“Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate” –
states Victor Frankenstein in the opening of his narrative. Through Frankenstein’s acquiring of this “natural philosophy”, we can already make a link to a broader view of society. His early access to these books of science to which he quickly becomes obsessed with comes solely through his social class – a privilege that the creature he creates does not have the luxury of. Through knowledge comes power, and this instant hierarchy through social class is a reflection of society in the 1800s, upper classes having access to the best education and through this, separating themselves from the lower classes. Shelley reflects this through victor’s narrative voice, which is eloquently spoken and rich in figurative language –
“I was like the Arabian who had been buried with the dead and found passage to life, aided only by one glimmering and seemingly ineffectual light” being a prime example of not only his fluency of articulation but cultural knowledge.
Furthermore, the creature’s discovery of books such as “paradise lost” when observing the “lower class” family in the woods educates him not on science but rather on humanity and the human condition.
Margaret Atwood, a renowned Canadian author, has long played with the Frankenstein myth. In her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, Atwood tells the story of Crake, a scientist who develops Crakers, genetically altered humanoid creatures perfectly suited to a new environment defined by pollution and climate change. The Crakers might not be stitched together on the outside – they are actually inhumanly beautiful – but their DNA is certainly Frankenstein-ian. The Crakers contain all the attributes of humans and animals that Crake, their creator, deems valuable. They purr to heal themselves (suggestive of cats); they reproduce in heats to avoid sexual competition (claimed to be the cause of violence); and their skin produces a citrus smell to repel insects (remarkably practical).
Crake’s friend, Jimmy, questions Crake about his creations, unable to escape the feeling that “some line has been crossed, some boundary transgressed. How much is too much, how far is too far?” Crake dismisses that there is any such line to be crossed; no God and no Nature exists to determine such limits. Or as he puts it, “I don’t believe in Nature either… at least not with a capital N.” Crake is Atwood’s update of Shelley’s “pale student of unhallowed arts.”
Doctor, my shadow
shivering on the table
you dangle on the leash
of your own longing;
your need grows teeth
You sliced me loose
— Carra Lucia Books (@BooksCarra) September 18, 2018
It’s unsurprising, then, that Atwood also took on the persona of the mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, in “Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein,” a chapbook reprinted in her Selected Poems 1965-1975. This series of 10 poems explores Victor’s act of creation, the connection between creator and creation, and the revolt of the creature, who finally demands his autonomy: “I will not come when you call.”
Imagine growing up in a society where all women are useful is to reproduce. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is an excellent novel of what could potentially be the fate of the future one day.
But what does all this have to do with The Handmaid’s Tale? Offred and Frankenstein’s creature both exist in the world as outcasts. Their social conditions are completely determined by the status society assigns them based on the appearance and function of their bodies.
Atwood’s frequent reference to women as “fruit” that are “ripe” or “rotten” simplifies any scientific aspect of the female to nothing but an object – any medical procedure being cold, clinical and rushed, “my breasts are fingered in turn, a search for ripeness, rot” showing the lack of care or explanation of medical processes to the women.
Offred is seen as nothing but her reproductive capability, the creature as his horrible countenance. Both are denied access to community and autonomy based on traits they did ask for and have no control over. Offred refuses to look at her own body because she doesn’t “want to look at something that determines me so completely.”
More importantly, The Handmaid’s Tale and Frankenstein are texts about knowledge – about language, the act of reading, and the relationship between knowledge and power. The creature reflects on the knowledge he gained while watching the DeLacey family:
“The words induced me to turn towards myself… When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?”
During the course of his reading, the creature never recognises a being like himself in any of the texts he encounters. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred offers a similar reflection:
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of print… We lived in the gaps between stories.”
Those that exist at the margins – the outcast and the oppressed – do not find their own experiences reflected in the stories a society tells itself about itself. Shelley’s and Atwood’s texts give voice to these marginalised characters and emphasise language’s ability to give power through both knowledge and the potential to share one’s own story.
As opposed to Victor’s eloquent speech, the character of Offred speaks in a Dispassionate and Factual tone. Whilst science consumes Victor’s life, it plays no part in that of Offred, nor the vast majority of Gilead. The impact of science on the society of Gilead is that of ignorance, the fear of acquired knowledge leading to abortions meaning all books and non-religious education is clamped down on.