I have always loved Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The original gothic novel, Shelley’s tale is eternally appealing in part because of the philosophical questions it raises that are central to our human experience in the world.
Told from the perspective of Victor Frankenstein, the scientist who creates the creature he then recoils from in horror, Victor is the father who abandons his offspring. He subsequently calls the creature ‘Wretched Devil’, ‘deamon’, ‘vile insect’, ‘Abhorred Monster’, and ‘Fiend’.
The unnamed creature quickly develops abandonment issues and feels deserving of such disgust, becoming more monstrous with time.
There are obvious ethical issues that are raised here about one’s responsibility towards what one creates. Such futuristic notions (the novel was published in 1818) cast light on scientific and technological progress, illuminating the question of ‘just because we can, should we?’
Alongside questions about one’s ethical responsibility to consider the future impact of one’s actions, there are important themes of acceptance, relationship and belonging.
In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s initial response upon seeing his creation expresses a feeling of the uncanny:
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
The creature, which Frankenstein had tried to create to be aesthetically pleasing, even beautiful, presents as ghoulish. Almost recognisably human, and yet not; the experience of the uncanny is of something at once familiar and unrecognisable as akin to ourselves.
Frankenstein’s creation is said to have ‘watery eyes’ – if the eyes are ‘the window to the soul’, then it is clear that this monster has no soul. The creature is a product of the ‘Uncanny Valley’: a term used when a human-like figure has just enough wrong with it to appear inhuman.
The term ‘uncanny’ appears in the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud. Freud’s “The Uncanny” (1919) explains the feeling thusly:
[The uncanny] undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible — to all that arouses dread and creeping horror; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread. Yet we may expect that it implies some intrinsic quality which justifies the use of a special name. One is curious to know what this peculiar quality is which allows us to distinguish as “uncanny” certain things within the boundaries of what is “fearful”.
The dread we feel, Freud claims, links to fears we have of being alone. Such fears, he argues, have their roots in infancy and manifest as fears of silence, solitude and darkness. The inner child fears abandonment. Frankenstein’s abandoned creation becomes increasingly menacing the more he is feared and rejected.
There have been many artistic renderings of Frankenstein, and the other night I attended the opening of an incredible dance performance called Frank Enstein at Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia. Made by The Farm on the Gold Coast in collaboration with Perth based Co3 Australia and Bleach Festival, Frank Enstein is an innovative re-telling of the classic story focussing on relationship, connection, care, and self-acceptance.
The blurb reads thusly:
Frank could be a genius. Just one more ‘i’ and he’d be an Einstein!
Frank’s a lonely guy who wants to make his imaginary friends real. Harnessing electricity from a storm he animates his world with nothing but his imagination and a cardboard box. Battling a physical impairment, Frank creates monsters to fulfill his desire to be normal and to be accepted by others. Can he control what he creates? And where is the real monster anyway?
The small cast consists of five talented performers, including Daniel Monks who plays the lead, Frank. As a performer with a disability, this telling of the story with Monks as the leading man places notions of acceptance and a desire for community front and centre.
The choreography is courageous and inclusive, with the movements echoing how every single person deals with, and overcomes their own perceived weaknesses and self-destructive thoughts of not feeling good enough.
After the show, Raewyn Hill, artistic director of CO3, delivered a moving speech. She reflected that many people are obsessed with striving to achieve perfection, in whatever form that perfection takes; be it beauty, intelligence, money, or success. She confided in us all that she does not believe perfection exists. Instead, we should seek to accept ourselves as we are.
In an interview, Hill explains,
“Frank Enstein is based on themes from the original story around self- acceptance and the courage to accept the way that you are…. It’s about feelings of alienation and being outside a community and the theme comes from working with Daniel Monks who is an actor with disability. I really believe that this work matters because I think that we all know the story about the battle with self. I think that that’s a universal story — the struggle to fit in, the struggle to find place and the struggle to find worth — and I think it’s a story that speaks to all of us.”
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein celebrated its 200th anniversary last year and the story continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. Despite technological advancements and social change, humans still seek compassion and community. We must be courageous enough to love ourselves and accept others who are different from us.
Writing for The Conversation, Alan Levinovitz claims,
In the original tale, however, Dr Frankenstein’s creation is no monster, but rather a kind, gentle Creature. Tragically, the Creature soon learns to fear humans, who, terrified by his appearance, drive him away with stones and never come to understand his true identity.
The real villain in Shelley’s story is neither Dr Frankenstein nor his creation – it is the intolerant, torch-wielding villagers. Only after experiencing their cruelty does the Creature become a monster, exacting revenge on those who refused to give him a chance.
This message is surely worth restating and reflecting upon, particularly at a time in which we see a fear of otherness manifest in discrimination, hatred, and exclusion. In order to accept others, we must firstly accept ourselves. The story of Frankenstein’s creature reminds us that we are powerful, and we create our own reality. Let us make that reality one of inclusion, courage and compassion.