The Prophecies of Mary Shelley’s FrankensteinAndrew Klavan explores the world of the Romantics in new book and finds special insight in Shelley’s classic horror story
Andrew Klavan, acclaimed novelist and host of the Andrew Klavan Show at the Daily Wire, wrote a book about his profound encounters with the Romantics of the 19th century, called The Truth and Beauty: How the Lives and Works of England’s Greatest Poets Point the Way to a Deeper Understanding of the Words of Jesus. The Romantics include literary figures like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. While it’s common to highlight the Romantics’ veneration of nature, they were also living in the throes of the Enlightenment, in which atheistic materialism was becoming a minority alternative to theism. Klavan writes,
“The wonderful success of science at explaining the material world threatens to create in scientists a bias towards materialism, the idea that there is nothing in life but stuff. What these Romantics feared was not the science itself, and certainly not reason itself, but a growing materialist worldview that threatened to destroy the poetry not of the rainbow but of our experience of the rainbow” (p. 63).
Like in philosophy and politics, the literary world saw many transformations and developments in the Romantic period. Klavan points out that the science fiction genre was practically invented by a writer living among the Romantics—Mary Shelley. Shelley was attached, though never married, to the poet Percy Shelley, a radical and friend to poet celebrity Lord Byron. On a stormy night in a summer home, Mary, Percy, and Byron each took up the challenge to write a “ghost story.” Influenced in part, no doubt, by the lightning and gloom outside, Mary Shelley produced Frankenstein, one of the most celebrated novels in the western canon. It’s a story about a bright, affluent young man from Switzerland, Frankenstein, who creates a living being using electricity. He’s horrified at his creation.
Klavan notes that many readers of Shelley’s novel see Frankenstein as a God-substitute. The power of science has replaced the loving providence of the Divine. However, Klavan notes that the woman is canceled out in the novel, not just God. There is no need for her womb or the procreative process. There is no need for the nurturing love of the feminine or the life-giving seed of the masculine. The woman, then, is no longer connected to the creation of new life.
The unique power of the feminine is not just to confer life on matter but to infuse life with creative humanity. Even God, when he wanted to become human, chose for himself a mother. Without the experience of the feminine, a person may well become, as Wordsworth says, an ‘outcast…bewildered and depressed’” (p.77).
Klavan notes this is exactly what happens to Frankenstein’s creation. Several movie renditions depict the “monster” as wicked from the start, but the novel offers a much more innocent and curious being, one who must be rejected repeatedly by society before morphing into a murderer. Because he lacked the nurture of a woman and was instead the creation of “science,” he roams the earth as a cosmic orphan seeking revenge against his creator.
Klavan sees the rise of materialistic science as inextricably connected to the denigration of women and childbearing. Sexuality and childbirth remind us of our finitude and limits. It wounds the “free love” ethos of the sexual revolution and puts a damper on the demand for total autonomy. Therefore, according to Klavan, modern superhero movies are offshoots of the materialistic, transhumanist vision.
“Superhero stories are, I think, prophecies of a coming transhuman world. They foresee a time when machines can be implanted in our bodies to make us smarter, stronger, faster, perhaps even immortal—supermen and superwomen” (p. 88).
Strangely, what materialism tends to respect the least is the material world, since it reminds us of finitude. Technological progress may offer artificial freedom and longevity, like Sauron’s Ring in The Lord of the Rings. But, Klavan wonders, will the abuse of such technology turn us more and more into the tragedy of Frankenstein’s monster?