Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley, the wife of poet and writer Percy Shelley, began writing the novel Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus when she was 18 and it was published in 1818 when she was 20. Most tend to think of it as a two-bit, pulp fiction type monster movie in the same vein as they view Godzilla or The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman but with the advances in technology it is actually a story that gives pause for thought. We are cloning, mapping the DNA of humans and animals, discussing using genetics to revive extinct species and saving the lives of people, from fetuses in the womb to the elderly, which would not have survived sometimes only a year or two prior. It can be said we are bringing people back from the dead and bringing forth life that under natural circumstances would not have been.
The novel is far ahead of its time and asks some questions that we had better start answering at our leisure rather than waiting until we are forced to make a decision because we are forced into it. If we revive extinct creatures or “grow a creature or person from scratch”, so to speak, we are bringing into existence a life that otherwise would not have been. We will be ignorant of its future actions and thoughts. What do we owe it? What are the almost infinite possibilities that could go wrong? Below are some passages from the book that will give something to think about. It is amazing that an 18 year old, especially one from the early 1800s, could conceive this story. The passages are in the order they appear in the book and may seem disjointed but make sense when reading the book as some are reflections of past experiences.
The story centers around a monster and Victor Frankenstein, the scientist that created and brought to life a being that ends up being malicious and goes on a spree of murder and destruction. It was not his intent but as the old saying goes about “the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” We are now doing research into many sciences that could be used to create artificial intelligence that will have the ability to think and make decisions. When that happens I sarcastically ask with our track record what could possibly go wrong?
The following passages are the monster and Victor Frankenstein confronting each other:
The monster: “Be calm! I entreat you to hear me, before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head. Have I not suffered enough that you seek to increase my misery? Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it. Remember, thou hast made me more powerful then thyself; my height is superior to thine; my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am by creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
“How can I move thee? Will no entreaties cause thee to turn a favorable eye upon thy creature, who implores thy goodness and compassion? Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity: but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me. The desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge. I have wandered here for many days; the caves of ice, which I only do not fear, are a dwelling to me, and the only one which man does not grudge. These bleak skies I hail, for they are kinder to me than your fellow beings. If the multitude of mankind knew of my existence, they would do as you do, and arm themselves for my destruction. Shall I not then hate them who abhor me? I will keep no terms with my enemies. I am miserable, and they shall share my wretchedness. Yet it is in your power to recompense me, and deliver them from an evil which it only remains for you to make so great that not only you and your family, but thousands of others, shall be swallowed up in the whirlwinds of its rage. Let your compassion be moved, and do not disdain me. Listen to my tale: when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me. The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defense before they are condemned. Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of men! Yet I ask you not to spare me: listen to me; and then, if you can, if you will, destroy the work of your hands.”
The monster goes on to describe his awakening and first feelings.
“It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being: all the events of that appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses. By degrees, I remember, a stronger light pressed upon my nerves, so that I was obliged to shut my eyes. Darkness then came over me, and troubled me; but hardly had I felt this, when, by opening my eyes, as I now suppose, light poured in upon me again.”
“…………….. Before I had quitted your apartment, on a sensation of cold, I had covered myself with some clothes; but these were insufficient to secure me from the dews of night. I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept.”
“……………….. No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness; innumerable sounds rung in my ears, and on all sides various scents saluted me: the only object that I could distinguish was the bright moon, and I fixed my eyes on that with pleasure.”
“………… I was delighted when I first discovered that a pleasant sound, which often saluted my ears, proceeded from the throats of the little winged animals who had often intercepted the sight from my eyes. ……………….. Sometimes I tried to imitate the pleasant songs of the birds, but was unable. Sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again.”
The monster went on to speak of discovering fire left by wandering beggars and examining it and discovering it was made of wood and how to keep it going by adding more wood. He also spoke of the distress of having to leave it because he did not know how to “reproduce it” and food was getting scarce in the area he was in. His first encounter with people and his being looked upon with horror and fear and was chased. He told of discovering a cottage and began watching the people that lived there. He remained hidden in the shadows because of his first harrowing encounter with people. How he discovered they could communicate with each other by sounds from them (speech). How he learned to speak and read from watching them teach the children that lived there. How he listened to them read literature and his memories of the books they discussed. His wondering of who or what he was.
“Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock. I wished sometimes to shake off all thought and feeling; but I learned that there was but one means to overcome the sensation of pain, and that was death – a state which I feared yet did not understand.”
“But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses; or if they had, all my past life was now a blot, a blind vacancy in which I distinguished nothing. From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I? The question again recurred, to be answered only with groans.”
Here he speaks of finding some books while gathering food and wood and of discovering they were in the language he learned from watching the people in the cottage.
“As I read, however, I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read, and whose conversation I was a listener. I sympathized with, and partly understood them, but I was unformed in mind; I was dependent on none and related to none. ………………….. My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred but I was unable to resolve them.” He began reading Plutarch’s Lives and then Paradise Lost.
“But Paradise lost excited different and far deeper emotions. I read it, as I had read the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquired knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as a fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I view the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”
The monster had wanted a mate and wanted Frankenstein to make one for him. He promised to leave the areas where humans inhabited and live with her by themselves. Frankenstein had agreed feeling that he owed his creation that much but he began considering the possible consequences and began having second thoughts.
Frankenstein “I sat one evening in my laboratory; the sun had set, and the moon was just rising from the sea; I had not sufficient light for my employment, and I remained idle, and a positive consideration of whether I should leave my labor for the night, or hastened its conclusion by an unremitting attention to it. As I sat, a train of reflection occurred to me, which led me to consider the effects of what I was now doing. Three years before I was engaged in the same manner, and had created a fiend whose unparalleled barbarity had desolated my heart, and filled it for ever with the bitterest remorse. I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate and delight for its own sake in murder and wretchedness. He had sworn to quit the neighborhood of man and hide himself in deserts; but she had not; and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive the greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation of being deserted by one of his own species.”
“Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the New World, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the demon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict his curse upon everlasting generations? I had before been moved by the sophisms of the being I had created; I had been struck senseless by his fiendish threats: but now, for the first time, the wickedness of my promise burst upon me; I shudder to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race.”
He ended up destroying the female he was creating and set the creature off on a murderous rampage. The book is recommended as an interesting read for the reader to ponder what responsibility we have with creating either machines or life. We had better answer the question soon because our knowledge is at that point. We have not developed as a species at the same rate as our technology.