It’s easy enough to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a warning against scientific hubris, or what might these days be termed “over-reach.” Indeed, this is the moral drawn for us in Victor Frankenstein’s own death-bed speech: “Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even it if be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries” (220). And Maurice Hindle, the editor of the Penguin edition of the book, expands upon the same theme in somewhat leaden terms:
The “incestuous” violation of life on this planet has reached epidemic proportions, and much of the blame for this state of affairs must surely be laid at the feet of those who find an endless thrill of excitement in scientifically “penetrating” the “secrets of nature,” taking little or no responsible account of the damaging implications “theory” might have for “practice.” (xlvii)
Is this then a Romantic critique of Englightenment hubris, an argument for more feeling and sensibility, against single-minded dedication to abstract goals?
Yet it is surely strange that a book purportedly promoting tranquility and repudiating excitement should be written in such a thrilling manner, with the design (it seems) to perturb even the calmest of souls.
The book reveals a fundamental ambivalence about its own terrifying narrative. The Creature that Frankenstein created suggests (in what is his final speech, following the scientist’s demise) that it is best that the whole story be buried and forgotten: “He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish” (224). But of course Walton, the narrator who conveys us this tale, is keen to record and preserve its memory: he tells his sister, to whom he is notionally addressing his account, that the Creature’s revelations pronounced over the corpse of his maker constitute a “final and wonderful catastrophe” (221). And the book itself sets out to provoke and excite: born of a competition among friends who are bored on a rain-soaked holiday (“’We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron” ), and inspired by Shelley’s frightful dream (“My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me” ), it has been both distracting readers and giving them nightmares ever since its original 1818 publication.
How much in any case can we trust Frankenstein, given that he has just reprimanded Walton’s crew for their faint-heartedness in the face of their “glorious expedition” in the high Arctic: “And wherefore was it glorious? [. . .] Because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome” (217). He and Walton alike have a decidedly Romantic conception of scientific inquiry. Walton ascribes his “passionate enthusiasm for [. . .] the dangerous mysteries of ocean [. . .] to that production of the most imaginative of modern poets” (21-22). For his part, Frankenstein finds inspiration in medieval alchemists and has to be reminded by his university tutors that these are not real scientists: “In what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies which you have so greedily imbibed are a thousand years old and as musty as they are ancient?” (47). And the Creature himself is surely as much an offspring of the Romantic imagination–as “sublime” in his own way as the “awful majesty” of the Alps in which he thrives where humans struggle and stumble (100, 101)–as he is the product of scientific experimentation and toil in the laboratory.
If anything, Frankenstein is a polemic against neither Romanticism nor Science, but against the mixing of the two. It is not opposed to passion or affect or “unremitting ardour” (55); rather, it censures misplaced affect, the “enthusiasm of success” in domains that should be preserve of desiccated reason and careful consideration. Nature should induce high passions, the “sublime ecstasy” that gives “wings to the soul”; human artifice should not. Romanticism should know and keep to its own preserve; Science should do likewise.
And yet, again, the final irony is that there is no greater instance of the powerful admixture of scientific fascination and the Romantic sensibility, than the memorable and pulsating tale told by Frankenstein itself.