Frankenstein: A Not-So-Heartwarming Tale of Friendship?
Autumn, with its skeletal trees and darkening evenings, seemed like a good time to pick up and re-read Frankenstein, and enough years had passed since I was last assigned to read it in school that the impact of the tale felt fresh and powerful. From its first publication in 1818 Mary Shelley’s novel has been a literary milestone, not only for its ground-breaking ideas but for the compelling emotional stakes that its characters face. Whether Frankenstein can truly be called the first work of ‘science fiction’ is subject to debate —much depends on how we define such slippery genre terms— but in this story of a scientist who sets out to create life, with terrible consequences for him and his loved ones, Shelley established the themes and preoccupations that would determine the shape of modern science fiction and emerge repeatedly in iconic works of the twentieth century. The dangers of unbridled scientific enquiry that we see in Jurassic Park; the interrogation of concepts like ‘human’ or ‘consciousness’ in Bladerunner; and, related to the previous theme, an invitation to identify with the ‘monstrous’ in the children’s movie Shrek —all of these were first introduced by Frankenstein.
On this re-read, though, I was intrigued to notice another theme weaving between and almost eclipsing these existential questions. It was, surprisingly, the importance of friendship, a topic that might feel un-serious or even a little embarrassing given its association with children’s picture books and TV specials. But the pulse of friendship starts to beat in the frame narrative in the novel’s very first chapter, in which an English captain, beset by ice in the Arctic Ocean, writes to his sister about his loneliness and desire to find a kindred spirit. His longing sets the stage for the coming story, in which every character we meet craves companionship, while to be deprived of it sends them spiralling down a path into darkness. Friendship is neither childish nor banal in Shelley’s universe, but a matter of fateful significance.
The dark side to this human need becomes apparent soon after Captain Walton encounters Victor Frankenstein, adrift on an ice floe. The two feel an immediate connection, and Victor feels compelled to share his tragic history, which he hopes will persuade his new friend to reject the “intoxicating draught” of scientific discovery. Victor’s narrative makes it clear that, while he comes from a close, loving family, his personality is far from extroverted. He describes himself, saying that “It was my temper to avoid a crowd and to attach myself fervently to a few.” However, as his interest in scientific work grows, he becomes truly unsociable: the weeks that he spends in the laboratory cut him off from his father, his fiancée, and his best friend.
The cause and effect here are muddied: whether science by its nature isolates us from our fellow-creatures, or whether Victor’s already introverted personality makes him vulnerable to the lure of forbidden knowledge. But as the novel progresses, every plot-line, major and minor, reinforces the tenet that companionship is good and isolation is evil, reaching its logical extreme during Victor’s most decisive showdown with his monster. This takes place on the Orkney Islands, where he has gone to complete his scientific work, and which in Shelley’s description seem to rival the Arctic wastes for desolate uninhabitability (it’s worth noting that, while Shelley writes sympathetically about poverty-stricken characters, they are always downtrodden nobles; genuinely working-class people like the Orkney fishermen are never shown as acceptable candidates for friendship).
Though Victor is the main protagonist, in the sense that his struggle with the demon of solitude sets off the chain of tragic events, that doesn’t necessarily make him the sympathetic centre of the tale. It’s not uncommon for readers to feel more strongly drawn towards the monster —an irony, since we’re told that every person who sets eyes on him reacts with instant, instinctive revulsion. Poignantly, even the monster recoils on his first glimpse of his own reflection in a pool of water. But at least one trait aligns him with the ranks of human characters in this novel, his profound yearning for companionship.
As narrated by the monster in his own words, his first actions after coming to consciousness in Victor’s laboratory (once his creator has fled in terror) are to wander through the Swiss forests, gradually understanding sensations such as temperature and hunger and experiencing phenomena including birdsong, fire, and moonlight for the very first time. In a novel that is already replete with nature-writing, the descriptions in this chapter stand out as particularly luminous. Almost at once, however, the monster discovers that his solitary ramblings aren’t enough for him. He begins to fixate on a family of peaceful cottagers whom he hopes —vainly, as it turns out— to befriend. The failure of his plan devastates him. He is alone, and has no one to exert a moderating influence on his emotions as Victor’s family members do for him. The monster spirals into homicidal rage, but his longing for friendship is unchanged. He decides that the only solution is for Victor to create a female of his species, a demand that drives forward the rest of the novel’s action and forces Victor to make his final, fatal choice.
The monster’s desire for a mate has few of the sexual or even romantic overtones that one might expect, but this fits with the other relationships in the novel, even those which should nominally be romantic. For example, although Victor is betrothed, his fiancée Elizabeth is more like an adoptive sister or a replacement for his dead mother than an object of passion. I wonder whether Shelley, while writing Frankenstein, was feeling disenchanted by romance. Though the intellectual circles in which she had grown up advocated for Free Love and she had apparently fallen hard for the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, her life with him contained a lot of unhappiness, some of it stemming from his relationships with other women. However, it also makes sense that, within the novel’s argument about human relationships, the actual nature of the relationship is secondary to the all-important fact of the relationship’s existence. Relationships need not even be positive to be essential; the antagonism between Victor and the monster is heartbreakingly reminiscent of a child who, deprived of love, resorts to any kind of bad behaviour to win attention from its caregiver. From this twisted perspective the monster’s strategy is a success, and as his murderous rampage gradually strips Victor of all the people who care about him, their enmity becomes vital to keeping both of them alive.
While these existential themes would inspire the big science-fiction franchises listed above, none of them were any weightier in Shelley’s mind than the question of friendship, because it lay at the root of everything else. For example (and despite some contrary assertions in the text), what makes science a dangerous field of study isn’t necessarily its arrogant compulsion to tear the veil from Nature’s mysteries. A more fundamental problem is the prized objectivity of science with its coldly impersonal essence, facts uninfluenced by any form of liking or friendship. Or, if we venture down another avenue, it becomes clear that any attempt to define what we mean by ‘humanity’ must have some concept of friendship as an essential linchpin. Greater than biological species or any criteria based on appearance or intelligence, this is the need which, in the monster, evokes our deepest compassion.
All of this made Frankenstein not just exciting and thought-provoking, but a perfect story for the bleak autumn days in which I re-read it. As the world darkens and turns inward, it is a good reminder that our true human nature is to reach towards each another.--Mary Thaler