Monday, October 20, 2014

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" as a Response to Miltonian Christianity

By Joseph Pearce

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is one of the most influential novels of the nineteenth century. From the very beginning, on the title page itself, we are given tantalizing clues concerning the aesthetic and philosophical roots of Mary Shelley's inspiration and perhaps an inkling of her purpose. In giving Frankenstein the alternative title of The Modern Prometheus, and coupling it with the epigraph conveying Adam's complaint from Paradise Lost, we see the leitmotif established concerning the relationship between Creator, creature, and creativity. The allusion to the Prometheus myth conjures images of the creation of man in defiance of the gods; the citation of Adam's complaint conjures the image of the creation of man in defiance of man:

"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man?
Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?"

Prometheus presumes to take powers that are not rightfully his in order to create man; Adam presumes to rebuke his Creator for bringing him into existence. It is clear, therefore, that Victor Frankenstein can be seen as a Prometheus figure, and the Monster as a figure of Milton's Adam.

It is important from the outset to distinguish between the biblical Adam and the Adam depicted by Milton in Paradise Lost. The two Adams are very different, and it is perilous to conflate them. The biblical Adam does not rebuke his Creator for bringing him into existence; at most he blames Eve for his fall and implies, in the naked shame of his transgression, that it would have been better if God had not created her to be his mate. He never takes the prideful position of questioning the Creator's wisdom in creating him; still less does he imply the nihilistic option of wishing his own oblivion. On the contrary, it is clear that he remains grateful to God for his existence and grateful for the gift of Eve, in spite of his adolescent defensiveness in the wake of their primal act of disobedience.

Milton's Adam, like Milton's Satan--and, for that matter, Milton's Father and Milton's Son--is a presumptive product of Milton's own theological prejudices, divorced from orthodox tradition. It should be remembered that Milton's quasi-unitarianism is anathema to Protestants and Catholics alike. His Father appears to be a petty dictator; his Satan, a freedom-fighter; his Son, a mere creature, cold and arrogant, who is created after Satan; and his Holy Spirit, conspicuous by his absence. It is therefore a peculiar Miltonian "Christianity" that serves as a catalyst to Mary Shelley's imagination. Whether she knew it or not, she was not reacting against Christianity per se but against a pseudo-Christian heresy. As such, any reading of Frankenstein that purports to see it as an attack on Christian orthodoxy, as understood by Protestants or Catholics, is hopelessly awry.