Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Moral Compass and Frankenstein

            We need heroes and we need villains, we need to polarize characters of fiction to establish where our sympathies and anger, as readers, should lie.  For mass consumption the simplest explanation is the easiest to swallow.  Why do we fight the war on terror?  Because everything the Islamist Extremist stand for is in direct contradiction to our very way of life.  Why must we stop Hitler?  Because he is the single greatest threat to the freedom and safety of a Democratic world and he is a madman.  These reasons are simple easy to internalize, it’s us against them.  But these distinctions are superficial at best and the reality is much more complicated.  We cast people, ethnicities, and even entire nations as villain because it’s “politically convenient” because we need something to fear and because we need something to point at and say “Look at that, I am nothing like that.”  Why do we fight the war on terror?  Because of our “vested interest” in the Middle East, because 40-50 years ago we had to stop the spread of the Red Terror throughout Asia by supplying Afghanistan with arms, because we need access to the oil which has become so integral to the function of US economy.  Why must we stop Hitler?  Because post World War I we created a condition in which the German people had been brought to extreme poverty and were prepared to listen to anyone who could get them out of it, because the fear of a war as devastating as the last had crippled the ability for other nation of Europe to prevent his rise.  The reality of these villains is that they are not an embodiment of evil they are people, the same person who would work themselves to death to provide for their family are the very same people who would oversee a camp for murdering thousands of Jews.  People are not binary.  People are a complicated messy affair.  So how should we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?  Do we see the Creature as villain Frankenstein as Victim or the inverse?  Perhaps we need to remove this all too simple understanding of these two characters and judge them not only for their actions but their histories.  That Shelley isn’t telling a simple story of a mad scientist and his evil creation but one that paints Creature and Creator with shades of Grey instead of Black and White.
            The common conception of Frankenstein as a character is derived from the many film adaptations of the text.  Often abandoning any direct relation to the text the films characterize Frankenstein as the mad scientist bent on creating life and the Creature as a mostly mindless kill machine.  Unfortunately the intricacies of the actual Frankenstein are lost in the translation.  The Frankenstein of the films has completely lost his mind in his desire to create life he robes graves, moves into a castle to perform his horrific experiments, adopts a disfigured man as his assistant and spends his time running around in hysterics.  Clearly a very evil man but the Frankenstein of the novel is from it.  Here we have a man who begins his career in science as a simple fascination with the natural scientists that have come before him.  When he finally latches onto the goal of all his research, to create life, he states “A new species would bless me as it creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.  No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (Shelley 49).  Hardly the ideas of a madman Frankenstein appears almost poetic in his conviction.  To create life, to bring something into this world has always been looked upon as some special, something to be treasured.  Women become pregnant, families are made “whole” and new wonderful people are added to the growing joy of the world.  There is an entire industry based on the fact of just how important this new baby is to the family and everyone else, baby showers, gendered clothes and bedrooms.  Some would argue the greatest achievement of mankind is to create new life and Frankenstein takes that to its logical conclusion.  Frankenstein is adopting the role of a woman here, since he can never “create” life in the traditional sense by circumstance of his gender he attempts to harness the sciences to contribute a new existence to the world.
But upon awakening the creature the Good of Frankenstein fails him as he flees and hides from the Creature and that he “felt the bitterness of disappointment; dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me” (Shelley 55).  If we subscribe to the narrative of the evil mad scientist this would mark the occasion where Frankenstein would exclaim “It’s Alive!” and begin his plans to create more for world domination.  If we subscribe to the narrative that Frankenstein is the hero of the novel here he has to actions available to him, he could honor his role as Creator take the Creature under his wings and teach him the ways of the world or due to sudden realization of what he had actually done could destroy the Creature and all of his research.  But no instead Frankenstein chooses to flee and by extension Shelley choose for Frankenstein to flee.  If Frankenstein were an absolute paragon of Good or Evil we would have seen him at this particular scene take up the necessary mantle, instead we are given a coward.  From this coward we have a Frankenstein who is not capable of understanding what he has done or accomplished, all of his endeavors to create life were the whimsical interests from his childhood, “The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfillment of which I most eagerly sought” (Shelley 32).  Frankenstein, like us all, is molded and directed by experiences from the past.  We do not exist as static but as learning and changing creatures.
After sometime the Creature makes contact with his Creator having attempted to ingratiate himself with normal human life and finding himself shunned he demands of Frankenstein to create female so that they may live together in collective misery.  But here Frankenstein makes a choice to ultimately destroy the mate at the horrors of some possible future whether the Creature and Bride make more of themselves or they each become a wild and dangerous nightmare.  But if we understand the Creature as alive, since he clearly is, and the line between life and death has already been broken down already Frankenstein has just murdered someone.  In his essay, The Moral Character of Mad Scientists: A Cultural Critique of Science, Christopher Toumey argues that Shelley marks Frankenstein progression as a character “from foolish irresponsibility, through increasing responsibility for one’s actions, to ultimate responsibility” (Toumey 425).  If Toumey is arguing that Frankenstein takes “ultimate responsibility” for his actions, making him the Paragon of Good, how does he account for the end of the novel where he constantly goes back and forth between admitting his own faults to demanding that Captain Walton carry on his work of hunting down the Creature?  If Frankenstein was the Paragon of Good he would have never wavered from his conviction to see the Creature destroyed, there can be no ultimate good if there is doubt.  And if Frankenstein were the Paragon of Evil he would have made his new species and presumably taken over the world.  But here Shelley doesn’t want or need a character of pure Good or Evil.  It is too easy to fall into that trap of clichés where the hero conquers all instead we get Frankenstein that enters science with a childlike understanding and dies still fighting his inner demons to reconcile his past with his present.
Like a compass spinning atop the North Pole in a pitiful attempt to find direction people are not set.  Absolute Good and Evil are illusions of convenience something that we use to explain the world and our relation to it.  In fact the reality is far more complicated we are not binary, we operate amongst the grey between emotion and reason.  Too simplify everything about life as this or that does a great disservice to each other and oneself.  Frankenstein wasn’t wholly good and he wasn’t wholly evil he was something else something much more complicated.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Mumbai: Wilco Publishing House, 2002. Print.
Toumey, Christopher.  The Moral Character of Mad Scientists:  A Cultural Critique of Science.  Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Autumn, 1992), pp.411-437.

