Narrative & Technology
Early in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titular doctor describes the depths of his obsession with the project of creating a new form of living creature. He withdraws completely from all social activity, and fails to respond to the regular letters he receives from his family. He claims that his father would be justified in becoming angry with him because of the break in communication, even though it happened because of Frankenstein’s involvement in his work, because:
... A human being in perfection ought to always pursue a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say: not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed, if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru would not have been destroyed. (Shelley, 51)
I find this passage extremely revealing to the point that it complicates the typical reading of the novel as exclusively a morality tale about the dangers of technological progress and unlimited scientific inquiry. I think the issue that Shelley is bringing to us is much more specific, namely a theory of human nature that places the human race's faculties as a social animal before all else. Shelley has therefore created a novel which serves as a vehicle for her critique of the proposed utopia of Enlightenment individualism.
At the end of the passage, Frankenstein claims that interference with the "domestic affections" (familial love and community) of man, through obsession, greed, or other consuming distraction, has led to a great number of the major catastrophes throughout history. But it is obvious that Frankenstein's downfall has a modern character: it comes about through the rationalist individualism of his day; his attempt at conquest of the natural world is scientific rather than imperial. Shelley's placement of the rationalist man of the post-Enlightenment world within, rather than above or beyond, the history of human folly and downfall is quite radical considering the political atmosphere of her times, which was extremely optimistic about the future of scientific man in the wake of the American and French revolutions. That her criticism, here, is in fact grounded in the Enlightenment is clear from the references she incorporates into her novel. Rousseau in particular is alluded to heavily. Diana Reese, in her essay “A Troubled Legacy: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” insightfully points to the remarkable similarity between the following passage from Rousseau’s autobiography The Reveries of A Solitary Walker and the style Shelley uses in the monster’s, as well as his creator’s, soliloquies:
So now I am alone in the world, with no brother, neighbor or friend, nor any company left me but my own. The most sociable and loving of men has with one accord been cast out by all the rest. With all the ingenuity of hate they have sought out the cruellest torture for my sensitive soul, and have violently broken all the threads that bound me to them. I would have loved my fellow men in spite of themselves… (Reese, 60)
Rousseau shares major autobiographical details with Victor Frankenstein as well: both Genevans, both haunted by the early deaths of their mothers, both fascinated by the solitude of the state of nature. In connecting him so strongly with Rousseau in her allegory, Shelley paints Frankenstein as the ultimate, emblematic man of the Enlightenment.
I think that this view of the novel gives a more meaningful role to the monster, as well. The monster is created at the height of Frankenstein's obsessive solitude, and appears to him definitively once more when he is totally alone in the dizzying landscape of the winter mountains. Further, the monster's major crimes – the murders of William, Justine, Clerval, and Elizabeth – all occur just as Frankenstein himself is neglecting those very individuals he is supposed to love. He abandons his family, including his brother, to create the monster, which he immediately rejects as horrific, leading directly to the murder of William; he is too obsessed with his own misery to put in any reasonable effort to save Justine; he leaves Clerval in his travels in order to brood on the monster's demand for a mate, allowing the monster ample opportunity to kill his best friend; and finally, he leaves Elizabeth alone immediately after marrying her in order to settle his score with the monster, leaving her completely vulnerable. Now we can see that the monster is, truly, the child of Frankenstein's self-obsession, and all the havoc it wreaks is a direct result of its creator's withdrawn ego.
The monster’s origin story, in fact, closely mirrors the account of human history found in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (Reese, 51). Rousseau claims that human beings in the state of nature possess a faculty for self-love and compassion which is warped by entrance into society. The monster's tale contains a description of the innate kindness he feels toward other living beings: “This trait of kindness moved me sensibly. I had been accustomed, during the night, to steal a part of [the Delacys'] store for my own consumption; but when I found that in doing this I inflicted pain on the cottagers, I abstained, and satisfied myself with berries, nuts, and roots...” (Shelley,121). Rousseau holds that human beings acquire self-love and compassion before the ability to reason, though he also believes that humans naturally develop the latter as well. Like Frankenstein’s monster, who acquired profound disgust for his own body after encountering humans who feared and abused him, a human being who becomes civilized inevitably begins to compare himself to others and develops tendencies toward hatred, jealousy, and competition. Rousseau views incorporation into society as something which makes men dependent on one another, and debases them.
