Monday, November 4, 2013
An Essay on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Editor's Note: The following is an essay written as part of the MOOC Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World offered by the University of Michigan.
In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the title character completely ignores the ethical ramifications of his undertaking. As a result, Frankenstein learns too late that just because something can be accomplished through scientific experiment does not mean that it should be accomplished. In hindsight, he admits, “I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability.” How different Frankenstein’s story would have been had he only exercised caution by starting with a lower mammal rather than man! Instead, at the culmination of what could have been a scientific triumph, Frankenstein recoils and observes, “now that I had finished, ...horror and disgust filled my heart.”
Sadly, having learned the lesson that not all things that can be done should be done, Frankenstein goes on to compound his ethical error by failing to take responsibility for his actions. As Mr. Grove points out in his introduction, “rather than exult in his accomplishment, he runs from it.... Frankenstein has, indeed, created a monster--not by animating dead flesh but by abandoning his creation.” Sadder still, Frankenstein eventually finds out that the creature he created at least began its new life as an innocent with a natural tendency toward virtue. However, by that time, the creature had already become a murderous monster.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a cautionary tale. In light of today’s advances in the field of biology, its moral lessons concerning the ethics of performing certain scientific experiments are perhaps more timely now than when the novel was first published nearly two centuries past.