ankenstein essaysFrankenstein and theEnlightenment
Many people say that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein postdates the Enlightenment; that it is a looking-back on the cultural phenomenon after its completion, and a first uncertain reaction to the movement. I must disagree. There is no “after the Enlightenment.” A civilization does not simply stop learning. Where is the point at which someone stands up and says, “Okay, that’s enough Enlightening for now, I think we’re good for another few centuries”?
For better or for worse, the Enlightenment is still going on today. As the Information Age advances, we continue to invent and build. Exploration now reaches to the depths of the oceans and the nearer regions of space. We peer beyond the atom, beyond the sub-atomic particle, delving ever deeper into the secrets of science to find that ultimate point at which it converges with philosophy.
The question is: do we want to?
The picture on the cover of our edition of Frankenstein is Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump — an appropriate scene, not only for how it recalls Shelley’s mental state, but also for how well it illustrates precisely that doubt about the Enlightenment the novel was written to express. All around a table, at which a scientific experiment that harms a living creature is being conducted, are seated various people of differing social positions, and similarly differing reactions to the event at hand. A pair of inquisitive young men look on eagerly, a frightened woman turns her head away in abject horror, a young girl stares apprehensively, unsure of what to think. That young girl is us. And based on what we see in the air pump, we must decide whether we will become the frightened woman or the interested men.
I find little room to doubt that Shelley is trying to instill some sense of fear in her reader. For not only does Victor Frankenstein loathe his own creation — and let us not be mistaken, the work of the doctor is without question a symbol for the larger body of work of all Enlightenment scientists, seeking knowledge they do not understand in order to perform tasks previously thought impossible — but the creation curses himself as well, speaking of the grotesqueness of his appearance and admitting freely to having willfully done evil.
Perhaps in Shelley’s mind this is indeed unspeakable. For my part, rather than view Frankenstein’s monster as a symptom of the potential terror resulting from the advances of Enlightenment science, I look on it as a symptom as one of the advances made by Enlightenment philosophy.
What I mean is this: before the Enlightenment, there were stories such as Beowulf. A valiant and celebrated hero came from across the sea to do glorious battle with the vicious, bestial enemy, Grendel, of a good and noble people. Grendel is both “the enemy of man” and “God’s enemy.” His motives are simple and unambiguous: he is “moved by spite against human kind.” Beowulf, in sharp contrast, is righteous as well as a born victor. Upon first meeting him, one person remarks,
“I am thinking that
the Holy God, as a grace to us
Danes in the West, has directed him here
against Grendel’s oppression.”
The hero himself makes comments such as, “shall I not try / a single match with this monster Grendel . . . ?” The model here is far from obscure. The forces of good, embodied and personified in the figure of a lone, brave, skilled hero, about whom epic poetry will later be written, are pitted against the forces of evil, embodied and personified in the figure of a ferociously strong, wild, bloodthirsty, mad beast. Of course, good wins.
Then comes the Enlightenment, and, in its earlier years, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. With this work we see a literary device rare enough even in novels today, to say nothing of in epic poetry: a hero who is a villain. The character of Satan, to whom we are introduced from the start, and with whom we therefore identify, wins our sympathy by presenting to us a working case in favor of himself and his legions of fallen angels, and against God and the remainder of the angels. Although most people’s first response to the devil is usually an automatic one of hatred and fear, Milton gets his audience on Satan’s side, feeling righteous anger on his behalf.
The Enlightenment continues. I have stated already that I do not feel it ends at a specific point, but towards the latter years of its immediate influence on civilization, Frankenstein is written. This takes us a step farther than Paradise Lost, though the distinction may appear subtle: where that poem gave us a hero who was a villain, this novel gives us a villain who is a hero. We hear Dr. Frankenstein’s side of the story first, and are certainly more likely to stand behind it than behind the monster’s in any event, yet, almost despite ourselves, we are forced to agree that the monster has a point. Perhaps those readers who have spent time on the fringes of society themselves concede more willingly, but sooner or later, every one of us cannot but think: supposing I were in his situation, supposing I were the only one of my kind, shunned by my creator, lacking a suitable mate — indeed, any possible mate with whom to share the experience of the world, whether good or ill? And who among us would not feel the same anger, the same indignation? It’s inescapable: the monster has more than just a point, in fact, there are times when it seems he’s altogether in the right, and it’s Victor Frankenstein who’s the criminal.
The bulk — most of the intellectual work — of the Enlightenment passes, our culture finds itself changed by it, and a book surfaces in the 20th century: Grendel, by John Gardner. Where Paradise Lost and Frankenstein set out to upset the heroic paradigm a bit, Grendel takes permission from them to turn it utterly on its head: now we have a protagonist who is at once hero and villain.
