We’ve all perhaps heard of Mary Shelley’s dark tale of the genius scientist Victor Frankenstein, who’s curiosity and intellect drive him to create a living monster (yes, yes Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster). Anyways, as the story goes, the beast haunts Victor everywhere he goes, wreaking havoc on his entire life and eventually leading to his very sad death. Frankenstein has now been told and retold for nearly 200 years, and for good reason. It is a magnificent and horrifying exploration of human nature, the limits of science and our relationship to nature. No matter how you slice it, it is rich with meaning and significance. And yet as I read it last year there was one thread in particular that jumped out at me.
At the heart of the story is the passion and ambition of the main character, who seems to prize his dreams and expectations about life above everything else. In the first half of the story his aspirations are his greatest pursuit. He chases success like a blood hound on the trail of a limping dear. He reads and studies to the decline of his relationships and his physical health. And yet when he finally sinks his teeth into that for which he has so relentlessly labored, his short lived satisfaction turns quickly to gut wrenching horror. Yes he has achieved a scientific break-through. But his success has brought a fruit that he had never imagined.
In the second section of the story the tables turn. The predator becomes the prey as the dreams of young Dr. Frankenstein turn upon him and threaten to destroy all that he had ever loved and cherished. As Victor sees the ugliness and destructive power of the monster which he created, he is gripped by a fear and hatred that seems to completely possess him. He searches for peace with no success. No matter what he does he can’t escape the anguish and regret that cripples his heart.
Farkenstein’s tale is a powerful picture of the deadly power of our vision of “the good life”. We all attach our sense of worth and satisfaction to certain things in life. We all set particular goals that we imagine will make us happy. And we often do one of two things: we chase our dreams at the expense of everything else we own, or we fiercely protect our precious things, haunted by a deep fear that we may lose them. These are two sides of the same coin.
The story gives a particularly powerful image of the crippling power that fear can have on us. Victor hates the monster because he fears the threat that this monster poses to his dreams and his family. But in a scene in the middle of the story, the monster engages with him in a long discussion in which he pleads that Victor not banish him from life. Though he is ugly, he desires to know the goodness and beauty of the life that his maker has. The monster doesn’t want to be a monster. He wants to be good. And yet the scientist’s fear of all that may happen causes him to hate and banish his creation, which leads to the terrible blood bath which ensues.
Dr. Frankenstien’s fierce labors bring about their own destruction. His chase after his dreams nearly kills his relationships with his loved ones. His protective fear of the thought that he might loose them and all that he worked for causes their actual death. This is truly a parable of the modern soul. We always either chasing dreams or trying to protect them. We are constantly falling into the deadly trap of attaching our ultimate worth to things that cannot stand up to the expectations. And yet, doesn’t this leave us at a dead end? Is it actually possible to avoid either side of the curse we see here?
As a christian I see here a very distinct lesson. The fact is that we cannot avoid this chase. Indeed, this longing to be possessed by something outside us, this aspiration to live for something which goes far beyond our tiny little selves, is inevitable. As the late novelist David Foster Wallace once noted, the question is not if you will worship but what you will worship. Our hearts are wired with a longing that reaches beyond ourselves. But if we clasp ultimate grip on anything other than the One for whom that grip was crafted, we will burn it.
The third segment in the story turns once again. In his hatred and fury, Victor turns to pursue the monster. His end is full of bitterness and regret. God alone can take the weight of being our ultimate dream. All other little gods will lead us, in the end to destruction and madness. They will warp our perspective and skew our sense of reality. The greatest picture of true humanity in this story is actually found in the monster himself. He understood that unless he came to his maker to seek reconciliation, he had no hope of a fulfilling life. The only difference is that the real God is nothing like Dr. Frankenstein. He is eagerly ready to give life to every twisted human monstrosity that comes to him in need.