We are thrown into a world not of our making and not of our choosing. Thus our existence appears arbitrary, an improbability made concrete. This thrown-ness (Heidegger’s concept of Geworfenheit) foists certain responsibilities and encumbrances upon us –we are born into a specific situation, with specific customs and duties. Our situation, upon being born, is determined. The choice to conform to or rebel against those customs and duties, the choice of how to comport oneself within that thrown situation, however, is not determined. We are free but not utterly free; we move willfully within constraints. To borrow from Nietzsche, we dance in chains.
On the other hand, owing to the nature of our thrown being-in-the world, we could only really be who we are at this time and in this place. Born in a different era or in a different country, we would necessarily be a different person. The “I” that I am had to be the “I” of “Now” and could not be otherwise.
In this sense (and here we make a non-Heideggerian move), despite the inscrutable nature of my nature, despite my being thrown into a world I did not request, my being called for its existence in this situation insofar as my being is only what it is in that situation. If we do not separate my “being” from its actual instantiation (in other words, if we insist that my being is precisely what it is and thus not divorceable from its circumstance), then if “I” were to be, it had to be now.
The concern with the moral quandary at the center of existence — its arbitrariness, its concomitant responsibilities, and what (if anything) we are owed by virtue of our being-in-the-world – seems to me to be the central concern of Mary Shelley’s precocious, genre-shaping novel Frankenstein. This concern appears before the novel (at least in the 1818 version) even begins — with the epigraph from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mold me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?”
On the one hand, this is the Miltonian equivalent of the adolescent plaint: “I didn’t ask to be born”. But there is a further implication here and that is that Adam did indeed solicit the maker from darkness. After all, Milton’s God does not create ex nihilo, but rather fashions existing things from out of his own divine Being. Adam, therefore, begins as part of the divine impetus, as an extension of God’s power to make His will manifest.
Adam is put in a double bind. He simultaneously did and did not “ask to be born”. He clearly wants to live, he wants his existence (he never attempts suicide) but he doesn’t want to have to live on these terms, terms he judges unfair insofar as he justifiably questions why God would create him only to suffer (and the “Fortunate Fall” is very much a part of Milton’s worldview).
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein intimately engages Milton’s epic poem. If Milton sought to “justify the ways of God to men” (I, 26), Shelley chose to justify the ways of the creation to the creator—or, put more directly, to justify the ways of man to God. Viktor Frankenstein, in creating new life, adopts the role of God; he endows the creature with life as an extension of his will to knowledge. But as soon as the creature is brought to life, in one of the most debated scenes within criticism of the novel, Frankenstein disavows it.
We are told precious little about the actual work that went into the creation itself. Frankenstein collected parts from dissecting rooms and slaughterhouses. He worked with large body parts, creating an eight-foot man, because smaller parts proved a “great hindrance to [his] speed”. After toiling for untold hours, he forms the human body on the basis, as he claims, of beauty. And indeed, there’s much to be said for the aesthetic qualities of the being he describes: lustrous black hair, proportionate limbs, pearly white teeth. There’s also the yellow skin that only barely covers the muscle and arteries beneath and the straight black lips. But none of this seems to bother Frankenstein prior to the moment he brings the creature to life.
At that very moment Frankenstein conceives hatred for the creature. Once it’s alive, it becomes for him a monster. The hatred is based on Frankenstein’s construal of the creature as monstrous. Repeatedly Frankenstein conflates his moral hatred for the creature with its visual repugnance. This becomes a central motif of the novel. Frankenstein is only brought to compassion for the creature when he hears it talking to him (the creature has a gift for rhetoric) while he’s not looking at it. Once he gazes at his creation again, all sympathy is lost. Because he cannot love what is so different from him, Frankenstein condemns the creature to misery, desolation, and solitude.
Why does the creature become hateful and repulsive to the creator at the moment of its coming to life? This is a question the creature itself will demand of Frankenstein. Abandoned by his creator, the creature wanders the countryside. One of Shelley’s great achievements is her account of the creature’s coming to knowledge of the world and its place within it. Impressions become increasingly distinct and the creature learns to distinguish among the dangers of and aids to existence. It happens upon a family and, by observing them while hidden, it learns to read. Rather wonderfully, if preposterously, one of the first books it reads is Paradise Lost.