Gardner does not mean to rewrite the epic from which he lifts his novel; that would cheapen it. Grendel is still the same bloodthirsty, warlike, animalistic beast he always was. “How,” he says, “you may ask, could I hound the king — shatter him again and again, drive him deeper into woe? I have no answer, except perhaps this: why should I not? Has he made any move to deserve my kindness?” Then later:
“Who says I have to defend myself? I’m a machine, like you. Like all of you. Blood-lust and rage are my character. Why does the lion not wisely settle down and be a horse? In any case, I too am learning, ordeal by ordeal, my indignity. It’s all I have, my only weapon for smashing through these stiff coffin-walls of the world. So I dance in the moonlight, make foul jokes, or labor to shake the foundations of night with my heaped-up howls of rage.”
The difference in this Grendel is that, violent as he is, it is not without some explanation. He has known pain, pain that may, not inappropriately, be blamed on the humans. He has fallen in love with Queen Wealtheow at the very moment of her deliverance to King Hrothgar. (“She looked up at Hrothgar’s beard, not his eyes, afraid of him. ‘My lord,’ she said. O woe! O wretched violation of sense!”) He has been seduced by the songs of Hrothgar’s harp-player, the Shaper, and at the instance of his trying to participate in the beauty he feels in them, spurned harshly by the humans:
“I staggered out into the open and up toward the hall with my burden a human body for whose death Grendel is not responsible, groaning out, ‘Mercy! Peace!’ The harper broke off, the people screamed . . . . Drunken men rushed me with battle-axes. I sank to my knees, crying, ‘Friend! Friend!’ They hacked at me, yipping like dogs.”
How similar to the scene in Frankenstein that depicts the monster’s first real attempt to communicate with the outside world — an extremely well planned and well intentioned venture —
“Felix darted forward, and with supernatural force tore me from his father, to whose knees I still clung: in a transport of fury, he dashed me to the ground and struck me violently with a stick. I could have torn him limb from limb, as the lion rends the antelope. But my heart sunk within me as with bitter sickness, and I refrained. I saw him on the point of repeating his blow, when, overcome by pain and anguish, I quitted the cottage . . . .”
In fact, there is a great deal of similarity between Frankenstein’s monster and the Grendel of the 20th century novel. The first thing one notices about each is that they can speak, and with a reasonable degree of eloquence, at that. The Beowulf of the epic certainly never would have suspected such a development, and I imagine Dr. Frankenstein must have been a little bit surprised to hear intelligent words pour forth from the mouth of a being so recently created. In truth, intellect is a new fashion for wretches to be wearing. But how much more so honesty and ethics! — the ethics of an outcast though they be. What’s more, both expect that they should be loved by their “parents,” no matter what they are. The line in Frankenstein, “Still thou Victor canst listen to me the monster and grant me thy compassion,” paves the way for this one in Grendel: “My mother loved me Grendel, in some mysterious sense I understood without her speaking it. I was her creation.”
Perhaps this comparison is even more striking, though, when you consider that Victor and Beowulf also play the same role. Victor Frankenstein is without a doubt a hero, not one in the traditional sense in which Beowulf is one, but no less a hero. He epitomizes the Enlightenment ideal of progress, of achieving the impossible, of being educated about much but passionate about one’s specific area of work. Further, he holds at least as much prejudice for the adversary against whom he has pitted himself — and I might point out here that in both cases, it is the hero who chooses to make it his business to combat the villain — as Beowulf does for his. The Beowulf of Grendel even turns out to be more capable of sadism:
“He answers with a twist that hurls me forward screaming. The thanes make way. I fall against a table and smash it, and wall timbers crack. And still he whispers.
“Grendel, Grendel! You make the world by whispers, second by second. Are you blind to that? Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point. Feel the wall: is it not hard? He smashes me against it, breaks open my forehead. Hard, yes! Observe the hardness, write it down in careful runes. Now sing of walls! Sing!”
And in the end it’s “poor Grendel” who hurts the most, who suffers the greatest pain.
This is the legacy of the Enlightenment. On one hand, the possibility that what we thought we could trust — our own scientific skill, our romantic notions of what’s a hero and what’s a villain — might now get ripped out from under us. The discovery of the quark; the discovery of a sadistic Beowulf. On the other hand, the permission to think differently, to break the traditional friend/foe mold; more importantly, to look on new characters without automatically placing them in one or the other side of that mold.
Do we want to?
Ought we to fear the introduction of the new? Ought we to back off from trying what shouldn’t work, in case it goes horribly wrong? Or ought we to enjoy our newfound liberation from the notion that there are some things that won’t work? To experiment, and see what does, anyway?
“Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.”
— Victor Frankenstein
ankenstein essaysFrankenstein and theEnlightenment