200 Years of Frankenstein

A posterized portrait of frankenstein's monster with bioethics keywords overlaying his face.

Two-hundred years ago, in a rented mansion on the shore of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, five notable friends sheltered from a storm so relentless that 1816 would be dubbed the year without a summer. During their time together, a friendly competition would generate a prescient piece of literature that raises moral and ethical questions still relevant for scientists 200 years later.

These poets, novelists, and dignitaries passed their days indoors reading poetry and discussing various philosophical doctrines of the time. The industrial revolution was well under way. Notable advances in science and medicine were causing some fervor in public discourse as tales of resurrection spread through the population.

The Royal Humane Society’s continued work in and around London on the science of resuscitation fueled these concerns. Drowning was a common occurrence and the Society purposefully incentivized the population to deliver any casualties in order to save lives and hone their methods. A disconnect between their research and the public’s understanding grew. In the public eye, it now seemed impossible to discern what it meant to be truly dead. Fears of being buried alive spread.

At the lake house, the unusual weather continued and Lord Byron challenged the isolated party to write horror stories. You can imagine these dignitaries sitting in a darkened room, like children around a campfire, allured by fantasy and the unknown, drawing from the concerns of the day to conceive new and adrenalizing tales to rile one-another from the monotony.

Byron read aloud from Fantasmagoriana and other morbid narratives. The combined tension from the bleak and isolated Swiss environment and his terrifying storytelling had palpable effects on the group. One night, during a reading of ‘Christabel,’ a captivated Percy Shelley ran from the room horrified and screaming as visions inspired by the text overcame his imagination.

Later on, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley would hold a long discussion on the science of life and death, as Shelley’s future wife, Mary, listened in silence. While others were already actively writing their stories, she found herself stuck. However, she recalls the effect of the conversation on her sleep that night:

‘Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the 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 …’

Such is the inspiration she credits in the preface to her now classic work, Frankenstein.

The Unhallowed Arts

While Shelley’s tale created an indisputable legacy for the horror genre, the inspirational godlike science of her day has a modern counterpart. The tragic social and ethical conflicts that arise from Dr. Frankenstein’s misguided science have aged well. Perhaps because the conflicts are inextricably tied to humanity and its ever-evolving system of values.

“When you talk to people about Frankenstein they don’t believe that it’s a serious book,” says Buz Waitzkin, Deputy Director of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society. “I think at its core, it’s a very serious book, and It does, in a way that’s very modern, confront the challenges of developing science in the context of our social values.”

For better or worse, what society values at any given time continues to have a governing influence on scientific progress – and with just reason. Truly horrific events have occurred when humanity was ignored, or in the worst cases sacrificed, for the sake of progress.

The tragic creature in Frankenstein personifies this tension. On its own, the creature is neither good or bad, it merely exists, though in a constant state of anguish. It was made in the image of man, but ‘of a filthy type’ and given the label demon by its irresponsible creator. It learns of the world through rejection and terror while it’s hunted by the local population for being considered too grotesque and different, despite having clear intelligence and profound eloquence.

Though taut, green, translucent skin may be repulsive, Frankenstein is in fact more cautionary tale than horror. It compels the reader to examine the actions of the intelligent doctor, the overzealous public, and the consequences (good or bad) of progress beyond the research at stake.

As modern scientists develop artificial intelligence, modify the genomic building blocks of living organisms, and peer ever closer into the mind and what makes us human, they are no more exempt from these considerations than they were in Mary Shelley’s day.