On January 1, 1818, Mary Shelly anonymously published the first edition of Frankenstein. Because her husband, the renowned Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, helped her edit the original manuscript and wrote a preface to the first edition, most critics, reviewers, and readers assumed he had written this Gothic tale that was, arguably, the first science fiction novel. Mary Shelley published a second edition with her name on the title page in 1822, and she later published a significantly revised edition in 1831, the text most readers are familiar with today. This last edition also included an introduction in which Mary Shelley described the creative process that gave rise to what she identified as her “hideous progeny.”
What started as a curious little ghost story, told on a stormy night in Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in 1815, has mutated into one of the most culturally influential pieces of literature in the Western canon. Mary Shelley’s ghoulish literary creation simply will not die—and for good reason. This prescient tale of medical marvels and transhumanist transgression still speaks to our culture today, largely because for the past two hundred years, our civilized world has willfully dismissed her moral warnings about materialistic scientism and ignored her cautionary tale of subverting domesticity and violating the Natural Law. That her novel endures unto this day speaks volumes of its significance as well as our collective inability to apprehend it.
The Centrality of Domestic Spaces
Those who read the novel for the first time and who are only familiar with the popular culture representations of Frankenstein are often surprised by the lack of a dramatic animation scene, and they are generally perplexed by the prevalence of domesticity. The novel opens with an outer narrative frame consisting of Captain Walton writing letters to his sister, thus foregrounding the importance of maintaining discursive relationship with family. Moreover, Walton’s desire to remain connected to domesticity distinguishes him from Victor, who functions as Walton’s scientist doppelganger and foil. Walton’s longing for communion with family and friends is his saving grace, enabling him to understand the dangers of unchecked scientific enthusiasm that can threaten the self and destroy the family.
Victor hails from a loving family, yet when his mother dies, he isolates himself from his family and distances himself from Elizabeth, his fiancé, in an attempt to find the cure for death itself. This cure comes in the form of reanimating lifeless material. Ultimately, Victor seeks to create life in the absence of woman—the most horrifically unnatural rejection of natural, heterosexual domesticity. Later, Victor’s own Creature recognizes the consequences of isolation and the horror of loneliness, and he demands his maker create for him a mate, a woman with whom he can engender domestic joy. Victor not only rejects heterosexual domesticity for himself, but he also denies it for his Creature. The result of Victor’s unnatural rejection of conjugal communion is the disruption of his own marriage—the Creature vows to be with Victor on his wedding night. Tragically, the Creature kills Elizabeth and completes the cycle of Victor’s heterosexual denial.
This novel is replete with domestic disruption and familial subversion: Victor’s mother is orphaned as a young woman and marries into the Frankenstein family for stability and domestic union. Yet, she later dies, leaving the Frankenstein family without a wife or mother. Elizabeth also is orphaned and taken in by the Frankenstein family, later to become Victor’s fiancé. However, the Creature murders her on her and Victor’s wedding night. Also, there is the complex story of the DeLacey family in which mothers are conspicuously absent and marriages unjustly delayed.
Ultimately, this novel remains strikingly relevant today because it affirms the natural family ideal, revealing that families are not mere social constructions to be tinkered with according the temporal whim of ideological special interests. In Mary Shelley’s vision, families are biologically designed institutions governed by Natural Law. Proper families are comprised of complimentary mother-father parental pairs which are necessary for the ideal development of children into healthy, well-adjusted adults fit for human flourishing in community.
The Horrors of Transgressing Natural Law
When most people think of Frankenstein, the image of a large, pale-green blockhead with bolts in his neck comes to mind. This popular image, which looks nothing like the Creature in the novel, does speak to Mary Shelley’s deeper message—the dangers of transgressing the Natural Law through unchecked scientific inquiry and medical exploration. Mary Shelley was familiar with the eighteenth-century scientific discourse as well as the debates between materialists (those who believe reality consists only of matter in motion and who accept only physical causation as explanations for phenomena we see in nature) and vitalists (those who claim both material and immaterial realities exist and who also believe in an animating power or spirit that gives life to physical flesh). A close reading of Frankenstein and her journals suggests that Mary Shelley was more of a theistic vitalist than an atheistic or agnostic materialist, despite what many contemporary literary critics assert.
In her novel, she critiques the hubris of materialists and the ideological narrowness of naturalism. Mary Shelley believed that God created the universe with purpose and infuses life with meaning, and this purpose and meaning can be discerned through the Natural Law. Violating the natural order of creation results in evil, and working in accord with the natural order brings goodness and human flourishing. All of the horrific transgressions in the novel, Victor’s own attempt to create human life in the absence of a procreative, heterosexual union with a woman being the most egregious, result from a willful violation of Natural Law.
Such violation of the created order in the novel results in monstrosity. Victor transgresses boundaries between humans and other species of animals to assemble the body parts for his Creature. When fashioning the external form of his creation, Victor violates basic aesthetic principles that are rooted in Natural Law, because he is too impatient to diligently form the Creature’s body. Victor also denies his animated offspring a nurturing parental relationship, initiating a series of societal rejections that gradually transform the Creature from an innocent creation longing for relationship into a vengeful, rebellious murderer destroying life and disrupting the familial communion he was denied.
Victor’s scientific transgressions in the name of medical advancement serve as a warning to contemporary medical hubris. Prescribing transgender hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery to make people’s bodies superficially match their confused feelings of gender identity, transplanting healthy uteruses from a woman’s body into the body of a man who psychologically feels he is a woman to enable him to give birth via C-section, and amputating healthy limbs from patients suffering body integrity identity disorder so that their surgically mutilated bodies can match their bodily (mis)perceptions are all contemporary examples of Frankensteinian violations of the Natural Law.
In the novel, the sinful arrogance of Victor manifests on the distorted, grotesquely hideous body of the Creature. Similarly, the hubristic transgressions of our contemporary culture that supports various bodily transition procedures and the medical community that performs them are writ large on the mutilated bodies, disrupted biochemistries, and dysphoric psychologies of the tragic victims of this arrogant violation of Natural Law, all in the name of ideology.
Conclusion: Redressing the Monstrosities of Our Age
Mary Shelley’s hideous progeny is alive and well, dwelling amongst us today in the (dis)guise of love, compassion, and open-mindedness. If Mary Shelley were alive today, I’m confident she would conclude we have lost our very minds, that we have become so open-minded that our brains have fallen out. Our culture may be reading Frankenstein, but it is not comprehending it.
Instead of following the example of Walton, who realizes the error of Victor’s transgressions and turns away from scientific hubris and embraces community and family as preordained by God and revealed in the Natural Law, our cultural elites and ideologically motivated scientists and doctors are ignoring the prescient warnings of Mary Shelley’s 1818 Gothic novel. Instead, these elites are following the lead of Igor in Mel Brook’s comedic Young Frankenstein who dropped the brain of normalcy and embraced tightly the jar holding an abnormal brain.
May our culture reread Frankenstein with eyes to see Mary Shelley’s critiques of scientific hubris and ears to hear her astute warnings about violating nature. And, may we find buried in her text the wisdom to redress the very real monstrosities of our marvelous age that has been duped by materialism, deceived by scientism, and betrayed by radically irrational ideologies.