Frankenstein Essay Prompts

Is it the case for so-called “three-parent babies” made by mitochondrial transplantation, a misleading term apparently invented for the very purpose of insisting on its unnaturalness?Would the first human clone be the next “unnatural freak,” if ever that technology becomes possible and desirable?What she shows us is a man behaving badly, but what she seems to tell us is that he is tragic and sympathetic.

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By accepting that Victor’s work is inherently perverted and bound to end hideously, Mellor’s accusation leaves us wondering what exactly is meant by “unnatural.” Which real-life interventions are guaranteed to produce a freak?

Might that be so with IVF, as its early detractors insisted?

“Unnatural” is not a neutral description but a morally laden term, and dangerous for that reason: Its use threatens to prejudice or shut down discussion before it begins.

There’s something of this rush to judgment also in the commentary of Charles Robinson, the Frankenstein scholar who introduces the new annotated text.

Such misconceptions might do little justice to Shelley, but as the critic Chris Baldick has written, “That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings with follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth.” In any case, the essays in the MIT edition have surprisingly little to say about the reproductive and biomedical technologies of our age, such as assisted conception, tissue engineering, stem-cell research, cloning, genetic manipulation, and “synthetic human entities with embryo-like features”—the remarkable potential “organisms” with a Frankensteinian name. Frankenstein is still frequently the first point of reference for media reports of such cutting-edge developments, just as it was when human IVF became a viable technique in the early 1970s.

The “Franken” label is now a lazy journalistic cliché for a technology you should distrust, or at least regard as “weird”: Frankenfoods, Frankenbugs.To condemn Victor for violating “Mother Nature” with his “unnatural being” seems plain disturbing in the 21st century. Haldane in 1924: There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god.Certainly it bears out the complaint of the British biologist J. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion.Even Robert Walton, the ship’s captain who finds Victor pursuing his creature in the Arctic and whose letters describing that encounter begin and end the book, sees in him a noble, pitiable figure, “amiable and attractive” despite his wrecked and emaciated state. This could be seen as a rather exquisite piece of authorial artifice, an early example of the unreliable narrator.It seems more likely to me that Shelley herself wasn’t clear what to make of Victor.In her revised edition of 1831, she emphasized the Faustian aspect of the tale, writing in her introduction that she wanted to show how “supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” In other words, it was preordained that the creature would be hideous, and inevitable that its creator would recoil “horror-stricken.” That wasn’t then a character failing of Victor’s.This idea invites the interpretation that Mellor offers in the new edition: “Nature prevents Victor from constructing a normal human being: His unnatural method of reproduction spawns an unnatural being, a freak.”She sees this as a feminist interpretation (Nature being, in her view, feminine and inviolable), I feel that to the extent that Shelley’s book supports a feminist reading, it is not this, and to the extent that one might draw this interpretation, it is not a feminist one.It’s too often suggested—some of the commentaries in the MIT edition repeat the idea—that Frankenstein is a warning about a hubristic, overreaching science that unleashes forces it cannot control.“Victor’s error is failing to think harder about the potential repercussions of his work,” writes the bioethicist Josephine Johnston.Speaking about the evils released from Pandora’s box by Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus in Greek myth—Shelley subtitled her novel “The Modern Prometheus”—Robinson says that such terrible consequences of careless tampering are reflected in “the pesticide DDT, the atom bomb, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl,” and the British government’s allowing a stem-cell scientist to perform genome editing “despite objections that ethical issues were being ignored.”But each of these modern developments in fact involved a complex and case-specific chain of events, and incurs a delicate balance of pros and cons.Some, such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident, had rather little to do with the intrinsic ethics of the underlying technology, but were a consequence of particular political and bureaucratic decisions.

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