Our Monsters, Ourselves

Frankenstein -- one of the most unforgettable fictional creatures in literature  -- turns 200 this year yet continues to be a global reference point

By Author  |  Pramod K Nayar  |  Published: 11th Nov 2018  12:13 am
Illustration by Guru G

January 1818: Five distinguished tourists marooned in a Geneva hotel due to bad weather. Their only source of pre-internet entertainment: the world’s oldest profession, story-telling. They narrated ghost stories to see who was the scariest storyteller of them all. One of them, the daughter of a distinguished feminist thinker, Mary Wollstonecraft, and political radical William Godwin, narrated a story of a creature put together from carcasses. This creature, unaccountably, becomes known by the name of the scientist, a name now synonymous with a host of modern meanings.

2018 celebrates the 200th anniversary of one of the most unforgettable fictional creatures in world literature, whose name is a metaphor, a concept and an idea that has become part of our vocabulary in science, arts, politics and everyday speech: Frankenstein.

First Modern Monster

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, is a tale that has never worn thin. From Bela Lugosi’s 1931 film version that supposedly sent women screaming in horror to 21st century reboots, the world’s second most famous monster (the first place must go to Bram Stoker’s creation, Dracula, appearing in 1897) has seen innumerable adaptations across all media —  from movies to plays.

Shelley gave us our first modern monster: a creature of science, embodying the most current scientific theory (galvanism). Today, ‘Frankenstein’, like the creature and the book, is part of a global cultural vocabulary and imagination.

Viktor Frankenstein unravels the secret of life in an isolated laboratory, having spent years away from his loved ones and his professional colleagues. He collects body parts from charnel houses and tombs and puts them together. He then animates the body. But when the body comes alive, Frankenstein is struck with horror at what he has created.

By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

Frankenstein flees the scene. The creature follows him, seeking recognition, affection and finally his rights as Frankenstein’s creation. After repeated rebuffs, and being christened ‘monster’, the creature retaliates. He kills members of Frankenstein’s family and his acquaintances, driving Frankenstein to despair. Eventually, Frankenstein begins to hunt the creature, and the creature leads him to the North Pole.

Structured partly as a thriller, Frankenstein builds up suspense, the hunter and the hunted in the desolate icy wastelands. Does the maker meet his match? Does the creature live and return to his human creator? Yet the reasons why Shelley’s novel has remained popular are beyond these questions.

Critique of Science

Shelley’s novel is traditionally seen as a critique of science. The scientist is ‘Prometheus’ (the subtitle of Shelley’s work), a hero who stole fire from the gods in order to benefit mankind. However, in Shelley, science with an overemphasis on ruthless rationality and unrelenting utilitarianism is equally driven by ego and pride, and lacking in ethics and a social commitment. Frankenstein constructs the creature not because he wishes to test his theories or benefit humanity. He says:

A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.

It is not, Shelley emphasises, for the sake of knowledge production that Frankenstein embarks on his project, but for personal aggrandisement and adulation. He seeks power over future generations. Further, the secreting away of knowledge by the scientist looks forward to the secrecy around science in today’s age. With no validation or legitimisation by his peers or scientific community, the knowledge Frankenstein accrues can no longer be regulated or contained, and would, of course, die with him.

The creature seeks a mate, with whom, he promises Frankenstein, he will go away and dwell in some corner of the earth. Frankenstein creates a female, then destroys it at the last moment, infuriating the creature, because Frankenstein worries that the creatures might breed. Shelley inaugurates a key theme in sci-fi here: more than monsters, we fear their reproduction, subsequently populating the earth and challenging humanity itself.

Playing Irresponsible God

‘Man ought not to play god’, is the commonly accepted moral of this tale. But Shelley’s point may perhaps lie elsewhere. It is not in playing God but playing an irresponsible God that danger lies. The creature repeatedly pleads with Frankenstein that he is the scientist’s progeny and his creation, and thus must be looked after. Frankenstein refuses. The progeny, who ought to have been Frankenstein’s first-born, then metamorphosises into a monster due to the neglect and indifference by the creator:

I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.

Shelley asks us to take responsibility for what we have created. Perhaps, Shelley is driving home the point that, having made what we have of Earth, we should treat it responsibly.

There is a deeper meaning at work in the social/human rejection of the creature. The monster is not born, he becomes one when treated badly. Resonant with current politics of body-shaming and the valorisation of appearance and appeal, any creature of repulsive physiognomy, who looks different, will be rejected by humanity, just as the creature is. Shelley delivers an object lesson on human anxiety and hatred of difference: the fear of people unlike us, who look different, speak a different language and who perhaps follow different food habits. The novel is less about the monster than about monstrofication, the remaking of difference as monstrosity.

The only human who does not fear the creature is a blind old man: being blind, he does not see its ugly visage. Shelley, writing in the age of slavery and colonialism, where to be black or brown-skinned was to be animalised as subhuman or non-human, offers a powerful criticism of the human urge to demonise the different and the Other.

Posthuman Tale

The gender theme – reproduction – linked to Mary Shelley’s personal life has been endlessly discussed by critics. The birthing metaphor Shelley inaugurates here would generate an entire subgenre – the gynaecological gothic, as one critic termed it – in horror with 20th century classics like Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos and Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child.

Frankenstein is a posthuman tale about a lifeform engineered in a laboratory, and anticipates clone-fictions and biopunk fictions of the 20th century, including, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Today, ‘Frankenstein’ is a metaphor that captures all the above meanings. Genetically Modified foods are called ‘Frankenstein foods’ to signal the dangers incipient in the very products of the human mind and technology. Terror groups, once funded by the state, are Frankensteinian: once created they do not obey the creator.

Shelley alerts us to the central problem here: since the creature is not responsible for his creation and yet is penalised for being born, who is the real monster — creature or creator? It is in the supreme arrogance of the indifferent creator and the human fear of difference that Shelley locates the monster’s origins.

The Jew, the Muslim, the Catholic, the gypsy – are all embodiments of persecuted difference: oppressed and rendered monsters solely because they are, at some points in history, different from the socially acceptable categories.

Our monsters, ultimately, are not out there – they are ourselves.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)