There is an ongoing battle between faith or spirituality and science that was active even before the time of Mary Shelley. Some of the dilemmas she faced when writing what is essentially a gothic novel in the “Penny Dreadful” vein had to do with society’s disapproval of the focus on science over spirituality. Many of these issues are ongoing today. As recent as the past ten years Jackson writes “the British House of Lords voted 212 to 92 in favor of promoting experiments which will attempt to clone human beings;” this despite outcries from all the major religions citing unresolved ethical questions.
From Victorian times to present day, ethical questions regarding man’s infringement through science upon what many believe is best left to nature, to God if you will, arise daily. Issues of life and death are continually being sorted out by medical professionals legally bound to preserve life, even in the most hopeless of circumstances—science providing the means and spirituality questioning its wisdom. Shelley’s work, while bringing to mind many of these ethical issues, does not directly confront them but uses Frankenstein’s failed experiment as an astute warning of what happens when man challenges the purview of God. In referencing the cloning issue, Lemberg writes “One possible conclusion from Shelly’s novel…[is that] Science always needs to be constrained by moral principles and its activities need to be referenced against potential harms.”
In the character of Frankenstein Shelley presents a man arrogantly obsessed with science as the arbiter of entre into the secrets of life and death he believes will pour “a torrent of light into our dark world” (54). The statement indicates his disregard for religion and spirituality as irrelevant and as even holding back man’s scientific inquiry in the interests of superstition. It is an attitude often but not always consistent with scientists involved in any controversial study, but particularly in the area of cloning, which mostly closely suits this discussion.
Nowhere in the novel does Shelley directly disparage his attempts. She focuses instead on its results and Frankenstein’s personal fears in the face of the reality that he has created a monster. He has failed. Lemberg describes it as “the ultimate act of hubris” that backfires. Wallowing in this fear, never once does Frankenstein mention or address his behavior as unethical. For him it is simply an experiment gone wrong. This self-involvement continues as his only goal seems to be relief from the mental agony of personal failure and the horrifying disappointment, as it were, that his creation did not meet his glorious expectations. (74)
His agony from a moral perspective also supersedes that of the unfortunate monster he has created. Lemberg points out, when delving into the science of cloning we are creating life, and “ as individual members of society, we all need to guard against hubris and its consequences.” In this respect, it is interesting to compare Frankenstein’s reasons for wanting to create life with those of current scientists involved in cloning. Lemberg suggests that most today insist their cloning efforts are in the interests of medical advancements. As a creator, Frankenstein crows, “No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs”(53). He too is claiming to be a pure scientist but is that really his intent, or is he seeking creative abilities from a moral perspective relegated to God and nature?
To some extent in this respect Shelley gives her character an ethical pass based upon the death of his mother and his abject loneliness in the world in the face of it. He is also a bit of an anomaly in his family as opposed to Elizabeth and his brother, both of whom hold more simplistic traditional views of life and death. He almost apologizes at one point for his obsessive need to create life as opposed to simpler folk “who believes his native town to be the world, than he [Frankenstein] who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow”(53). When analyzed the statement reflects unadulterated pride—nothing else.
After some time, fully recovered from his fright and bad state of mind, he is happy again, “undisturbed by thoughts which during the preceding year had pressed upon me, notwithstanding my endeavors to throw them off with an invincible burden” (76). He has taken the unethical and unrealistic stance that the results of his experiment will somehow disappear. As the President’s Council on Cloning suggests, never once did he consider “What harms might be inflicted on the cloned child as a consequence of having been made a clone.” He in fact hates him for something for which he alone is responsible.
Even after little William is murdered he is still focused on himself. “Fear overcame me; I dared not advance, dreading a thousand nameless evils that made me tremble, although I was unable to define them” (81). One always gets the impression that he is only interested in himself–his fear, his mental state in of all this. Why he created the monster seems irrelevant in terms of professional ethnics; all he thinks about is the result of his experiments and “the filthy daemon to whom I have given life” (82). One gets the impression that had the experiment turned out differently, or better so to speak, he would maintain the ethical correctness of his actions. His lack of ethics continues as he decides not to reveal to authorities who has committed the murder, or that “I had been the author of unalterable evils” (103).
A statement by Lemberg provides an excellent conclusion to Frankenstein and the discussion of ethics. Lemberg writes:
“Frankenstein’s hubris blinded him to the likely untoward outcomes of his research. He was only focused on the task he had set himself. He gave no thought to what such a creature would think or how it would act. He certainly never considered potential consequences to others that would flow from the existence of such a creation.”
- Jackson, Wayne. “The Ethics of Human Cloning.” Christian Courier.com. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/353-ethics-of-human-cloning-the
- Lemberg, David. “Bioethics Today. “Albany Medical Center. http://www.amc.edu/BioethicsBlog/post.cfm/the-hubris-of-dr-frankenstein-and-reproductive-cloning
- President’s Council on Bioethics. “Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry.” https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcbe/reports/cloningreport/children.html
- Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. http://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/Frankenstein.pdf Accessed February 20, 2017.