The Fear of Humans

January 30, 2017 § 6 Comments

A dramatic and flawed protagonist who likes to faint. Monsters coming to life by stolen body parts and undefined science. Strange murders that happen in a heat of passion. Extremely unreliable narration.

Of course, these are just some of the aspects that define Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein as a Gothic novel or modernly known as horror fiction. It is also one of the first literary works that displays quite clearly the close relationship that horror has with science fiction; a relationship that has grown throughout the years with written works like Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, or movies like Alien (1979).

That being said, the ideas mentioned initially are hardly what makes a gothic novel “horrific”, and instead might warrant the response of the reader rolling their eyes quite a few times at our dear Victor Frankenstein. No, I believe Shelley keeps her reader’s attention through the same key element that links science fiction and horror so closely together: Fear. Fear can be generally defined as “A state of alarm or dread.” (OED). These emotions, or alarms, are subconsciously set off in the reader’s head, turning Frankenstein into a complex novel more complicated and intriguing than the mere fainting spells of Victor and his fellow acquaintances. I believe fear in Mary Shelley’s novel can be specified into four categories:

  1. Fear of Beliefs or Rationalism– The fear of having your religion challenged or disproved. The creature’s constant relation to Adam could be seen as to challenge the Christian God’s power over creation.
  2. Fear of the Unknown-The basic fear of something you can’t explain. The undefined science throughout the novel proves this idea as it is written as something that can’t even be put into words making it seem almost supernatural.
  3. Fear of the Known– The fear of historical, cultural, and personal present and past experiences of mankind. This is apparent as the ideas such as body snatching and grave robbery in the 19th century inserts itself into the novel.
  4. Fear of society – The fear of the imperfections or critiques of societal norms. Racism, social class, and economic status are seen throughout this novel. Why did Justine die? Was it because of the creature blaming her for the death of William, or was it because she was an easy target due to her social standing?

These fears have been specifically defined in the ways that Mary Shelley utilizes them to “horrify” her audience, and they all have one general concept that connects them for a great horrifying tale: that is the fact that they are all at their origin, man-made. Even the fear of the unknown is driven by man’s mere curiosity for it Victor Frankenstein, along with other characters in the novel like Captain Walton, pushing themselves to see how much of the unknown that can be defined. This places man at the center of creating horror. Of course, this is shown quite literally as Victor Frankenstein creates a creature that proceeds to terrify society. However, he also “creates” the creature by essentially horrifying it; its fear of the unknown world by abandonment along with the fear of society and the constant questioning of his beliefs on why his master made him, a recipe for a horrified character, creature or human. That is to say, these fears paint a picture of not only Victor’s treatment of the creature, but of how man treats himself and that’s the true fear.

Frankenstein isn’t the only novel where this idea is present. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel, The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the same elements of fear are in place except the horror lies literally in man himself; a literary choice on Stevenson’s part that speaks directly to this idea of man at the origin of his own fears. However, the experience that Dr. Jekyll gets from his creation of Mr.Hyde is initially seen as almost liberating to him due to his ability to embrace these fears and project them on his fellow society what he describes as “…leaping impulses and secret pleasures that I enjoyed in the disguise of Mr. Hyde.” (Stevenson 85). That being said, as he loses this power over the horror that he has created, he becomes a subject to his fears once more, the uncontrollable Mr. Hyde the result of this much like the creature in Frankenstein.

This discussion of fear and its creator leads me to ask the purpose of their insertion into various works including that of science fiction. That is to say, it is fairly well known that fear works, for the most part, in the matter to provide a cautionary tale. However, is Frankenstein a cautionary tale? If so, what is the cautionary tale of Frankenstein, and are we heeding it with our future relationship with machines?

-Kayla Bartee

Works Cited:

Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford dictionaries. n.d.Web. 29 Jan 2017.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus. Broadview Press: 1818. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: Scribner, 1886.print

§ 6 Responses to The Fear of Humans

  • resnichm says:

    I find the notion of our fear of the man-made to be interesting, especially in light of artificial intelligence. To use your categories, A.I. is rational in its purpose and in its motives, since it is based on man-made code. It is unknown, because we don’t know where it will take our society, but it is also known because we are the ones who are creating it; we know every nook and cranny. And lastly, we are afraid of what it will do to society. These categories of fear give us a useful framework to understand our fears, and can translate from a 19th century monster to whatever creations lie ahead.


  • tiffjku says:

    The fear of the unknown is an interesting concept as it is a fear that can be created in the mind. The Panopticon relies on the idea of an all-knowing god in order to instill fear upon its prisoners. The prisoners become afraid of an all-seeing eye that may or may not even exist. Yet it is because they think that there is one that keeps them in check from further committing crimes. When people think that something is real, even if that may not be the case, it is very much real in their minds and thus real in their own reality. For those people who fear the all-seeing eye of an invisible god, never seen and never touched, it is very much a reality even if those on the outside don’t believe in it.

