Thursday, October 30, 2014

Thoughts on Books: Frankenstein

All Hallow's Eve has come again and, to commemorate the holiday, the Thoughts on Books novel is a Halloween classic, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Which brings up another important landmark, we are featuring our first woman author on the blog! We've talked about her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, before. You can check out his post here. I can't imagine what this couple's life must have been like, writing all the time and running around Europe. They had two distinct and profound minds.

Mary's gothic novel was groundbreaking. She titled it Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a titan who fought with Zeus against the other Titans in the great war, the Titanomachy. It seems likely that Mary referred to one of Prometheus' specific exploits against Zeus for her book. As the story goes, the titan stole the fire from Olympus and brought it to the benefit of mankind. In retaliation, Zeus cursed Prometheus for all eternity. Most of his stories focus on the theme of a non-god challenge the authority and sovereignty of the almighty Zeus.

When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she was a very intelligent girl with an original twist on a classic idea. There had been several creator myths prior to her novel, but she may have been the first to put man in the creator role. Exploring that motif was a fascinating development for her time period and has traveled through time as a classic. When it was published it must have been completely scandalous. She first published it anonymously. Even now, the true story of Frankenstein, can be jarring.

First of all, Frankenstein 101. This monster is not Frankenstein. Frankenstein is the last name of the scientist who created the creature that popularly absorbs his name.

This is not Frankenstein's monster. The cutesy, smiley, adorable creature completely negates the most important idea of the novel: the creature was so hideous that humans instantly abhorred and reviled him.

There are probably a thousand different and important themes from the book to discuss, but after seeing a theatrical production of the story, one idea has stuck with me more than any other. It goes right back to Mary Shelley's original intention and Prometheus stealing the fire from Olympus: the moral conflict between creator and creation.

Mary wrote the novel at time when she was likely at odds with the parent-child mechanism. After running off with Percy Shelley abroad from England and becoming penniless, her father refused to see her. She was confused. Her father had always been a proponent that marriage was oppressive. Her amorous relationship with a married man should not have bothered him, and still he refused her.

Soon after she became a parent herself; however, the child died while still very young.

Lord Byron's house, where Frankenstein was conceived
Under this psychological pretense, Percy and Lord Byron's, Mary's friends, asked her to come up with a ghost story. She got the idea late one night, saying the idea possessed her so completely that she couldn't go to sleep.

The big question of the novel is this: what responsibilities exist between a creator and its creation?

The book makes a very strong case that a creator, by necessity, must live up to a higher standard than its creation. Frankenstein's creature, like many children, is adept at identifying the hypocrisy of mankind. Eventually this leads him to the question, "If my creator has this, why can't I have this?" When the creature thus dethrones the sovereignty of his creator he finds himself at a moral standstill.

What makes Frankenstein unique is that man creates man. The question the creature asks is paramount to creation. What rules can possibly govern a creation if there is no hierarchy in primitive ability between creator and its creation?

Mary Shelley felt this hypocrisy when her father forsake her. Her father, whose very words seemed to advocate her decision to pursue love at any cost, condemned her behavior. Did her father's words carry any weight without the authority of a respected fatherly relationship?

The book continues to be a classic today because it still has important themes to explore. If there were ever a time that the common man or woman was exalted to a high pinnacle, it is today. But if mankind now reaches new heights, what principles can possibly govern it? We often turn to past minds for moral guidance. Philosophers of ages past and books from times long gone are more important now if ever. But how can that make any sense? Surely, access to information and intellect is more available today than ever before.

What happens when someone realizes, "Hey, I'm not that different from the men who wrote the laws. Why should I follow something made by one no more powerful or wise than I?"

The need for a creator more powerful than ourselves is irreplaceable. The worst thing we can do as a society, is to replace the rules that govern us, whether they be abstract concepts of justice, or the idea of God. Without governing principles, everything would melt into chaos.

Mary Shelley grasped this idea when, to come up with a ghost story at the request of her loved ones, she stumbled upon a horrific scene at midnight. In her words:

"I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."

If you haven't read Frankenstein, it's not long, and it's a perfect book for Halloween.