Frankenstein

Frankenstein: Modern Day Science and Technology

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) tells the tale of one man’s ambition to play God and create life. This highly influential story has been retold and reimagined in many forms; from theatre, to television, and film adaptations.

Shelley’s novel presents an accurate account of how 18th-century thinkers theorised the process of language acquisition through the ways in which the creature acquires language.

Audiences and creative minds alike are still mesmerised by this story which concocts a mixture of debates within philosophy, science, feminism, and education.

Frankenstein is both a horror story to be told amongst friends on a dark and stormy night, but it is also a historical document which informs the reader of scientific and technological developments in the 19thcentury.

Frankenstein can ultimately be read as a moral cautionary tale about the limits of Enlightenment, ambition, and science.

Knowledge and education are essential but going too far is dangerous, so where is the boundary?

Historical Context

Frankenstein

Fundamentally, Frankenstein gives contemporary readers an insight into what life was like in the 1800s.

In a different time when there were still uncertainties about medical procedures, how diseases and viruses spread, and little to no information about women’s health, the early 1800s were a tumultuous period when it came to healthcare.

A key contextual point to note when reading Frankenstein in the 21st century is the high rates of maternal mortality in childbirth.

A reader is able to make the connections between context and fiction in Frankenstein by looking at Shelley’s characters: all of them are motherless.

From Victor Frankenstein’s mother dying at the start of the novel, to the orphaned characters such as Justine, and Victor’s adopted sister Elizabeth Lavenza, children without mothers or traditional parental figures in their lives is a source of anxiety throughout the novel.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Outside of the novel, it is important to note that the author’s birth was complicated. Mary Shelley was born to feminist radical Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, who died shortly after given birth.

Therefore, many read the motherlessness of Frankenstein as very much connected to Shelley’s personal life.

Frankenstein’s monster clearly has no parentage as Victor assembles the creature out of various corpses.

Technically, Victor is the creature’s parent or father, but he fails at this job as he flees to his bedroom and faints as soon as his creature comes alive.

Interestingly, Mary Wollstonecraft strongly believed that the job of mothering eg. caring for and raising children should be exclusively the mother’s job, thus, Shelley seems to share her mother’s view by presenting Victor’s failure to parent successfully.

Frankenstein and Modern Science

Frankenstein

Represented by his scientific pursuits, Shelley’s tale forewarns against the dangerous pursuit of knowledge which becomes Victor’s obsession.

The disaster that happens in the novel is the direct removal of Victor from the sphere of sensibility; he becomes so obsessed with his scientific endeavours that he becomes ill and isolates himself in his lab or the sublime mountains around Europe.

Victor loses all rationality and ceases to be a man of feeling; something that Mary Wollstonecraft looks down upon.

Frankenstein’s quest for scientific success within the context of the new revolutionary age highlights modern concerns for reckless experiments conducted by scientists without regard for consequence.

In his article on the novel’s morality, science correspondent Ronald Bailey argues that ‘Frankenstein’ is not a tale about a mad scientist who loses an out-of-control creature upon the world.

It’s a parable about a researcher who fails to take due responsibility for nurturing the moral capacities of his creation. Victor Frankenstein is the real monster.

Frankenstein and the developments in birthing practices

In the mid 18th century, birth became medicalised, rather being a traditionally midwife-led process.

This was a crucial transitional period in birthing practices during the age of Enlightenment. The birthing process once led by women was now taken over by male doctors who knew very little about women’s health, especially the complex process of giving birth.

This lack of basic knowledge produced many issues, some of which were prevalent in Mary Shelley’s birth. Shelley had a difficult birth as, significantly, science intervened with this natural process.

New technologies in surgery had to be involved to help Shelley’s birth, however, shortly after her birth, Shelley’s mother died due to complications during surgery.

Perhaps the surgical instruments were not appropriately sterilised, maybe the conditions of the hospital were poor, or maybe it was simply due to the lack of knowledge on the doctors’ part and they failed to care for the mother after the birth.

This medical trauma very much influenced themes and ideas explored in Shelley’s novel. She asks the questions: what happens when one plays God and creates life in a nonconventional way?

What is the impact on a child who has no parental figures? Which is more impactful on one’s life; nature or nurture? Where it was once thought of as a tale of horror, Frankenstein profoundly questions what it means to be human.

Educating Frankenstein’s Monster

Again, we must ask the question, although knowledge and education are essential but going too far is dangerous, where is the boundary?

The best way the novel demonstrates its attitudes to education and the acquisition of education is through the creature’s pursuit for learning.

Shelley’s novel presents an accurate account of how 18th-century thinkers theorised the process of language acquisition through the ways in which the creature acquires language.

Shelley shows the limits of this too through the creature, his education goes very well before it goes very wrong. The creature reads Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Bible to learn about how to live a human life.

Significantly, the creature learns in nature, he is literally outside in nature learning how to cope with who he is. Mary Wollstonecraft believed that if you learn in nature, everything else will fall into place, such as societal health and happy marriages.

The creature is set up as a man of feeling originally, when he acquires an education; he becomes emotionally attuned. This is what Victor fails to become as he loses all sensibility as he becomes distracted by the world of science and technology.

The creature encounters the DeLacey family, from who he learns how to interact socially, make conversation and learn about the family member’s backgrounds.

The creature gains a sentimental education, meaning his emotions become educated. It also learns the building blocks of life and society in the 19th century, which at the time were; compulsory heterosexuality, Christianity, the Adam and Eve narrative for companionship and morality.

As the novel progresses, Shelley makes a point to demonstrate how the creature becomes more human and rational whereas Victor deteriorates and becomes monstrous.

What can Frankenstein teach us about modern science and technology?

Despite not being a formal historical document, it is clear that we can track the changes and developments in science and technology to the present day.

The changes and acquisition of accurate knowledge about women’s health and childbirth from 1818 to the 21st Century are evident but acts as a strong way to read Shelley’s novel.

The trauma of her birth and losing her mother shortly after manifests itself within the instability of the creature’s birth and lack of parentage.

With recent new developments in scientific technology in our everyday lives; from robots taking over traditionally human roles and the rise of voice-activation technology in our homes, the question of what it means to be human is becoming increasingly harder to define.

Where will we go next? Will Frankenstein continue to be relevant and reflective of our society in 50 or 100 year’s time?