Why Frankenstein Matters 200 Years Later

Although “Franken” has in the cultural zeitgeist become a watchword for the power of science to destroy humanity, Mary Shelley had a far more open view of science. Don’t mistake the messenger, Victor,  for the message.  In fact, in her day, “science” had a lower status than the arts, and hardly anyone made their living by doing science. This lower status meant that the power and value science now has fuels a paranoid reading of the scientific past as if this anachronistic wariness has the power to cleanse the present and to do away with any present obligation to work against the difficulties science presents. Even more surprising, in her day, science and ethics went hand in hand in part because science and feeling were aligned. Goethe, we recall, praised the “tender empiricist.” Good scientists feel the beauty of nature and use that beauty to fuel their careful observations. Perhaps the most important provocation Shelley's novel can make is to get us to think about the costs of the separation between science and ethics, and why science seemingly turned its back on sensibility and feeling.

What, you may be wondering, in a novel teeming with death, underwrites my claim of Mary Shelley’s openness to science?  There was no necessary connection between science and doomsday; in fact, Erasmus Darwin, the likely source of her notions of animation, thought science went hand in hand with progress.  The notion of the scientist as a cold and unfeeling objective automaton is, moreover, an unhelpful projection onto the past, as is the notion that poetry and science must be enemies.  Crucially, as Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have argued, objectivity as we know it was not firmly in place until the 1860’s, and Romanticists have recently documented that science and poetic form could go hand in hand.  As Jessica Riskin and John Tresch have shown, Romantic science took seriously sensibility and feeling as means to knowing.  Hence the novel, on the one hand, highlights Victor’s emotional relationship to knowledge and to science, recalling Descartes’ installment of wonder as the primary passion. On the other hand, the emotions offer no guaranteed ethics, and Shelley telegraphs this by having the monster see himself as benevolent, and nonetheless blame others for not sufficiently rewarding his benevolence.  “Make me happy,” the monster promises, “and I shall again be virtuous.”  But no one can be made happy by someone else.  Furthermore, Victor is a veritable fountain of feeling, but the problem is that all his feeling tends toward narcissism.   

We have good reasons to want a separation between science and ethics.  The ostensible logic is that no is should define what ought to be, and that science tells us about what is.   For science to have objectivity, it cannot pay heed to ethics, the argument goes, especially since what counts as ethics shifts from one historical moment or one geographical place to another.  However, is it better to deny those motivations or to actively grapple against their shaping force?

Although Hume has been credited for putting the distinction between is and ought into place, Geoffrey Harpham shows that for Hume, “evaluative feelings are facts” (39).  The tendency to think that there are facts and then there are values, furthermore, ignores the fact that facts come to warrant attention and to have salience through value.  Neuroscience has recently warned that emotions are key to our ability to find value in the world, and indeed emotions are central to decision making itself.  V. S. Ramachandran argues that the left hemisphere of our brain is responsible for our belief systems, and, in explaining why some patients with paralyzed arms deny that those arms belong to them, he claims the left hemisphere will reject new information that does not fit the system.  Thus if we take Hume’s argument that feelings are facts seriously enough, we might follow Harpham to consider how ethics seeks to convert an is into an ought through emotion.  Emotion compels us with an urgency which is beyond reason yet also part of how reason works.  Hence Mary Shelley shows her characters being compelled by their feelings, but since those are ephemeral and subject to particular circumstances, the only feelings one can be reliably moved by are those that have been carefully habituated.

If Romantic science and ethics and emotion share a common history, the issue of Victor Frankenstein’s mastery and Promethean over-reaching ambition should be revisited.  The first thing to notice about over-reaching is how clearly it is gendered.  As Barbara Johnson shows, feminine normality makes any deviation—even the thought of reaching—monstrous.  Second, Victor initiates this plot of overreaching: he proclaims, “if the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.”  As his name already hints at false bravado, Victor needs to see himself as an overreacher in order to satiate his ego.  Moreover, there are at least two logical fallacies here.  One, why should any branch of study necessitate the weakening of affections?  Is not the problem the method of study, not the science?  Two, why should any subject, especially science, be granted the causal power to destroy one’s tastes for the simple pleasures, especially since science itself then and now often prefers the simplest explanations?  Victor’s inability to find fault in himself prompts him to blame science, and careful readers should resist the bait.  After all, Walton learns from Victor’s and the monster’s mistakes when he gives up the fantasy of scientific glory for the sake of actual community.

Richard C. Sha is a professor of literature at American University, where he is a member of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience. He is the author of Imagination and Science in Romanticism and Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750–1832 and the coeditor of Romanticism and the Emotions.