Monday, March 28, 2011

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Rating: 3 & 1/2 Stars

Once in a while, the author’s life is just as compelling as their work. Mary Shelley (1797-1851) hardly led a fairy-tale existence, but it certainly sounds like something out of a book. She was born to parents distinguished for their literary achievements. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an early feminist, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her father, William Godwin, was known for his radical political views. Her home was frequented by eminent personalities from every field, including many scientists. Her mother died soon after her birth, and young Mary had a lonely childhood, writing stories to entertain herself. 

Her more or less obscure existence went up in flames when, at the age of sixteen, she eloped with Percy Shelley, one of the principal and most controversial poets of the Romantic Age. Since Shelley happened to be inconveniently married to someone else at that time, this brought down English society’s wrath on their heads. The two fled to Europe, where they enjoyed the company of Percy’s friend, the even more scandalous poet, Lord Byron. One rainy summer in Switzerland, Byron challenged his companions to come up with a horror story. The others of his company failed; Mary Shelley at the age of nineteen was the only one to rise to the occasion. The result was ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’ (pub. in 1818).

Victor Frankenstein, a promising young man with a scientific bent of mind, becomes obsessed with creating life. He manages to patch it together from body parts procured from cadavers, who are presumably, beyond the stage of offering any protest at the idea. The actual process of how this piecemeal humanoid was animated is left to the imagination. No sooner does Frankenstein succeed in his venture than he is overcome by revulsion at what he’s done, but it’s too late. He’s set in motion a chain of events that spell doom for him and all that he loves.

Frankenstein like the Creature of the story also owes its origins to many influences. In an academic sense, it’s a lit. lover’s delight with its various allusions to classical mythology, scientific interests of its age, theology, philosophy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and, that very modern topic – bioethics. That it’s a work of the Romantic period of English Literature is evidenced by the detailed descriptions of natural scenery; protagonists motivated by adventure, love and sacrifice; and, a noble, tragic hero.

The other prominent influence is Gothic. Frankenstein is very much a novel in the Gothic mode, and this alas, is what holds it back. There are gaping holes in the logic, the plot stretches the limits of credulity, and emotions are overwrought, to say the least. These characteristics earned it the derision of other writers of the age, like Jane Austen. These very noticeable flaws were perhaps the reason for the Gothic novel to fade out of fashion, leaving the corridors of the imagination wide-open to be haunted by the exponents of Horror.

But perhaps, Frankenstein’s finest contribution is not merely in its reflection of the various literary trends of the age. Rather, it is the exploration of the spirit of scientific endeavor – the questioning of man’s efforts to overcome the limitations set on us by Nature. In our efforts to replicate life, or harness nuclear energy, or in our wreaking irreparable damage on our environment in the name of progress, are we also, like Victor Frankenstein, dancing recklessly close to the precipice of disaster? There is nothing so alluring to the enquiring mind as the pursuit of knowledge…and nothing so perilous to humanity as too little of it.

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