While we explore questions of myth, history and technology, students will be reading the novel with specific focus questions directed at questions of human hubris and innovation. This class discussion will begin after student read through Chapter 10, and focus first on Victor’s desire to create human life. Where does he go wrong? For Chapters 10 through 24, students will consider Victor and his and society’s reactions to the Creature, as he is called. How is he harmed by the humans around him? What is the novel’s message about humans, perhaps more than our creations?
Frankenstein is famous not only for its prescient portrayal of what goes wrong with human technological endeavors, especially in regard to changing the natural order of life, but also for its structure. The novel unfolds in three nested stories, sometimes called a “Chinese box” plot, with a fourth story embedded in the center. These different perspectives allow us to see what science writer Joey Eschrich, in an essay titled, Why ‘Frankenstein’ Is a Great Science Policy Guide for the Future, calls “a nuanced exploration of scientific ethics and the dynamic between scientific creativity and social responsibility”. He suggests that the novel be required for technological innovators as a warning: while innovation might have good intentions, humans lack foresight into the effects technology might wreak upon the world.
The outer frame in Frankenstein is written in letters from Robert Walton, a scientist and adventurer, whose boat is perilously trapped in the ice as he ventures forth to discover the North Pole. Victor Frankenstein, dying, and in pursuit of his Creature, is pulled on board and confesses his story of creating human life. The Creature then comes aboard, sees Victor’s corpse, and goes forth to die by self-immolation. The entire story is filtered through Walton, who in the end realizes the folly of his own quest. He turns his boat towards home, rather than risk the lives of all his men.
Although Walton is often the forgotten character in Frankenstein, his perspective and self-reflective letters to his sister are critical to understanding that one should question technological advances, and because we can does not mean that we should. Because humans, including Walton, often justify our endeavors as noble, it is critical to have serious independent consideration of the potential negative outcomes of our technology. Students should consider Walton’s true motivations in his quest to discover the North Pole, and should assess his decision to abandon this adventure, even though Victor, before he dies, urges him on. Why hasn’t Victor learned from his own obviously catastrophic error? What does this warn us about aspects of human nature?
The next circle of stories is Victor’s account, dictated and reworded by Walton, of his life and his obsessive desire to create human life in a lab after his mother’s death. Students should read carefully and assess Victor’s psychological drive, especially the problems that his obsession caused for himself and his family. While desiring to take control of issues concerning life and death might seem noble, what are some of Victor’s not-so-noble actions even before his creation is endowed with life? Questions regarding the secrecy of his actions, his rejecting the advice of professors, grave-robbing, the gruesome assembly of human parts, and his isolation from his family can be posed to students to spark discussions about how and why inventions are developed in our world. Should there be limits on what is created? Should consumers alone decide these limits?
In the late 18th century, Luigi Galvani had discovered that electricity could move the muscles of dead animals. He published a paper in 1791, claiming that electricity was likely a vital force of life. Although Mary Shelley had discussed if electricity might be used to extend life with her husband and Lord Byron,16 when the Creature is endowed with life, she does not include an electrical storm as the spark. However, the power of electricity to destroy a tree does spark Victor’s desire to have control over destructive forces of nature, and later, after his creation has destroyed his family, he relates that he himself feels like this blasted tree. While humans generally revere life, we have a harder time understanding the value of death to maintain balance and create dynamic change in the natural world. Percy Shelley’s poem Ode to the West Wind acknowledges the incomprehensible power of the natural world, the force that is both “destroyer and preserver” and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein mirrors this conflict as well. What happens to Victor when his Creature is animate?
Students will be encouraged to consider human psychology at work in Victor: Why does he reject his creation, and flee from it in revulsion? What happens to him, emotionally and why? Why doesn’t he seek help in finding the creature he has unleased into the world, but rather retreats into a kind of tormented denial – even when the Creature kills his own brother? Why does he retreat into his own “madness” to allow Justine to be executed for a crime he knows she did not commit?
In the plot of the novel, we are still on Walton’s boat. As the dying Victor continues to tell his story, he describes meeting the Creature on top of the Alps. He will quote to Walton, and to us, what the Creature says. We enter the inner component of the novel: The Creature’s story.
The Creature recounts his birth experience – finding his way from the unnatural lab to the wilderness, his awakening, stunningly described by Shelley, to the senses of light, dark, cold, hunger, thirst, warmth – and to elements of nature, birdsong, the moon, the sun. He discovers that fire can burn, as well as provide life-saving warmth. His utter humanity, his superior intellect, and powerful, graceful carriage are captured as Shelley changes to an elevated, powerfully poetic diction as the Creature speaks, in her tender descriptions of his observations of family love as he watches the De Laceys, and her portrayals of Victor’s glimpses of him, as he bounds up the rocks and ice of the glacier. Both he and Victor are at the summit of the earth, in a sublime and almost holy place that exhibits all the power of nature, suggesting that nature is a divinity beyond human comprehension.
Had Victor created a being whose appearance were deemed beautiful, the story surely would be different. But the Creature’s appearance in the eyes of the human race is hideous and frightful. After being drawn by loneliness to observe in secret the De Lacey family, the Creature is appalled when he sees his own reflection in water, and feels suffering and isolation. From observing the De Laceys, and with his superior intellect, the Creature learns language, another very important key to Shelley’s novel, and an important difference in the Creature’s depiction in later films.
The power of language should be a key discussion points for students. In Genesis, language gives humans power over the animals, and power so significant, God creates Babel to thwart our ability to conquer the heavens. As robots are learning to speak to us and to respond to our questions in more sophisticated, more human ways, what effect will that have on us, and our relationship with these beings, with other humans, and how we view ourselves?
The Creature also finds books: Paradise Lost and The Sorrows of Young Werther. He discovers Victor’s scientific notes. Students should consider why these texts are significant to thematic elements in the story. Why does the Creature relate both to Satan and to Adam in Paradise Lost? In what significant human ways does the creature suffer from Victor’s abandonment, as he reads his notes, in his own awareness of his difference in appearance, and in his origin?
The Creature tries to introduce himself to the De Lacey family by first speaking privately with the elder father, whose blindness shields him from the Creature’s fearsome looks. But the children arrive, and drive him violently away. As he flees, he comes across a young girl who has fallen into a lake and is drowning. When he saves her, he is shot by her father.
The Creature then begins his murderous spree targeted at Victor’s family. What he demands from Victor on the mountain is entirely human: He wants a mate, someone who will relieve his isolation and despair, someone with whom he can have love, community, and affirmation.
The story returns to the middle section, back to Victor. He initially agrees to create a female, as the Creature now threatens to isolate Victor, as he is isolated, by destroying his entire family. I would encourage students to wonder why Victor doesn’t tell anyone, or at least warn his family, about his creation. Why does he drag poor Henry Clerval along with him to create the female, with no warning? Why does he presume that Creature’s threat to see him on his wedding day after he has destroyed the female that he half-creates is directed at him, instead of at his fiancée Elizabeth? Why does he leave her alone?
We go back to Walton on the boat, the appearance of the Creature mourning Victor’s death, promising to kill himself, and Walton’s decision to turn around.
How do events in the Creature’s short life shape his own, human psychology? What does any human child learn from abandonment by parents, and hatred from society? What themes from Shelley’s own times might be incorporated into this story of social rejection, hatred, bias against others, and resulting violence? What can we learn in our own time of transition? Will our mistreatment of robots amplify, or normalize, mistreatment of others? Will our interactions with carefully-developed robots improve our relations with other humans, and increase understanding of the meaning of human life?