Posted by David Kalat on October 22, 2011
We begin with a warning:
This vaguely threatening yet ironically tongue-in-cheek admonition would influence generations of horror filmmakers to come. And I don’t just refer to all the times that savvy exploitationists would post nurses in the lobby to relieve the fainthearted, or take out insurance policies in cases audience members died of fright. Those are stories for another day. What matters to me today is that bit where Edward Van Sloan worries that Frankenstein did what he did “without reckoning on God.”
Mary Shelley’s novel arrived in 1818. That’s close to two hundred years this thing has served as one of the central metaphors of the Western world’s attitude towards scientific advancement, in particular any developments in the life sciences.
The Frankenstein metaphor has come to serve as the all-purpose go-to analogy by which to describe–and condemn–amoral scientists whose egotistical urge to expand human knowledge threatens to give us more than we are ready to handle.
This is of course completely ridiculous.
Mary Shelly wrote her seminal novel back in 1818. In 1818 there was scarcely anything you could credibly call medicine at all. How could anyone complain about scientific overreach when there was demonstrable scientific underreach? Doctors had only had stethoscopes for two years. There were no anasthetics. Doctors knew nothing about germs. There was only one vaccine—for smallpox—while all other diseases raged without restraint. Human blood would not be successfully transfused for almost a hundred years.
If there is anything we can say about this state of affairs, it is that the world in which Mary Shelley lived was not afflicted with too much science!
Now, some may say that this merely demonstrates how prescient Ms. Shelley was, how forward-thinking her ideas. Well, maybe. But for her book to have had the effect that it did, it had to latch onto something in its contemporaries, some meaning that a reader in 1818 would accept without having to speculate about scientific imponderables two hundred years away.
What a shame that line was excised from the original release of James Whale’s film. It isn’t just a great line, delivered with nutty conviction by Colin Clive, and it isn’t just a moment of casual blasphemy. It is the very essence of the true meaning of the story.
It was Whale’s film version that first emphasized the technological aspects of the story–those glorious contraptions, that stunning art design.
The book, and the 1910 film version, treated the “science” of Frankenstein as just so much folderol, a MacGuffin to introduce the artificial man into the story.
Whale was so good at providing a reasonably convincing visualization of reviving the dead–no, more than that, a stunningly satisfying visualization of reviving the dead–it focused popular attention on that part of the story–and sequels/remakes/followers would invoke blood transfusions, organ transplants, atomic age science, and cloning as examples of Frankensteinian overreach.
I have my doubts whether Shelley ever intended this story as a rebuke to scientific hubris. She wasn’t a scientist, her era was colored by scientific primitivity, and the scientific aspect of the story is marginalized and vague.
You know, if anything, given who Shelley was, we ought to assume her book is an attack on convention. And this is precisely what I think it is–and why I think most film adaptations have grieviously missed the point.
Forget that line about Frankie “not reckoning on God.” It is delivered in a prelude to the film proper, addressed to the audience by a character whom the rest of the film treats with little sympathy. You can’t credibly argue that line accurately represents the intentions of the movie that follows it.
Instead, the key line is Frankenstein’s (censored) rant about becoming God. That’s what this story has really been about all along. It is about the disillusionment felt by a being who comes to understand that his Creator isn’t worthy of worship.
Religious traditions offer up two separate ideas, packaged as if they were one. The first of these is that the power of creation resides in a Creator–that we exist thanks the actions of a Creative force.
The second notion, rarely acknowledged as a distinct idea, is that the Creator is a force of good–omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and ultimately moral–The Creator is the source of both existence and meaning.
These two are not necessarily the same idea. Imagining that a sentient force is the source of existence doesn’t necessarily mean that force is any good–for the sake of argument, let’s scale it down to a human level. You exist because your parents had you–but not all parents are good hearted and caring. Some people come into this world thanks to the agency of some right rotten buggers.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein posits that the power of life and death is not beyond human understanding or control–that an ordinary person, flawed and damaged, could harness this power over life and death. And if Dr. Frankenstein can create a living being, one capable of joy and sorrow and love and pain and anger and suffering–a living being recognizably like ourselves–then who’s to say we aren’t the product of a creator equally as distant and unimpressive as Baron Victor von Frankenstein?
When I first read Frankenstein, a long time ago now, what struck me about it was how much of the book is given over to the creature’s despair and growing disillusionment that his Creator, having given him life, then abandoned him to a life of want and struggle. He’s just like us. The creature’s complaint against Dr. Frankenstein is no different than any person could feel about their own relationship to God–you created me, now what?
Frankenstein isn’t a science fiction story about an arrogant scientist who intrudes on God’s domain, it’s a metaphor about our relationship to God.
This is the point where fingers are getting ready at the keyboard, eager to start tapping out comments–you’re about to call me out for calling Frankenstein a metaphor about our relationship to God, instead of hedging it as Mary Shelley’s metaphor of our relationship to God. “This is just how she sees things, not how they are.” But I’m not gonna take that hedge. For generations, critics have accepted the Frankenstein metaphor as a universal message about scientific hubris–nobody hedges that position, and qualifies it as “Well, this is how some teenager in the early nineteenth century saw things.” I may be taking a different reading, but I feel no compulsion to use any more weasel words than people who see her book as an all-purpose diatribe against scientific advancement.
What if the Creator was just the source of existence, but not meaning? What if the Creator made us but then stopped caring what happened to us?
Isn’t that much more horrifying of a horror story, and vastly more interesting, than a fairy tale about a man who made a monster?
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