Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Genius of Frankenstein (and why it's relevant Today)

Frankenstein is one of my favorite novels. It's the father of science fiction literature and has got so many layers that I could be here a long while digging into them. It's also made people believe the monster is named Frankenstein, one of the greatest misconceptions in literary/film history.

Like most folks, I discovered it in high school and appreciated that I was wrong in thinking the monster was named Frankenstein. It was a great story that I didn't see coming but two years later, the book came even more alive in college.

My professor explained it in the context of the Romantic movement (where poetry/novels/art became more realistic, descriptive of common things and simplistic – at least in language, not themes – to relate to common folks) and it suddenly became way more than a horror novel.

The way I saw it, Frankenstein was a warning to society. As life passed on I saw even greater messages from it that are coming to life right now.

First, we create monsters today through the cult of personality. Celebrities and athletes are often told how great they are. On a smaller level, young kids get showered with constant attention and praise while parents make excuses are made for their behavior instead of corrections.

Why are we surprised when they rebel against us and become either terrors or ego-driven creatures? Why are we surprised LeBron James has shown himself to have a ridiculous ego after being allowed to be the king of Cleveland/Akron? I won’t forget a friend of mine explaining to me that Cleveland made LeBron who he is and that’s why Cleveland is upset with him leaving.

It was loaded with irony. They indeed made him. They made him King James despite his nickname. They created the monster they now hated. It’s the same with Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan or any celebrity that’s allowed to run wild without being checked or with an army of adoring fans who ignore their faults.  The parents create the monster in their child expecting anything they want then wonder why that child is spoiled.

We are Dr. Frankensteins as a society feeding into drama and as a result we have plenty of reality shows that cater to this which has hurt the quality of network television the last decade.  Unchecked power will usually create problems later on as Victor Frankenstein learned.

Second, the book is warning of going too far in science. Yes it’s a science fiction novel but it doesn’t celebrate scientific progress as much as it shows the danger of doing too much. The creature is called all kind of evil, demonic names instead of a glorious celebration.

Needless to say, folks wouldn’t be surprised at this if they were aware of the meaning of the book’s other title: The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus is the Greek mythology figure who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. They thanked him for that but Prometheus was forever tortured for his efforts.

It’s a reminder that technology, while a great thing, can also harm society in ways we may not expect. For example, the creators of the atomic bomb devoted their life decrying what they helped create.

Shelley also smartly foreshadowed how men in their quest for power are suspect for corruption. The book can also be a metaphor for how ego-trips can go bad because we can lose control of our ambitions. Victor wanted the glory of doing something nobody had done before and it cost him several relationships and ultimately his life. Dream big, but dream responsibly.

She also showed how women can be victims in this ego trip. As we see through history, when men often made the rules and dictated what was going on, women were left behind or considered afterthoughts. It’s no surprise she had that mindset considering her mother was one of the first feminist philosophers.

 “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” – Mary Shelley
The story behind the novel’s creation is almost as fascinating as the story itself. During a downpour in 1816, Shelley and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley were hanging with Romantic poet icon Lord Byron and several guests at Byron’s house. All of those involved started to pass the time discussing science and read ghost stories and decided to make a challenge to create their own.

Here is Shelley in her own words about her short story idea:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

Remember folks, Mary’s only 19. What the heck was going on in that head of hers? An awareness of science going too far to defy religion? A mad genius gone too far in his studies? Her lover convinced her to turn her short story into a book and the rest is history.

Cool footnote: Lord Byron’s unfinished story Fragment of a Novel inspired his physician John Polidori to create a short story of his own called – wait for it – The Vampyre. So in one crazy night of competition, the science fiction and vampire genre of literature were both born. Who said Twilight and Star Trek fans didn’t have something in common besides diehard fandom?

So while you may have hated literature growing up, there’s plenty of reasons why you should’ve pay attention. Hopefully I convinced you to re-read Frankenstein and see why it’s truly a genius work that speaks as loud as it did nearly 200 years ago.

1 comment:

  1. I read Frankenstein for the first time junior or senior year of college and that's when I learned Frankenstein was the creator. The phrase "history repeats itself" is so true, on the micro and macro levels. What Shelley saw in society continues today, as you said.

    And even in an individual level, I see the same circumstances manifesting in different ways in MY life. The issues may be different, but sometimes it seems like it's the same underlying puzzle that I'm always trying to solve- whether it's dealing with a career path, a relationship, family, whatever. And the crazy thing is, the answer is always within myself if I've overcome the same hurdle in the past!

    I digressed a bit.

    I love your questions about mainstream culture. We build people up only to tear them down. Fans created a monster out of worshipping a celebrity like LeBron. At the end of the day, LB cares about himself and doesn't really owe anyone anything. If he feels he personally has better options for himself, why would he stay stagnant? Where is the line between self-confidence and megalomamia? If a person doesn't believe in themselves, who will? Oprah does great but is villified for being a "diva." I don't like Lindsay Lohan but I guess I don't blame her for using her celebrity and money and white privilege to keep herself out of jail- I probably would even though it's unfair. But these monsters are created.

    Technology. Fukushima reactors in Japan destroying our planet. We make these amazing things, and our lust for power ultimately kills us. How many people are Internet-addicted? I sure am and it's kind of gross.

    Art is important- it can be a great way to draw parallels to real life, and shows that everything is the same, just in different time periods and formats. Great observations. I'mma see if Frankenstein is part of my almost thousand-book collection on my Kindle and perhaps revisit it this summer.