I first read Frankenstein as a college freshman, and I was excited to read it again for the discussion series I’m hosting with David McDougall. The novel has permeated pop culture such that the themes (hubris, scientific advancement gone awry, those funny tweets) are well-known; on second reading, though, very different things jumped out at me.
A problem I’ve always had with the cautionary-tale reading of Frankenstein is that it’s the classic case of putting forward a problem but not a solution. It seems obvious that technological advancement has the potential for harm as well as for good, but I’ve yet to read any treatment of Frankenstein (or the theme) that suggests how we might consider any given technology: how should we think about this new thing? In what ways could we create technology that has no negative effects? Is “no negative effects” the standard? (Maybe, but I’m reminded of the stories of lamplighters who were out of a job when electric street lamps were invented.)
Pessimists Archive is one of my favorite Twitter accounts, highlighting newspaper reports of the deleterious effects of, among other things, the radio, the wireless telephone, and the pastime of reading. I don’t mean to unduly criticize people of the past, but rather to point out how difficult it is to predict the future, and especially to predict the downstream effects of what happens in the future.
Clearly, we should be thoughtful about how society advances, and recognize that we have responsibilities to other people, but Frankenstein seems to provide little in the way of a blueprint for responsible technological progress. As others have pointed out, the novel’s immense staying power has more to do with our ever-present anxieties about new technology than providing any answers or heuristics.
(Incidentally, one of the biggest shocks in rereading the book was that Victor Frankenstein’s ultimate goal was prolonging life (and perhaps achieving immortality) moreso than creating it.)
The main theme in Frankenstein, the one that gets so overlooked, is communal living, and specifically how a lot of the creature’s problems stem not from innate programming but from social ostracism. All of the problems stem from Victor Frankenstein’s reaction to his creation — his lack of care, development, and even affection for the creature. Note the contrast between Victor calling the creature a “catastrophe” and how God reacts to humanity in the first section of the Bible, perhaps the most famous creation story of all time (“And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good.”)
If we read the novel through the lens of “people are fundamentally blank slates and are shaped by society,” it seems clear that being in a community, having strong interpersonal ties — these are the things that create life, rather than whatever Victor Frankenstein does. The real villain of the story, then, is isolation, and not the creature. As a footnote in my edition points out, Mary Shelley intuited in the 19th century what science has since borne out: that social ties and personal health are related.