At this very time of year, on a dreary night, and during a lightning storm, Victor Frankenstein first gave life to his hideous creation in Mary Shelley’s tragic novel. And so was born both the connection between Halloween and Frankenstein as well as the now familiar arch-villain, the mad scientist. It seems a bit surprising that such a mythic element of our culture didn’t always exist, but as such archetypes go—being less than 200 years old—it is surpassingly young. The central fact in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that especially should haunt us today is that Victor Frankenstein as a research scientist actually succeeded.
What distracts us from this central fact, of course, is the novel’s unrelenting tragic arc, the monster’s descent into violence, and Victor’s own despair-unto-death—all the quintessential stuff of Romanticism. What plunges Victor down his tragic path is not any epic failure or flaw but complete success: he reanimates dead matter and it comes alive with a viable human soul. For the novel’s early 19th-century readers, that Victor actually achieves his desire to bestow a kind of immortality to humanity constitutes the most unbelievable act in this seminal work of science fiction; but for us, this is the very same quest scientists across a broad array of health sciences are embarking on today. Many potential Frankensteins, often funded by our tax dollars via federal research grants, are busy at work this hour with unprecedented powers to create new life forms. The timely question Mary Shelley forces us to ask in her dramatization of the self-destruction of one scientist is: to what degree is Victor a prototype of today’s research scientist?
To answer this question we should remember first that Shelley frames her narrative as Victor’s stern warning against the unbridled quest for knowledge. Victor is offering this warning to his new friend Robert Walton, an arctic explorer determined to be the first to reach the North Pole. Walton is writing letters to his sister in England and we get Victor’s story through these letters. Walton relates meeting and befriending Victor as a kindred spirit, a fellow explorer into the unknown. Shelley clearly portrays Victor as the doomed Romantic artist-poet-scientist who is destined by his heroic endeavors to soar and to suffer beyond the range of ordinary mortals.
By no means, despite his evident genius, are we encouraged to see Victor as singular; indeed, what motivates him to tell his story, to destroy his research notebooks, and to destroy the monster, is the palpable fear of others following his monomaniacal pursuit of scientific glory. Victor, in recounting his quest, clearly charts out his meteoric rise and fall: it begins with an honest thirst for knowledge; quickly excelling his peers and encouraged by his teachers, he narrows the focus of his research which becomes his sole obsession. In so doing he isolates himself from all human relationships: his fiancé, his poet-best friend, his father and siblings, his other studies, but also from the ordinary beauties of this world, the passing of the seasons, the pleasant weather, the pastoral haven of his college. Cut off from everything, he is capable of anything.
Cut off from all beneficent forces, he loses any ethical compass he might have had. Digging up the freshest corpses from graveyards is no longer a desecration of someone’s tomb: it is simply research. His life is not his own but given wholly over to his morbid project. Victor’s dehumanization results not only in an amoral absence of civilized values but also a reversal of those values. To him the monster is “lustrous” and a thing of beauty. He fancies himself a father of a new race. His descent into a personal hell starts with isolation, then through a combination of abstraction and reductionism (where life is merely a matter of biomechanics and chemistry), his dehumanization is complete.
Mary Shelley’s most brilliant irony and compelling psychology is that as we see Victor become less and less human the monster becomes more and more so, and the reader’s sympathies shift accordingly. The crux is the moment of animation itself when Victor recoils in horror from and fatefully rejects his progeny. Victor is not insane here. On the contrary, this moment sparks the rekindling of his conscience and the rest of the novel for him is the remorseful recovery of his full humanity.
Which brings us back to comparing Victor to today’s research scientists. In his book Consilience, Harvard biologist Edmund O. Wilson asserts that young researchers who want to do truly original research should expect at least 80-hour work weeks. Victor says it took him two years at that pace to accomplish his research goals. University of Virginia researcher Rosalynd Berne, who spent five years interviewing cutting-edge genetic engineers and nano-scientists about their research goals, their ethical values, and the connections between them comes to the unmistakable conclusion that the scientists with the greatest amount of power (who are deciding for all of us how far the cutting-edge will take us) have often thought the least about the ethical implications of their research. There can be no “pure science;” the blithe pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake is hopelessly naïve (if it were ever possible) in our age of applied technology. Berne’s concern echoes that of T.S. Eliot, who diffidently asked, where is the wisdom in so much information? There is an older question, too, by an older wise person—something about gaining the whole world and losing one’s soul—but such voices are beyond the parameters of the modern-day researcher’s agenda.
Berne’s concludes that our best remedy to inform our technology with wisdom is the recovery of myth. But in this she is 200 years behind Shelley, who subtitled her haunting novel, A Modern Prometheus. Prometheus, you will recall, has his liver pecked out daily by birds of prey as his eternal punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mortals. Today’s research scientists may have unprecedented powers to create new forms of life, but the dire potential of their success has had ample precedent in the history of the human imagination.