However, even as Rousseau decries civil society as a negative influence on man, he recognizes the possibility of reforming it through the creation of universal equality and human rights: “Reason, then, is set the task in the discourse of reestablishing, through its own methods, a prior state of affairs that the very progress of reason, as Rousseau maintains, has destroyed” (Reese, 51). For Rousseau, a rationally derived system of human rights would allow man to regain the total independence which incorporation into society took from him, even as society itself remains intact, and therefore return to man his original qualities of compassion and self-love. Here is where we begin to see the monster as a living embodiment of the problems and hypocrisies found in the utopian claims of the Enlightenment. The monster developed in a manner described by Rousseau, but its salvation at the hands of his Enlightenment is not to be found. Frankenstein is terrified of granting the monster human rights as a rational being, because this would necessitate that he accede to its demand for a mate, to become part of a community, to pursue its own happiness. “By insisting that he be granted the rights attendant to human freedom, […] the daemon emphasizes and corporeally reiterates the disavowed physicality of the political subject of the Enlightenment and signals toward the ‘private sphere’ of female nonsubjects, slaves, and servants…” (Reese, 58). In other words, the monster is a physical being which, in part, represents the individuals who are left out of the public or political sphere of civilized life while simultaneously being trapped within a post-Enlightenment world which attempts to abstract their individuality from the human community in which it exists. Rousseau’s vision of man as a solitary being who desires freedom from what he views as dependence on other men is shown to be doubly dehumanizing to those who are inevitably left out of the public sphere, which has now taken complete precedence over the private sphere and therefore atomized human beings’ ability to relate to those immediately around them.
So here we find that the Enlightenment, for Shelley, cannot solve through its own methods the problems it creates in severing man from his community or social relations, pre-empting her contemporary critics who might claim that the Enlightenment institution of universal human rights would prevent such a catastrophe of atomization as that outlined in Frankenstein. However there are those who see the post-Enlightenment rationalist-individualist man less cynically and in fact claim that modernity has granted us even more ways to connect with other humans than ever, including, by the 21st century, the ability to communicate with others instantaneously at great distance through the Internet. However, we find that modern communication technology has almost the exact opposite effects than those predicted by futurists. In the introduction to his book On the Internet, philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus cites research by Carnegie Mellon University which found that “greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants’ communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness” (Dreyfus, 3). Later, he cites another study by Stanford University which suggested that the internet was “creating a broad new wave of social isolation in the United States, raising the specter of an atomized world without human contact or emotion” (Dreyfus, 50). It is the ironic fact that even as we appear to be more and more “connected” by communication technology, we in fact place less and less emphasis on actual communication with and emotional investment in other people and suffer real negative consequences from that state of affairs. If we expand its scope from simply a son's separation from his family to the relationship between individuals in society as a whole, we could easily see the paragraph quoted at the beginning of this essay as an indictment of the modern suburb, which physically distances neighbors from one another, replaces family bonding with television, videogames, and the Internet, nullifies community and interdependence by requiring car travel to big box grocery stores, etc. while prioritizing pursuit of personal wealth, perpetual entertainment, and a hollow "American Dream." This reading, it seems, has a great deal more modern resonance than simply the vague idea that technology, generally, may be bad for us if we happen to broadly go "too far," however far that might be. Instead Shelley is presenting us with the possibility of a genuine social tragedy: that the children of modernity may find themselves entirely without a place within any human community, severed entirely from their nature as social beings.
Dreyfus, Hubert L. On the Internet. London and New York: Routledge. 2009. Print.
Reese, Diana. “A Troubled Legacy: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the Inheritance of Human Rights.” Representations. Vol. 96, No. 1 (Fall 2006): pp. 48-72. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.
Shelley, Mary and Ward, Lynd. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 2009. Print.