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Of Men and Monsters: Lessons Learned from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein

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Beware to those who read what follows, for spoilers lurk within; 

If Frankenstein's fate thou wouldst not know, stop here; do not begin. 

MISHAWAKA--Salutations, dear readers! COVID-19 may have quarantined us as physical beings, but it cannot quarantine our minds or our imaginations, and I am excited to tell you about my latest adventure to the North Pole, where I heard the strangest tale from a man perhaps you would deem mad, and perhaps I would have too if I hadn't seen the creature with my own eyes... 

But I'm starting this all wrong. Let's go to the beginning, shall we? 

At the opening of Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein, there's nary a mad scientist or deformed creature in sight; rather, we read through a series of letters from the adventurous and exuberant captain of a ship bound for the North Pole, the honorable Captain Robert Walton. 

The farther north they travel, the more difficult their journey becomes, and ice begins to impede their voyage, ensnaring their vessel in a frozen, watery wilderness. One day, Walton takes note of "a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature" (Shelley 8) traveling across the ice floes on a dog sled; the very next day, the crew discover and bring on board the emaciated form of the eponymous Victor Frankenstein. Walton does his best to revive Frankenstein and within a few days, he is well enough to begin relaying his tale of woe to Walton. 

Frankenstein is the miserable creator of the creature Walton and his crew had spied at a distance. Having discovered the secret of life while studying at university, Frankenstein fashioned a gruesome frame to hold his discovery. And when his experiment achieved success and the creature opened his eyes, Frankenstein fled in fear. 

Isn't that like us humans? We tend to focus so much on what we want, we don't take time to consider what happens after we attain it; and then when we finally get it, we stare at it with either stupid grins or unmasked horror, depending on the object, disappointedly realizing this isn't going to give us our root desire. See, I believe that behind our desire for everything is something deeper, the true desire we often don't even realize is there (happy is the person who does know it and can directly pursue it!): it can be love, or happiness, or power, but more often than not our attempts to gain these precious, intangible objects result only in misery and disappointment. 

Outwardly, Frankenstein appears to simply desire to be a "man of science" (Shelley 29), and I think a strong argument can be made for him desiring respect, but I believe there is more to Frankenstein, perhaps more than even he knows; I sense a desire for power deep within him. While I'm not sure his intention was to challenge God or nature, I cannot help but compare Frankenstein's experimentations with life to Satan's desire to "be like the most High" (Isa. 14:14). Though I do not think Frankenstein's experiments were sins in themselves (a valid question to be asking ourselves today as we witness the progression of Artificial Intelligence), I do think his motives were significantly flawed and he unjustly victimized himself later on. 

As the story progresses, we witness tender love and loyalty shown to Frankenstein by his family and by a dear childhood friend named Henry Clerval; Henry is the day to Victor's night, the balm to Victor's wounds, the rainbow to Victor's storms. Though Henry has myriads of his own woes and sorrows, he maintains a joyful, almost child-like wonder through it all, even after studying at university (knowledge may be the forbidden fruit, but it does not inescapably render its partakers corrupted). Even Victor notes their dissimilarity, declaring "how great was the contrast between us! He was alive to every new scene; joyful when he saw the beauties of the setting sun, and more happy when he beheld it rise, and recommence a new day" (Shelley 112). 

This is such a beautiful illustration of the kind of joy Christ so freely wants to give us. The invigorating joy can set us on fire and light up our faces, causing us to be filled with thrill with every new day. But depression can be a very real battle, and when we face it, nothing is more encouraging than a friend so dear and precious as Henry reminding us it is worthwhile to keep on fighting; joy is an invaluable treasure we are seeking, and we are worth the efforts it will take to discover it. Perhaps at first it will come slowly, like the first diamond drops of rain in a land of desolation, and perhaps we will dwell in that parched wilderness for some time with only the occasional cool drop to refresh our spirits; but as Christians, we can always look forward to a time when all sorrows will fade away, every desert be made a garden, and all tears dissolve into a never-ending river of life. 

But Victor fights any hope rising inside him, forging a prison for himself far more terrifying than the creature covertly following him around every turn; for we now reach the point in the story where the creature has murdered Frankenstein's youngest brother, then bargining with Victor for a mate, an agreement Victor trepidatiously enters into and eventually breaks, ending the creature's hope for companionship. The creature, in his rage at losing his intended bride, murders Henry, follows Victor back home, and slays Victor's own young bride on their wedding night. Victor's father dies from grief soon thereafter; Victor swears revenge on the creature, beginning the pursuit that eventually leads him to the arctic north and Captain Walton's ship. 

The creature has a puzzling personality, complicated by uncertainty surrounding his honesty, as a narrator coupled with dissonance between seemingly compassionate tendencies and murderous actions, but one thing I am certain of is: he truly detested the gift of life bestowed upon him and if given the choice would have gladly slipped back into blissful non-existence (a choice that perhaps he ultimately did take into his own hands, though I am not fully persuaded of this). The creature's eloquent monologues and ponderings remind me of the musings of the preacher of old, "Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit" (Ecc. 2:17).   

Though Victor did more than enough to drag himself down (as mentioned above), the creature certainly encouraged this downward descent. By the end, it felt as though they had both sunk to the same low level of vengeance and self-disregard; they cared about nothing except ensuring the misery and ultimate demise of the other. This is a grave warning of the terrifying places revenge can take us if we let it, and I pray that if I am ever tempted to indulge in such a bittersweet endeavor, I will see the emaciated Frankenstein, the desperate sallow face of the creature, and through such images in my mind I will turn swiftly from my purposes. 

As this reflection draws to a close, as I step out of the world so skillfully crafted by Shelley and back into my own, I take a final glance back; I see a battered ship full of frightened men abandoning their mission, a pale corpse, a woeful captain, and, in the distance, the fading form of an answer to a question better left unasked. Shelley's characters are rift with flaws (in that realistic and painful way so difficult for writers to portray), but there is goodness there too; in the immortal words of Samwise Gamgee, "There is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for" (Tolkien). 

And there's good in our world too, if one only knows, like Samwise Gamgee and Henry Clerval, where to look for it. 

Sources: 

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Dover, 1994. Print. 

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print. 

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