstein in trying to conquer nature by creating life without reproduction. This reading of Frankenstein also ties into feminist critiques of the novel as they note that the premise of the book is about a man who tries to take the feminine power to create life from nature.
Victor Frankenstein's lack of respect for the power of nature and the feminine is what leads to the tragic consequences of his actions, and reflects a deeper concern about the enlightenment's erosive attitude towards nature and traditional gender roles.
We have seen that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein gives us insight into the author and her anxieties over children, and gives us a window into the problems and conditions of her time. Frankenstein can be read as:
- a story about the anxiety of a new mother towards her child
- a criticism of the revolutionary idea of social engineering, the idea that people can be retrained to be different
- a Gothic horror (a genre subset of Romanticism often portraying the excitement and terror of nature) novel warning against the hubris (tragic pride) of trying to control the feminine power of reproduction
Frankenstein can give us pause in our personal pursuits as parents, our political dreams of revolution, and our aspirations to control our world.
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