Adam Smith and the Creation of Horror in Frankenstein

frankenstein mary shelley adam smith horror novels smith and literature

Shanon FitzGerald for AdamSmithWorks

What makes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein one of the most effective horror novels of all time? The answer would be incomplete without reference to Adam Smith.
Writing this, I'd just finished attending the first session of AdamSmithWorks’ Virtual Reading Group on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and selected sections of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. It was a wonderful, lively discussion carried out by participants from no less than four continents. What a wonder are our digital communications technologies that allow us to do this. (I echo EconTalk host Russ Roberts in asking, where’s the book on how terrifically anti-fragile and flexible services like Zoom proved to be, when vast swaths of the global economy were suddenly shifted onto them last March?)
One of the themes that kept coming up in our first group discussion was the questionable responsibility of Victor Frankenstein in, immediately upon animating his corpselike creature, fleeing from it. Why would a creator abandon his creation? Is creation necessarily an act of fatherhood? Would this change how we view Victor Frankenstein as a moral agent, or how we assess what he did and did not do to and with his “wretch”?
But as I considered this set of questions—and planned to hop into the discussion—I just kept thinking, and went down a path that led me to pull myself from the discussion queue and to take up a pen and notepad instead. After making a few notes, and with the hour almost up, it occurred to me, “Hey, why not write this thought up for Speaking of Smith?” And here we are.
The thought goes something like this, and pertains to how certain necessities imposed by genre can affect the shape of a work’s plot, and even determine some actions of main characters. As I understand the provenance of the Frankenstein story, Mary Shelley intentionally set out to write something scary. The editors of this interesting “science and engineering” edition of the novel put it this way: “Frankenstein is the literary offspring of an eighteen-year old girl ensconced in a romantic yet fraught summer getaway on the shores of Lake Geneva in response to a “dare” to come up with a ghost story.”
Based on this description, Shelley presumably set out to write a ghost story. She ended up with a novel of creation and horror at creation, and the human processes of reckoning with that horror. But the need to answer the original dare was always there, and it produced a need to stay somewhat within the confines of what we today would call the genre of horror.
I think this has consequences, and even helps to explain some of the areas where the novel feels particularly descriptively thin. Shelley can wax eloquent about the passions and sentiments of family life and affection and longing and responsibility, but when it comes to the initial relationship between Victor and his creation, words are sparse. Victor looks the monster in the eyes, feels revulsion, and flees to his bed. When upon waking he sees the "monster," he flees again. No emotional engagement, not even a physical or verbal “fight,” only a dread-filled “flight” from what seems to be a purely aesthetic horror. And this is where the questions about paternal and/or creatorly responsibility come in. When the door seems open to basic engagement with the creature, Shelley has Victor abandon him. Why?
It didn’t need to be that way. Or, it did. And that’s my point: this is how the novel simply had to go to fulfill the original mandate of being, at a minimum, an acceptable alternative to a ghost story. Victor Frankenstein, for Mary Shelley, could not remain the broadly sympathetic figure of Smithian virtue and propriety he is presented near the beginning as quite capable of becoming before heading off to study science at university. Nor could he immediately sympathize with his living research project. Instead, to become capable of inviting such unique dread to his world, he must—and I am speaking novelistically here—become an unbalanced character, a slave of his corrupted passion for vitalist life science. This is precisely what he becomes, as indeed, this is precisely what Shelley needed him to become to advance the plot in a direction suitable for the delivery of terror. Smithian figures don’t cut up bodies to build “new” ones. And even if they did, it is dubious whether they would so quickly take flight from their creations, particularly when it is not yet established whether their recently-animated being is humanity's friend or foe.
A modern analogy will allow me to make the same genre-necessity point with greater ease. We all know how cheesy and unrealistic horror movies can feel. Bad vibes and foreboding symbols tend to predominate, usually leading one or more characters into a key moment of decision: to enter the remote cabin or not? To descend the creepy stairwell into darkness, or to get back to the safety of the still-nearby party or group?
