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Mary Shelley And Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus

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Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus

"...that man's desire to understand and control the world around him is conditioned by his inability to understand and control himself." (Shelley vii). History is replete with examples of self-appointed saviors of man who have felt that it was their duty to improve the pathetic day-to-day existence of mankind. These men believe themselves to be heroic, even visionary and that they alone truly know best what will serve the best interest of mankind. Their mission seems so grand and even essential, that ordinary laws and rules, even moral principles no longer apply to them. The consequences or the end result seem irrelevant, and their actions, justified by insisting "it was done to make life better" become an end in and of themselves. Two of the best examples in literature of this phenomenon can be found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and in the several myths of the Ancient Greek's legendary Prometheus.

Although there are plenty of characters throughout history that fit the description of these less than virtuous traits, Mary Shelley's purpose for writing the novel was to try to make sense of what she could not fully understand herself. "This attempt to rationalize the supernatural is vital to Mary Shelley's purpose, which is to show that evil has no autonomous existence of its own, independent of the human life upon which it preys, but that it is of human origin, a distortion of the human nature."(Shelley vii). There are several interpretations of the name Frankenstein. To many in American culture, the name has come to symbolize the creation of life in a laboratory, rather than by God or natural evolution. Frankenstein has also come to be a metaphor for when science goes too far, such as controversial procedures/experiments that push the envelope on human morality and what is scientific innovation for the good of mankind versus playing God. A modern example of a controversial field currently funded with millions of dollars is stem cell research. It can be argued to be either an example of a scientific advancement with the potential to improve the quality of life for countless people, or simply an unethical, immoral attempt to create artificial life in a lab setting. One thing is certain, that stem cell research is here to stay, and its researchers will continue to work on new ways to use this new technology in their own self-interest, most likely for the highest profit, despite the consequences of the outcome.

In order to understand to the fullest extent, the thought process behind the creation of one the best pieces of literature of the Gothic Period, we have to delve into the mind behind the masterpiece. It started in Switzerland in the early 19th Century, when a young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was traveling through the European countryside with two of her closest friends who also happened to be famous writers. While in Switzerland for the summer, the trio stayed at the landmark known as Mont Blanc. Mary referred this place as "the most desolate place in the world."(Means). Already, she had witnessed what she would later describe as a perfect setting to an important scene in a concept she was interested in making a novel about, and upon Mary's return to England that same year, she began to outline the novel. The main focus of the Frankenstein novel was on the concepts of creation/destruction, isolation, deprivation, and fear, which were attributed to Shelley's fascination with the emotional impact of terror and the possibilities of science fiction. Although it may be hard to believe, Mary's novel was passed off several times as a mediocre piece of literature, before it was finally published under an anonymous author in November of 1817. Frankenstein was later reprinted in early 1818 and a formal introduction, in which Mary talked about her support for Godwinian politics was added as well. On the one hand, there were the pessimists who happened to be the conservative readers of the time. The conservatives who read the book were outraged by the far-fetched ideas and concepts brought up by Mary. Many felt that the novel itself was highly unscientific and very troubling to the reader. There are even written accounts by the author herself revealing that she experienced horrific nightmares while in the process of writing the novel in England.

On the other end of the spectrum, the optimistic reviews were full of praise and very little required constructive criticism. Despite the mixed feedback, many readers, young and old alike, enjoyed the novel and proclaimed Frankenstein a huge triumph in literature. Many readers were astounded to later discover that Shelley was only twenty years old when she wrote the work. The public was fascinated by Shelley's ability to portray some of the most depressing human and social issues. Several of these concepts dealt with the agony of alienation and of turning into a social outcast. Considering Shelley illustrated the horrible images of murder and revenge so vividly that she gave readers a chance to experience the feelings of the characters in the novel. Mary made connections between human intellect and human emotion and what actions can result. She also pointed out how modern science can result in a terrible outcome when permitted to. Shelley's lesson to be learned from reading the novel was that it is cruel to have pre-conceived notions of people that appear strange and ugly on the exterior prior to getting to know them and understand that things are not always as they seem. The fatigue and stress caused by prolonged solitude and loneliness could drive any person, artificial or not, to the point of madness. Mary hinted at the sacred relationship shared by humans with God as well.

The only way to justify Dr. Frankenstein's exhausting work, in an attempt to create life is that he had to be portrayed as a madman by Hollywood. Although this is not the way Shelley intended, and not true to her novel, in many of the movies based on her book, the doctor is accompanied by a deformed, ugly assistant. The two characters are often shown looming over a dead corpse as if almost in a trance. In the novel, Shelley does not portray the monster as an idiotic, emotionally numb creature like he is shown in the movies. In the original book, she never included a "hunchbacked" assistant for the crazed Dr. Victor Frankenstein. (Nardo 5).

Today, Frankenstein is a timeless classic that cannot be summed up by just the novel, entitled Frankenstein, but as Frankensteins in plural, due to the huge amounts of text rewritten, reproduced, refilmed, and redesigned. We cannot forget Hollywood and the impact that Shelley's idea had on American Culture when the film version of the story was released in 1931, starring Boris Karloff


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