“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic god,” Freud famously observed. But, he was quick to add, “When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.” Writing in 1968, Edmund Leach appealed to the same rhetorical trope, only with a bit more confidence and panache: “Men have become like gods. Isn’t it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid. Why should this be? How might these fears be resolved?” Leach’s comments inspired the opening line of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”
Mary Shelley’s genius lay in vividly materializing, in the form of the Creature, the anxieties that must always attend such aims and aspirations. Whenever mortals fancy themselves gods, Frankenstein’s Creature lurks in the shadows, troubling all such fantasies.
In chapter seven, the doom that has been so frequently foreshadowed finally begins to unfold. The chapter opens with yet another letter, this one from Frankenstein’s father reporting that William, the youngest and most idealized of the Frankenstein children, has been murdered. Frankenstein is devastated, and he immediately departs for Geneva after a six year absence. As he approaches the city, he revels in the grandeur of the Swiss Alps and the surrounding lakes, but even this sublime experience of nature cannot disperse his apprehension.
When he arrives, he finds the city gates locked, so he decides to pass the night in a nearby village. Unable to sleep, he wanders through the night and is caught in a lightning storm that ominously illuminates the surrounding mountain peaks. Then one of the flashes reveals to him the outline of an unmistakeable figure, “the wretch, the filthy daemon.” It had been two years since he’d last seen it, but immediately Frankenstein is convinced that his Creature was responsible for his brother’s murder.
At this juncture, Frankenstein considers once again whether or not he ought to tell his story, but he dissuades himself. He is sure that he would not be taken seriously and would only succeed in casting himself as a raving maniac. Even if he was believed, who could succeed in capturing the creature of preternatural strength and agility (another aspect of the Creature that the films always get wrong). He had after all just witnessed the Creature scaling the “perpendicular ascent of Mont Salêve.” So he convinces himself to keep silent as he approaches his father’s home.
Upon his arrival, he is greeted by his brother Ernest who informs him that the murderer has been apprehended. Frankenstein is stunned to learn that Justine Moritz, the Frankenstein’s faithful servant and friend, has been charged with the murder and is soon to stand trial. Twice he protests that it cannot be and alludes to some knowledge of the murderer’s identity, but his claim seems not to register and, when he learns that compelling evidence has been presented against Justine, he convinces himself once more to remain silent. “My tale was not one to announce publicly,” since no one, he conveniently assures himself, would believe him. Elizabeth is the only one with the courage to insist publicly on Justine’s innocence, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
It is in the eighth chapter that we begin to perceive the depth of Frankenstein’s craven self-interest. Perhaps that is putting it too strongly, but his own deeds convict him. He sits through the trial and says not a word. Only Elizabeth takes the stand in Justine’s defense. He claims again and again to be wracked by guilt for William’s death and Justine’s plight. He even goes so far as to say to Walton (remember the framing) that he would have confessed to the murder himself rather than see Justine found guilty if only his known whereabouts in Ingolstadt had not rendered such a claim conveniently implausible. What he does not do is reveal the Creature’s existence.
If we are tempted to take his rationalizations at face value, his claim to be suffering more than Justine should convince us otherwise. “The tortures of the accused,” he insists with a straight face, “did not equal mine.” Such is the claim of a deeply self-absorbed man, one who is still suffering from blinding hubris. For the remainder of the chapter he goes on and on insufferably about his own despair and tribulation, even as he accompanies Elizabeth to visit Justine in prison on the eve of her execution.
It’s worth noting that Justine had admitted to making a false confession under pressure from her confessor. In explaining to Elizabeth why she had done so, she says that her confessor “threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was.” This is the first time monster is used in reference to someone other than Frankenstein’s Creature, and it leads us to ask who, indeed, is the true monster in this story.
While Frankenstein watches on, Elizabeth commiserates with Justine. “I wish that I were to die with you,” she declares, “I cannot live in this world of misery.” Elizabeth here sounds a note that will become ever more pronounced, particularly in the Creature’s narrative: Frankenstein is just one instantiation of the tragedy at the core of human civilization. She and Justine have been let down by the institutions of justice and by their would-be advocates, especially Frankenstein, who had it in his power to save Justine. But he does not act.
“On the morrow,” Frankenstein informs Walton, “Justine died.” A rather too convenient use of the passive voice. The chapter closes with a melodramatic prophetic soliloquy from Frankenstein delivered in the third person and addressed, in absentia, to his family.
It’s not insignificant that this portion of the story features the lives of two women undone by Frankenstein’s recklessness and self-serving cowardice. In his discussion of Frankenstein in Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, literary critic Roger Shattuck recalls the circumstances of Shelley’s life:
“[William Godwin] hardly knew how to take care of his daughter. She knew her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died in childbirth, only by the stories of her dedication to feminism, revolutionary causes, and friends in need. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the stereotype of the Romantic poet, carried Mary off at seventeen to the Continent without marrying her, to live for a time in the irregular household of another Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Surrounded by illegitimate births and infant deaths, they subsisted on high ideals to remake the world through liberation and revolution. The men in the group were intent upon achieving glory through their genius; other concerns must not stand in their way.”
Further on, he adds of Frankenstein and the Creature, “The battle to which these awful adversaries commit themselves is the struggle for glory, the driving male condition that inspired Mary Shelley to write the book in horror and in protest.”
“The resolute moral stance of Frankenstein about observing our human limits can be seen now as exceptional,” Shattuck observes. In comparing Frankenstein to Goethe’s Faust, he writes, “The Romantics often did not seek harsh judgment of their scoundrel heroes. Apparently, it took a woman to inventory the destruction caused by the quest for knowledge and glory carried to excess ….”
Mary Shelley is often given credit for inventing Science Fiction with her writing of Frankenstein. I’d suggest as well that she be credited with composing the first work of tech criticism, and she does so, in part, because of her experience as one clear-sighted woman among men of genius in search of glory. It was her genius to anticipate how such a pursuit would play out not in the realm of letters, but in the increasingly potent realm of technology. Perhaps, then, we might also dub Mary Shelley the first woman in tech.