1 comment:

  1. While there is some danger of being melodramatic in the opening, I liked it - up to a point. While you framed the problem of heroes and villains well, and while I think it's a good setup to dive into Frankenstein, I think you should have been able to say something coherent about what thinking in shades of grey does for us here.

    Your discussion of Frankenstein films is shallow. Why have it at all? The closing moments of the paragraph are good, setting you up for further discussion - but they also remind me of the fact that you haven't done anything to engage with the text yet - so far, it's all introduction.

    The third paragraph orients us toward Frankenstein's complexities - but your discussion of his rooted in his past is a little perfunctory. Is this *the* way to explore shades of grey, or only one way? If it's *the* way I'd sure like to know more about his roots in his own past; if it's only *a* way why begin with this one?

    Question: if you're interested in moral complexity, is there some particular aspect or part of that moral complexity (say, the tortured father/son relationship, or the way both relate to violence, or gender) that you want to analyze? You're very close to just repeatedly asserting that they are complicated people - but why not focus on what, to you, is the most compelling dimension of that complexity?

    Overall: The beginning was strong, your research was solid, and the idea of critiquing good and evil themselves is fine. But you're in danger here of attacking a straw man. Who really believes that the monster is 100% evil and Victor 100% good? Even the movies really *don't* show it that way, let alone the novel. You are close to attacking a position which nobody actually holds.

    That doesn't mean you have nothing worthy to say. I just think you needed to focus on areas of real moral complexity here. For instance, we could use Justine to think through ways in which both of them are evil, if we wished. Or, we could use the mutal critique of colonialism/empire to think about how both of them are morally serious, yet fall into error. Etc.

    My point is this: you spend too much effort talking about the obvious and on your introduction, and not enough delving into real moral complexity here.