The creature identifies with both Adam and Satan. Like the former, the creature was born into a world where it had no mate, no other being like it (the creature will soon ask Frankenstein to create an Eve for him as God had for Adam). But God created an ideal, protected space for his creature and, at least for a time, protected him from harm. Thus the creature also identified with the envy of the cast-aside Satan. In the end, the two figures become as one insofar as Adam also is cast out from congress with the “superior nature” of his creator. But Adam committed a sin, he defied the word of God. Frankenstein never gave his creature a comparable chance.
Once the creature became a seemingly autonomous creature (that is, once it had life), Frankenstein treated it with total disavowal and abandonment. He took no responsibility for the welfare of what he created. This is a lesson that the morally obtuse Frankenstein never learns, despite his pathetic insistence that his auditors ought to take his experiences as a cautionary tale. To the very end, Frankenstein insists that he was morally obligated to neglect his creature. The creature, however, laments the passing of his creator and acknowledges the complicity of their actions in their mutual destruction.
Shelley’s creature, this emblem of Satan and Adam, thus corresponds with her husband’s sympathy for Milton’s Devil. Satan in Paradise Lost “as a moral being”, according to Percy Bysshe Shelly is “far superior to his God.” Throughout Frankenstein, the creature, made monstrous through no fault of his own but propelled to murderous rage through the callous indifference of his maker, elicits our sympathy far more than the self-righteous, irresponsible Frankenstein.
The creature repeatedly attempts to explain itself to his creator and it repeatedly fails to comprehend Frankenstein’s changeable nature and his intractable refusal to acknowledge any obligation with respect to his creation. The creature longs to understand but cannot.
Mary Shelley here contemplates a central conundrum with respect to Christian notions of the divine. The ways of God are not the ways of man. God is inscrutable insofar as His Being is totalizing, eternal, immutable, omnipotent, and omniscient—all the things that mortals cannot hope to be and, so long as they remain mortal, cannot hope to comprehend. And yet, when human beings come to discuss God, when they attempt some understanding of the divine, they can only do so only in human terms—terms that simply do not apply to God.
It’s impossible to tell the story of Adam and Eve’s fall and subsequent punishment or the story of Job or the story of Abraham and Isaac without God appearing to be arbitrary, irresponsible, and more than a little cruel.
This need not necessarily mean that God is any of those things or that such adjectives are even appropriately applicable to a divinity defined by a Being that is entirely beyond our being and our comprehension. It does mean, however, that understanding God in our terms (the only terms we have being human ones, ultimately) fails to articulate anything beyond a deeply troubling and contradictory picture of the divine.
Frankenstein is, of course, an inadequate stand-in for the Christian God but to his creation he remains just as inscrutable, just as impossible to placate. The creature’s final soliloquy, as he laments the demise of his creator, is one of the finest passages in the book and it invites repeated reading and careful contemplation.
Being hateful to his God, the creature becomes hateful to itself. Finding no solace, no possibility of engaging with another who can see it as anything other than a hideous aberration, it embraces the evil that men already see within it although it knows that it’s inherently good, that it longs for companionship and communal belonging.
The creature, in response to divine indifference, becomes a stranger unto itself: “When I call over the frightful catalogue of my deeds, I cannot believe that I am he whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.” But then the creature goes one step farther: even Milton’s Satan, it avers, had his companions in perdition. The creature remained utterly alone, thrown into a world of abject solitude.
Restless Books has just released a new edition of the original 1818 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The 1818 version is, to my mind, far superior to the 1831 revision — which omits the Paradise Lost epigraph and many of the other details and themes on which my reading in this essay rely. The Restless edition includes an introduction by Francine Prose and is accompanied by several videos (available online) by University of Pennsylvania Professor of English Wendy Steiner.
At the time of this writing, only two of the videos are posted and they largely restate the information discussed in Prose’s introduction. However, once fully assembled, the videos should prove to be useful teaching tools. The book is also outfitted with study questions, supplied by Steiner, and several illustrations by Mexican artist Eko.
Eko’s approach here is intriguing. The illustrations are superposed on reproductions of pages from the 1820 Treatise on Descriptive Anatomy by Hippolyte Cloquet. Moreover, nearly every illustration shows a woman or a scientist (or in a couple of cases what may be the creature with its long black hair) working with the outsized parts of human anatomy.
In this way, the illustrations examine in a methodical, protracted manner the very thing that the novel itself rushes through in the matter of mere paragraphs: the actual work in the laboratory. Thus every illustration comes in the form of a palimpsest — the artwork “writes over” the scientific prose, obviating it from view but using it as a platform to explore what Mary Shelley leaves unexplained and perhaps what she felt was impossible adequately to imagine.