What is a “throwaway culture”? What has Frankenstein to do with a “throwaway culture”? What can we learn from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel regarding the consequence of embracing a “throwaway culture”?
Pope Francis frequently speaks about a “throwaway culture” in which unwanted items and unwanted people, such as the unborn, the elderly, and the poor, are discarded as waste. In his encyclical Laudato si’, he discusses pollution, waste, the lack of recycling, and the destruction of the earth as symptoms of this throwaway culture. (Source: Wikipedia) This definition of “throwaway culture” shall be used throughout this post.
Although Frankenstein is meant to be a secular novel, the religious references and biblical allusions cannot be ignored and are a complex addition to a text that could otherwise be viewed as a secular treatise on the dangerous nature of knowledge. Although it would be simple to pare the text down to such non-religious terms, it cannot be ignored that Frankenstein contains a great deal of biblical symbolism, particularly the theme of the outcast and the story of creation. “The creature is bitter and dejected after being turned away from human civilization, much the same way that Adam in “Paradise Lost” was turned out of the Garden of Eden. One difference, though, makes the monster a sympathetic character, especially to contemporary readers. In the biblical story, Adam causes his own fate by sinning. His creator, Victor Frankenstein, however, causes the creature’s hideous existence, and it is this grotesqueness that leads to the creature’s being spurned. Only after he is repeatedly rejected does the creature become violent and decide to seek revenge” (Mellor 106). Do we embrace a “throwaway culture” that excludes or rejects our fellow brothers and sisters who are also made in the image of God? Won’t we also feel indignant if we are being spurned by society repeatedly? St. Paul told the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
In Frankenstein the creature’s desire to be accepted and assimilated is apparent when he speaks further of his feelings towards the cottagers. “The more I saw of them, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness; my heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition”(128). The creature reflects in these words a sense of simplistic desire, uncorrupted as yet by the malevolent and reactionary forces that will later come to shape his existence. His desire to be a part of the cottagers’ lives, to have them accept him and even love him, illustrates a tangible connection felt between the creature and the rest of humanity. The creature goes on to say, in one of the important quotes from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, “I required kindness and sympathy; but I did not believe myself utterly unworthy of it” (128). I think most people believe themselves capable and worthy of both emotional and psychological reciprocation and, by extension, capable of existing in harmony with the rest of society. Do we harden our hearts towards certain people, refusing to show them kindness and sympathy due to certain prejudices? St. Paul told the Ephesians: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph 4:32).
“Shelley’s monster is not evil by inherent constitution. He is born unformed–carrying the predispositions of human nature, but without the specific manifestations that can only be set by upbringing and education. He is the Enlightenment’s man of hope, whom learning and compassion might mold to goodness and wisdom. But he is also a victim of post-Enlightenment pessimism as the cruel rejection of his natural fellows drives him to fury and revenge” (Gould 14). It is human interaction (and the lack thereof) that ultimately drives the creature beyond his limits, not evil borne of the absence of God or knowledge of his existence. Considering the fact that the creature lives outside the bounds of civilized society, and thus lacks the enculturation that contributes to a sense of community to help ease the “awesome” thought and conception of God, it becomes clear that Shelley may be trying to relate the idea that only through society and interaction with others (or better put, civilization) can a human being grapple with the notion of God. Do we help strangers integrate into our parishes and communities, and not give them a cold shoulder or drive them away? St. Paul told the Romans: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom 15:7).
The sudden and drastic change in the creature arises with the discovery of Frankenstein’s journal. Upon learning of his “creator” and the foul circumstances surrounding his creation, the creature proclaims in one of the important quotes from Frankenstein, “Everything is related in them which bears reference to my accursed origin; the whole detail of that series of disgusting circumstances which produced it is set in view; the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person is given, in language which painted your own horrors and rendered mine indelible. I sickened as I read. ‘Hateful day when I received life’” (126)! This is a strong departure from the hopeful and optimistic creature that arose earlier in the text. When confronted with the sordid details of his own creation, as well as the flatly horrific comments of Frankenstein, the creature regresses quickly into a negative and self-deprecating appraisal of himself. This is one of the most destructive forces in the world for nothing constructive can come out of it. Do we give encouragement to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ or do we write them off? Do we give others the benefit of the doubt or do we judge them relentlessly (cf. Rom 2:1)? St. Paul told the Thessalonians: “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thes 5:11).
Confronted with proof of a higher power, a “creator”, the creature begins to doubt his own values and instead adapts those of Frankenstein. From this moment forth, the creature abandons his sense of morality that was so carefully developed over time and becomes fixated instead upon the beliefs of his creator. On the other hand, there is the issue of the creator himself, Victor. One critic observes that, “Frankenstein is a product of a period in which the secularization of society placed human beings at the center of the universe. The freedom to pursue independent thought and action however also shifted the responsibility for life’s outcomes away from God and Satan. And onto the shoulders of human beings. Victor’s “monster” is thus not a form of heavenly retribution for daring to “play God” as many have suggested. The text indicates that whether there is a God or not, Victor is responsible for his own behavior, and ultimately for the deaths of those he loves. His struggle is not with his Creator, but with his own ego. Out of this first assumption comes the primary theme of the novel: With knowledge comes personal responsibility; the denial of responsibility leads to tragic outcomes” (Nocks 138). There are many powerful nations in the world that have the resources and capabilities to change the lives of millions of people who are suffering from poverty, war, natural disasters, etc. Are we good stewards? Do we use the resources God has blessed us responsibly? What are the consequences if we choose to discard certain people as waste? Jesus told his disciples: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).
The creature becomes more obsessed with Frankenstein as time passes. He questions the values he has learned up until then, doubting and reworking his opinions of himself that contradict those of Frankenstein. The constant reflection on himself and the opinions of his creator drive the creature into a deep state of self-loathing. The creature becomes more and more angered as his creator, resulting in a grim obsession of revenge, continuously rebuffs him. This reaction is a furtherance of the creature’s frustration at being seemingly incapable of gaining any reaction from Frankenstein other than through the use of violence. The creature is “taught” that rage is his only tool to attract his creator’s attention. He is an unformed child in his emotional and psychological reactions to both stress and fear and he uses his anger as a means to draw responses from his creator. We are all co-creators of the families and societies we come from. What lessons can we learn from Frankenstein’s creature with regards to the rising cases of senseless killing in different parts of the world? Is it just about the ownership of guns? The killings made by the creature, which includes Victor’s brother and fiancée, probably did not make sense to Victor either. St. Paul told the Galatians: “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:15-16).
Mary Shelley obviously did not hear or know about the “throwaway culture” mentioned in this post. Coincidentally, she wrote a classic novel almost two centuries ago (in 1818) that highlights the effects of a “throwaway culture”. The novel is about a young science student Victor Frankenstein, who creates a grotesque but sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Repulsed by his work, Victor flees abandoning his creation. His denial of responsibility leads to the tragic deaths of all the people he ever loved or cared for. In comparison, every person is the product of the family and society they come from. If families and societies desert their members and try to discard them as waste, then they will have to be mindful of the horrendous and tragic consequences underscored by Mary Shelley’s epic novel.
Let the song “Behind Me and Before Me” remind us of our loving and caring Creator God. Let us bring the Good News to everyone so that they may come to know Him and be saved.