Mary Shelley
Frankenstein Cover

Walton; or, The Early Modern Humanist: A Review of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus


"You throw a torch into a pile of buildings; and when they are consumed you sit among the ruins and lament the fall. Hypocritical fiend!" - Captain Robert Walton, to Frankenstein's Monster, Volume III, Chapter VII

*Like any review worth its salt, this one contains SPOILERS!*

The conflict within young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's mind is readily apparent throughout her masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Here at once was a highly educated and privileged eighteen-year-old woman; a passionate Romantic; a British conservative; a liberal feminist; a lover of Percy Bysshe Shelley; a daughter of two famous (or infamous, to many) public intellectuals; and a mother who suffered the death of a child. All of these identities intertwined to produce a very human writer and her equally human novel, about the very human Victor Frankenstein and his equally human Monster, in what most observers rightfully identify as a classic Gothic novel and founding text of modern imaginative fiction. It's odd to feel this way, but I really don't think Mary intended a clear, cogent message with her "ghost story." If there is an ultimate theme, it's the assertion of humanity amid the ambiguity of modern (here, early industrial) life. But I see this message in pretty much everything, so like all good art, maybe Frankenstein simply reflects back a thoughtfully distorted image of our own current selves. At any rate, it deserves a place among the best of fiction--literary, genre, or otherwise.

Before I go into this argument, I want to comment on how envious I am of Mary Shelley's youthful wisdom. When I was eighteen, I didn't have a clue what was going on in life, even if I thought I had all the answers. To be sure, her work can be qualified in a variety of ways: she drafted and redrafted the novel from its considerably shortened 1816 version; Percy may have edited her work too heavily (although I fear that this analysis unjustly robs Mary of her artistry); and she benefited much from her considerable education and ability to travel. But at the end of the day, she was only eighteen—eighteen!—when she awoke in the night after a bout of writer's block, horrified by the potential outcomes of humanity's more "unhallowed arts," and put pen to paper.

I was tempted at first to read Frankenstein through the stereotype of what I call the Romantic warning: the conservative horror of the Enlightenment and science run amok. Shelley's was an Age of Reason, but also of the French Revolution's failure, of Napoleon, of war and tragedy. A conservative Counterenlightenment spirit undoubtedly animates Shelley's writing (not to mention the Monster himself), but at the time the Romantic warning was far from a well-worn convention. Shelley is to credit, in part, for its lasting power. Is it too much of a stretch to see the soul of the Monster in our contemporary fears of human-induced climate change, GMOs (called "frankenfoods" for a reason), rogue AI, or grey goo? Such existential fear manifests frequently in the novel. Then-voguish tragedies that we now consider classics, like Milton's Paradise Lost to Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, make several appearances. And Victor only began to narrate his tragic life when Captain Walton remarked of his dream to penetrate (I use this gendered term purposefully) the Arctic for—science! (Ahem, manhood.) Not to worry--Nature repeatedly (and do I mean repeatedly) played its salubrious part, for every time Victor fainted, lost consciousness, or thinned spiritually, the pure beauty of the natural world dutifully cleansed him of the evils of socially-constructed, modern civilization. We can't ignore that Victor's creation then destroyed nearly everyone he loved--either directly, by strangling William, Henry, and Elizabeth; or indirectly, by framing Justine, sapping Alphonse of his will to live, and ultimately inducing Victor's final illness in the polar regions. Shelley's allusion to the Prometheus tale, as many other readers have already noted, also draws out the Romantic warning trope. In creating humanity or giving them fire, depending on the version you choose, Prometheus gained Zeus's favor of eternal suffering. It's incredibly sad to think that Shelley, whose first child died after she bore her two months prematurely, learned from that experience the tragic lesson that the act of creation necessarily entailed a lifetime of suffering.

But whereas Shelley the skeptic is on display throughout Frankenstein, Shelley the humanist also pierces through the veil of horror. This tale is not one of outright human tragedy. It is not an argument to, in Frankenstein's final appeal to Walton, "seek happiness in tranquillity [sic] and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries" (Volume III, Chapter VII). I read Shelley as having employed, perhaps unwittingly, such catastrophe to prompt us to a higher level of intellectual and ethical maturity in matters of science and society. I knew the ending going into the book, so what sustained my attention to the last page was how Shelley would portray Captain Walton's reaction to Frankenstein's tale. Would he conclude, in line with the Romantic warning theme, that he should abandon his epic venture to the North Pole? Or would he press on--and maybe perish--after arrogantly dismissing his newfound friend's advice? These endings are simple and predictable; we shelve Frankenstein among "Romantic horror" or "Gothic" novels to our epistemological peril. Instead, Walton remained committed to his quest but recognized the valid perspective and reciprocal humanity of his crew. When Walton turned south, and he did so with regret, note that it was on account of his near-mutinous crew's lives rather than a fear of untrammeled progress as related through Frankenstein's tale.

How did Walton come to this humane conclusion, despite his overbearing masculinity? I underscore gender in particular because what most surprised me about Frankenstein was the breadth and magnitude with which Shelley justly satirized men and manhood. Here we clearly see influence of Shelley's feminist parents but also of the liberalism that coexisted with her conservatism. Walton wrote to his sister of his quest for knowledge to benefit all "mankind," to make a mark on history as only a (libertarian?) man could—through a brave test of his reason and an achievement to inspire others to equal virtue. How very classically Greek and Roman; how very Western and masculinist. Victor, of course, is the prime example of this behavior. He felt it reasonable to sacrifice the relationships that made him happiest, to leave his beloved Elizabeth for years at a time, to contribute to an abstract science. He created a being, judged its outward appearance as horrific, then sought a manly freedom from social obligation through the abdication of all fatherly duties. The Monster is his son, after all. Frankenstein redoubled his commitment to vengeance in pursing the Monster, knowing all the while that the misery this choice induced was exactly what fed the Monster's own bitterness and hatred. But what is a rational, virtuous man to do? Take responsibility for his actions? Treat the others (or the Other) with mutual respect and dignity? Build a relationship with another life, especially one so like his own?

Walton overcame this culture of masculinity, this blind assault into unknown consequence, by honoring with human compassion the lives of his crew. But in this justice, Frankenstein failed time and again. Did Frankenstein ever treat Clerval, Elizabeth, his father, William, Edgar, Justine, or anyone else with dignity as equals? Why did he create the Monster? It wasn't for them—it was for himself, for science! Although these impulses animated Walton, too, the captain knew when to quit. He illustrated this compassion again when he met the Monster, who like his creator blamed the other for the tragic product of his own labor. Walton called the "hypocritical fiend" out for such ridiculous behavior, in a show of empathy that would have seemed alien to the late Frankenstein. It was a small act, and one very easy to overlook. I mean, who really cares about Walton? Isn't this book supposedly about a mad scientist and a monster?

Walton, I think, best serves as the voice for Shelley's ambiguous message. Frankenstein is a novel about the tragedy that human beings can create for themselves, this is in part true. But Shelley also asks us to see that the products of human agency do not have to be evil, tragedy, and death; but compassion, hope, and life. I admit that I may make this optimistic interpretation as a result of my own context, far removed from that of a young mother in an era of continental war. This early modern humanistic message, though, is one that can coexist with the classic Gothic novel of Romantic terror. In this paradox lies Shelley's complex humanity, and the greatness of Frankenstein.