The Prophetic Agony of Frankenstein’s Monster

mshelley

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus is a monster of a story. It incorporates the mores and tropes of the Romantic era in literature while pointing prophetically to the ethical scientific dilemmas of our own time. This much most of us know: In pride and a desire for importance, Dr. Frankenstein creates a nameless creature known only as “The Monster” out of the body parts of corpses, and through a vague sort of electrical process he animates the monster.

But unlike most 20th century movie portrayals, the original story is not a primitive horror film appealing to our base instinct of fear, but rather, a visionary and prophetic tale which imagines a horrific scenario in which man’s attempts to gain the powers of God result in the creation of a misshapen creature who retains the sensibilities and soul of a human being. Since all those he encounters find his visage viscerally repellent, The Monster cannot find happiness and satisfaction for the longings of his all-too-human soul. He aches for human companionship, including a wife and family, but those he meets reject him in kenboth fear and disgust before he can reveal his compassionate, loving spirit to them.

So the story is both a psychological insight into a person who is rejected by society – an outsider – and a monolithic statement about the devastation which occurs when man tries to play God. As the plot progresses we trace The Monster through his agonies: he attempts many times to connect with others, but eventually the continuous rejection he experiences fosters a pain in his heart so great that his bitterness turns him towards hatred and a revenge so all-encompassing that The Monster becomes a murderer. He then seeks reparation from his creator for the very act of his creation, murdering Frankenstein’s best friend, his fiancé, and his brother when Frankenstein will not cooperate with his demand to create a wife/companion for him.

While Shelley did not foresee the specifics, she did accurately imagine the philosophies of the 20th and now 21st centuries, as many scientists now coldly glorify eugenics, create and destroy test tube babies, offer parents the choice of destroying unborn children because of their gender or perceived handicaps, and develop new life from harvested fetal cells. In short, she foresaw the philosophy of Hegel’s “Superman,” borne out first in the

Hercules and Prometheus
Hercules and Prometheus

Hitlerian Third Reich and in the policies of many “civilized” nations today. The fact that the full title of the first edition of her novel is Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus reveals the depth of her understanding of the ultimate consequences in a society which was already rejecting the spiritual and sacred meanings of what it means to be human. She did, indeed, predict the future.

The ancient desire for power – the power to be like the creator, and the ways in which it would be played out in our world today through misuse of the discoveries of the Enlightenment – is so mightily and uncannily portrayed in Frankenstein that it’s almost unbelievable. Shelley truly saw what would happen if we were to choose to believe that the material world is the seat of our being, replacing the beauty of the soul and the true sense of the creator’s natural order with a mythical “perfection” which cannot be attained in this world.

*Recommended: Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 movie, “Frankenstein,” which is faithful to the original story.

Cindy C. Lange, MA

The Eternal Jane Eyre

Choosing the “best” novels is a nigh to impossible task, but at the top of my list is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The book both exemplifies and defies the genres of the Romantic Era and Gothic mystery; Brontë skillfully uses them as tropes to explore her complex, frustrating, challenging, lovable protagonist. The book is beloved by professors and “lay” readers alike because Jane’s inner life is so real that she not only lives in the pages of the book but with each subsequent reading she seems to grow and speak in a new way to the reader. 

Brontë does a deep dive into so many themes through Jane’s persona that it’s impossible to explore them all in just one or two readings; topics such as the roles of women, freedom of the will, the consequences of arbitrary class distinctions and the challenges of living out moral values are presented with subtlety and believability.

If you think about it the plot of Jane Eyre is similar to that of an epic story, both externally and internally. From her bitter and angry response to the abuses she endures as an orphan to her metamorphosis into a woman of strength of will and deep principles, Jane’s journey takes the reader on a wild emotional ride. At first blush it might appear that the plot is a rather picaresque story as Jane moves from place to place encountering various people and experiences. But it is not: it is a plot unified by the development of Jane’s soul as she learns from her forbearing friends to replace her hardened heart with one overflowing with forgiveness and mercy. By the time she meets Rochester Jane’s fundamental Christian character is established, but her ethics are tried by the surprising moral choice with which she is presented. Like the “Crossing the Threshold” stage of Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Cycle, she must emerge from the Valley of Death before finding her true and spiritual heroic status.

After the author has developed the superior character of Jane, presenting it in terms of Christian goodness and morality, Brontë brings in her antithesis, St. John Rivers. (It is not a coincidence that we discover he is a cousin, for he is her alter ego in many ways.) His zeal for religion is real but self-serving, and he himself says he is “ambitious.” It seems odd for a person who is consumed by ambition to want to dedicate his life to missionary work, but Brontë is bringing home the point that true religion must come from a humble servant’s heart. A life dedicated to others is not enough if it does not flow from a loving spirit, and contrarily, a soul which is can serve others anywhere.

The novel also follows both external and internal mysteries. Brontë uses these plot angles to spur the reader on, but the deeper significance of them is to highlight Jane’s spiritual development as she encounters the challenges of life. She could have responded to Rochester’s deceit with bitterness as she did when she had been wronged when younger, but instead she sees his plight and forgives him. She successfully crosses the great moral threshold of her life when she freely both loves and leaves him.

Jane’s desire for freedom – including the freedom to choose right – is prominent in the story. The motif of birds in cages and in flight comes to the fore when Jane says, “I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will.” Jane’s strength of will comes from her belief that she has the ability to choose her moral destiny and she will not, under any circumstances, relinquish that right.

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