Last month, in the Guardian’s “My Hero” series, Neil Gaiman chose to write about Mary Shelley. His brief reflections open by recalling the circumstances that led to the writing of Frankenstein: “The cold, wet summer of 1816, a night of ghost stories and a challenge allowed a young woman to delineate the darkness, and give us a way of looking at the world.” He concludes as follows:
“The glittering promise of science, offering life and miracles, and the nameless creature in the shadows, monster and miracle all in one, back from the dead, needing knowledge and love but able, in the end, only to destroy … it was Mary Shelley’s gift to us, and we would be infinitely poorer without it.”
I like this idea of the nameless creature as Shelley’s gift to us. But what exactly is the nature of this gift? I would suggest that what Shelley has bequeathed to us is nothing less than the gift of thought. The creature is, as I see it, what some have called an object to think with, only it is an object of the imagination. It materializes, in our mind’s eye, the power conferred upon us by our knowledge, and it does so that we might think about what we can do.
At the end of her Introduction to Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Sherry Turkle writes,
“Once we see life through the cyborg prism, becoming one with a machine is reduced to a technical problem of finding the right operating system to make it (that is, us) run smoothly. When we live with implanted chips, we will be on a different footing in our relationships with computers. When we share other people’s tissue and genetic material, we will be on a different footing with the bodies of others. Our theories tell us stories about the objects of our lives. As we begin to live with objects that challenge the boundaries between the born and created and between humans and everything else, we will need to tell ourselves different stories.”
It seems to me that, given the realities Turkle anticipates, Frankenstein is exactly the story we need. It helps us think about what we make, but primarily by helping us think about ourselves. The creature in this story is nothing if not a mirror on which we might see ourselves. Of course, so too is Frankenstein.
The sixth chapter of Shelley’s novel opens with a letter from Elizabeth. It’s worth noting, briefly, the multiple layers of narration at this point in the story. Ostensibly, we are reading Elizabeth’s words to Frankenstein relayed by Frankenstein to Walton, who is in turn relaying them to his sister, Margaret. It’s easy to lose sight of this, but keeping this framework in mind, I think, is key to interpreting Frankenstein’s self-representation. It helps us sustain a healthy suspicion of Frankenstein’s framing of the events and, by extension, to also cast a critical eye on the rationalizations and justifications we offer for our own actions and motives.
Elizabeth’s letter functions chiefly to supply details that will render subsequent events more meaningful. We learn more, for instance, about the other Frankenstein siblings, the older Ernest and the younger William. We learn as well about Justine Moritz, a longstanding household servant in the Frankenstein household, who was beloved by all of the family.
There’s a curious digression in Elizabeth’s rehearsal of Justine’s history in which she notes how the nature of Swiss political culture has “produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it.” This is to assure us of Justine’s place in the family: “A servant in Geneva,” we are assured, “does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England. Justine, thus received in our family, learned the duties of a servant; a condition which, in our fortunate country, does not include the idea of ignorance, and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being.”
Elizabeth goes on to speak glowingly of Ernest and, especially, of “little darling William.” All of this, of course, particularly in light of Frankenstein’s earlier claim to have lost everything, strikes us as preparation for a great tragedy.
The remainder of the chapter narrates Frankenstein’s continued recovery, which is sustained almost entirely by Henry Clerval’s loving attention. It was Clerval, Frankenstein tells us, who “called forth the better feelings of my heart; he again taught me to love the aspect of nature, and the cheerful faces of children.” Once again, well-being is presented as a kind of equilibrium between our urge to know and to do, on the one hand, and our acceptance of the world as a gift on the other. And, once again, this equilibrium is the product of friendship. Friendship is a kind of anchor that keeps us from sinking into the maelstrom of self-absorption, a victim of virtues which, unregulated, become our vices. Clerval’s particular influence on Frankenstein was twofold: he brought Frankenstein out of himself into the world, and he brought the liberal arts to bear on a scientific imagination.
But all is not well, of course. Once released into the world, our action does not simply dissipate into nothingness, whatever we might wish. The creature is still at large, and Frankenstein’s greater sin is his failure to accept responsibility for what he has made. This refusal of responsibility is reflected in the disgust Frankenstein had now developed toward his former passion: “I had conceived a violent antipathy even to the name of natural philosophy.” Just seeing the implements of his former work induced “the agony of my nervous symptoms.” While introducing Clerval to his professors, Frankenstein would become visibly agitated when they praised his talent and skill.
Shelley paints Frankenstein as a man who is racked by guilt but also unwilling to confront it. His “violent antipathy ” toward what he had previously pursued with obsessive zeal suggests profound shame and a deep desire to burry and repress his transgression. More worrisome still is his decision to keep knowledge of the creature secret, even from Clerval. It’s more than a little ironic that the man who would rip open nature’s secrets now carefully guards his own.
Nothing good follows from Frankenstein’s refusal of responsibility, only an accumulation of disasters. The question this leaves us with is this: What would it mean for us to accept responsibility for what we make and for what we do with what is made for us? Makers and users both, it seems that we are, like Frankenstein, hell-bent on refusing responsibility for what we do with the technologies that have been furnished for us. It would seem, in fact, that the general tendency of our making is to create conditions that undermine the possibility of either thoughtfulness or responsibility. Shelley’s story, however, her gift to us, provokes our thinking and may even rekindle our sense of moral responsibility.