Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gifted it to mankind. The serpent tempted Eve to take a bite of the fruit from the tree of knowledge and thus set an inexorable chain of events in motion. Both these metaphors are stretched to their natural conclusion in Mary Shelley’s classic for the ages. Knowing the secret to life remains the most deep-seated and persisting of questions to man; the dawn of consciousness may have led his inquisitive nature in various directions of enquiry but these initially divergent streams could only ever empty into that one immanent unknowable ”why?”.
The great irony of this story is that Victor Frankenstein’s monster is altogether more human than his creator. Frankenstein is shown as upholding the virtues that should ideally characterize humanity: nobility of spirit, heroism, curiosity, loyalty, and love. His monster, on the other hand, displays all of these, at least initially, but on being repeatedly spurned by his benefactor and the rest of the human race, turns to the baser emotions of petty jealousy, lust, and revenge on those that would not have him.
An alternate, adjacent reading of the tale from the traditionally accepted ‘overreach and arrogance of man’ slant serves to highlight the flaws inherent in the notion of a personal God. A personal God with ascribable human qualities arises through a process of projection; man finds what is best in himself, increases it exponentially in potential, and throws it outward as an external, all-governing force but one that still retains interest in the daily functioning of his world. However, this kind of personal God by his descent into the sphere of human affairs necessarily becomes something less than perfect. He loses his lofty and impersonal station, and becomes victim to the same whims and weaknesses that man is prone to, but in a far more exaggerated manner.
But man needs just such an imperfect, personal God dwelling among the muck of mundane life to fulfill his spiritual longings. Shelley, intentionally or otherwise, alludes to the bringing of an absolute God into the finite realm. Her Frankenstein, for all ends concerned, is God in human form, initially imbued with attributes desirable in such an entity. Frankenstein’s monster then starts resembling the flawed race of men that, despite its best intentions, can only ever keep repeating the same mistakes and in turn inviting the ire of its equally flawed maker. Heraclitus said “Men are but mortal gods; gods are but immortal men“, both parties inextricably locked into a sadomasochistic relationship of self-flagellation and reaffirmation.
Shelley also stresses on the biased nature of first perceptions, and correct upbringing in shaping an individual’s personality. Frankenstein’s daemon, despite the coarse material of his constitution, could have been far more pliant if he were greeted with understanding and compassion instead of outright horror and disgust, feelings that even his own creator couldn’t suppress. The author does not condone the spree of murder that follows in the monster’s wake, but she does direct attention to society’s tendency of confusing effect for cause. Science may postulate that criminal traits are inherited to some degree, but according to Shelley all human beings are born with a blank slate as it were; socially ill-desired traits, if so inherited, can be more or less phased out under appropriate conditioning.
Frankenstein reads at a brisk clip with an intuitive apprehension of nature’s ability to awe. Scenes of breath-taking beauty and desolation, the miracle of life and the highs and lows that it regularly traverses with seemingly no concern for logic, are all related with an eager exuberance of style and spirit. There is no cunning to be found in Shelley’s writing; what exists is a direct channel to the core of human kind struggling to come to terms with its place in the world of experience.