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Lessons from Frankenstein: narrative myth as ethical model
  1. Yvette Koepke
  1. Correspondence to Dr Yvette Koepke, Department of English, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND 58202, USA; yvette.koepke{at}und.edu

Abstract

As Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary nears, its use as a shorthand for ethical critique only increases. This article argues, though, that its lessons inhere in its unique structure, which enacts an interpretive process that models the multiplicity and uncertainty constitutive of ethical decision-making. Frankenstein deliberately functions as a modern myth, rewriting classical and Christian mythology to challenge the straightforward moral lessons often ascribed to the text. Complex portrayals of the creature and of Victor Frankenstein in the context of contemporary science make it impossible to read Victor as villain, victim or hero, or to take a consequentialist or nature-based stance in which the outcome of his research dictates its wrongness. The use of Paradise Lost insists on the creature’s fundamental humanity. Indeed, the creature’s voice frames the entire novel and serves as its structural centrepiece. His experience counters Victor’s and vividly expresses the harm in a narrow focus on discovery and in the denial of responsibility for scientific work as it moves beyond the laboratory. Both the creature’s and Captain Walton’s stories stress the need to hear other voices and honour their distinct lived experiences. While Frankenstein-as-myth (re)produces science as the fundamental explanatory paradigm, it presents a vision of science as passionately personal and societally situated. Repeated disruptions of narrative cohesion question accuracy and causality, producing instead an acute awareness of perspective. Frankenstein argues for a reflective and dialogical narrative ethics: choices must be made and evaluated not according to a priori abstract rules, but within the attached stories.

  • cultural history
  • english literature
  • literature and medicine
  • narrative ethics
  • medical humanities

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Footnotes

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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