Another Perspective

Frankenstein Revisited

It's worth reflecting on how the text of Frankenstein specifically warns against cloning and supports its opponents.

By 8.25.04

Send to Kindle

Opponents of human cloning often allude to Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein. Dr. Leon Kass in his March 17, 1997 testimony to the National Bioethics Advisory Commission said, "People are repelled by many aspects of human cloning," one of those aspects being "the Frankensteinian hubris to create human life and increasingly to control its destiny." More generally, President Bush, in his April 10, 2002 call for the U.S. Senate to support the Brownback-Landrieu human cloning ban, stated, "Human cloning has moved from science fiction into science."

Sen. Sam Brownback on January 29, 2003, reintroduced that measure in the 108th Congress. S. 245 would prohibit both reproductive and research cloning. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, but has not yet been called up for a vote.

It's worth reflecting on how the text of Frankenstein specifically warns against cloning and supports its opponents. One easily missed passage of the novel leads to enlightenment. Victor Frankenstein, having discovered the secret of animation, prepared to bring his charnel-house creature to life. He later recalled his reflections at that point:

A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. Pursuing these reflections, I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.

But Victor never attempted to bring anyone back to life. He did not do so even though his monster, angry at his lonely, miserable existence, killed many of his loved ones. "But where were my friends and relations?" the "demon" moaned to Victor. He murdered his creator's little brother William, his best friend Henry Clerval, and his beloved wife Elizabeth. Also, a family friend, Justine, was executed for William's murder, through the monster's machinations. And Victor's father Alphonse -- a font of wisdom -- died of sorrow.

Victor did not even consider trying to reanimate any of these. Why? No doubt because of the horrific outcome of his first human experiment -- a gangling, oversized, yellow-eyed "hideous enemy." He saw that the results of creation are not necessarily what the creator had hoped, and he had no taste for more. Some stabs at self-justification notwithstanding, Victor came to renounce his attempts at creation. He told the secret of animation to no one, and it died with him in the Arctic.

Victor had gone to the Arctic in vengeful pursuit of the monster after his "enemy" murdered Elizabeth. A vessel, captained by Robert Walton, then rescued Victor off an ice floe. Recounting his tale to the captain, Victor twice refused to tell him animation's secret: "Would you also create for yourself and the world a demoniacal enemy? Peace, peace! Learn my miseries and do not seek to increase your own."

NO ONE IS SUGGESTING something resembling Frankenstein's "demoniacal" monster would result from cloning. But, like the monster, the person could suffer from unknown anomalies and the subsequent alienation. Dr. Kass, now the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, stated in his 1997 speech that "as the animal experiments indicate, there is a grave risk of mishaps and deformities" with human cloning.

If Victor forgot any thought of reanimating a corpse, what about the other dream he envisioned in the same passage? That is, being a "father" to a "new species" of "happy and excellent natures" who would bless him? The answer to that comes in the one time Victor did consider manufacturing another creature. He did so when the lonesome monster demanded that Victor create for him a female. ("My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects.") The monster pledged that he and his companion would leave Europe and head to the wilds of South America, never to be heard from again. Victor began the project, but then feared that "a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth." He destroyed the nascent female. The monster watched him and planned deeper revenge against Victor, vowing to be with him on his wedding night.

This fear of a "race of devils" is a far cry from Victor's dream that "a new species would bless me as its creator and source." Nobody argues that clones would spawn "a race of devils." But Victor's fear that his creation would proliferate out of his control applies to any science divorced from natural law. In the same way, no one knows how, once begun, cloning would end.

Victor never created a species of any sort, and, notably, both he and his monster died in the Arctic with no progeny left behind. The one life that Victor did place on earth immolated himself upon the Arctic Ocean, just after Victor expired.

Victor's seaboard conversations with Captain Walton offer yet another textual argument against cloning. The lonely Walton wanted Victor to be his friend. Victor thanked him, but, after recounting the monster's murder of his brother, his best friend, and his wife, says:

"…When you speak of new ties and fresh affections, think you that any can replace those who are gone?…[T]he companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain. They know our infantine dispositions, which, however they be afterwards modified, are never eradicated."

THE IMPLICATION IS THAT we are the products of our experiences, as well as of our genes. Life is irreplaceable and can never be replicated. Presumably, even if Victor had brought his loved ones back to life, they might not have come back as the same persons he knew before their traumatic death experiences. Much less would a clone relive the past of its original. A clone of my deceased father, for example, could not possibly be a World War II veteran.

Dr. Kass noted in his speech that "children are sometimes compelled to fulfill the broken dreams of unhappy parents." With cloning, however, he said, "the child is given a genotype that has already lived, with full expectation that this blueprint of a past life ought to be controlling of the life that is to come." But no life will ever be lived again.

Any clone, however, will share one inevitable trait with its original, with all of us -- and with Victor Frankenstein and his monster. Victor and his monster both exhibit our primeval fault, or defect: pride, the destroyer of all relationships. Science will not be able to eradicate original sin.

Thus, in reflecting at the end on his career, Victor compared himself to Satan: "All my speculations and hopes are as nothing, and like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell." The resulting monster, in his own Satanic spirit, told Victor, "You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!"

The deaths of the monster and his maker in the Arctic symbolize a world of people as cold and sterile as Dante's Satan, and as isolated as the clones they may produce if the practice is not banned. Frozen wastelands were the monster's natural habitat, and he boasted about the fact. High-tech reproduction involves freezing embryos.

To steer away from this arctic world, a comprehensive cloning ban like S. 245 is needed. President Bush in 2002 pointed out that if research cloning is allowed, stopping reproductive cloning would be virtually impossible. Victor Frankenstein lived with unimaginable regret. We may yet hope we will not share that experience.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Margaret Moen is an editor and freelance writer in St. Paul, Minnesota.