Frankenstein Part II: Crash Course Literature 206


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Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and today we continue our discussion
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of “Frankenstein”. Oh, Me From the Past didn’t even come to
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school today. Isn’t that fantastic? Well we’re going to learn something without him.
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Last time we talked a little bit about the Romantics, “Frankenstein” is often cited
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as the definitive Romantic novel, but ehh… let’s get a little bit deeper into it.
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Capital “R” Romantics don’t have a lot to do with lower case ‘r’ romantics, unless
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your idea of romance involves like ecstatic descriptions of nature and a revolutionary
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spirit that often ends in bloodshed. And if that’s your idea of romance, don’t
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put it in your OK Cupid profile. However, pro tip, do say that you’re 6’3”.
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Knowing more about the capital “R” Romantics will help you be better at lower case “r” romance so stick with me here.
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[Theme Music]
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So Romanticism was a movement originating in the late 18th century and it’s typically
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understood as a reaction against both the Industrial Revolution’s devaluing of the
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individual human spirit and embracing of like the soulless assembly line. And also the Enlightenment’s
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claims of scientific certainty. Romanticism prizes intuition over rationalism,
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and nature and wildness over classical harmony, and emotions—especially difficult emotions
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like horror and awe and terror and passion—are preferred over intellect.
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And there’s an emphasis on the unconscious and irrational part of humans. There’s a
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lot of talk of dreams and stuff. So is “Frankenstein” a Romantic novel?
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Well, if you take a course in Romantic lit in college then you will almost definitely
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read it. So, yes. “Frankenstein” is interested in difficult,
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uncomfortable emotions the wonder and awe and horror of encountering the radically other.
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And it’s certainly in many ways also a response to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on scientific rationality.
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I mean people at the time really thought that we would eventually be able to
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reanimate the dead and other people were rightly troubled by that.
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Then again, you can also read the book as a critique — and a pretty stern one —
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of the kind of thinking and acting that Romanticism encourages, right?
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I mean Romanticism preaches a radical self-involvement that privileges the individual’s pursuit
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of knowledge and glory but for all of Victor and Walton’s encountering nature and going
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with their gut it’s pretty disastrous. . Another popular reading is to interpret “Frankenstein”
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autobiographically, a reading that was encouraged via 1970s feminist criticism of the novel.
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Earlier readings along these lines situates “Frankenstein” as a tale of monstrous
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birth and look to Mary Shelley’s own experiences with birth, which were pretty terrible..
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I mean Mary Shelley’s mother died while giving birth to her and Mary and Percy’s
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own first child, a daughter, died when she was just a few weeks old.
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And in her journal, Mary recounted an incredibly sad dream about this daughter: “Dream that
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my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before
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the fire & it lived.” So, of course, the idea of bringing the dead
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back to life had occurred to her even before she listened in on Percy Shelley and Byron
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discussing new developments in electricity. Mary Shelley even refers to the book itself
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as a child. In her intro to the 1831 edition, she wrote, “I bid my hideous progeny go
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forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days.”
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That’s a very tempting reading, but it’s also really literal and reductive.
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First off, and I’m saying this partly defensively as a novelist, novelist don’t write exclusively
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from their own experience. More importantly, I’m not at all convinced
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that making an author the central character of a novel is a particularly helpful way to
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read it. So if you read “Frankenstein” as merely
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as Mary Shelley working out her own personal issues you miss the great and terrible questions
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at the center of the book. The questions that really can change you.
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There’s in fact a term for trying to do this kind of reading—“intentional fallacy”—in
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which we believe we can know exactly what the author was thinking when they wrote a
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book. But putting aside those biographical readings
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there are still some pretty interesting feminist critiques of “Frankenstein.”
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For instance, the novel clearly shows what harm comes to women (and families and relationships)
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when men pursue single-minded goals. In fact, thanks to Victor’s lack of work-life
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balance, pretty much all the women in this novel die. I mean Victor’s creation of the
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monster leads to the hanging of the servant Justine, the murder of Victor’s bride Elizabeth
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on their wedding night. And occasionally in the novel Mary Shelley
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refers to nature itself as female, suggesting that Victor is violating it, as when Victor
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discusses how with “unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places.”
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I mean you can say I’m reading sex into that if you want but “unrelaxed and breathless
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eagerness.”? And there are also plenty of suggestions that
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Victor might not like women very much. The creature says that he will leave Victor and
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all mankind alone forever if Victor just creates a mate for him and Victor begins work, but
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then he gets freaked out over what it will mean to create a lady monster.
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Now admittedly that’s partly because it might mean monster progeny but just look at
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the text, “She might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate,” thinks
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Victor, “and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness.”
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He worries, “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence
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of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”
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So Victor destroys the female creature while the monster watches. He recalls, how “trembling
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with passion, [I] tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged.”
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I don’t think I’m being too weird to point out the sexy stuff there: “trembling with
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passion.” Anyway, Victor claims to love his cousin, Elizabeth, but he deserts her
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for years at a time and even though the creature says—really, really, really clearly—“I
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will be with you on your wedding-night,” he leaves her alone on his wedding night.
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Now we can all wonder why Mary Shelley didn’t create any strong female characters here and
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instead a collection of suffering, passive, doomed ones, but we can certainly read the
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novel as an exploration of what happens when men fear, distrust, or devalue women so much
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that they attempt to reproduce without them. I mean in some ways Victor is trying to bypass
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the feminine altogether. He’s creating life without recourse to egg or womb. Now you could
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counter this by saying that Mary Shelley’s original Creator—God—did the same thing.
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But that’s precisely the point. Victor is not God.
