Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: On Playing God


In her gothic science-fiction novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley tells the story of the inevitable downfall of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster. The eccentric and overreaching Dr. Frankenstein is a man hungry for knowledge and scientific enlightenment. He has little, if any concern of humanity and the laws of nature. Dr. Frankenstein takes morals and ethics out of the equation as he engineers and reanimates a creature made from the body parts of various corpse. By examining Dr. Frankenstein’s god complex, Henry Clerval’s “moral relations of things” and Frankenstein’s monster itself, we can see Shelley’s argument of how science without moral boundaries and ethical codes can become a threat to humanity.

Dr. Frankenstein is the epitome of a man who is playing god. He takes pride in being an intellectual and he is hell-bent on “discovering the physical secrets of the world.” Dr. Frankenstein explains “that neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states possessed attractions for [him].” Instead, “it was the secrets of heaven and earth that [he] desired to learn.” This passage emphasizes an almost blatant disregard for government, law and human dignity. It does not matter what rules Dr. Frankenstein has to undermine or taboos he has to commit. If it is for the sake of scientific discovery and enlightenment, nothing else really matters. It is this kind of arrogance that leads not only to Dr. Frankenstein’s own destruction, but the downfall of those around him. Even the people that mattered most to Dr. Frankenstein has to suffer for his mistakes.

One of the casualties of Dr. Frankenstein’s hubris is Henry Clerval, one of Frankenstein’s closest friends. Clerval was strangled to death by Frankenstein’s monster in order to punish his creator for refusing to produce a female companion for him. Clerval serves as Dr. Frankenstein’s foil. Clerval was more concerned with “the moral relations of things. The busy stage of life, the virtues of heroes, and the actions of men were his theme; and his hope and his dream was to become one among those whose names are recorded in story, as the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species.” Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, Clerval was a champion for humanity. Clerval cared about morals and language and what it means to be a human being. Unlike Frankenstein, Clerval respects his fellow man and he has a code of ethics. Clerval would never harvest body parts and stick them together to make a living abomination. Dr. Frankenstein seems to be motivated almost entirely by his own self-interest and obsessions. On the other hand, Clerval wanted to use science to benefit the human race. Henry Clerval seems to be the perfect balance between science and humanity. Shelley is arguing that there is a place for science in society but there has to be some sort of ethical core to hold everything together. Clerval seems to be a potential hero of the story and when he is murdered, it highlights what a truly despicable thing Dr. Frankenstein has done.

Frankenstein’s monster is the personification of what harm science can bring if it not checked with moral and ethical standards. Frankenstein’s monster, albeit homicidal, is intelligent and has feelings. Just like most humans, the monster wants to have companionship and acceptance from others. The monster tells Dr. Frankenstein, “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.” Dr. Frankenstein fails to see the humanity in his own creation. Frankenstein has nothing but loathing and disgust for his creation. He does not feel as though he is the monster’s parent nor does he feel that he owes the monster any compassion or nurturing. The monster is reminding Dr. Frankenstein of his responsibilities. This emphasizes how there is more to life than how something or someone is created. Without humanity, what’s the point? Dr. Frankenstein never took into consideration what would happen to his monster after he had created it. The monster was nothing more than a curiosity to Dr. Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein never considered the fact that his monster is a freak of nature and will never become a part of society. The monster has no real purpose in life other than to maim and destroy. The monster is doomed to be alone for what could be an eternity. Most importantly, it was not the monster’s choice to become a monster. He did not ask Dr. Frankenstein to create him. Dr. Frankenstein made the decision all on his own. This creates sympathy for the monster because in many ways he is a victim of Dr. Frankenstein’s negligence. It is almost as if the monster is acting like an unwanted child seeking comfort from his father. In the end, both the monster and his creator dies. The science experiment did not help humanity in any way. All that came from it was death and suffering.

There are some lines that should never be crossed. Mary Shelley argues in her gothic science-fiction novel, Frankenstein,  that scientific discovery can be a threat to humanity if scientists and doctors and scholars alike do not have ethics. Shelley argues that science should have a purpose and that it should be used to help other human beings rather than to satisfy one’s self-interest. If Dr. Frankenstein had seen and nurtured the humanity in his monster, would the outcome have been different?

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