On the anniversary of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Jacqueline Mulhallen looks beyond the cliches and finds a fable laced with powerful and timely commentary
Mary Shelley wrote in 1838 that she was not radical like ‘my parents and Shelley’ who were among the foremost political thinkers of her time. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her father, William Godwin, author of Political Justice. Her husband, drowned in a sailing accident in 1822, was revolutionary poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1816, however, Mary was eager to state her political views, and although she began Frankenstein (published 1818) as a horror story, like all good stories it has more than one purpose. The politics lies in the fact that it is actually two horror stories.
One story is about Victor Frankenstein, a young, well-off, middle-class man, healthy, intelligent and pleasant-looking with a loving family. With all these gifts, Frankenstein sets himself to create a living being, put together with bits of human remains and animated with electricity. It is not the creation of life itself that Shelley condemns him for, or his ‘presumption’, as right-wing critics were to term it, but the frenzied, selfish and monomaniacal way in which Frankenstein works, isolating himself, neglecting his friends and family, any amusements or pleasure and even his health, and devoting himself for two years to working on his ‘creature’ (Shelley never calls him a ‘monster’). When Frankenstein sees the result, however, he is repulsed by its huge and hideous appearance and, when the Creature approaches him, he runs out of his laboratory and makes his ‘escape’ from ‘the horror of that countenance’.
Frankenstein tells us that his Creature pursues him, killing his nearest and dearest. Then, in a conversation between him and the Creature when they do meet, we hear the second horror story. Abandoned by Frankenstein at the moment of creation, the Creature had to fend for himself: to teach himself the most basic things, such as how to see, speak and hear, what to eat, how to make fire. Wherever he went, people fled from him because of his ugliness, and so he hid himself during the day. In a poignant section, he explains how he watched a family from whom he learned language, reading and writing. He helped them by finding them fuel and doing other small kindnesses, longing to talk to them. One day he spoke to the old father, who was blind, and pleaded for understanding.
But the son returned and drove the Creature away with blows. On another occasion, he rescued a young girl from drowning, but was shot at for doing so. These experiences make him bitter and revengeful towards Frankenstein, and he murders Frankenstein’s little brother. He asks Frankenstein to make him a companion, a female, so that he has someone to love and to share his life with, saying ‘Do your duty towards me’. Frankenstein agrees, but later breaks his promise, and the subsequent murders and Frankenstein’s own death follow from this.
As we realise the dreadful suffering which Frankenstein has caused the Creature, our sympathies change. Against Frankenstein’s description of the Creature as a ‘fiend’, ‘devil’, and even ‘nothing in human shape’, although he had made the Creature ‘in human shape’, we set his failure to take any responsibility for the Creature at all, even after he hears his story. It is Frankenstein who should be described as a monster.
Mary Shelley was well aware of the suffering and loneliness of the outcast. She herself experienced this when she eloped with the already married Shelley, and she knew her parents were shunned for their political views. The Shelleys were very aware of the hugely unequal treatment of men and women, of slavery, and of the conditions of workers in mills, mines and agriculture. In his review of Frankenstein, P.B. Shelley suggested that people who are badly treated will not remain docile. Working class agitation had led to the 1807 abolition of the slave trade. Campaigns in England and Ireland for the reform of Parliament and the abolition of the Union led to the 1832 Reform Act and Catholic Emancipation in 1829.
We live at a time when there is much talk of ‘artificial intelligence’, of dreams of thinking machines enslaved to human beings. After all, what rights would a conscious machine have when human rights are still denied to people because of their appearance or beliefs? Like Victor Frankenstein, Trump and May and others with power are oblivious to their responsibilities to the vulnerable. Refugees, immigrants, the unemployed and disabled, they all suffer under ‘austerity’ and racism and from being demonised by the ruling class. In Frankenstein Mary Shelley showed us that terrorism is created by refusing conscious beings their human rights, and by the immoral betrayal of promises, as May broke her promise – one of many – and refused entry to the UK to 3,000 refugee children.