It is for Victor’s “failure of empathy and his moral cowardice,” Bear says—for his overweening egotism and narcissism—that we should think ill of him, and not because of what he discovered or created.Mary Shelley, however, gives her readers mixed messages.
“Unnatural” is not a neutral description but a morally laden term, and dangerous for that reason: Its use threatens to prejudice or shut down discussion before it begins.
There’s something of this rush to judgment also in the commentary of Charles Robinson, the Frankenstein scholar who introduces the new annotated text.
It’s too often suggested—some of the commentaries in the MIT edition repeat the idea—that Frankenstein is a warning about a hubristic, overreaching science that unleashes forces it cannot control.
“Victor’s error is failing to think harder about the potential repercussions of his work,” writes the bioethicist Josephine Johnston.
One might answer that the result would have been a pretty dull and short novel. Imagine the story of Victor struggling to have the creature accepted by a society that shunned it as vile and unnatural.
We would then be reading a book about social prejudice and our preconceptions of nature—indeed, about the kind of prospect one can easily imagine for a human born by cloning today (if such as thing were scientifically possible and ethically permissible).Is it the case for so-called “three-parent babies” made by mitochondrial transplantation, a misleading term apparently invented for the very purpose of insisting on its unnaturalness?Would the first human clone be the next “unnatural freak,” if ever that technology becomes possible and desirable? While Mary Shelley’s momentous novel was published anonymously in 1818, the commemorations began last year to mark the dark and stormy night on Lake Geneva when she (then still Mary Godwin, having eloped with her married lover Percy Shelley) conceived what she called her “hideous progeny.”In May, MIT Press will publish a new edition of the original text, “annotated for scientists, engineers, and creators of all kinds.” As well as the explanatory and expository notes throughout the book, there are accompanying essays by historians and other writers that discuss Frankenstein’s relevance and implications for science and invention today.It’s a smart idea, but treating Frankenstein as a meditation on the responsibilities of the scientist, and the dangers of ignoring them, is bound to give only a partial view of Shelley’s novel. Moreover, focusing on Shelley’s text doesn’t explore the scope of the Frankenstein myth itself, including its message for scientists.By accepting that Victor’s work is inherently perverted and bound to end hideously, Mellor’s accusation leaves us wondering what exactly is meant by “unnatural.” Which real-life interventions are guaranteed to produce a freak?Might that be so with IVF, as its early detractors insisted?In her revised edition of 1831, she emphasized the Faustian aspect of the tale, writing in her introduction that she wanted to show how “supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” In other words, it was preordained that the creature would be hideous, and inevitable that its creator would recoil “horror-stricken.” That wasn’t then a character failing of Victor’s.This idea invites the interpretation that Mellor offers in the new edition: “Nature prevents Victor from constructing a normal human being: His unnatural method of reproduction spawns an unnatural being, a freak.”She sees this as a feminist interpretation (Nature being, in her view, feminine and inviolable), I feel that to the extent that Shelley’s book supports a feminist reading, it is not this, and to the extent that one might draw this interpretation, it is not a feminist one.This is one of those stories everyone knows even without having read the original: Man makes monster; monster runs amok; monster kills man.It may come as a surprise to discover that the creator, not the creature, is called Frankenstein, and that the original creature was not the shambling, grunting, green-faced lunk played by Boris Karloff in the 1931 movie but an articulate soul who meditates on John Milton’s Paradise Lost.