[a progress report on a project started here
One of the things that has been interesting to me is the distance between Mary Shelley's story and the popular conceptions of it. This is at the heart of General Semantics, levels of abstraction: on one level there's the story; then there are "words about the words": critics' summaries, digests of the story, movies and plays, literary allusions, etc., etc. I'll work at this backwards, from the higher levels of abstraction, down to the story itself.
Like most folks, I grew up thinking this was a story about a creature (named Frankenstein) coming to life and terrorizing people. That's the popular conception: horror story
Eventually I got a little education, and learned that Frankenstein is actually the name of the scientist who created him. (Apparently the creature doesn't have a name.) Later, with a little more education, I was taught that the real monster of the story is not the creature, but the mad scientist. This is the more enlightened conception, the one (I think) most educated people have: cautionary tale about scientific ambition out of control.
Somewhere near here, it branches off; and we have Frankenstein-as-Myth. In this branching, roughly on the same level, the focus is not on scientist and his activity, but the fact that his creation gets away from him, and eventually poses a danger to him. This too is a cautionary tale, but not about the danger of ambition ("man should not dare to play God"). This caution is "man's discoveries and inventions sometimes get out of hand, and turn on him, to bite him in the butt." The warning is not about the impropriety of the effort, but on the peril that he might get more than he bargained for; "don't forget about the Law of Unintended Consequences." This is the background idea for much of Michael Crichton's fiction (scientist crosses a boundary and gets velociraptors), and it was prominent in some of Frank Herbert's fiction too (especially in The Jesus Incident). One of the things that gives Frankenstein-as-Myth so much staying power is the irony of it: the creator is destroyed by his creature.
This branch reaches up to the popular level too; "I've created a monster!" is a common way people express dismay about something that has gotten away from their control. Although they may be thinking of the cheesy films that cast it into the horror-story category, they aren't really saying "I'm in a horror story," but "I've lost control of my (project/rumor/child/mistress/business/etc)."
Down at the root level, the story itself, I find that while it was crafted to amaze and horrify, it isn't really a horror story. Nor is the second level of interpretation adequate, in either variation. Frankenstein-as-Myth is certainly not what this story is about; I doubt the author would even get that modern idea, since the Industrial Revolution hadn't happened yet, unleashing so many examples of technology-gone-wild as to make the notion commonplace. Frankenstein's obsession, the driving ambition to create life, is prominent, but I never get the sense that Shelley is saying "man must remain in his place and not play God." In fact, Frankenstein's genius, fueled by a fever of ambition, is successful. His efforts are rewarded; he does create life. That doesn't seem to be the problem.
So what is the problem? This is what was bothering me during my first reading of the book. Where did Frankenstein go wrong? My second reading leads me to conclude that Frankenstein's sin was not arrogance in making the attempt, nor plain bad luck that what he attempted proved too much for him to handle. His sin is that, having created life, he immediately abandoned it. The creature he brought to life is capable not only of great strength, but of great intelligence and sensitivity as well. If Dr. Frankenstein had nurtured, guided, and loved the creature, it would have been a noble, gentle giant, despite its hideous outward appearance. The visage problem could have been solved. We would have had another story like The Frog Prince or Beauty And The Beast, a story of a true and pure love overcoming the unhappy accidents of external wretchedness. But we don't have that story. We have a story of misery, revenge, and mutual hatred and destruction. I don't think Mary Shelley simply wanted to horrify. I think this story is a charge against God: that human misery, and human cruelty, are alike due to some failure on His part. If this is how life is to be, it was unjust and irresponsible of Him to make us in the first place. He abandoned us, or cursed us, or somehow failed in the duties of a creator toward his creature.
[more to follow]