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[A Review of Readings on Frankenstein - continued]

Many today cite Frankenstein as a cautionary tale of the inevitable disasters that await us when we try to “play God”. Perhaps that’s too simplistic an interpretation. The author Timothy J. Madigan compellingly argues in “Tampering in God’s Domain” that Mary Shelley wasn’t writing against free thinking or the urge to understand the mysteries of life. She herself came from a liberal-thinking family, and was actively interested in the scientific discoveries of her day. Madigan suggests that what is at stake is the problem of “cowardice and carelessness”.

Frankenstein left community to do his experiments, and refused to share with others what he had found. And, of course, he utterly abandoned the life that he created. What if scientists enter the realm of “playing God” in the interests of compassion and the search for an understanding of the whole of life? In a sense, haven’t we been experimenting with the nature of things all along? The challenge, then, is not to stop creating but to be conscious of what we are doing when we are.

[Quote]Arthur Paul Patterson, editor of Watershed Online, in his contributing article “Frankenstein’s Self-Centeredness Leads Inevitably to Self-Destruction”, brings the argument closer to home with the interpretation that Frankenstein reflects our own personal narcissistic tendencies. Walton and Frankenstein’s “can-do” self-sufficiency provides the excuse to do anything they desire, even at the expense of the suffering of others. They risk everything, including all who love them, for fame and a nebulous sense of purpose. Curiosity is natural. But what are the checks and balances of "creating" in isolation, without a moral motivation, without a community of support? Can we hope to be more human without recognizing our real limitations?

We are haunted or amused by the plodding monster celebrated by Boris Karloff's performance in the 1931 classic, but can we identify with him and understand his complex, ambiguous relationship to Frankenstein? We are inevitably creators of our projects, vocations, friendships and relationships every day. Are we conscious enough of the dynamics to truly love our creations, our personal “monsters”, even when they have turned out scarred and deformed by less than ideal unconscious impulses?
Patterson writes: “What if the Creator and the Creature had a separate existence of mutual respect, if we treated our children as equals who were Other than us, if women and men supported, corrected, and most of all, respected one another? Would our projects really lose their quality or become better? Would we become domestic drones or valued parts of a community? All we need to give up is our willfulness and our weaknesses, our obsession with self sufficiency, and the belief that we have been cheated by our Creator.

Time will tell but it may be that cinematically there is a movement towards more “true to the original spirit” adaptations coming to the screen. I refer to the faithful Terror of Frankenstein (1976) and Kenneth Branagh’s excellent Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994). Perhaps with films like these, as well as the growing scholarship as represented in Readings in Frankenstein, we are beginning to take more seriously the lessons brought to bear by this almost too familiar haunting tale.

After reading Readings on Frankenstein I was amazed at the depth and breadth of analysis that can be brought to bear on a work of literature. Biographical research into the author’s life can enhance social and psychological perspectives and vice versa. The collected reflections brought to bear questions about my own bent towards a promethean lifestyle, and continue to do so. What really is the goal of my own aspirations? Do I truly desire the consciousness that leads to mutual respect and understanding in my own relationships? Can I take responsibility for my creative projects in a mature way? And if I can’t (or even if I can), am I open to correction by my community of support?

The fact that Watershed Online’s Frankenstein pages are its most popular section by far suggests that others are interested in what is to be learned by this story of science fiction turning fact. Reading this anthology can be helpful in getting one’s bearings in intellectually coming to grips with its many meanings. It can also whet your appetite for taking these meanings to heart.

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