Upper School: Why Read Frankenstein?
Contributing Author: Mr. Zach Jimison, Multi-discipline Teacher
It was a rainy summer afternoon in 1816: Geneva, Switzerland. Two legends of Romantic poetry, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, a 19-year-old girl who is having an affair with Byron, another 19-year-old girl who is having an affair with Shelley, their newborn son, and Byron’s physician are all trapped inside. They are totally bored, when Byron makes a suggestion which would change the course of history: Let’s pass the time with a ghost story competition.
Out of this competition comes both The Vampyre (a.k.a. Dracula) and Frankenstein—in other words, two of the most famous and influential characters in Western history. Both were written on a bet, and one was written by a 19-year-old girl.
Ever since I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein during my own time as a sophomore at Trinity Christian School, it has been one of my all-time favorite novels. It completely captured my imagination and, in the five times I have read it, has continued to grant me insight into the balance between reason and emotion, the importance of friendship, the role of science in society, and so much more. Now, I have the privilege of teaching it.
One might ask, however, at a place like Trinity, why read an early-horror, science-fiction novel written by an irreligious 19-year-old who was having an affair? For that matter, at a Christian school, why read any book written by non-Christians?
There are many answers I could give to this question, but Saint Augustine, when faced with similar questions, already provided the best. In his treatise, On Christian Education, he writes:
A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, . . . even in pagan literature . . . Any statements by those who are called philosophers . . . which happen to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from owners who have no right to them. (Oxford World’s Classics, 47, 64)
In short, Augustine is arguing that Christians not only can read pagan literature, but that Christians have an obligation to read pagan literature. Since all truth belongs to Christ as his rightful property, if a non-Christian writes something that happens to be true, they are committing an act of theft. As Christians, Augustine argues, we have an obligation to take these stolen truths captive and “put [them] back into the service of Christ” (65).
Christian education, in other words, is an invitation to steal back from the culture what the culture steals from Christ.
This is why Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is so worth reading—because it is brimming with some of the greatest truths and profoundest insights that humans have ever written, all of which are just begging to be put back into the service of Jesus.
At its core, Frankenstein is a story about a man who takes his love for science too far, who believes that, through science, he can become a God, capable of bestowing life upon inanimate matter. To this end, he isolates himself for months, sacrificing his health and sanity, all to create a human being. He succeeds. But the moment his creature awakens, he is horrified and filled with disgust. What he had intended to be beautiful turns out to be a hideous monster. He rejects his own creation, and, as the creature faces increasing rejection, it becomes increasingly vicious—a murderer bent on revenge.
This book is thus a cautionary tale: a warning about the dangers of playing God. When we idolize ourselves and our abilities, when we step beyond what God has granted us permission to achieve, when we idolize science, we necessarily create monsters. No matter how hard we try, science cannot make God irrelevant.
If there is one thing Mary Shelley understands it is the devastating temptations of sin: how it isolates us from everyone we love, promises sweetness but delivers bitterness, guarantees Godhood but grants only death. Her story retells the fall. In both stories, humans are promised that some forbidden action will make them “like God”—in both stories, the moment the act is committed, the beauty of the promise turns to horror.
But Shelley is not merely interested in the causes of self-idolization and sin—she is also interested in the cure: things like friendship, nature, and beauty. It is Victor Frankenstein’s six years of isolation that lead to his pride, glory-grasping, and monster-making; it is friendship that heals, restores, and draws him back into humanity. It is nature—Jesus might say “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field”—that cures his anxiety. It is a re-attuning to beauty that obviates his obsession with ugliness.
These ideas, and many others like them, are stolen straight from Scripture; they are worth stealing back.
As we discuss this book as a class, Shelley opens the floodgates for us to consider some of life’s biggest questions. We talk about how isolation leads to sin, how friendship leads to healing, how exclusion breeds hate, how to cultivate healthy friendships and why. We talk about the duty a creator has to their creation and vice versa, the proper role of science in society, the appropriate balance between reason and emotion. We bring biblical wisdom into conversation with pagan perspicacity. We determine what is worth accepting and what rejecting—a necessary skill in our increasingly anti-Christian culture.
Then, as our semester project, students take on one of these many themes and write a 4–7 page essay that integrates their previous reading, Jane Eyre, and responds from a Christian perspective. Most of my students take on bold questions: What is the role of suffering in the Christian life? How do we use reason in decision-making without idolizing it and destroying emotion? How do the places we live affect the people we become?
This is what we do here. We see Jesus everywhere—because anywhere truth is, there he is too, waiting to be found.
Zachariah Jimison is a 2017 alumnus of Trinity Christian School and graduate of Biola University's English Department, which awarded his bachelor's in English Writing. At Biola, he also became a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors College and wrote for Biola Magazine. He teaches sophomore modern literature and tutors seventh and eighth graders.