When it was first published in 1818, Frankenstein was a caustic indictment of the Enlightenment by way of Romanticism. The intellectual movement in question (lasting from the mid 17th century to the end of the Napoleonic Wars) had privileged reason over empathy, thinking over feeling, and science over expression. While it was an extraordinary era which gave birth to countless advances in what we today call S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and math), it was a post-religion world seeking a new god in the Individual, and the global trauma that resulted from that sudden elevation of ambitious young mavericks would last for centuries. With the church made anachronistic by the Goddess of Reason, European males of independent means rejected the community-based collectivism of previous centuries in search of what was “right for themselves.”
No longer interested in how their actions affected others (and in the holy name of Science, many unethical behaviors could be excused) these young rebels went on to transform the world: agrarianism was replaced by modern capitalism (and with it the Industrial Revolution); the Kingdom of France was replaced by the short-lived First Republic (intended to be a uptopian society stripped of churchy artifice or elitist classes, it descended into a bloody horror-scape); communities previously organized around land and nature were suddenly uprooted as ambitious young men left the country to work in city factories -- leaving their villages to age and die.
Mary Shelley’s parents, husband, and friends were all very active in the Enlightenment, and as a watchful, intelligent young girl, she quickly sniffed out its hypocrisies and unintended effects. When she wrote Frankenstein it was partly a commentary on the world that Europe had recently murdered by creating a new, man-made society. It would be possible, of course, for such a book to become dated – anchored to its historical context. But it hasn’t. Frankenstein is as relevant today as it was in 1818 – in fact, it may be even more cutting it its criticisms of our current society: the way we treat each other, the world around us, and ourselves. Here are just eight of the powerful ways that Frankenstein plugs into the 21st century.
8. ISSUES OF IDENTITY AND LONELINESS
Frankenstein’s dejected Creature would likely fit right into our selfie society – which is perhaps another way of saying he would feel that he fit in at all. The Creature’s greatest despair comes from his uniqueness (being the first man made by man), and the way he fails to find a role in society. He tries to befriend some humans, saves the lives of others, and quietly hopes for acceptance and inclusion – ever to be disappointed. In our own culture we find that identity – especially for young people – is more critical than ever. People want to simultaneously fit in and stand out. This is all the harder when you are made unique from the beginning – by physical, emotional, social, cultural, or sexual differences – leaving you cut off from acceptance and the object of targeted attacks. The Creature is repeatedly physically assaulted for his looks (at one point driving a happy-go-lucky son of the Enlightenment, Felix, to a frenzied, psychotic attack), and kept on the run to escape derision. I need not go into much detail about the way internet bullying works today to draw the parallel.
7. PREJUDICE AND HOMELESSNESS
Hand-in-glove with bullying and identity are issues of prejudice. Frankenstein has frequently been interpreted on stage with racial undertones, and for good reason. Everywhere the Creature goes he is rejected because of his appearance. Unlike the movie monsters whose mumblings and growls suggest animalistic stupor, Shelley’s Creature is intelligent, well-spoken, and articulate. This is not enough, however, to absolve him for the sin of his skin. Physically unique from those around him, he is reminded that he doesn’t fit in with acts of violence. Another contemporary parallel here is the reactionary treatment of refugees worldwide: like them, the Creature is homeless, helpless, and desperately in search of Home. He longs to have a wife and to live a quiet life of peace, but is forced to constantly move whenever he is discovered (and, naturally, chased out of town).
6. ENVIRONMENTAL HUBRIS
Mary Shelley seemed to see the Creature as the mutant hybrid of Man and Nature. Whereas the first man in Western folklore was made by the divine touch of the gods, a man created by man must be crafted with some power pirated from Heaven (implied to be lightning: Victor’s first great memory was of lightning devouring an oak, and whenever lightning is mentioned, it is a harbinger of the Creature). The Creature is at home in Nature: impervious to cold, he treats the Alps like a playground and the Pole like a skating rink. He maintains a vegetarian diet, and can live for weeks on a few berries and roots. Essentially, the Creature becomes a metaphor for the environment once mankind has harnessed and enslaved it. But Shelley warns us – while Nature can be temporarily enslaved, it will always become free eventually, and return to restore balance and order (usually through acts of punishing violence). Thus the Creature makes up for his own creation by killing off Victor’s family and himself.
While Shelley observed the pollution of mill towns in northern England, nothing could have prepared her for the devastation of the following 200 years. Today we are inundated with warnings of what will happen when nature over-corrects to restore the status quo to our glutted waters and poisoned air – if Mother Nature has any reaction even approaching the Creature’s, we had better prepare for a nightmare.
5. THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF SOCIAL PRIVILEGE
To have social privilege is not to be evil, but to use that privilege for selfish gain without using your abilities to help those left behind is to be part of a problem as old of humanity itself. Victor Frankenstein had all the privilege that a middle-class Swiss doctor could expect: college educated, independently wealthy, idly rich, and the son of a town magistrate to boot, he had all the power he could manage, but none of the responsibilities. When Justine – a woman and a minority Catholic – is accused of a murder he tacitly brought about, he lets her hang without a word in her defense, failing to use his influence to bring justice to the falsely accused. When his family comes to him for support during their sorrows, he uses the leverage of his occupation and wealth to abandon them for years -- leaving them to their grief because he can afford to.
Our society is constantly struggling over the meaning of privilege, but few can doubt that some groups in the 21st century feel as abandoned, betrayed, and left to swing as Justine and Victor’s family.
4. THE PERILS OF NARCISSISM AND OUR NEED FOR EMPATHY
The old adage puts it: “Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein is the doctor; wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster.” Victor Frankenstein is one of the great villains in western literature, and while his Creature has taken the brunt of the hate, a reading of Shelley’s text reveals an A-grade sociopath with enormous levels of narcissism and profound deficits in empathy. Like a classic narcissist, he doesn’t seem to understand how profoundly he has been responsible for others’ misery: Justine’s execution, his father’s broken heart, and the murders of William, Henry, and Elizabeth. He mourns them, but places the blame solely at the Creature’s feet.
Having rejected his self-made son from the moment life entered his heart, Victor refused love and acceptance to a vulnerable dependent with the mind of an infant. Like a deadbeat dad, Victor moves on and tries to forget his existence. Today more than ever – especially politically – our world has little use for empathy, having developed “digital courage” that makes it easy to harass, humiliate, and demean other people (either as groups or individuals) without ever expecting to have to answer for it. As Victor Frankenstein learned, however, even if you feel like you’re important today, that can all change in the blink of an eye, leaving you alone, unloved, and unimpressive.
3. THEMES OF FEMININITY AND MASCULINITY
In many ways Frankenstein represents a battle of the sexes – or, rather, of gender. Victor, naturally, represents a hard-nosed, business-minded, self-assured form of masculinity. His sometimes androgynous Creature represents a more nurturing masculinity with his circular, Eastern views on life, love for others, eloquent ability to express emotion, and long-suffering patience. Elizabeth, too, represents positive femininity, as did Victor’s mother: nurturing, self-giving, community-minded, and generous. Where Victor is all reason and science and logic and “collateral damage,” Elizabeth is intuition (sensing immediately Justine’s innocence in spite of the evidence) and nature and love and belonging.
Their marriage would have brought their opposing natures together in a harmonious union between masculine and feminine qualities – celebrating and edifying each – but Victor’s sexist rejection of Elizabeth’s (and the Creature’s) feminine sensibilities (primarily their tendency towards generosity, inclusion, and self-sacrifice) ruins their future and wrecks their happiness.
2. THE RIPPLE EFFECTS OF IRRESPONSIBLE SELF-INTEREST
Our world is now keenly aware that acting in self-interest can have horrifying aftershocks. The 2008 Great Recession was caused by people acting without concern for others, as has been the steady pollution of the seas and air over 200 years of industrial activity, as have been the hundreds of acts of terrorism, mass shootings, and mass murder committed by fanatics on the far-left and far-right fringes of society. Victor’s rejection of his newborn son seems nipped in the bud when he leaves him in the middle of the night. “Oh well, that was weird…” But his selfishness has far-reaching effects, including the unjust execution of an innocent woman, the extinction of his entire family, and the murder of his long-suffering wife before he has a chance to warm the wedding bed. Victor learns (or should learn), as we have, that indiscriminate acts of self-interest might avoid complications for a while, but eventually we all reap what we sow.
1. INDIVIDUALISM VS. COMMUNITY
The thesis of Frankenstein can boil down to a conflict between individualism and community. Victor abandons his family, rejects the natural means of procreation by putting off his relationship with Elizabeth, and secrets himself away in the loneliest spots he can imagine: graveyards, attic rooms, the wastes of the Alps, the wilds of the Hebrides. The ultimate individualist, Victor is sickened by the idea of mentoring the Creature (Responsibilities?!! Gross!), and bored by his family’s “neediness.” They miss him (gone for four years), they need him (his brother died), they want him to get married (Elizabeth is depressed and growing old). Nag, nag, nag…
What Victor misses is that community – read: friends, family, love, acceptance, trust, honesty, openness, respect, appreciation, support – is the solution to all of his problems, and up until his very death, the decision to open himself to community would have put an end to his misery had he taken it. But he never does. Our own culture is enraptured with individualism, which is often wonderful (creativity, expressiveness, and art spring from it), but can also lead to the narcissism, lack of empathy, anthropocentricism, prejudice, bullying, and identity issues discussed earlier. If there was any lesson Mary Shelley had for the 21st century it would probably be this: open your hearts to each other, open your lives to community with your fellow beings – do this, for God’s sake, while you still have time.
You can read more of our thoughts on Frankenstein HERE in our annotated and illustrated edition of the Gothic classic