To Mary Shelley’s biographer Anne Mellor, the novel “portrays the penalties of violating Nature.” This makes it sound as though the attempt to create an “artificial person” from scavenged body parts was always going to end badly: that it was a crazy, doomed project from the start.
But Mary Shelley takes some pains to show that the real problem is not what Victor Frankenstein made, but how he reacted to it.
The “wisdom of repugnance,” the phrase coined by the U. bioethicist Leon Kass and which informed the decision of the George W.
Bush administration to pose drastic restrictions on federally funded stem-cell research in 2001, harked back directly to Mary Shelley’s novel.
Let’s be in no doubt: Frankenstein is one of the most extraordinary achievements in English literature.
It’s not flawlessly written, the construction is sometimes awkward—yet it is a profound and unsettling vision, deeply informed about the science and philosophy of its day.
It is for Victor’s “failure of empathy and his moral cowardice,” Bear says—for his overweening egotism and narcissism—that we should think ill of him, and not because of what he discovered or created.
Mary Shelley, however, gives her readers mixed messages.
That it was written not by an established and experienced author but by a teenager at a very difficult period in her life feels almost miraculous.
It’s in fact those troubled circumstances and those flaws that have helped the book to persist, to keep on stimulating debate, and to continue attracting adaptations and variations—some good, many bad, some plain execrable.