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And perhaps this is where “Frankenstein” is still most relevant, in its discussion
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of “playing God,” of the single-minded pursuit of science without an accompanying
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concern about you know, morality. Now, obviously, the experiments that Victor
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undertakes are extreme, but Mary Shelley was basing them on some of the scientific debates
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and discoveries of her day. And even if the book is largely science fiction, there’s
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a certain amount of scientific fact in it, and a lot of scientific questioning.
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And part of why this book has survived is because the questions she was asking were
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important in her day, but they’re also pretty important now.
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I mean there was a recent book on genetic modifications in animals called “Frankenstein’s
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Cat”, those who object to GMO foods often label them Frankenfoods, which only makes
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them sound like Franken-berry cereal – which is delicious!
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So Mary Shelley was influenced… oh… it must be time for The Open Letter.
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Oh look, it’s Frankenstein’s monster. No, wait, it’s the Hulk. It actually occurs
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to me that they’re quite similar. Both monsters created by failed scientific
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experiments who only really become monstrous when they’re rejected by society.
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Anyway, an Open Letter to scientists: Dear Scientists, here’s a little rule of thumb.
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Anytime you’re doing any kind of experiment, ask yourself the question, “Could this create
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a monster?” Even if the chances are relatively low, I’m going to advise against that experiment,
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because what I have seen from the movies and from books is that if it can become a monster it will!
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But I will say scientists that I think you’ve been a bit unfairly maligned by poor readings of “Frankenstein.”
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Frankenstein is not like the Hulk because his story isn’t, at least not simply, about
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about science run amok. It’s an oversimplification scientists.
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You are doing good work with you lab coats and your chemicals and I thank you. Don’t turn
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anyone into a monster. Best wishes, John Green. Right, but anyway, Mary Shelley was influenced
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by several scientists, but chief among them Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to Charles, and
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Luigi Galvani. Darwin published a long poem called “The
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Temple of Nature,” because back then poetry was a totally reasonable way to share scientific
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ideas. He had an idea that life—at least on the
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microscopic level—could be restored to seemingly dead matter or created out of inert matter,
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a phenomenon he called “spontaneous generation.”
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And Galvani, became famous for conducting experiments with electricity, in which he
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showed that electrical impulses could animate the muscles of dead creatures like the legs
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of a deceased frog. Did you get it? “.. conducting experiments
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in electricity”, anyone? Conducting electricity? No? OK.
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Galvani’s followers did even more macabre experiments, like in 1803 test in which several
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scientists attached electrodes to the body of an executed murderer in the hope of restoring
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it to life. Because they were like, “Oh, man. Who should
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we bring back from the dead? I know, a murderer!” Anyway, they,of course, didn’t succeed,
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but they did succeed in making a few of the murder’s muscles convulse.
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These experiments clearly influence Victor’s attempt to reanimate dead flesh and in fact
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Victor’s experiments weren’t that much radical than ones that were actually happening
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at the time. That said, the novel itself is clearly pretty
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skeptical about these pursuits. I mean even before he animates the monster, it’s clear
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that his studies are exacting a tremendous toll on Victor’s health, and his well being,
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also that of his friends and family. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
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Victor describes how “My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become
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emaciated with confinement,” which is a pretty good passage to show your parents when
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they’re pushing you to go pre-med. And things only went downhill once he began
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to assemble the creature. Victor, “dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or
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tortured the living animal…collected bones from charnel-houses; and disturbed, with profane
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fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame,”
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But Victor thinks that this digging around in slaughterhouses and graveyards will be
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worth it; he says “I might in process of time…renew life where death had apparently
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devoted the body to corruption.” And that’s an amazing and laudable goal (unless you’ve
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ever seen any zombie movie ever, in which case you would know that it’s a TERRIBLE
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idea). But in that same passage, Victor says that
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the creatures he makes “would bless me as its creator and source…. No father could
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claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”
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So it’s clear that his desire is actually selfish and that he’s pursuing this knowledge
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not for universal good, or so that the dead may live again, but for his own gratification.
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And then of course there’s his reaction when his experiment does succeed. I mean,
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even though he’s assembled every facet of the creature and made him huge on purpose
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so that all these fiddly bits like veins and eyelashes will be easier to work with, he
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responds to his creature with utter horror. And what is Victor’s mature, responsible,
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heroic reaction to this situation? He runs away, making all the dads on “Teen Mom”
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look amazing by comparison. Thanks Thought Bubble
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So, the monster blames this initial abandonment for all the murders that result, right?
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And Percy Shelley agreed, writing that while the creature was initially affectionate and
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moral “the circumstances of his existence were so monstrous and uncommon, that… his
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original goodness was gradually turned into the fuel of an inextinguishable misanthropy
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and revenge.” But is the tragedy inherent in the creation
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of the monster or is there a way to pursue knowledge without responding in horror?
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Frankenstein is more than a little relevant today as we struggle to figure out where technologies
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like stem cell therapy, or genetically modified foods, or cloning land on the ethical and
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moral scales of the social order. The pursuit of knowledge is good, right, because
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that’s how I’m even able to talk to you through like the magic of the Internet. That’s
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why we aren’t hunger/gathers anymore. But we don’t actually know the outcome yet.
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Sometimes we forget that we’re still in the middle of history.
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I don’t think Mary Shelley condemned science outright, or explicitly discourages learning
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the secrets of life and nature. Now the experiment definitely fails. The question
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is why? Is it because Victor’s aims are just unnatural
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and evil? Is it because he can’t love the creature he’s created? Or is it because
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he let’s his ego run amok dictate his motivations? That’s a non-rhetorical question by the
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way. I look forward to reading your answers in comments. Thank you for watching. I’ll
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see you next week. Crash Course is made by all of these nice
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we say in my hometown, “Don’t forget to be awesome!”


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