Frankenstein Commentary

Frankenstein: The Man and the Monster Suzanna Storment
October 2002

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein cannot merely be read as a literary work of the early 19th century. It represents the workings of young Shelley’s mind. Further, it represents the vast scientific discoveries of the time, combined with Mary Shelley’s intuitive perception of science. She views science as a powerful entity, but also recognizes the dangers if uncontrolled. Shelley demonstrates this fear in the book as science drives Victor Frankenstein to create his monster. In the end, it is also his use of science that inevitably becomes his demise.

Mary Shelley’s life experiences are blatantly displayed in her writing of Frankenstein. Her use of science in the book directly relates to the many discoveries of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, specifically the discovery of the nature of electricity. For example, Benjamin Franklin was a well-known scientist who studied the scientific properties of electricity in the 1700’s. He not only performed the infamous experiment with the kite and lightning, but also studied the possible medical benefits of electricity. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is undoubtedly a product of his research of this crucial aspect in the book, electricity.

In Frankenstein, electricity serves as the very tool which creates life — creates the monster. It gives life to the lifeless. Early medical experiments demonstrated this phenomenon as a dead frog leg jolted with the injection of electricity, serving as a bridge between electricity and biology and chemistry. This bridge, along with his study of out-dated scientific works, leads Victor Frankenstein to fantasize about the possibilities of creating life using the power of electricity and the body of a once living man. In actuality, regenerating life becomes his obsession. After much research and studying, Victor tells us this, “I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation up on lifeless matter.” Victor Frankenstein recognizes the power he holds with his knowledge, and even considers the dangers. He says, “When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it.” This acknowledgment of the danger is significant as it displays Victor’s conscious ­ and his willingness to disregard it, or his inability to obey it.

It is Frankenstein’s discovery of creating life that introduces the duality of science, of electricity, of even Victor Frankenstein himself. Scientific experiments are performed for a purpose, yet a reverse, commonly negative, affect is nearly always introduced. Just as science can end up creating dual reactions, electricity holds this same power. Electricity holds the power of magnetism — the negative and positive forces pulling away from each other. This example of electricity’s duality can be applied to many aspects of Frankenstein, including good versus evil, and even to Dr. Victor Frankenstein himself. He understands the power he possesses; yet he acts anyway. He has all the control and the knowledge in the beginning, but is left powerless in the end. Victor creates life because of his own greed, and the monster haunts him to the end because of it. The very monster to which he gives life strives to deprive Victor of his own.

One may also view the duality of Victor Frankenstein and his monster as an even greater force. Frankenstein and his creation may even represent one being — two sides of a single entity forming a doppelganger relationship. However, it is difficult to decipher which represent good and which represents evil — the man or the monster. One would initially assume the monster is the evil, yet it is Dr. Frankenstein who creates the monster and then hides from the responsibility. His cowardice not only leads to the death of his younger brother, but also to that of the young girl accused of his murder. The monster, in fact, has moments of great intellect and rationality. He even acts as somewhat of a conscious of Frankenstein’s. Because of Victor’s selfish and evil actions, the monster haunts him endlessly. Inevitably, Victor ends up in a hellish, barren wasteland being chased by his own creation. As written before, electricity holds the power of magnetism, or a driving force. The early studies of magnetism were directly related to astrology and unknown forces on people. This study does not seem entirely unrelated to Frankenstein. First of all, Dr. Victor Frankenstein feels uncontrollably compelled to create animation in the lifeless body. He can see the devastation his creation will cause in the future to him, yet he does it anyway. It is as if he is fated to create the monster. This lack of control may come both from the evil inside him, as well as outer forces of the world. Victor Frankenstein seems to be a tragically flawed character.

It is important to consider Victor Frankenstein’s duality and magnetism in today’s perception of Frankenstein. Because the man and the monster seem to be two halves of one being held together by magnetism, modern day has confused the two. Dr. Frankenstein has become merely “the mad scientist” while his monster has become Frankenstein. It is likely not coincidental that a monster would be given the name Frankenstein — the name of a man who caused such uncontrolled destruction. This is again the doppelganger relationship of Frankenstein and his unnamed monster showing itself in the novel.

Mary Shelley’s perceptions of science and the dangerous power it potentially holds are intuitive. Modern day science deals daily with the exact issues of which Shelley was apparently keenly aware. She introduces ethics to the study of science, even gives science a conscious. As the monster acts on Frankenstein’s conscious, some would say that Mary Shelley writes literature to act as science’s conscious. It was as if she acknowledged that the future of science, if uncontrolled, could be disastrous. The book serves to warn readers, both past and current, of our own powers. It was almost as if Mary Shelley in 1818 could see nearly 200 years into the future, recognizing that our scientific discoveries of nuclear weapons and cloning could eventually be our demise.

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