What do Frankenstein and the 2016 election season have in common? Well, for one, they have each made their way into my Penn curriculum. As I was finishing up Shelley for class while mindlessly scrolling through my post-election News Feed (millennial multitasking at its finest), I began to see the ways the different groups - racial, ethnic, religious, political, etc. - of our 21st century America were each trying to create a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In the process, we had given into the deceptive simplicity of liberalism, raised our voices in defense of universal rights, and silenced the more urgent charge of reckoning with our selfish nature. We had become the Victor Frankenstein of Shelley’s imagination, a man so consumed by a desire for science, progress and individual glory, that he takes on the role of creator and ends up giving birth to a monster. This election was, from the beginning, a display of humans choosing to serve our own visions of democratic progress in hopes of changing and improving America. Now, standing before us is a racist, white, male authoritarian, the president of the United States.
In her best known work, Mary Shelley stitches together a series of letters that follow the narratives of different characters. At the heart of Shelley’s Frankenstein lies the tale of the monster. His story opens and closes with an unrequited love for humanity, but towards the end, is marked by episodes of vengeance and murder. How did this creation arrive at such a state of hatred and menace; in essence, how did he become a monster? “I am malicious because I am miserable” are the words of the monster himself. He is rejected by the DeLacey family, and abandoned by Victor, his own creator, who is unable to “overlook the deformity” of his creation.
In Genesis, God created man and woman in His image, offering them the power to create as He did. In 1776, this power was harnessed to design an experiment that sought to protect the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for some, resulting in a system that would privilege a select few and disregard the humanity of others. I am thankful to be considered one of the privileged. I was not one of the black students threatened by lynching notifications after the election. I did not fear for my family’s safety upon hearing the chant: Build that wall! Seeing the swastika spray-painted on South Philly storefronts did not trigger any experiences of persecution from my personal past. My following words are directed at the Victor Frankensteins of America, those who share my level of privilege and have refused to listen to the monster’s cry: “Unfeeling, heartless creator!”
Since the election, I’ve been witnessing groups of people rallying around a call to understand those who are different - those who voted differently, are processing the results differently, etc. I find three problems with this proposal. First, it tolerates ignorance. We can just talk about our similarities and maybe the differences will cease to exist after a period of neglect. Second, the words “I understand you” in no way comforts those who are mourning what they see as the death of a free America. In fact, I would argue that it organizes people into a hierarchy where the “helpless mourner” is considered inferior to the “understanding one”. Third, asking someone to understand presupposes the idea that two human beings operate along a common plane of reason. I think back to the ridiculous conversations I’ve had with my roommates over the past two years and admit that our dimensions of rationality don’t always overlap. With the diversity of human experiences, understanding the story of someone different from you, even at the superficial level, is near impossible. By refusing to honor the monster’s request for a companion, Victor demonstrated that he never understood his creation. Ignoring the needs of those who had been economically and politically disenfranchised in the Midwest testifies to Clinton’s similar lack of empathy. And we should pause in recognition of this reality. I may never understand why those who voted for Trump did so; I may never understand why people feel the need to villainize those who did. That kind of understanding may be beyond our human limits. Some of us are, however, equipped with the understanding of our privilege, a creative power that has been recognized and validated by our society. As a creator, you have the privilege to help redesign the American experiment. So the next time you decide to join your friends in what seems to be an honest pursuit of American ideals, be it through Facebook posts, discussion groups, or protests, ask yourself: who am I fighting for?
There is still a deeper level of understanding that goes beyond our socially constructed privilege, one that recognizes our potential for monstrosity as creators. We live in a world where hierarchies are inevitable: there is a creator and a created, a leader and the led. It is our monstrosity that distorts these differences, making them cause for oppression and injustice. Is there a way to redeem this dynamic? My answer rests in the example of God, who saw his creation’s monstrous nature and could have turned away from our wretched appearance as Victor did. Instead, he surrendered his divine privilege and entered the world of monsters in the form of Christ to restore our original identity as creators. With this identity came the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is a call to understand by finding the creator in those around you (especially those whose creative powers have historically been denied); giving up your privilege; helping to legitimize theirs. Perhaps in following this example, we would be able to stand in solidarity with one another and America could then find a reason to be great.
1.Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Marilyn Butler. 1994. Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus: the 1818 text. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 116.
2. Genesis 1:27.
3. Shelley, Frankenstein, 141.
Esther Jou is a junior studying Health and Societies. Along with pie, biscuits, and mashed potatoes, she is thankful for the Emergence of Modern Science class she’s taking, which has been challenging her to think more critically about her Frankenstein-ish pursuit of knowledge in light of the Gospel.