Frankenstein Unbound

by Brian W. Aldiss

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Themes and Meanings

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Like Frankenstein, Frankenstein Unbound explores the effects of science upon society and examines the role and responsibility of the scientist. Whereas Mary Shelley wrote at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Aldiss writes from the perspective of the nuclear age and can evaluate the scientific developments of the intervening centuries. Much of the novel consists of debates over this issue among Bodenland, Byron, and the Shelleys, or between Bodenland and Frankenstein. Bodenland considers Frankenstein “the archetype of the scientist whose research, pursued in the sacred name of increasing knowledge, takes on a life of its own and causes untold misery before being brought under control.” A legacy of Frankenstein’s folly, in Bodenland’s view, is overpopulation and technological warfare. In his defense, Victor argues, “Truth was everything to me! I wanted to improve the world, to deliver into man’s hands some of those powers which had hitherto been ascribed to a sniveling and fictitious God.” When Bodenland argues that “scientific curiosity by itself is as irresponsible as the curiosity of a child.... You have to accept responsibility for the fruits of your actions,” Victor disclaims such responsibility; it is no fault of his if a corrupt society misuses his discoveries. Similarly, whereas Shelley has unbounded faith that science will liberate humanity, like Prometheus unbound, Mary insists, “Our generation must take on the task of thinking about the future, of assuming towards it the responsibility that we assume towards our children. There are changes in the world to which we must not be passive, or we shall be overwhelmed by them.”

In a letter to Mary, Joe enumerates the improvements between her era and his in medicine, public health, the growth of social conscience (thanks in part to the Victorian novelists) resulting in an end of child labor, debtors’ prisons, and better treatment of the mentally ill and the elderly. “On the one hand, there is the sterility of machine culture and the terrible isolation often felt by people even in overcrowded cities; on the other, there is a taking for granted of many basic rights and freedoms which in your day have not even been thought of.”

Another issue is religion. Rejecting a “fictitious God,” Frankenstein finds life to be a purposeless pestilence; he must therefore put humanity in control of an otherwise meaningless universe. Bodenland has never been religious, but upon seeing Justine’s face upon the body of the monster’s mate, cobbled together from cadavers, he believes that Victor has committed blasphemy.

And to say as much . . . was to admit religion, to admit that life held more than the grave at the end of it, to admit that there was a spirit that transcended the poor imperfect flesh. Flesh without spirit was obscene. Why else should the notion of Frankenstein’s monster have affronted the imagination of generations, if it was not their intuition of God that was affronted?

In his own century, Bodenland finds that Organized Religion has been replaced by Organized Science, allied with Big Business and Government and with “no interest in the individual—its meat was statistics! It was death to the spirit.” Such is the victory of the “Frankenstein mentality.” In Shelley’s day, there was still a chance that the head and heart might have marched forward together, but the head has triumphed.

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