Beyond the Supernatural

Paul K. Alkon points out that the most important quote symbolizing the shift from the gothic to science fiction in Frankenstein comes in Mary Shelley’s 1818 preface by Percy Shelley (Alkon 2). It states, “I have not considered myself as merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The even on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment,” (Shelley 7). This quote makes it difficult to view Shelley’s work as anything even remotely gothic as she is denouncing supernatural terrors. Shelley’s work is perhaps only gothic because that was the only common style of horror during the beginning of the nineteenth century. Shelley was clearly trying to create a work that was altogether new.  By forgoing the supernatural, Shelley is taking the first steps out of the gothic literature genre. Paul K. Alkon summarizes the situation by saying, “Frankenstein’s claim to originality is its rejection of the supernatural” (Alkon 2).

With paranormal occurrences out of the picture, Shelley was able to create a new type of terror. The specific terror that Shelley created was scientific transgression. Victor Frankenstein tried to utilize the powers of science to play God and ends up suffering for the rest of his life. Again, Alkon’s work on science fiction and the nineteenth century tightly articulates why Shelley used science:

“ Mary Shelley clearly intuited in turning to science and not the supernatural as a basis for Frankenstein’s plot, it is invocation of a rational worldview implied by affinities with the scientific method that allows science fiction, even when based on incredible science, to serve purposes distinct from those of more traditional fantasy” (Alkon 11).

Mary Shelley clearly wanted to create a different story; there is no denying her those intentions. Whether or not Shelley intended to create the origins of science fiction is not clear but her work as undoubtedly done just that.

The science in Frankenstein is never clearly detailed. When Victor Frankenstein is a child he becomes enamored with works by Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. All three of these men were natural philosophers whose work was deeply connected to the ideals of Romanticism rather than rational science. In these works Victor Frankenstein began to develop an interest in alchemy as well as raising ghosts or demons from the dead. Victor’s father, Alphonse Frankenstein, tells his son that he should not waste his time reading the works of these men. The senior Frankenstein informs his son that more concrete methods of understanding the natural world existed and that he should turn his interests to works rooted in rational science. This conversation between father and son has interesting parallels to Shelley’s preface. Shelley wants the readers to disregard their Romantic notions and pursue fantasy through science. Alphonse Frankenstein wants the same for his son. For Alkon, this is a key event:

“Mary Shelley’s careful delineation of Victor Frankenstein’s progress from Geneva to Ingolstadt, from childhood dabblings in alchemy and magic to adult use – and misuse – of science, takes her story over the threshold separating ancient and modern, superstition and science. It takes her book over the border from fantasy to science fiction” (Alkon 34).

Victor Frankenstein’s transition from that of natural philosophy and irrational beliefs to science is perhaps the same transition Shelley hoped to create in her readers. It also created Victor Frankenstein’s conceivably irrational desire to create life. This means that Frankenstein did not completely eradicate all of his beliefs in natural philosophy in pursuit of his dreams. Using science as a means for fantasy is not the only aspect of Frankenstein that lends it to the genre of science fiction.

Shelley’s work employs passages narrated by both Victor Frankenstein and his monster. First, readers hear Dr. Frankenstein’s account of his transgressions. More importantly, readers later hear the Monster’s story. Readers as humans were thus forced to experience the world through the eyes of a non-human creation. Paul K. Alkon calls this science fiction technique cognitive estrangement. Shelley achieves this by “inviting readers to see their own world as it appears to an intelligent alien” (Alkon 34). This mechanism allows for humans to become emotionally linked to the Monster. In spending time in the mind of the monster readers share in his struggle to assimilate into humanity and begin to share in his hate for Victor Frankenstein and humanity. Shelley used science to create a real monster that becomes an agent for allowing humans to become revolted by humankind for how they treat the Monster (Alkon 34).

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