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Why Frankenstein by Mary Shelley persists

Sabrina Artusa

Posted on May 24, 2021 15:06

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With vivid Romantic imagery, the haunting theme of hubris, and the disturbing exhibition of what human beings are capable of, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley continues to astonish readers more than a century after publication.

With vivid Romantic imagery, the haunting theme of hubris, and the disturbing exhibition of what human beings are capable of, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley continues to astonish readers more than a century after publication.

Mary Shelley disseminates many Romantic ideas throughout Frankenstein. She scatters vivid images of the sublime, writes pictorial paragraphs about nature with reverence, expresses disdain for politics and the justice system, and warns against excessive scientific achievement. To be a Romantic is to have an appreciation for nature, emotion, and individuality while also having an intense distrust of science and politics: a sentiment evident in the novel. What I find to be most memorable about the work, however, is Shelley's unnervingly accurate portrayal of how superficial, shallow, immoral, and hubristic the human race can be.

I read Frankenstein this past semester for the first time and approached it with the expectation that the story was about an evil, inarticulate green monster with bolts sticking out of his head. Of course, you can imagine my surprise when the “monster” was introduced and spouting words like “uncouth” and “thou”. I kept waiting for the green monster to emerge, but he never did. Instead, I met a different monster entirely--one that we are all acquainted with.

Frankenstein is less the stereotypical scary story and more a commentary on human nature. It is a tale warning against hubris and the capricious and self-serving moral compass of humankind. Victor symbolizes humankind's insatiable ambition--our desire to become more than ourselves and to possess and conquer what cannot be conquered. “I would pursue nature to her hiding places,” Victor states in his arrogance. This desire to tame nature persists and is exemplified every day; we see it in France’s plans to develop bionic soldiers and in Putin’s elongated tenure. We see it in power-hungry politicians and in greedy billionaires. In essence, it’s ingrained in our history. 

Pop culture's insistence on diluting the Creature into a more manageable representation of a “villain” represents our discomfort with confronting a hard truth. Shelley encourages us to re-examine how we treat others and divert fault. Ultimately, Victor is responsible for what happened to his family--he was unwilling to accept the Creature due, essentially, to his appearance. As a result, the Creature is vilified, allowing society to better dismiss him as inherently evil and to justify Victor’s hatred. As the Creature states, “All men hate the wretched.” 

Frankenstein is one of those books that resurface in your mind every couple of weeks. Its message lingers, potent and interminable. It does not persist because of the terror the Creature inflicts, but rather because of the distress caused from being confronted with the potential of human immorality. Shelley shows us that we are not as benevolent and high-minded as we think we are. After finishing, the reader is forced to address the daunting question: If I were Victor Frankenstein, would I react any differently?

Sabrina Artusa

Posted on May 24, 2021 15:06

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A look at two books on ‘higher journalism’ at the London Review of Books and the New Statesman

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