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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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