    This reminds me of the conversation we had in class of whether or not Frankenstein’s creation is real or not. In the end, it does not matter to Victor whether the physical being of the creation is real because the creation instills real fear and mental and physical exhaustion to Victor, thus making it real to him.


    • Patrizio Murdocca says:

      I thought that your description of Frankenstein himself as a ‘horrified character’ interesting. I agree that Frankenstein’s own fear of the world and of man adds a dimension to his characterization and complicates the meaning of the work as a whole. It is fascinating to me that something man-made has so much fear and uncertainty towards its maker. I think this reflects human brokenness and fear translated and passed onto something that we create.

      In the context of creating artificial intelligence, and to refer also to Hannah’s comment earlier, that fear and uncertainty must get transferred to machines also, as we saw in Asimov’s readings, yet there is this tension between the fear and uncertainty we pass down to artificially intelligent consciousness and the cool, decisive programming we also give such machines in most science fiction stories. To Hannah’s point, I wonder if these AI machines are actually meant to be fearless and instead adopt it as a means of simulating or presenting humanity to their makers, or instead if the way we code the machines in the first place allows our human flaws, fear, uncertainty, etc to present themselves independently of the machine’s choice.

      Looking forward to our discussion in class tomorrow.


  • kbyron94 says:

    I find your point about fear in the novel as a driving factor to be very interesting, and I agree with the four types of fear you have identified. I would also argue that there is a fifth kind of fear driving the characters in the novel: fear of being alone. Throughout the novel, Shelley conveys the characters’ desperation for companionship. The opening pages depict Walton’s own desire for a friend, and this sets the stage for a continued emphasis on humans’ desire for the company of an equal. Frankenstein also finds himself searching for friends once he attends the university. I would argue that this desire for a companion drives him to create the creature, as he sought a loyal friend. A hatred and fear of being alone also drives the creature to murder as well as demand that Frankenstein create a female partner.
    I find it interesting that there is such an emphasis on companionship and a fear of being alone, when Shelley wrote this novel while in the presence of others. We discussed previously that Shelley may have carried around a lot of guilt from incidences in her personal life – perhaps she felt alone and like an outcast herself. Regardless, the theme of a desire for companionship helps to create a commonality between humans and artificial creations.

    Liked by 1 person

  • mihirakonda says:

    If the creature is seen as an embodiment of the sources of human fear or Victor’s fear, how then are we to understand the fact that the creature isn’t actually that menacing, in that he has the capacity for kindness (gathering wood for the cottagers) and the desire to be good? The lack of understanding or compassion from the humans is what causes him to abandon his sympathy for humans. This line of thought seems to imply that things, even if they are innocent and peaceful, become sources of fear when society is not ready to understand or accept them.

    Maybe the fact that we need to be prepared to accept the unknown in order to thwart a descent into horror and fear explains the anxiety expressed by various theorists over answering the question of the inevitability of the ‘singularity’. We need to decide if the singularity is really inevitable because, if it is, we need to immediately start readying ourselves, in order to prevent it from going out of control like Mr. Hyde or Frankenstein’s creature.


  • gsbendik says:

    For me, your post leaves the question of whether or not Frankenstein and a cautionary tale or simply a tale about the negative components of human nature. We could say that Shelley is warning us not to shun those that look differently than us, to ostracize people based on their appearance or stature in society.
    While I am not a scientist, after a quick Google search after reading this post, it appears that we are naturally inclined to be afraid of things that could threaten our existence. Apparently, according to PsychologyToday, this is how our ancestors have survived. This makes perfect sense. Fear protects us from ourselves and from rash decisions that could lead to our own death or the deaths of others. Is the fear that Frankenstein calls upon in those who meet him natural? Are we meant to be afraid of the unknown? Is the response he elicits in the peasants for example, a natural one? One that comes from a place of trying to protect themselves and survive? Can this explanation be used as an excuse for atrocious human behavior? I think not, but it is still something to think about.
    It is much easier to say, “Do not be afraid,” than to not get a chill running down your spine when you see something we have been socially conditioned and naturally programmed to fear. If I had run into Frankenstein, I have no doubt I would have been bone-terrified.
    However, there is also the point that if Shelley meant to be using Frankenstein metaphorically, as just any person who is ostracized and different, than her message about fear changes. Then, it becomes a message of fear and of violence based on nothing but bigotry and self-aggrandizement. This kind of fear no longer elicits the complex questions about validity that the other kind of fear does, but it can lead to a lot of self introspection that I think is highly necessary given today’s superficial, cutthroat society that is currently ostracizing and demeaning refugees. If we can look at refugees, who are the most marginalized and vulnerable group, people without a home or country, and we can be afraid, we can turn them away, treat them like Frankenstein was treated, then that points to the same faults in our human character as it does those who Frankenstein came into contact with. Those refugees, like Frankenstein, are the product of our human world, our creation, and if we do not take responsibility then the monster is undoubtedly within ourselves.


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