“Man,” I cried, “how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom! Cease; you know not what it is you say.”
-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, volume III, chapter 7
With the help of Hollywood-though often to its detriment-Mary Shelley’s 19th century classic, Frankenstein, has become one of the most popular fictional works of modern times. Many of the screen adaptations, sadly, are themselves frightening versions of a Frankenstein monster. They’ve taken a timeless morality play-never more relevant than now-and transmogrified it into a slasher flick. That’s likewise true of many modern literary criticisms of Shelley’s book.
At long last, though, Joseph Pearce, author of several excellent biographies of Christian literary figures-and a featured speaker at the Center for Vision & Values’ upcoming April 2009 conference, “Faith, Freedom, & Higher Ed”-has assembled an insightful edition of Shelley’s work. The edition is published by Ignatius Press, the superb publishing house of Father Joseph Fessio. The long overdue goal of these “Ignatius Critical Editions” is to review classics from what the publisher calls a “tradition-oriented approach.” In other words, the objective is to do critical examinations through the lens of a time-tested Judeo-Christian heritage, rather than subjecting a worthy work to yet another post-modern fad from the academic asylum. Mary Shelley, after all, was not a 21st century abortion-rights feminist, nor a late-20th century liberation-theology Marxist — why must we run her good work through such silly gauntlets?
The beauty of the Ignatius edition is that the reviewers analyze Shelley’s work on its own terms and as a reflection of its period and Shelley’s life. The reviewers carefully draw lessons that are indeed appropriate, and by no means a stretch beyond what Shelley sought to say to the world.
Pearce notes that the novel has become one of the most “misunderstood and misinterpreted” of the 19th century. Much like the corpses dug up and vivisected by Dr. Frankenstein, latter-day Victor Frankensteins have transformed the original meanings of the text to construct “their own particular bogeyman.” As the jacket of the edition rightly states, “Seldom has a work of fiction suffered so scandalously from the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.”
Pearce proceeds to show the how and why in an informed preface, which is followed by the complete text of the novel (roughly 200 pages), and then four short reviews, where featured scholars draw on insights from the likes of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesteron, Thomas Aquinas, and a very weird John Milton. It is Milton that deserves special attention, and gets it from Pearce in particular. Pearce crucially distinguishes between the biblical Adam and the Adam depicted by Milton in Paradise Lost.
Navigating through the theological parallels of Frankenstein is no simple task, given what Mary Shelley believed, given what her atheistic father believed, given what her mother believed, given Milton’s misunderstanding of Christianity, and given modern secular critics’ misunderstanding of Christianity. It is often hard to know, exactly, which parallel is being made.
That said, if one were to pick up this book and start reading, with no background into the writer and her universe, one would come away with a thesis critical to our times: Great danger naturally results when man tries to play God, when scientists assume the role of Creator. This goes back to the Garden of Eden, and that first temptation to pride: Ye shall be as gods.
We today are rushing into a brave new world of cloning, hybrids, embryonic stem-cell research, and the horrific possibility of scientists generating life solely to “harvest” its parts. The victims are not only the products but also the producers who seem oblivious to the grave consequences of their actions. This arrogance by scientists in the laboratory can only proceed with the complicity of politicians and policy-makers, many of whom are blissfully happy to help. As they work in tandem to assume the role of gods, they angrily attack religiously minded critics, who are deemed un-enlightened idiots whose reason has been trumped by narrow faith.
And yet, the religious seem to already know what the likes of Victor Frankenstein are mortified to learn only later: you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Dr. Frankenstein grapples with this repeatedly, including as his ponders fixing his first mistaken creation with a second-perhaps fashioning a mate for the monster: “Three years before I was engaged in the same manner, and had created a fiend whose unparalleled barbarity had desolated my heart, and filled it forever with the bitterest remorse. I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant.”
Victor Frankenstein’s disastrous fate is a timeless tale of the evils that can result when the created endeavor to seize the role of Creator. Those who ridicule the religious may want to pause and listen: contemporary Christians standing athwart history yelling “halt” have something to offer here. Joseph Pearce’s critical edition of Shelley’s masterpiece is one such offering.