Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” as a Cautionary Tale

Although critics of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein have viewed the narrative as a novel of the grotesque, evidence indicates that the author also intended it to be a cautionary tale for human beings against unregulated progress. Indeed, “Frankenstein is a conscious example of a writer critiquing prevailing scientific views of the day, namely, the materialist and vitalist debates” (Lesley 1). The opinion demonstrates why the renowned literary work is often cited whenever concerns arise about scientific breakthroughs that generate ethical questions. Although science has brought many benefits to humanity, society should take caution from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and not move away from the righteous path to derive maximum benefits from the breakthroughs while minimizing the constant threat of unrestricted science.

Constant reference to Frankenstein is often applied to suggest that as much as they are needed, scientific developments have the potential to cause death or injury to society, as has been proven in numerous cases, such as the development of the atomic bomb. The damage caused represents a sign that the scientists often transcend the bounds of ethics and morality through inventions that pose severe threats to humanity. In the novel, a scientist creates a monster by piecing together body parts from dead people. The result is a surreal and repugnant creature that eventually kills its creator.

The cautionary element in Mary Shelly’s narrative is not restricted to the physical implications of scientific outcomes but also ethical and spiritual. The religion-backed argument; for example, views some scientific endeavors as a direct affront against the creator. Mary Shelly’s introduction to the book, in the 1831-revised edition, also emphasizes on this religious dynamic. She intend to portray the folly and danger of any endeavor by human beings to mock the creator of the universe by attempting to create life (Ball). In this context, the argument is that the only aftermath of human attempts to modify creation will likely yield an unacceptable result.

It is worth noting that human beings do not have the secrets of creation that only the deity possesses. A perfect example is the recent news that a child can be genetically engineered to have three parents. The development has been criticized as going against nature and challenging God as the creator through a male and female. In Frankenstein, the creation of life using dead body parts goes against nature since life is a result of procreation. Undoubtedly, the sheer ability to create a life is profound, but the grotesque creature is a clear indication that humans are not meant to be creators of life.

Unsurprisingly, Frankenstein is usually the first point of debate whenever a significant scientific development occurs. The reference usually generates mistrust and suspicion about intentions and implications of a new invention. Such an association was evident when intra vitro fertilization (IVF) became viable for couples who could not conceive naturally. While the process was initially viewed with great suspicion, the procedure proved to be an effective development with no serious effects in the long run, as were the fears of many. Hence, this outcome demonstrates that not all revolutionary scientific inventions are dangerous to life since many such initiatives have significantly saved and improved the quality of life.

Still, the positive results should not be taken to suggest that science could not be the conduit for annihilation of life, as it is known presently. As Reverby found, it is a fact that rogue scientists have continued to make dangerous experiments in their laboratories, away from scrutiny, that raise ethical questions (Reverby 1-7). As much as instances of scientific breakthroughs are focused on alleviating human and animal suffering, many still have been the culprits behind harmful and profoundly unethical experiments and developments. The constant violation of ethical guidelines in scientific research necessitated the establishment of research ethics (Ogunbure 76). Harmful chemicals such as pesticides have destroyed the environment, while the syphilis experiment had adverse effects on the subjects, bringing ethical concerns.

In addition, going too far in science could also be viewed as moving away from the righteous path by attempting to act like God and creating creatures that are abhorrent to human senses. The aftermath is horrific enough for the creators to undo their deeds, such as when Frankenstein, in a desperate pursuit of his creation urges the captain to help him kill his monster (Shelly 52). The situation highlights the current contentious issue of genetically modifying plants and animals, including humans. Not too long ago, the world was shocked by news that a Chinese researcher had successfully implanted an embryo created using the cells of one gender only. Immediately, passionate debates erupted, with most citing the ethical implications of the development. While it is undoubtedly a major leap in science, it brings the question regarding the role of science in either eradicating suffering through research or contributing to its increase.

Although humanity is not yet at the pinnacle of evolution, great caution is necessary to ensure that individuals do not self-destruct by drifting away from nature such that the outcomes are a threat to the very life it seeks to enhance. Genetically modified organisms, including food and animals, have the potential to cross the line if not strictly monitored. Since it is a field in its infancy, research on the long-term implications on health, the environment, and survival is still limited. No clear evidence exists in terms of the effects of genetically modified foods on the long-term health and well-being of individuals.

While seemingly revolutionary and even welcome because of the ability to reduce hunger and promote good nutrition, a risk still exists that the consumption of genetically modified food may be introducing grotesque illnesses that will only become manifest after long-term exposure. The improved organisms could be genetically modifying the biology of consumers in detrimental ways that will affect future human beings. Hence, this risk is a clear example of ways that human beings may be straying from the right path and placing future generations at risk. 

In Frankenstein, the protagonist creates a grotesque creature whose existence becomes a problem to the society. Therefore, it is no surprise that Mary Shelly’s work is often viewed as a cautionary tale to science since people will endeavor to test the bounds of nature for personal gain. In the same way, the excitement by which the scientific world receives news of new developments, biological or otherwise, should be tempered by a more serious evaluation of the potential harm to current and future generations. Indeed, it is exciting when human beings achieve developments that address fundamental problems such as disease, hunger, malnutrition, poverty, and so on, but rigorous oversight is necessary to ensure that the excitement is not short-lived with negative ramifications lying ahead.


Works Cited

Ball, Philip. “Frankenstein Presents the Hopes and Fears of Every Scientific Era.” The Atlantic. 2018. Accessed 6 Feb. 2019.

Lesley, Allison. “Frankenstein and the Laboratory of Men of Genius: Science and Medical Ethics in the Early 19th Century.” Grand Valley Journal of History, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, pp. 1-39.

Ogungbure, Adebayo. “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: Some Ethical Reflections.” Thought

and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya, vol. 3, no. 2, 2011,

  1. 75-92.

Reverby, M. Susan. “Ethical Failures and History Lessons: The US Public Health Research

Studies in Tuskegee and Guatemala.” Public Health Reviews, vol. 34, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-18.

Shelly’s, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by Bassett, Jennifer and Tricia Hedge. Oxford University Press, nd.

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