Often, when watching such scenes, we cannot help but to note how we would react differently if we were placed in such a situation. “Of course I wouldn’t keep talking with the clown-faced man in the sewer!” None of us would enter the remote forest cabin, either, and we’d all prefer the party to the creepy basement. 
But if we reflect on what we’re really saying there—characters, don’t do those foolish things that so obviously seem fraught with danger!—we see how, if our advice were to be followed, there wouldn’t be much of a story for us to watch at all. The sensible, prudent path is incompatible with the desired horror arc.
So too with Frankenstein. If in contemporary horror some kind of folly or naiveite is often the cause of the story going “awry” (or, from the genre perspective, of the story going right on track), in Shelley the prime mover is the main character’s initial adherence to, and subsequent loss of, a balanced sense of virtue, propriety, and family. Only in the protracted absence of these things—which stems from his frenzied passion for experimental creature-construction, even at the expense of his own physical and mental health—does Victor Frankenstein become the kind of man who can give rise to a monster and treat it rather monstrously, thereby galvanizing the creature's status as such.
It is very Smithian, come to think of it. Mutual relationality is key. I see better than ever why the powers that be decided these books should be read together. If “Kindness is the parent of kindness; and if to be beloved by our brethren be the great object of our ambition,” Shelley did Smith a great service by illustrating what we can expect to happen when kindness gets replaced by casual cruelty, and the possibility of being beloved gives way to an overwhelming sense of rejection. (TMS VI.ii.I.19)
Reading Frankenstein alongside the Theory of Moral Sentiments gives one a lot to think about, and both books continue to have a lot to say to the contemporary world. If, to harken back once again to the recent EconTalk conversation between Russ Roberts and Tyler Cowen, we are in the midst of a “biomedical moment” on account of things like CRISPR and mRNA vaccines, then it strikes me that more biologists, chemists, and thought-leaders in related fields should be reading and discussing Frankenstein and, more importantly, the moral and ethical questions it raises.
This cannot be done without understanding what is behind the horror in Frankenstein, and it would be quite the mistake to think that it is “the science” of animating corpses. The true horror of the work can only be grasped if one understands the Smithian flipside, better known as sympathy-based virtue, because the horror consists in its being undermined, betrayed, lost, and abandoned. A murderous, inhuman creature is only one result.
Shelley’s act of genius was committing to novel form Victor Frankenstein’s trajectory in this regard: his descent from family-loving, duty-fulfilling intellectual to isolated, twisted pursuer of dark arts. It is a story that properly should serve as a warning to those engaged in similar pursuits of that which is far beyond. Fear most not what you make, but how you made it, particularly if the result begins to horrify. Do the Victor Frankensteins of our world—in biology, technology, and genetic medicine most especially—understand that the monster, so far as they might be able to make or enable one, lies not outside of, but fundamentally within them?
Fortunately, I think that many do. (There is even an AI ethics researcher in our discussion group.) But with bioinformatic power and possibility more democratized than ever before, requiring only the Internet to access and readily-available computing power to process, certain dark potentialities a la Frankenstein are perhaps more probable than ever. Not all innovators will conduct their work with the best intentions (advanced hackers come to mind), or in the best frames of mind. There might be consequences.
This is one reason why, wherever mighty powers are being leveraged at the frontiers of contemporary technology and science, caution and care are not enough. Nor is “superior” knowledge. Humanity is required, and a broad capacity for sympathy is essential. 
In other words: Victor Frankensteins of today, I really hope you will read Mary Shelley. But as you do, don’t lose sight of Adam Smith.

Related Links:

Shannon Chamberlain, Adam Smith and the Eighteenth Century Novel in Letters
Alice Temnick, On Gulliver, Swift, and Adam Smith
Lecture by Dr. Caroline Breashears, Adam Smith and the Horror of Frankenstein 
Catherine Tragesser

Thank you for your insight and comparative illustration to some really good points. You seized àn amazing opportunity and did a super job fulfilling to the reader your insights. Well done!