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“”None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.
|—Mary Shelley, Frankenstein|
| Great and terrible|
|On our shelf:|
A young scientist named Victor Frankenstein wants to harness the power of lightning; influenced by Alessandro Volta, Luigi Galvani, and Benjamin Franklin, he hopes to use electricity to bring dead things back to life. His unambitious starting plan involves building an eight foot tall human being out of dead body parts; however, the creature is not only eight feet tall, but has yellow eyes and translucent skin[notes 1]. Its appearance freaks out Victor; hurt by this rejection, the monster flees.
Victor's brother is murdered; despite evidence that a domestic servant was guilty, Victor is convinced his monster did it, and is powerless to prevent the servant's hanging. This upsets him; he runs away again to the mountains, where the monster catches up to him. During Victor's absence, the monster has taught himself to read, and attempted to befriend a human family, who drove him off for being so freaky.
The lonesome monster demands that Victor build him a bride. Victor initially complies, but fearing that he might be creating a race of monsters, destroys the bride[notes 2], not knowing that the monster sees him doing it. The monster murders one of Victor's friends, and Victor is accused of it. Cleared of the charge, Victor returns home to marry, only to have the monster murder his bride. The novel ends with Victor pursuing the monster toward the North Pole.
The enduring popularity of this story has led it to become a frequently referenced trope in tales about the alleged hubris or dangerous recklessness of science, or that genetically modifying organisms is somehow an affront to nature, even though his mistreatment by an overzealous scientist is to blame for most of the bad stuff, not the science itself. Isaac Asimov labelled the irrational fear that science is mucking around with nature, and that the process may be on the brink of going terribly wrong, as "The Frankenstein Complex." Activists refer to genetically modified foodstuffs as "Frankenfood". The tale is used to justify vague beliefs that tampering with genetics, subatomic physics, and other fields of physical science will go unpredictably out of control or lead to the loss of our shared humanity.
Name of the monster
Victor Frankenstein, repulsed by his creation, leaves without giving the monster a name. In fact, no name for the monster appears in the novel, part of whose point is that the monster is an initially sympathetic character, sensitive and literate, shut out from human companionship by being so damn ugly.
Purists therefore take offense when the name "Frankenstein" is applied to the monster. But it makes sense for the monster to bear his dad's name; and in any case, the name is too universal to change at this point. The monster's name is Frankenstein.
- Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley; gutenberg.org
- Legacy of Frankenstein: The Monster Is the One in the White Lab Coat, American Scientist. Review of Frankenstein's Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture by Jon Turney (Yale, 1998)
- The Frankenstein Complex and Asimov's Three Laws, Lee McCauley
- Translucent skin was, at the time the novel was written, considered a desirable trait. It was his "shrivelled complexion and straight black lips" that were considered hideous.
- Evidently, Victor was smart enough to create fully functioning artificial human beings, but not smart enough to figure out tubal ligations.
- "Frankenstein", in The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage