Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (revised edition 1831) is a classic often little read and widely misunderstood because of Hollywood’s corruption of the story. If you’ve only seen the movies, read the book and prepare to be (wonderfully) surprised.
This post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.
In post-literate terms, the monster or demon Victor Frankenstein creates is a cyborg, albeit one created from human parts. Exactly how the creature is constructed and how it is reanimated is quite vague in the text.
Of interest to us is the brain and the creature’s intellectual life.
The brain Frankenstein uses is from a corpse but we don’t know how young or old, healthy or diseased. This is important. How much does the creature “remember” of it’s former life? On the surface, nothing. He (for the creature is a he) is never seems aware of memories from another time.
However, he does manage to learn things quickly. An efficient autodidact, the creature is soon learning language, reading classic texts, and writing notes. His period of apprenticeship is short, his eloquence remarkable, and and his maturity obvious.
Is he drawing on his past or is he a superior being somehow endowed by the reanimation process with extraordinary learning capabilities? We certainly know he possesses physical strength and capabilities beyond normal humans (he scales mountainsides with ease and rows across vast waters in minutes). This is presumably the result of reanimation.
Upon learning, by observing others, the “the science of letters” (note, a science not an art), the creature remarks that this “opened before me a wide field for wonder and delight.” (p. 119). Fortuitously, he finds a bag of books on the ground and begins to read.
A favourite is Milton’s Paradise Lost which the creature reads “as a true history” (p. 129). True perhaps because the creature’s story alludes to that of Satan. The explicit link is made when the creature recalls that “Evil henceforth became my good.” (p. 220) echoing Satan’s “Evil, be thou my good” (Paradise Lost. Line 110).
Milton’s Satan is a fallen angel but one possessed of superior, beyond human, intelligence. Shelly meant us to understand the creature as a superior intellect.
Recall that the subtitle of the novel is “The Modern Prometheus.” The Prometheus myth has two version; in one, largely Greek, he attempts to help mankind and is punished by Zeus (i.e. he is their helper). In the other, largely Roman, he moulds humans from clay (i.e. he is their creator).
If the creature represents science and the superior intellect acquired through science. then a key message in Frankenstein is the power of ideas to manipulate and pervert human life. The hubris of our desire for increased knowledge and capacity is the danger. We are shaped by this.
In exhorting Frankenstein to create a partner for him, the creature says: “You are my creator, but I am your master; – obey!” (p. 167). One can hear in this McLuhan’s seminal observation, “First we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”.
The creature is not post-literate although he possess some degree of enhanced learning and intellectual capacity. He doesn’t remember a former life and the knowledge he had in that life does not inform his current incarnation.
But he is a warning. As Shelley describes, we craft our future and the tools we use have the power to overwhelm us. While post-literacy in my terms must be advantageous, Shelley indicates perhaps the outcome is otherwise.
Mary Shelley. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.