Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ is a Cautionary Tale on the Monstrosity of which Humans are Capable

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.

Frankenstein author Mary Shelley (detail of a painting by Richard Rothwell)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is obsessed with monsters, but not the kind of monsters you might first think.

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The ‘Creature’ that the Swiss scientist Victor Frankenstein sews together out of body-parts robbed from graves, and brings alive in a feat of imagination, love, and electricity, has not been treated very well by history. Many modern depictions (and especially those for children) show a grunting, comical, zombie figure, staggering about with his arms stuck in front of him, visible stitching scarring his face and form — a far cry from the Creature in Shelley’s story, who (though capable of shocking violence) learns to speak, reads Milton’s Paradise Lost, secretly cares for a family living in poverty, and longs for a mate to share his life with. Shelley’s creature cannot be simplified, reduced to the simplicity that ‘monster’ implies. Rather, the monstrosity with which Shelley is primarily concerned is that of Frankenstein — and so it is fitting that the novel opens with not one corrupted, dangerous scientist, but two. Because, although the young and naïve Robert Walton, whose letters to his sister frame the tale of Victor Frankenstein, has only noble intentions, the horrifying story told to him by a ruined man he finds lost and dying on the ice of the Arctic serves as a warning: Walton’s humanity is in grave danger.

Walton is possessed by a love of learning. He is preparing for a voyage of discovery to the Arctic, and once he gets there, he isn’t quite sure what he’ll do — his letters inform us only of a burning desire to achieve ‘something of great purpose’: to explore further than anyone has gone before; to learn the source of the earth’s magnetism, or find a new route to the pacific. Walton wants to make discoveries that will not simply satisfy his intellectual curiosity, but also be of great profit to his fellow men: ‘you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind, to the last generation(…)’. And it would be hard to accuse him of any wrong but a slightly grating piousness — he declares his ‘love for the marvellous… belief in the marvellous’, lists the hardships he has nobly endured to arrive at the point of making his voyage, and wishes for a friend ‘gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own’. It is perhaps surprising, then, given the palpable goodness of her young hero, that Shelley almost immediately directs her reader’s attention to a narrative of crime and punishment.

Image shows Gustav Dore's engraving of a scene from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the albatross has landed on the ship and the sailors look on in horror.
A scene from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, from an engraving by Gustav Dore.

Walton declares grandly that ‘I am going to unexplored regions, to the ‘land of mist and snow’, but I shall kill no albatross, therefore do not be alarmed for my safety’, quoting directly from the most popular poem of the generation of writers that preceded Shelley’s: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Coleridge’s poem tells the tale of a sailor whose ship has been driven by storms to Antarctica, and who is led to safety by a friendly albatross — but then, almost inexplicably, shoots and kills the beautiful bird. As punishment for his crime, the mariner must wear the dead albatross around his neck, suffer from a terrible thirst for what feels like endless time, and then watch the slow deaths of his entire crew before, eventually, he is saved from the ocean and doomed to wander the earth, driven by guilt, telling his story for the rest of his life. To the modern reader, the comparison of Walton — a young, idealistic voyager — to the mariner, with his great sin against holy nature, is a surprising one. However by putting her reader in mind of a character whose purpose is to warn: ‘That moment that his face I see / I know the man that must hear me: / To him my tale I teach’, Shelley impresses upon us early that her tale is a cautionary one. What’s more, the sudden appearance of Victor Frankenstein on the ice, and the horrifying story he tells Walton, begin to suggest the terms of the similarity.
Frankenstein is a man meaningfully similar to Walton: they are both drawn to science by way of a love of literature; their enthusiasm for discovery is imagined as a sort of possession; they are both full of noble thoughts and intentions — and visions of glory and renown. In fact, the two are types, examples of the figure of the scientist as the Romantic imagination saw him, suggestive of numerous contemporary real-life figures, and sites for Mary Shelley to explore some of the pressing moral questions that surrounded science and scientists at the time Frankenstein was written.

Image shows William Godwin, as painted by Henry William Pickersgill.
William Godwin, author of ‘Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’, was Mary Shelley’s father.

Frankenstein is a fascinating product of a very particular moment in history. It was written during what Richard Holmes (in a brilliant book called The Age of Wonder) calls ‘the second scientific revolution’, a period of almost relentless discovery that began at the end of the eighteenth century. English scientists alone made huge leaps: Joseph Banks and his crew discovered thousands of species of plant and animal on the paradise island of Tahiti; William and Caroline Herschel invented the modern telescope; after a series of near-fatal disasters, Humphry Davy discovered the anaesthetic properties of nitrous oxide, which we now know as laughing gas. The discoveries were everywhere attended by a sense of utopianism, perhaps best embodied in William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), which paints an exuberant picture of man’s gradual empowerment over the natural world through discovery in an appendix ‘Of Health, and the Prolongation of Human Life’. Godwin argues that ‘the power of intellect can be established over all other matter’ and offers a vision of science in the service of the state and mankind: “The term of human life may be prolonged… by the immediate operation of the intellect, beyond any limits which we are able to assign.’ Here Godwin, who was something like a modern-day left-wing academic, sounds an awful lot like Victor Frankenstein. The young Frankenstein declares a noble intention to ‘banish illness from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death’, and, before its completion, imagines his monster as representing human perfectibility.

Image shows Louis Pasteur painted by Albert Edelfelt.
Pasteur studied Vitalism.

