Frankenstein/Exclusion & Embrace: Part 1

As Steve wrote, this small series aims to generate a conversation between the great Gothic novel Frankenstein and Miroslav Volf’s more contemporary (1996) theology of identity, otherness and reconciliation.

This first post will focus mainly on Frankenstein and its overall construction of human evil. Please note in this series I will give away the plot of Frankenstein, so if you can’t stand knowing the ending, read the novel first. Having said that Frankenstein is not the sort of novel that really depends on a strong storyline, so even if you knew what was to happen, you wouldn’t miss much.

While Frankenstein is for many simply an anti-science polemic, I was quite surprised that the story was far more interested in the nature of human evil and our construction, definition and treatment of those who are different. What is brilliant about this book is the implied author’s positioning and repositioning of the reader. What I mean is this: Volume 1 of Frankenstein describes the journey of the obsessive scientist Dr. Frankenstein to create life. He achieves this and immediately realises the horror of what he had done:

The different accident of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that i had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. (p. 58)

Frankenstein flees from his workshop, has a nervous breakdown and when he returns home finds that his nephew had been murdered. He is convinced it is the monster. As readers we are convinced that this monster is the embodiment of evil and feel disgust for him.

But in Volume II Dr. Frankenstein meets the monster and the monster begins his own story. What is interesting here is that the monster’s register is far above any one else’s in the story  – he is constructed as highly intellegent and articulate. He tells of his initial days in the world, his love for nature and life and the constant rejection and hatred of him by humans. He goes on to narrate his first few years, living in a hovel, watching a family through a hole into their house. Through doing this he learns to speak, to read and learns to feel the joys and pains of the family he comes to love. Without them knowing, he helps them by collecting firewood. Finally he attempts to meet them and he, and the reader, is convinced that the family will welcome him. They are horrorified at his appearance, attack him and then leave their home forever. We feel immense sympathy for him at this point but this is held in contention with disgust as the monster describes how his lonliness leaves him with the desire to destroy what humans have. He admits to killing Frankenstein’s nephew and speaks of his hatred of mankind because of their treatment of him:

I too can create desolation; my enemy is not invulnerable; this death will carry despair to him, and a thousand other miseries shall torment and destroy him. (p144)

Yet we are convinced as readers that the monster commits evil because of his loneliness and exclusion. The monster feels that his existence can only be possible if he has a friend. He begs Dr. Frankenstein to create a friend for him, and Frankenstein agrees.

Volume III describes Frankenstein beginning his new creation but then he is convinced that the creation of another monster will be a disaster since together they will both wreak havoc on the world. He destroys his work and begins his pursuit of the monster. The monster in anger begins to kill everyone dear to Dr. Frankenstein and as he does, Dr. Frankenstein’s own loneliness and sense of exclusion grows and so fuels his hatred for the monster.

What is brilliant is that both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster are filled with hatred from exactly the same cause – lonliness and exclusion.

Let me finish with Volf. My summary of Frankenstein thus far leaves the Christian asking whether Frankenstein tells us something about sin. While Volf refuses to participate in the search for the most basic sin, he writes:

“Exclusion” names what permeates a good many of sins we commit against our neighbors, not what lies at the bottom of all sins (p. 72)

Is it not true that much of the evil commit by and towards humans in this world is done so because of a sense of ‘identity’ and ‘otherness’ constructed and held on to dearly? Conversely, is not the feeling of exclusion and ostracism the very thing that creates hatred and fear and revenge?

Exclusion and Embrace is an attempt to present a Christian response to this sort of human problem, which for our times is the major cause of suffering in our world. More of that in my next post.

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4 Responses to “Frankenstein/Exclusion & Embrace: Part 1”

  1. timsmartt Says:

    Hi Steve/Nick

    Really interesting post – I remember reading Frankenstein in first year uni and my mind quickly turning to thoughts about creation and redemption. The main thing that struck me was the dissimilarity between Dr. Frankenstein and the God of Israel. At first I liked Frankenstein, and admired his attempts to create something unique and beautiful, and the energy he put in to this. But his quick hatred of his creation, his desire to destroy what he has created, and his complete inability to empathise with the monster in any meaningful way turned me off the character.

    However this reaction is very understandable in the context of the novel. Perhaps shedding unique light on what an great thing it is that God is committed to his broken and rebellious creation.

    Looking forward to future posts

  2. stephengardner Says:

    Thanks for the comment Tim. Really interesting comparison between Frankenstein and YHWH.
    Nick-can’t wait for more posts…

  3. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve heard a few people mention the creator/creation theme in Frankenstein. To be honest i didn’t really follow it when i read the novel, but coming to think about it, it’s a great comparison. The God of the Bible creates in order to have relationship with his creation and makes his creation social. Dr. Frankenstein creates and refuses relationship or any social enjoyment to the creature. God does something about the evil inclinations of his creation, Dr. Frankenstein can only think of destruction. I wonder if the novel makes a subtle ethical comment here that only God has the right to create life, and the story is a demonstration of why.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Nick

  4. I need to read Frankenstein again! It’s one of my favourite novels, but it’s been a while. Another interesting aspect of the novel is the way it reflects the relationship between ‘beauty’ and ‘ugliness’. As Nick mentioned, Frankenstein’s monster is the most articulate character. ‘Ugliness’ is perhaps most often a failure to recognise reality, in itself an exclusion of the other through a refusal to recognise who/what they are.

    Looking forward to the next.

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