Why Frankenstein Isn’t Just About Science — It’s About Faith

If you visit bookstores or libraries or bookish websites with any frequency, you’ve figured out that 2018 is the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, that weird, sad, beautiful novel by a 19-year-old that gave us two of popular culture’s most recognizable characters. The book was an instant success — adaptations for the theatre and the transformation of “Frankenstein” into a household word happened within a decade — and it remains more deeply embedded in our collective psyche than a young Mary Shelley could have imagined.

This significant literary birthday has given rise to (at least) dozens of articles about what made Frankenstein last. The theme of human pride, of course, is an evergreen one, unlikely to feel stale: warnings about hubris have been relevant and well-used since literature’s beginnings. At the same time, our increasing compassion for monsters in fiction makes the novel fit well in a cultural landscape of vampires, zombies, and other creatures from the horror genre who now just want to be loved. We increasingly can see ourselves reflected in the apparent villain who is just “misunderstood.” Frankenstein’s creature is the vintage sympathetic monster.

There’s a relatability to the creature, though, that goes beyond his status as an outcast, his ugly appearance, or his utter loneliness in the world. It is his frustration and anger with a God-figure he sees as deeply inadequate.

By the time the creature finds his creator, he has discovered a journal that reveals how the young scientist, horrified and disappointed with the results of his work, abandoned the creature in an unfamiliar world. The creature has also read Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which he sees an attached, personal, caring relationship between God and his children. Appalled at the contrast between Milton’s tale and his own experience with his creator, the creature laments to Frankenstein, “I ought to have been thy Adam, but I am instead the fallen angel.” He begs, “oh my creator, make me happy,” while arguing his case that it is cruel to create a life that is destined to experience only misery. We forget that the creature only becomes a monster, a vengeful murderer, after his prayers to his creator go unanswered.

The key characteristics of Frankenstein that enrage and sadden his creation — his abandonment and apathy — are shared by the vision of God offered by Deism, a theology developed in the 18th century with which Shelley was certainly familiar. Deism viewed God as a kind of clockmaker: after giving the earth its physical laws and humanity an innate morality, He stepped away and let his world tick on with no interference from Him.

Deism fell out of favor long ago, but the sense that God has absented Himself from the world is a feeling well-suited to the 20th and 21st centuries. The past century or so has seen enough tragedy on a massive scale to undercut the comforting narrative of human progression toward justice and peace. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, for example, makes God’s abandonment a literal part of the play’s universe. Prior, a character who visits heaven, is as angry as Frankenstein’s creature when he realizes heaven’s God-less state: “sue the bastard for walking out,” he says. “How dare He.”

Frankenstein is not a novel about forgoing religious belief in favor of a glorious, confident atheism, however. Frankenstein himself is a canvas on which Shelley shows the potential pitfalls of the idealized Romantic individual: independent, creative, brilliant, almost godlike, yet ultimately destructive to himself and his loved ones. Some have pointed to Shelley’s husband Percy (who had been kicked out of Oxford for distributing his pamphlet “The Necessity of Atheism”) as an inspiration for this neglectful, over-confident scientist. The lack of a God to provide guidance and from whom to ask forgiveness seems to be key to Frankenstein’s downfall.

The creature has no choice but to believe in his God — he cannot dismiss Frankenstein’s reality and effect on his life. He has the unique ability to see and directly converse with his creator — something most believers would envy — but finds him thoughtless, selfish, and the opposite of what the creature craves from such a figure. This is one of the chief beauties of fiction: to eschew easy answers and depict the emotional agony of being caught between two inadequate choices. For Shelley, neither a rational materialism nor the Christianity she knew felt sufficient. Her ambivalence is all too recognizable, two centuries later.

On this birthday of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, we should recognize Frankenstein not only for (arguably) birthing the science fiction genre, but also for demonstrating, at the genre’s beginnings, how fiction about science can help us talk about that which is not so scientific: theological uncertainty, existential disappointment, and the ways the faithful heart can ache.

If you would like to learn more about Frankenstein and other ways that fantasy and science fiction address issues of faith, check out my book, Genres of Doubt.