The Existence of Evil and the Threat of Science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a gothic narrative that portrays the destructive nature of modern knowledge, especially when it is pursued without moral restraints. The creation of the monster by Victor Frankenstein illustrates the destructive powers of unlimited knowledge in the hands of individuals obsessed with scientific adventure and new discoveries. Although the novel is written in the context of early 19th century Europe when horror tales of mythic figures such as ogres and monsters were common elements of Victorian literature, Frankenstein mirrors the modern society in terms of its obsession with science and technology. In addition, the novel portrays mankind’s morally rotten condition by alluding to the fall of Adam and the origin of sin. At the same time, Frankenstein’s monster draws a parallel with Satan’s rebellion against his creator. The novel raises a philosophical question on Satan’s justification to rebel against God. In consistence with gothic tales and visual portrayal of the devil, Satan is presented as an ugly creature like the monster that Frankenstein created. It is possible, therefore, that his evil nature is in agreement with the way God created or intended him to exist. Consequently, Satan is viewed as a victim of God’s plans rather than a villain, just as the monster is a victim of negligence by his creator and exclusion from mainstream society. Of particular interests, however, is the possible allusion to the fall of Adam from God’s favor and subsequent banishment from the Garden of Eden, which implies that the misery mankind suffers today, is a consequence of negligence by his creator. This is symbolized by the monster’s metamorphosis into a killer as a result of being neglected and despised by society. This logic justifies the existence of evil in two ways. First, the commission of evil is mankind’s way of rebelling against his creator, a protestation against abandonment. Secondly, the novel implies that man is not evil by nature, but a victim of circumstances beyond his control. He is forced to do evil by the hardships he suffer; hunger, disease, natural calamities, and death. These are the evils that corrupt man’s character in the same way loneliness and exclusion from mainstream society transformed Victor Frankenstein’s creation into a cruel monster. In this regard, this essay discusses two major themes in the novel that portray the condition of society today. First, it argues for God’s culpability for the existence of evil and suffering that afflicts society. Secondly, it argues that Shelley’s Frankenstein is a portrayal of the doomed fate of modern society’s pursuit of scientific discoveries and new technological inventions. Victor Frankenstein’s obsessive desire to discover “the secret of life” and create a human-like functioning creature portrays society’s clamor for new technological inventions by relentlessly applying science to develop weapons of mass destruction and experiment with robots. However, Shelley warns, these efforts are doomed to backfire and create more misery for mankind.
The possible culpability of God in the existence of evil and suffering in society is captured on the novel’s title page, where the monster bemoans his miserable condition by questioning Frankenstein’s decision to create him in the first place. Borrowed from John Milton’s Paradie Lost, the monster conceives of himself as sharing the same fate with Adam and Satan; all are tragic figures who have been forced by their creators to survive under miserable and unendurable conditions. Despite his efforts at kindness and gentleness, the monster is shunned by his creator in the same way God abandoned Satan and Adam to the forces of evil. Consequently, the monster’s harboring of ill will toward Victor is justified by this abandonment and exclusion from society. Eventually, the monster is forced to become a cruel killer by a society that is hostile to and un-accommodative of his ugly appearance. Perhaps as a justification of his evil deeds, the monster asks his creator:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? (Shelley 1869).
These lines correspond with the young Frankenstein’s dream of scientific glory and God’s decision to create an archangel to serve under him, both of which backfired. Frankenstein’s desire to discover the secrets of life and see “light and fire” prompted him to create a monster that will eventually get out of control and turn against him. Likewise, God’s plan to create an archangel backfired when Lucifer rebelled against his master and became his number one enemy. Accordingly, Satan is perhaps taunting God for being angry with his evil ways. Satan could be telling God that he (God) is to blame for everything that went wrong because he created a creature and then endowed it with the potential to commit evil. Frankenstein’s monster reveals the same sentiments when he recounts the miserable conditions under which he was forced to live. He mourns that “I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on” (Shelley 188). Thus, he shares the same fate with Satan upon his expulsion from heaven. What course could such a creature take other than seeking revenge against those responsible for his miserable existence?
This logic provides a basis for interpreting Shelley’s as a justification of immorality in society. Shelley seems to place the existence of sin at God’s doorstep. This is because the text presents evil and suffering as part of divine design; they happen either because God allow them to or because he places man is such difficult conditions that he must do evil to survive. The existence of poverty, diseases, natural disasters and hunger provide mankind with acceptable reasons to defy any laws proclaimed by his creator. In Shelley’s view, the relationship between man and God should proceed along the lines of the social contract theory, whereby man desists from evil as long as God protects him from suffering. The fact that there is so much suffering in society nullifies man’s obligation to live according to the will of his creator. The monster’s rebellion against Frankenstein-his failure to live up to his creator’s expectations, is justified under these grounds; after completing his task of creating the monster, he abandoned him “to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on” (Shelley 188). Likewise, God abandoned mankind to suffer and live in misery after banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. In this light, Shelley advances the idea that God, by virtue of being the Creator, iis responsible for the evil, misery and suffering humanity experiences. Consequently, man has every reason to ask God whether he requested Him, his Maker, “to mould me Man, did I solicit thee, from darkness to promote me?” (Shelley 1869). Accordingly, man is not responsible to any one, least of all his Creator, to live in accordance with any divine laws. If evil exists, it is God’s problem because he created the conditions that prompt man to break rules.
The second theme that Shelley advances is the idea that there is a limit to useful knowledge. On the basis of Frankenstein’s experience with the monster he created, Shelley suggests that too much knowledge is dangerous and a threat to mankind’s existence. For instance, this ruthless and relentless pursuit of knowledge, the insatiable desire to see “Light and Fire,” proves dangerous when the product of his scientific knowledge becomes a threat to society’s survival. This situation draws a parallel with the status of the world today with regards to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) such as nuclear and chemical warheads. The portrayal of a stray monster roaming the countryside like a serial killer creates images of robots that could turn into aliens and kill people en mass. This possibility suggests the potential of too much knowledge becoming dangerous to mankind’s survival. It points to the danger posed by ruthless scientific inventions that produce nuclear and chemical weapons. Shelley’s portrays of a guilty and shameful Frankenstein after realizing the full consequences of his creation suggests that perhaps even the inventors of the deadliest weapons known to man realize their mistake when it is too late to reverse it. The question that comes to mind is whether the inventors of the atomic bomb were proud of their efforts when they caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Today, world leaders are concerned about the spread of WMDs, particularly those in the hands of terrorist cells and nations steeped in radical fundamentalism, such as Iran and North Korea. These concerns are pointers to world anxiety about the possibility of the use of these weapons getting out of control. Like Frankenstein, leaders are crisscrossing the world to reverse a mistake they started with the experimentation on Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than half a century ago. The world is in a dangerous situation than it was under the threat of the atomic bomb. Nuclear and chemical weapons are the new monsters that have placed the world at the edge of complete annihilation.
To this end, Shelley’s Frankenstein advances two key themes that are of critical relevance to society today. First, it suggests divine responsibility for the existence of evil and suffering. Accordingly, it absolves society of moral decadence and the breakdown of social order by blaming God for creating mankind and subjecting him to suffering, the condition under which men do evil. Second, the text portrays a parallel between the backfiring of Frankenstein’s ruthless pursuit of scientific knowledge and a possible nuclear crisis in light of the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in the world today. Like Frankenstein’s monster, there is a possibility of nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands, an eventuality that will threaten the survival of the entire human race.