But this sense of limitless possibility had a gory, and thoroughly sinister, underbelly, a disrespect for humanity and nature to which Frankenstein gestures when he speculates ‘with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our enquiries’. The branch of scientific enquiry in which the Swiss scientist becomes entangled is one around which fierce debate raged at the time of the novel’s composition: that of Vitalism. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, as surgeons and anatomists made paradigm-shifting advances, which enabled them to fight off numerous diseases with previously unimaginable success, scientists in England and on the continent began to question the nature and origin of human life: what exactly was the ‘vital principle’? Where did it come from? And could it be created? Frankenstein recounts to Walton how he became animated by ‘an almost supernatural enthusiasm’ for ‘the structure of the human frame, and indeed, any animal endued with life’. He is seduced by the Vitalism debate: “Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?” Like the scientists who conducted public lectures and demonstrations in Mary Shelley’s London (some of which it is likely that Shelley would have seen), Frankenstein’s preoccupation with these questions, and accompanying desire to achieve even more than the scholars he knows and respects, leads him to attempt to create life for himself.
Now, some of the moral unease, and in fact the almost instinctive revulsion that surrounded the question of Vitalism will be familiar to us from modern experiments in cloning, or stem cell research: the ability to create new life by the rule of our own design, the argument goes, elevates humankind to a godlike position, and endows us with a terrible power, with which it’s not altogether clear we can be trusted. In the nineteenth century, these anxieties would have been compounded by a residual Christian belief that it is blasphemous for man to attempt to rival God’s creation. But the horror many came to feel toward Vitalists’ attempts to recreate life derived from far more than abstract philosophising, or even religion.

Image shows 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp' by Rembrandt, in which students stand around an anatomist who is dissecting a corpse.
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt.

Frankenstein tells Walton how, for his purposes, understanding the theory of anatomy was ‘not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body’. Indeed, the great advances that were made in anatomical and surgical knowledge, beginning in the 1790s, brought scientists in ever closer contact with corpses — as Frankenstein puts it, to fix their attention upon ‘every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings’. On the 17th of January 1803, the Italian anatomist Giovanni Aldini attempted to revive the body of a hanged murderer, George Foster, in a public demonstration in which electrical currents were shot through the criminal’s body. The Newgate Calendar describes what happened:
On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.
If Mary Shelley did not actually see this demonstration, the scene of the monster’s awakening in Frankenstein suggests that she at least read about it: Frankenstein recounts how, at the point he brought the creature to life: ‘By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs’. Robert Southey’s 1796 poem ‘The Surgeon’s Warning’ is further evidence of a horrified popular association of medical research with the desecration of the grave. The surgeon begins, ‘All kinds of carcases have I cut up’: officially, these carcases were of murderers, whose crimes in life meant that they deserved punishment and indignity after death. But there was a problem of logistics: there were not enough criminals hanged to satiate the Frankenstein-like curiosity and enthusiasm of contemporary anatomists. The surgeon of Southey’s poem recalls a classical or medieval witch:
I have bottled babes unborn, and dried
Hearts and livers from rifled graves.

Image shows body snatchers digging up a grave, from a pub sign.
Grave robbing was a notorious problem at the time Frankenstein was written.

The poem records what became a problem and fear that went hand-in-hand with scientific advance in the period: fresh corpses were frequently stolen from graves, or worse, for the purposes of research. Victor Frankenstein tells us that he was drawn ‘to vaults and charnel-houses’ to obtain the bodies he needed, and in the process something of his soul was palpably destroyed. While the young scientist’s intention was to create a noble creature, he becomes so lost that he cannot appreciate the sanctity of a graveyard, or the holiness of the human form: ‘A churchyard to me was merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had now become food for the worm’. Between the two editions of Frankenstein (it was initially published in 1818, and a version expanded by Shelley’s husband was published in 1831, after her death), the scandal reached horrifying new heights: in 1828 Robert Knox, a Scottish surgeon, was caught buying corpses that had not been robbed from graves, but in fact murdered for the purpose of experimentation. The aspirations of a science that blurred natural, physical boundaries frequently played out as appallingly visual public spectacle, which in turn found its way into much of the period’s literature.
Aside from the gritty realities of dissection, grave robbery and murder, there is an aesthetic issue at stake here, too. The Romantic imagination saw nature as holy: majestically beautiful, sometimes terrifying and predatory, full of secrets and deep, near-religious meaning. In a poem called ‘The Tables Turned’, which was published in the same collection as Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ William Wordsworth perhaps best encapsulates for us the idea that, in measuring, scrutinising, and investigating nature, science committed a terrible violence against it:
Sweet is the lore which nature brings,
Our meddling intellect,
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:-
We murder to dissect.

Image shows Prometheus being attacked by an eagle, in a sculpture by Eduard Mueller.
Prometheus attacked by the eagle, as depicted by Eduard Mueller.

Like the story of the Ancient Mariner, then, (and, though he can’t see it, like that of Walton, exiled to the icy polar regions) Frankenstein’s journey is one of pseudo-Christian sin and expiation. The novel’s full title is almost never used now: Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus –– but the classical hero is extremely useful in deciphering the story’s meaning. In the most famous version of the myth, that of Aeschylus, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to his beloved humankind, also teaching them the arts of civilisation, like mathematics, agriculture, medicine and science. In that capacity, Prometheus was a figure beloved of many Romantics: a symbol for justice, and the resistance of authority. But there is a second part to the Prometheus story, which preoccupies the ancient tragedian Aeschylus, and later writers like Ted Hughes. As punishment for his presumptuousness, Zeus chained the Titan to a rock on top of a mountain, where, every day, an eagle would return to peck out his liver — and every night it would regrow, ready for the morning. As the story of Frankenstein develops, and everything the scientist loves is destroyed before his eyes we realise that the dual nature of the myth of Prometheus is a perfect symbol for Frankenstein: a seeming story of possibility and empowerment, which has at its heart something more archaic and brutal — a cautionary tale of the revenge of nature and order upon those who dare oppose them.


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Image credits: banner; Ancient Mariner; Godwin; Pasteur; Anatomy Lesson; grave-robbing; Prometheus.